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This essay is first published in Telos, Fall 2018. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Alex Taek-Gwang Lee
1. Introduction: “Help Your Body”
A girl struts down the shining catwalk, like a model. The bright lights reflect her on the screen, but the audience cannot yet recognize her, seeing only her silhouette. After the short runway show in the darkness, the interviewers ask her whether she is the person they are expecting to meet again. She delightedly answers them, “Yes, I am.” They repeat their question, “Is it true?” She responds again, “Yes, I am.” The panel’s chief interviewer announces, “Well, let’s see if the girl standing there is the one we saw before.” Her figure is finally revealed in the light, as sounds of surprise burst forth from the audience. The entire show ends up as an “everybody- is-happy” story. The girl turns out to be someone who suffered from her appearance and who applied to the reality TV show, which offers plastic surgery to those who are unhappy with their looks.
This reality TV show is called Let Me In (Let 美人), which has a double meaning in Korean: “let me live a happy life” and “let me be beautiful.” The Chinese character 美, or “beauty,” is pronounced in Korean like “me” in English, so thus the title of the show indicates the symptomatic reality of Korean society. As such, the title is not just accidentally chosen; the implication of the title seems grotesque, or at least bizarre, but it reminds us of the common utilitarian presupposition, i.e., that happiness depends on the management of the quantity of pleasure. According to utilitarianism, happiness relies on the quantitative amount of pleasure: a utilitarian would say that “the more pleasure you have, the happier you are.” Of course, this principle might be sustainable as far as you are in the line of justice, since one is supposed to share an equal part of the total happiness with other members of the community. In this sense, it is crucial for the utilitarian project to govern the distribution of pleasure equally. To manage desire is the core of the utilitarian perspective on democracy; democracy is not the liberation of desire but instead requires the responsibility to control or achieve what you want.
The utilitarian imperative attached to the egalitarian distribution of desire always already presupposes the blurred boundary between aesthetics and ethics. You have to enjoy your pleasure in balance, otherwise you risk being blamed. Jacques Rancière’s discussion of the relation between aesthetics and ethics serves to highlight how aesthetics is integrated with ethics. According to Rancière, aesthetics is “a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, speech and noise, which simultaneously determines the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience.” 1 The distribution of the sensible constitutes the regime of aesthetics about the ethics of the community; in other words, the ethical dimension always resides in the distribution of pleasure. Indeed, aestheticsis the way in which any community necessarily shares happiness. The connection between aesthetics and ethics serves as the foundation of the modern pleasure principle and gives birth to the principle of equality.
From this perspective, it is not difficult to see how Let Me In also follows this principle. Ironically, the motto of this show, as suggested earlier, is “let the beauty out from inside of you.” It perfectly describes the dialectic of desire. I have conceptualized this aspect of Korean popular culture as the egalitarianism of pleasure, which is relevant to the principle of equality. Whatever it once represented, it represents the equality of pleasure, i.e., the idea that all desire is equal insofar as it does not infringe upon another’s pleasure. Therefore, the egalitarianism of pleasure is the result of a subtraction. What must be subtracted from a good or healthy desire is a bad or ill desire, i.e., jouissance. The egalitarianism of pleasure is an axiomatic rule to enforce the equal state of the individuals of the community, the state that has already eliminated the very singularity of jouissance. In this way, the Korean reality TV show Let Me In insinuates the truth of Korean society, the truth that the neoliberal materialism of human capital becomes the dominant norm of life. The show is the site in which beauty becomes a natural source of human capital in the new mode of capitalist accumulation.
1. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 13.
