Grace Cho’s Haunting the Korean Diaspora

Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

In 1991, for the first time, Korean women came out as former comfort women for the Japanese Imperial Army. These three elderly women filed a lawsuit against the Japanese government for “the systematic recruitment and abduction of Korean women for military sex work” (5). After more than fifty years of complete silence, the world awoke from a “collective amnesia” to a traumatic event that had for so long been an unknowable historical moment in Korean national consciousness. As Patricia Clough before her, Cho here expands upon what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, in their edited volume The Shell and the Kernal: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, call “trangenerational haunting,” to emphasize how the ellipses of the past are ontologically of the present, living on in collective trauma. A transgenerational haunting, to Cho, is when “a unspeakable trauma does not die out with the person who first experienced it. Rather, it takes on a life of its own, emerging from the spaces where secrets are concealed” (6). The haunting of the Korean comfort women and the yanggongju, Korean sex worker of United States military bases, is thus a transgenerational haunting, due to its long period of silence, where the events of the past grew into an inarticulatable imaginary, in which the yanggongju  “became overinvested with conflicting feelings of grief, hope, shame, and rage” (7).

Cho finds that Abraham and Torok’s analysis of unsolved trauma within the holocaust shows that the entanglement with a traumatic loss is “produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden” (11). The unspoken trauma is a historical ellipses, an imaginary, unknowable void where the lack of knowledge turns into a ghostly presence. Cho finds that these ghost are “engendered in the private realm of family secrets, secrets that are inextricable from the abuses of political power” (11). Where the historical narrative of the nation excludes minority history, or access to those histories seem inaccessible or unknowable, to Cho, the burden of bearing witness lies in the family history, where the individual’s uncertain kinship by the disavowal of historical trauma produces an anxiety from not being able to forget that which one does not know.

The figure of the yanggongju, when spoken, brings shame onto the Korean country and the families involved within. Cho here does not attend to the ideological formations inherent in these families that necessitated this silencing, nor in the genealogy of sexuality and the importance of reproductive females to produce the racial purity of the nation, wherein sex work and coerced sexual labor with the colonized race becomes a historical event that must be silenced. With so little attention to domestic sex work and trafficking within Korea itself, a massive industry that undergoes a similar silencing by the state, Cho seems to find domestic sex work part of the norm, while sex work towards a racialized other of the Korean nation is what must produce a transgenerational haunting.

As children of the erased figure of the yanggongju, a figure constituted by trauma itself, the Korean diaspora is thus entangled with an uncertain kinship with the yanggongju. Using the method of machinic vision developed by John Johnson, where “what is perceived is not located at any single place and moment in time, and the act by which this perception occurs is not the result of a single or isolated agency but of several working in concert and parallel,” Cho seeks to see and speak of trauma by composing a scattering of “images, affects and voices” (166, 24). Making sense of this multiplicity is one way to read the silences, listening to what speaks as an assemblage of lost histories. Cho again follows Clough’s lead and finds in Jacqueline Rose’s work that haunting occurs not just down generations, but also across them, “not inside one family, but creating a monstrous family of reluctant belonging” (31). Rose’ analysis of the haunting of the Holocaust “implies the dissolution of the boundaries of individual bodies and takes us into the realm of the social, moving trauma beyond the family unit and moving the notion of a familial unconscious beyond bloodlines” (30). How far this transgenerational haunting can go is an interesting inquiry, for Cho’s own subject in the discourse of the yanggongju at times appears to be the Korean nation, the Korean diaspora, the Japanese, the United States, and, even, the world in its public conceptions of the Korean war. Who this book is written for becomes a startlingly difficult question to pursue.

In order to “flesh out the Ghost,” Cho must turn the haunting of the past into a generative counter-memory to the nationally produced historical narrative. Through the theory of transgenerational haunting, Cho hopes to demonstrate how a silenced trauma can produce “disruptions, articulations, visibilities, assemblages, and new configurations of kinship” (33). An affective belonging thus comes from a collective trauma, a collectivity that perhaps binds diasporas together. As Cho states, “the bodies of diaspora, and particularly the Korean diaspora, are constituted by unremembered trauma and loss” and that “the ghost is distributed across the time-space of the diaspora” in order to create an assemblage body to speak the traumas that could not be seen (40, 166).

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