David Kramer at The Little with Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious [Photo: Leslie Kramer]
The other day, my sister invited me to watch Parasite, a Korean film playing at The Little. We only knew the barest bones of the plot: a working class family manipulates a very wealthy family to hire them as the household staff — English tutor, art therapy teacher, chauffeur and housekeeper — perhaps reminiscent of the British television series Upstairs, Downstairs (1971) depicting the servants “downstairs”—and their masters, the family—”upstairs.”
Anticipating themes of class struggle, before watching the film I turned to Frederic Jameson’s neo-Marxist classic The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981) from which I cut my literary critical teeth.¹ Buried somewhere in the morass of books in the basement — unconscionably and irretrievably — is the 1983 edition Jameson signed for me at the University of Rhode Island.
When reviewing the copy borrowed from the University of Rochester, I came anew across Jameson’s famous dictum — ” Always Historicize!” — opening the Preface.
I actually once ate off a dinner plate — owned by a tenured radical — embossed with Jameson’s delectable bon mot.In simplified terms, Jameson asserts the priority of ideological analysis or political interpretation (“The Political Unconscious”) of cultural narratives (“Socially Symbolic Acts”). Literature – and film – functions by creating imaginary solutions to “real” social problems.
The problems to be solved are the social contradictions between the owners of capital and those exploited by capital. The imaginary solutions work by raising a social anxiety – a potential disrupting element — then relieving, suppressing, dispelling or containing the disruption.
For examples, classic English novels often use coincidence or “improbable realism” when presenting imaginary solutions. In Henry Fieldings’ The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) the foundling Tom is raised in an aristocratic family but then banished for bad behavior into the low life of the working class (the site of the social anxiety). However, Tom is restored to the aristocracy by the improbable revelation that he is actually the nephew of a Squire and can now marry the daughter of another Squire.
In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), the orphan Pip seems destined to be a working class smithy. In an improbable scenario, Magwitch — an English criminal sent to Australia for hard labor but eventually becoming extraordinarily rich – secretly acts as Pip’s benefactor allowing Pip to rise in society. Given his unsavory and lowly past, Magwitch is the site of social anxiety. However, the anxiety is relieved when Magwitch’s true identity is revealed as the unlikely father of Estella, the adopted daughter of the upper class Miss Havisham. The discovery cancels out Magwitch’s disruptive potential, allowing a possible marriage between Pip and Estella.
Armed with Jamesonian dialectics, we headed to The Little to test the hypothesis.
Parasite – an ironic title if ever there was one – opens in a shabby Seoul neighborhood where a struggling family, the Ki-taeks, live in a basement apartment eking out an existence delivering pizzas, victims of a misguided visit by an insect terminator (socially symbolic of the Ki-taeks abject position). At several points, the camera backgrounds stacks of interchangeable pizza boxes, drawing visual comparisons between the Ki-taeks as members of the faceless masses whose daily life features faceless men pissing outside their door step.
The Ki-taeks misery is interrupted when a friend of the family attending university – an intermediary figure of social mobility straddling two classes – asks the son to replace him as an English tutor for the super wealthy Park family.
Significantly, the interactions between the poor Ki-taeks and the rich Park’s hover around the power differentials of the digital divide, a divide that Marx (had he lived to see it) or Jameson (who has) might claim to be the defining arena of late capitalism.
The Ki-taeks do utilize the internet to their advantage: pilfering Wi-Fi from their neighbors, frantically viewing Youtube on how to fold pizza boxes, visiting internet cafes, achieving an amateur mastery of photoshop and even loitering at a car dealer to learn GPS. In the end, the Ki-taeks improvisational and under capitalized efforts pale when contrasted with the Parks’ internet empire.
In the first half of the movie the Ki-taeks ingratiate themselves into, or takeover, the Park household. In representing its imaginary solutions – like Tom Jones and Great Expectations – Parasite verges into improbable realism.
To realize this unlikely scenario, the Ki-taek son must first successfully forge a document proving he is a university student and then unflinchingly act the role. Then the daughter must chance upon a google page fitting perfectly her diagnosis that the Park son suffers from schizophrenia and needs art therapy – as she fakes graduating from the University of Illinois. The daughter must leave her panties in the back seat of a cab supposedly indicting the driver as a womanizer and drug addict. The family can somehow pose as a business catering only to the very upper crust. The Park’s housekeeper must appear to have tuberculosis when peach fuzz is dropped on her neck.