Around four decades ago, liberal economists such as Theodore Schultz, Gary Becker, and Jacob Mincer set forth a theory of human capital that justified aspects of post-industrial capitalism. The theory of human capital uses complicated mathematical formula to prove the possibility of human capital as such, yet its general goal is to show that the investment in human capital can have a more profitable return. Although the concept of human capital needs rigorous mathematical proof to be estimated, it is already a familiar part of public debates. Human capital is nothing less than a buzzword in our lives. The flourishing of the self-help industry demonstrates that the theory of human capital no longer stays within the boundary of academics but has already spread out intothe market. The self-help industry is a vast industry and floods bookstores as well as convention centers. The industry produces its own celebrities out of ordinary peopleand colonizes the unconscious of recentgenerations. Its imperative is that you must develop your human capital, otherwise you will lose out. South Korea is not exceptional about this. Let Me In resides in the very logic of the self-help industry.
Post-industrial capitalism is a mode of production that sharply contrasts with industrial capitalism in its way of understanding labor power. In industrial capitalism, according to the theory of human capital, a measure of economic value sets the idea that all labor power is equal. The idea is the basis of a labor measure. The concept of human capital stands against this idea. It recognizes the uneven quality of labor power and the investment necessary to improve an employee’s productivity. The education, experience, and abilities of a worker should account for economic value for the whole economic situation as well as the employer. The most common way to accumulate human capital is through education. According to the theorists who support the human capital theory with mathematical data, education has priority in enhancing aworker’s skill level and thereby his or her human capital. A higher skill level in labor power increases the capacity of production.
In South Korea, the rapid progress of industrialization between the mid-1960s and the late 1970s catalyzed the easy access to higher education to fulfill the necessary demand for skilled workers in the labormarket. This is the reason why the national passion for economic development became strongly associated with the Korean educational fever. In those days, the national economic developmentalists designed a model of national modernization led by the strong government. The idea of national economic development still survives today, but it has turned out to be only the idea of self-development. The educational fever driven by the imperative of national economic growth now instigates the passion for managing one’s appearance better for human capital.
2. The Ideology of Plastic Surgery
The human capital theory is a new version of neoclassical economics, which Pierre Bourdieu bluntly criticizes as a myth. For Bourdieu, the mathematical formulation of economics can justify itself in the way that it allows neoclassical economists to separate economic logic from the social and historical conditions in which it comes toexist. The use of simple mathematicalmodels and the simulated testing of hypotheses postulate the experimental method, but they fail to have any chance of obtaining universal conclusions. They are explicitly comprehensible as historical. The simplified economic models are unable toapproach the historical realities. Bourdieu’s criticism of economic models is to some extent straight forward but functional. However, the economic models, whatever they propose, consequently succeed in justifying the new norm of life in post-industrial or, if you like, late capitalism.
Let Me In is an example that testifies to how economic models imbue the mind with the neoliberal materialism of human capital. There is no single definition of neoliberalism, and it is not difficult to discover many approaches to its effects, however, a mostly shared viewpoint is that it has caused a paradigm shift in the meaning of life as such. It is Michel Foucault who first scrutinized the origins of neoliberalism and its significant impact on everyday life. At times his analysis remains on the level of description and is thus not fully developed, but his genealogical approach to the transformation of liberal governmentality is insightful. In Foucault’s analysis, neoliberal governmentality stresses the natural principle of competition among individuals for the economic evolution.
According to Foucault, disciplinary power and biopower are the modern forms of power distinguished from sovereign power. While sovereign power exercised the right to take life or allow life to continue, disciplinary power and biopower presuppose the liberty or freedom of individuals. These two forms of power stand for the modernized way to deal with life since the eighteenth century. Furthermore, biopower is different from disciplinary power in that the former focuses on the population rather than the individual body, even though frequently intersecting with discipline. If disciplinary power restricts the individual body with rules, biopower operates on the norms of living. The latter power aims at the administration of life. What is required to control life through biopower is a new way of governing, an art of government founded on what Thomas Hobbes called “corporeal liberty.” As Foucault points out, it is liberalism understood as modernity.
