i attended an academic conference virtually to present a paper on The Wailing by Na Hong-jin and how the film is an extension of anthropologist Heonik Kwon’s concept of “decomposition” in reconsidering the “ends” of the “cold war” through the metaphor of zombies, and processing national traumas around massacres and mass rape during the Korean War
when the floor was opened up for questions, initially, nobody had anything to ask me. this is often the case whenever i present at any non-Korean studies related academic conferences where the majority of attendees are white academics discussing Western-centric texts. when there are no questions, i usually wonder if anyone was even listening–if they regard my work as completely irrelevant to their work and therefore is not worth listening to.
as if my work is not related to American empire—a concept that is familiar to all, and affects us all, and is highly present in my work, and yet no one seems to recognize it as a real thing.
after presenting, when someone finally did ask a question, it came from a white male scholar who was hosting the panel, and he asked me if i’d seen the film Seoul Station.
i laughed internally because so many white male cinephiles ask me if i’d seen Seoul Station as some kind of test, like, “did you see this obscure animated film because i sure did and let me tell you something you don’t know!”
he wasn’t really asking a question but rather telling me that he’d seen that Korean film and if what he’d seen has anything to do with my work. how is that a question? what have i been arguing this whole time? what was my paper about? does he even know?
Seoul Station is not made by the same filmmaker I am dealing with. the way that Yeon Sang-ho handles zombies as a metaphor to critique capitalist urbanism is completely different from how Na Hong-jin utilizes zombies to convey the chaotic confusion and disturbance of post-Korean war trauma.
then another male scholar tells me that he’s seen Kingdom and asks me if the “Korean zombie” is one that always hates the Japanese.
again, a completely different text—in fact, not even a film because it’s a serialized show on Netflix—and written by TV screenwriter Kim Eun-hee. Kingdom is not even set during the same era as The Wailing. it’s set in pre-modern Korea whereas my text is about modern Korea.
this person was asking me about Kingdom, again, to convey that he’d seen some Korean thing related to zombies, and wanting me to connect the dots for him when in fact there are no dots to connect.
the notion of “Korean zombie” is not even real. how each auteur utilizes the zombie in their text for a specific purpose varies greatly per text but these guys were just conflating all Korean media as one thing and streamlining them into the “Zombie” category as if a single national identification exists.
in Kingdom, the zombie is used to critique government neglect of the welfare of citizens, and classism issues. Seoul Station is a critique of capitalist ideology and its entwinement with local patriarchy and urbanization. The Wailing, as I said, is about necropolitics and decomposition.
each text varies greatly in their use and expression of the zombie. but these people wanted me to give them an easy explanation of “the Korean zombie” as if it’s a thing, and wanted only to tell me what they’d seen that happened to be Korean and happened to be about zombies.
none of their questions had anything to do with my paper or my argument. so what was the point of me sharing 20 minutes of this conference presentation? what was the point of me working on slides and condensing my paper down to a powerpoint presentation when nobody was going to give two shits but only talk about themselves and their knowledge?
these conference organizers always talk about diversifying their presentations and being more inclusive as an afterthought, but they have no tools or any clue as to how to be diverse and inclusive. the way to do it is to actually LISTEN. to actually HEAR what the argument is, and come up with a question or a comment that benefits the presenter when they go back to revise their paper based on NOTES given at the conference.
this is something i always set out to do when i attend panels, conferences and workshops, but the evident lack of interest and attention to my work makes me really question my belonging to these kinds of spaces. that is microaggression. dismissal of a paper before they even hear it out because it’s related to a non-Western country is xenophobic and racist.
so for those of you attending a conference next time, pay attention to the works that discuss issues of the “global south” and empire. pay attention to what’s being discussed on colonization, war trauma, and massacres. really listen to the argument that is being made, and ask questions that relate to that person’s paper and might help them expand on their thoughts rather than stifle their ideas because now they’re clouded by cynicism and pessimism based on the rather aggressive whiteness and maleness of such a space.