Initially, the film hints at a harmonious imaginary solution to the class contradictions inherent in contemporary Korean society. The merging of the two families — the Ki-taeks literally placed in the home of capital — produces “humanized” (rather than strictly class-based) interactions. The Park mother befriends and confides with the Ki-taek mother and daughter; the father binds with the chauffeur. Most importantly, the son and the Park daughter become romantically involved with even a suggestion of a future marriage. As in Tom Jones and Great Expectations, marriage becomes one solution to class antagonisms or at least to a restoration of social order.
At one critical foreshadow, we see that the seemingly harmonious relationships are doomed. The possibly schizophrenic son announces that the Ki-taek’s all smell the same threatening to expose the scheme — allowing us to imagine that dysfunctional boy can apprehend the schizophrenic contradiction in contemporary Korean society. Furthermore, their collective smell – at one point the Park father mentions the persistent unsavory radish smell emanating from the Ki-taek father – seems to mark their destiny as permanent members of the working classes.
As the movie shifts from humor to horror, the social anxiety becomes clearer: the palpable specter of working class revolt and disruption. While the audience might sympathize with the Ki-taeks, as the movie progresses they are negatively rendered by tropes associated with the lower classes: thieves, cons, liars, driven by their appetites and given to violence. Although they feel guilt, the Ki-taeks are willing to exploit members of their own class.
Finally, the movie purges and suppresses the Ki-taeks-as-class-anxiety in one fell swoop. In the bloody climax, the perpetrator of violence is not seen as a righteous class warrior but – at this point – a deranged mad man whose homicidal rampage feels somewhat unmotivated. The “problem” represented by the Ki-taeks is solved with a kind of deus ex machina – the mass killer simply eliminating them from the film.
The movie ends with what for a moment appears to be a happy future: the son becomes wealthy, buys the Park home and reunites with his father. But the son’s daydream is only a fantasy within a fantasy. The house itself is socially symbolic. Before the Parks, a famous artist lived in the home — treating his staff like family – an aristocratic nostalgic image of socially harmony and timeless beauty, while the materialist and capitalistic Parks represent the rising power of the Korean bourgeoisie. The son’s daydream of owning the house itself is not presented as an alternative to the Parks but the manifestation of his own conditioned desire for property and wealth.Perhaps the most powerful symbolic or metaphorical moment is when the Ki-taeks are flooded out of their basement home basically losing what little they have. Literally, the flood shows how – like with Katrina in New Orleans – the poor are at the mercy of nature while the rich live on higher ground. Metaphorically, the flood become a displacement or “natural symbol” for the inexorable force of capitalism driving economic oppression and inequality, one that also foreshadows the K–taeks washed out from the movie.
Just as the flood cannot be stopped, Parasite — whose ironic title becomes full fledged; who are the parasites? – has no way to represent collective or political solutions to the real problems. There are no strikes or protests or calls for income redistribution. Only individual acts of desperation.
Finally, I don’t think Jameson would see the movie as a protest film per se. Experientially, we might sympathize with the tragedy of the Ki-taeks and wish the imaginary solution was a happy marriage. Rather, Jameson would see their tragedy as inimical to social structures of power. Following perpetuated narrative patterns, the film raises the Ki-taeks as a threat to the dominant ideology and – cathartically or tragically depending on where you fit in that order – contains the threat, a pattern to be replicated until true social transformation comes.
For Jameson, the world of late capitalism can — as of 1981 — only reproduces itself as in the realism of Parasites. The chair is still empty.After the movie, my sister offered her response. She both lives a comfortable existence as a member of the northern California investor class employing household help and is a confirmed progressive believing that income inequality is a social justice issue.
Given her unavoidable identification with the upper middle class family, Leslie writes:
I am probably not the only mother for whom the ending was our worst nightmare come true: the carefully planned kids birthday party becomes a total disaster. All the hours spent setting up games, arranging entertainment, finding just the right cake, all ruined by a crazed lunatic who wasn’t even invited to the party. The film suggests our obsessions with the symbols of social success maybe partly to blame, but isn’t that a tad misogynistic? Birthday parties matter!
Here, Leslie begins a feminist interpretation when suggesting the male director and screenwriter make the indulged mother into a bogeywoman who brings on the family’s destruction. Ultimately, in the last line, she contains that anxiety by heartily affirming that birthday parties do matter!
¹As “proof” that I cut my critical teeth on The Political Unconscious, I offer as “evidence” a 1986 reference letter written by Brown University Professor Edward Ahearn. Professor Ahearn taught us how to read Jameson’s ur-text. Apparently, I handled the teachings with aplomb.
Looking back, what was true then has truth today: “David Kramer is still reflecting and experimenting as to what career or careers he wants it pursue.”