Liberalism is the general framework of biopolitics and the governmental art of life justified by the role of liberty, i.e., “the principle of the self-limitation of governmental reason.” 2 Biopower as the form of regulatory power gives rise tobiopolitics, whose aim is to control the population and whose tactics are the practices of demographers, sociologists, and economists. As biopolitics is the problem of population, which is the basis of political economy, liberalism is always related to the economy rather than politics. From this perspective, the government in the liberalist criterion should be limited to the question of economic truth and fitted to economic efficiency. Thus, utility is considered the most crucial element for the purpose of government. This axiom of liberalism is not consistent with raison d’état, the “rationalization of practice, which places itself between a state presented as given and a state presented as having to be constructed and built.” 3
Originally, the art of government should be required to stabilize its rules and rationalize the objective of the state. In this way, the task of government was identical to what the state should be. As Foucault says, governmental reason, before the advent of the liberalist governmentality, was to maximize the state as much as it could consider or calculate. The rationality was to appeal to the strong, wealthy, and permanent state. However, liberalism is clearly opposed to this premise. What is at stake in the liberalist art of government is how to limit governmental reason to economic truth, so to speak, the truth of the free market. From this shift, politics comes to mean the theorizing of relations among governmental institutions, resorting to a new way in which discipline and biopower act on the individual body and populations regarding preventive immunization. It is likely that biopolitics is concerned with the population as political and scientific problems under the regime of liberalism, constituting a different condition of knowledge about bios.
2. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–79, ed. Michel Senellart, trans. Graham Burchell (London: Palgrave, 2008), p. 20.
3. Ibid., p. 4.
Liberalism tends to praise limited government, governing less while maximizing effectiveness, because its principle has been founded on two levels of biopower: discipline and biopolitics. Biopower aims at knowledge/power through the practice of academic expertise. Science as knowledge/power plays a crucial role in operating biopower over the individual body and populations. In this sense, the rise of liberalism seems to dovetail with social Darwinism as well as eugenics, one of its derivative theories. As Chloë Taylorargues:
Social Darwinism and eugenics may be depicted as biopolitical movements since they involve strategies for managing the health and productivity of populations through interventions in natality and mortality rates, mental and physical health, and immigration, even if what is taken to be “healthy” is highly problematic, entailing as it does prejudices ranging from abilism and classism to sexism, nationalism, and racism. Eugenic uses of science also arguably continue in the cases of profamily financial, social and political incentives, designer babies, genetic counseling, preemptive abortions, and the creation of “genius sperm banks.” Many of these examples entail the use of new scientific technology to improve the genes of individual babies and of the population as a whole while preventing babies deemed “unfit” from ever being born. These biopolitical practices thus further entrench the prejudices of an abilist society while continuing the goals of eugenics in manners which have become increasingly unbounded by the state. 4
Taylor’s argument reveals that the ground of biopolitics lies in social Darwinism. The idea of competition, which is a variation of Spencer’s social Darwinism, is an abstractive machine to justify the market system as the natural condition of survival. The individual struggles to be the fittest are incited by the nature of the market, i.e., by competition; otherwise, an individual will perish according to the natural law of evolution. The idea of competition becomes the new norm of life in postwar capitalism, actually imposed on non-Western countriesin relation to modernization. South Korea is one of the most successful countries to follow the U.S. policies of postwar capitalism. The anti-communist ideology of the Cold War in Asian countries works as disciplinary regulation to produce the modern body for the international division of labor. The authoritarian state power played a key role in implementing the law of competition in the modern
4. Chloë Taylor, “Biopower,” in Michel Foucault: Key Concepts, ed. Dianna Taylor (Durham: Acumen, 2011), p. 54.
body. Rampant educational fever prepared the entire nation for success during a periodof intense economic development. For this reason, the process of Korean modernization serves as an example of the way in which postwar liberalism already presumed interventionism and paved the way toward neoliberalism.
Based on authoritarian governmentality, the nation built by the post-war liberal project turned into a neoliberal machine that internalized the self-governing ideology of biopolitics. This historical process is significant to understanding the popularity of reality TV shows like Let Me In, where the neoliberalization of the human body that accompanies the principle of competition leads to the extreme materialism of “corporeal liberty.”
Considering the lineage between liberalism and neoliberalism, we can now understand why the idea of neoliberal self-government brings forth this widespread obsession with the way that a worker needs to increase his or her human capital. The normative notion of human capital for a better life, the idea that an individual worker should be productive like Steve Jobs, comes to be taken firmly as an ethical standard. According to this rule, the individual must prove that his or her value can be equally exchangeable with the market value, and the human body, the very embodiment of bios, is regarded as the potential productivity of capitalist accumulation.
Strictly speaking, the hidden impetus behind the obsession with plastic surgery is no more than the desire to look attractive, because being attractive is a crucial advantage to finding a good job in South Korea. This condition drives people to believe that to get a good job is to take a better opportunity to accumulate human capital. As Matt Stiles reported, “facing intense competition for jobs with benefits,many applicants feel compelled to enhancetheir appearances for an edge.” 5 Of course,“some resort to dermatology or plastic surgery.” According to the report, a jobs blog advises prospective applicants that “big firms prefer ‘pretty eyes’ and that government bosses like ‘high noses.’ ” 6 This explains why a TV program like Let Me In should be considered a symptom of neoliberal body politics.
With the hyper-competition for jobs, the ocular-centrism of “lookism” constitutes the core of the ideological consensus that all people must develop their values by managing their corporeality. Appearance becomes
5. Matt Stiles, “In South Korea’s Hypercompetitive Job Market, It Helps To Be Attractive,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-south-korea-image-2017-story.html.
a central issue in competition, even though everyone has already acquired sufficient qualifications for finding a job. Appearance is essential with this depthless materialism. More importantly, the common look should suddenly matter, at least ugliness as such turns out to be a disability. In this way, the ideology of plastic surgery resides precisely in the way in which neoliberal state apparatuses reproduce the subjectivity of the working class. Furthermore, the strategy of the reproduction is to remove class consciousness from a worker in capitalism and finally reach the utopia of liberalism, i.e., capitalism without a working class.
In this sense, the widespread use of the term “plastic surgery” rather “cosmetic surgery” is symptomatic, because “plastic surgery” seems to eliminate the guilty feeling of lust contained in the term “cosmetic surgery.” “Cosmetic surgery” implies an excessive desire for beauty, and any excess is dangerous with regard to utilitarianism. Lust, the excessive passion for enjoyment, would destroy the egalitarian order of pleasure. However, “plastic surgery” seems to reduce the suggestion of lust. If you say I should have “plastic surgery” rather than “cosmetic surgery,” it sounds like you are committed to something necessary and important for a better life; in other words, the new norm of life, the norm that an individual has a responsibility to enhance his or her human capital, validates what you want.
The Korean situation reveals the essence of capitalist materialism as such, which totalizes differences like body and soul into an integrated unity. This materialism is nothing less than the imposition of the equality among differences. Individuals should regard themselves as equal entities according to capitalist materialism. What is this kind of materialism? In Logics of worlds, Alain Badiou clarifies a key methodological distinction between dialectical and “democratic materialism,” the materialism that verifies the axiom of conviction on only bodies and languages without truths.7 The problem is thinking, not desire as such.
3. Asian Biopolitics
Let Me In demonstrates how the neoliberal idea of self-development controls “corporeal liberty” and goes beyond the limit of liberalism. On passing its critical point, it is revealed that the utilitarian ideal of happiness falls in crisis from within. There arises a paradox when everyone tries to
7. Alain Badiou, Logics of worlds, trans. Alberto Toscano (New York: Continuum, 2009), p. 1.
achieve their own happiness. To come up with a solution to this paradox, the theory of competition must be introduced to manage the democratic principle of equality. Social Darwinism was the theoretical source to support the theory of competition. In this sense, the theory of human capital would be a contemporary variation of social Darwinism.
Dating back to the early twentieth century, liberalism introduced into the Asian context went hand in hand with social Darwinism. Historically, Japan was the first country to import social Darwinism. Japanese scholars translated European social Darwinian texts, including the writings of Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley. It was from 1877 that Edward Morse, an American biologist, taught zoology at Tokyo University. Morse was a correspondent of Darwin and one of the first people to introduce social Darwinism to Japan. He was mainly interested in the evolutionary approach to zoology, but he also occasionally applied his scientific research to understanding Japanese history. According to his Darwinian perspective, he audaciously argued that ancient Japanese history was “a series of violent conquests of the ‘unfit’ by the ‘fitter,’” an understanding that “neatly matched the popularized model of Social Darwinism.” 8
Social Darwinism was transformed into a theory to justify Japanese self-confidence toward imperialism when the country invented its official ideology by combining Shintoism with Confucianism in the 1890s. The evolution of species served as a theoretical category compatible with social progress. Above all, such an evolutionary theory was then considered up-to-date science, explaining the world in a modern way. Social Darwinists described the world as a jungle where the struggle among species to be the fittest constituted life as such. The scientific knowledge of biological life seemed to guarantee the way in which Japan could be the “fittest country” for survival in the competition of nations. In this sense, for those who desired modernization, the central concept that social Darwinismvitalized was the competition for survival. The presence of Darwinism dramatically brought the most effective position in the Korean context. It was Yu Kiljun, a young Korean student, who first encountered social Darwinism. He was sent to Japan partly for the Korean Courtiers Observation Mission and partly for study in 1881.9 While in Tokyo, he attended Morse’s lecture
8. Vladimir Tikhonov, Social Darwinism and nationalism in Korea: The Beginnings (1880s–1910s): “Survival” as an Ideology of Korean Modernity (Leiden: Brill, 2010), p.21.
9. Donghyun Huh and Vladimir Tikhanov, “The Korean Courtiers’ Observation Mission’s Views on Meiji Japan and Projects of Modern State Building,” Korean Studies 29 (2005): 49.
and was fascinated by his teachings. After his return to Korea two years later, Yu wrote a short treatise about his understanding of social Darwinism, entitled “The Theory of Competition.” According to Yu:
Among all the affairs of human life, it is impossible to find any that do not rely on competition. From the affairs of world’s states down to the affairs of one’s household—everything progresses due to competition. Were there no competition in human lives, how could wisdom, virtues, and happiness be advanced? If the states did not compete with each other, how could they increase their strength, wealth, and prestige? 10
Yu contends that “dull-witted men and women” are “doomed to live in poverty and stupidity” because of their “ultimate lack of competitive spirit.” By contrast, “gentlemen of great ambition and wisdom daily cultivate their intelligence and virtue and improve their skills”; they are “useful to the states under heaven” on account of their “strong and lofty competitive spirit.” 11 It is not difficult to detect the nascent idea of biopolitics in Yu’s description of competition. Meanwhile, his terminology places an emphasis on subjectivity through phrases like “strong and lofty competitive spirit.” For Yu, modern subjectivity is necessary to build a new nation. In this way, the idea of biopolitics, including discipline, was influential in Yu’s understanding of social Darwinism. It is not accidental to see a similarity between Yu’s argument and liberal biopolitics. It was social Darwinism that lent theoretical support to the liberal idea that individual liberty must be buttressed by free economic activities, in particular, competition in a free market. Liberalism was in its origin—as it emerged in the eighteenth century, according to Foucault—nothing less than a new way to discipline life according to economic rules and the theorization on the limits of government. The market became the place of truth under the theoretical umbrella of liberalism, that is to say, the locus of the law of natural selection. The fittest must have survived against the competitive surroundings.
The idea of competition adopted by liberalism was crucial for Asian politics when Yu wrote “The Theory of Competition,” for it would lead to a paradigm shift in the understanding of social problems. For instance, they believed that a vicious ruler who failed to govern people was the cause of poverty, but, from the perspective of a liberalism grounded in
10. Quoted in Tikhonov, Social Darwinism and nationalism in Korea, pp. 25–26.
social Darwinism, they started to believe that poverty was merely the consequence of personal failure. Poverty is the by-product of the process of competition; the natural law of a free market necessarily gives rise to the inferiority because of those who lost in the game. In this respect, liberal government is framed by integrated natural laws—the laws make man what he or she is in the natural state of the economy. Yu’s understanding of social Darwinism was compatible with liberal biopolitics and had the effect of criticizing the powerless Korean monarchy, but he was not interested in the democratic mechanism of modernization. What attracted him was the law of social evolution, which could be analogous to the natural selection of species. From this perspective, Yu regarded international relations as a natural, competitive environment in which the fittest survive. Competition, the absolute cause of superiority, turns the wheel of history by imposing the necessity of evolution on the human species. The decline of the Korean monarchy was for him the necessary result of this irresistible process.
The problem of Yu’s viewpoint, regardless of his confusion between nature and society, is that there is no place for subjectivity in history if the historical transformation is merely the realization of evolutionary law. The materialistic framework of social Darwinism illustrates how to manage the individual life properly from top to bottom, ignoring the social relations in the mode of production. Indeed, it is not surprising that the political consequence of such intellectual inclination ended up with his approval of Japan’s colonization of Korea, in that the stronger nation should win the international competition against the weaker one by evolutionary necessity. Yu’s attitude toward imperialism as the highest evolutionary stage of the nation-state might result from his way of understanding competition as the natural law ingrained within the normative value of life. According to this logic, the crucial elementfor governing is to make individuals natural. The reception of social Darwinism in China was more remarkable than this. Yan Fu, a Chinese translator of John Stuart Mill, Thomas Huxley, and Herbert Spencer, and known as one of the pioneyering scholars to have introduced liberalism into China, delivered a public lecture on politics on October 13, 1905. In this lecture, he emphasized that politics is nothing less than the science of governmentality to better produce a nation-state; he distinguished science from technology and was convinced that by understanding the scientific laws of history correctly, the Chinese could survive political turbulence. His lecture was highly influential in the Asian intellectual milieu in general as well as in China specifically.
Yan Fu’s lecture was concerned with the scientific theory of politics, but it showed a way of viewing liberalism through the lens of social Darwinism. His translation of Mill revealed his understanding of liberalism as interwoven with Spencer’s social evolution theory. To quote Hao Chang:
Yen [Yan] was interested in the Western value of vitality and struggle because, in his view, these values were key to the wealth and power of Western nations. By the same token, Yen [Yan] was led to believe that the lack of these animating values in the Chinese tradition accounted for the weakness of China.12
Similar to Yu, Yan Fu also discovered the normative value of competition in liberalism. Due to Yan Fu’s attempt to disseminate the idea of competition in the Chinese intellectual scene, social Darwinism became central in the making of the national identity incorporating with the imaginary of the community, deeply rooted in the hierarchical culture based on family lines. Such transformation revolves around the application of selection to culture andsociety. The logical process is not merely the application of biological concepts of general selection for super-biotic entities, but rather producing knowledge on variation, selection, and retention of autonomous cultural bodies. As reconstructing the whole way of thinking, the concept of “nation” easily transforms into a category in which the identity of the community, the logical ground for constituting “we,” excludes “non-we” from membership.
Biopolitics has functioned alongside social Darwinism, or better still, progressivism, in Asian countries, including South Korea. Such political combination has suggested the “ideal community of citizens” in a different way from what the West has presupposed. The imagination stemming from Asian biopolitics is not common with the “citizens as the ideal people,” but rather population as the entities of life, which are reduced to the labor power constituting the force of production. Is it correct, then, to argue that Asian modernization is unique and therefore suggests nothing universal? To some extent, it would be right, but some authoritarian politicians and dictators, suchas Park Chung Hee in South Korea, Kim Jeong Il in North Korea, and Lee Gwang Yoin Singapore, have argued that “our” Asianmodernity is incomprehensible and cannot be explained by Western
12. Hao Chang, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao and Intellectual Transition in China 1890–1907
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 65–66.
criteria. However, what is at stake is that the Asian historical situation, in which social Darwinism played a key role, proves the possibility of modernization without liberalism or politics without citizens. Asian modernization discloses the self-cancellation of liberal governmentality, the disagreement in civility and biopolitics, and the crisis of liberalism independent of the capitalist economy, as Foucault clearly points out.
4. Conclusion: The Failure of Law
Social theories influenced by Darwinism criticized the utilitarian solution to manage desire and emphasized the intrinsic nature of human beings. According to these theories, the law of evolution rules over society, and everyone must obey the law if the nation is to remain on the track of progress. Otherwise, humanity will regress and soon become extinct. Although the evolutionary rule is called natural law, it means economic determination. The economy is the foundation of human life, and everything in society should be subordinate to the growth of the material basics. From this perspective, the individual is the ultimate entity to sustain the ongoing evolution. In this way, the stigma of homo economicus, the idea of self-governing subjectivity, fosters the belief system that only the strongest survive competition. Eugenics was the extreme version of social evolutionism; the winner of this evolutionary contest is the strongest.
The perverse adaptation of the Darwinian imperative, i.e., the fittest wins, became dominant in the situation after the failure of liberalism. The defenders would argue that the Darwinian idea of the fittest has nothing to do with eugenic imagination. However, it was Spencer who coined the notion and passed it along to Darwin. Spencer developed the idea that evolution is the process from the simple, indefinite, and incoherent to the complex, definite, and coherent. Therefore, whatever Darwin intended, Spencer’s conceptualization of the fittest does not seem free from what social Darwinism argues.
The imperative to be the strongest was crucial to the process of nation building in the early twentieth century in Asia, but now in the twenty-first century it is compulsory in developing perfect human capital. The idea of the winner in the international competition was the capitalist raison d’état of the nation-state, and today it is the capitalist raison d’état of the individual. The shift could be called the neoliberal transformation, which encourages the hedonistic solution to social inequality. In this way, social problems suddenly turn into individual affairs; the one responsible for solving the issues is not the government or society, but rather the person who faces them. Whether anyone can manage his or her desire is essential to doing justice to human capital. The self-management of desire is the fundamental idea of neoliberal egalitarianism, the egalitarianism that paradoxically grounds itself on the justification of inequality between a winner and a loser in market competition, the fittestand the most unfit for capitalism.
Meanwhile, the theory of human capital is one of the variations of the evolutionary imagination that embraced social Darwinism in the early twentieth century. The evolutionary law still plays a crucial role in constructing neoliberal egalitarianism. The law seems to prohibit the excessive desire to disturb the accumulations of human capital. If you want to be a winner, you must fit your desire to the capitalist market. Otherwise, you will be extinct in the process of competition. The neoliberal egalitarianism is another facet of the pleasure principle, the modern imperative to enjoy yourself. For this reason, you should pretend to enjoy yourself, even though you cannot. Self-enjoyment is the source of capitalist consumerism’s energy, and “enjoy yourself” is the order of the unconscious—always excessive, but less than nothing.
As Let Me In shows, the law of neoliberal egalitarianism cannot be self-fulfilling. The law of self-enjoyment is never omnipotent, but actually impotent. The pleasure principle strives to hide the truth, i.e., the lack of the Other. There is no such law to prohibit our desire, but instead we forbid ourselves from knowing that there is no such law. In this sense, desire is not merely gratified with its objects. This is the reason why utilitarian hedonism fails to achieve its goals. Desire is not a tidy room, but rather a room in which some chairs have always already fallen over. It arises from a new situation in which the desired event breaks down and fails. Desireis not even, but singular in different levels. The passion toward plastic surgery in South Korea exhibits the ultimate stance of biopolitics, which is combined with the theory of human capital, yet also proves that the neoliberal egalitarianism of pleasure is impossible.
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