The Desire of Squid Game
On October 12, Arirang Meari, a North Korean propaganda website, said that Netflix’s global smash-hit Squid Game discloses the “beastly capitalism” of South Korea, where corruption and rogues are everywhere. The nine-episode thriller made in South Korea, now a worldwide sensation on Netflix, has encouraged not only the North Korean demagogue but many critics across borders to write about its mirror image of the cruel reality of capitalism. Cobbling together details from Battle Royale, As the Gods Will, and The Hunger Games, the streaming of the Korean drama series succeeded in bringing up its theatrical visual effect beyond the references. Despite its extreme gory images and the flatness of characters, devoid of a plausible narrative, the made-in-Korea cultural product ranked as the most popular series on Netflix. Through its success, Squid Game has helped boost Netflix subscriptions and raise the stakes for the company in the broadband battle.
Many observations, at least in the North Korean media, share a common presupposition that the dramatic plot corresponds to the social reality of South Korea — debt-ridden people commited to a deadly competition and dying without any help. Those perspectives, including that of North Korean agitprop, do not hesitate to identify the allegory of the zero-sum game with the cruel violence of capitalism. Indeed, most viewers readily accept that its dramatic setting aims to criticize capitalism; yet my suspicion of it arises here. There is an intriguing clue regarding what Squid Game tends to talk about ― the Korean collection of Jacques Lacan’s writings, titled The Theory of Desire, on a desk. The Korean translation of Lacan’s eleventh seminar is also shown in the same scene. Another book laid beside The Theory of Desire is the artbook of René Magritte’s paintings. These books allude to an ethical conclusion of the sensational spectacle. No doubt, such a clunky dramatic device reveals the director’s manipulations and their hidden motivation.
So, the Korean thriller overtly reveals its intention to deal with the problem of desire and its relation to the survival game. On the surface, its purpose seems to criticize capitalism, which instigates the brutal reality of the debt economy. To be sure, Squid Game does not hide its political inclination to denounce the neoliberal making of the indebted poor. However, it is hard to admit that the drama rigorously tackles the structural inequality of capitalism. Instead, it emphasizes how individual violation of the rules destroys the justice of the game. The story’s main point is not the abolition of disparities, but the establishment of just laws.
This perspective is closer to Bentham than to Marx, in that its narrative does not describe the process of the game as a class struggle, but a panopticon managing discipline and allocating punishments. Bentham called this prison “Inspection House” or “Elaboratory,” the purpose of its architecture being the discipline of the troublemaking individuals. Its circular surveillance system must work well for the rehabilitation of outlaws. The necessary element for the house of correction is the principle of inspection. According to Bentham, “the more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the establishment have been attained.”[i] The crucial element of the penitentiary mechanism is the impartial role of the inspector ― the equal certainty and facility of surveillance.
Squid Game demonstrates how a key tenet of the panopticon controls people under the regime of their voluntary obedience. Contrary to the North Korean analysis, its dramatic configuration of Korean society has nothing to do with the reflection of cruel capitalism, but rather with the ideological reproduction of the reality. Furthermore, even though the Netflix series seems to gravitate towards a critique of surveillance capitalism, its aim does not disparage capitalism but denounces the law’s infringement, which spells out trouble for the capitalist system. Gi-hun’s decision in the last scene could be understood as an alibi for the sequel of the series and at the same time a dramatic plot to reveal the central theme of its narrative. In short, Squid Game is nothing more than a didactic play to punish the poor people who deliberately breach the rules of a fair game. It seems that its symbolic representation of Korean high capitalism analyzes the problem of desire with Lacanian creed. Still, its description of desire is much closer to utilitarian liberalism.
The principle of any game, or rather of gambling, relies on the equal opportunity of luck, as in the case of a lottery. However, Gi-hun finally finds out that those unfair inspectors have cheated him and taken advantage of his goodwill. He also realizes that the founder of the panopticon, contrary to Bentham’s expectation, does not believe in the possibility of a Good Samaritan. Gi-hun’s bile is spewed out towards the inequitable rule of the game. What motivates Gi-hun is not so much money as gambling, even though his poverty brings him to participate in the Malthusian rat race. The ending scene clarifies that he decides to get back to the game because of his wrath. Why does he return to the death game on the verge of escape? Why does he give up his freedom and risk his life again? It is as if the heroic moment of a free man’s courage changes Gi-hun, but the hidden impetus behind the decision is his guilty feeling. His ambiguous action has nothing to do with morality but with his desire to continue the game as such ― he cannot give up his obsession with death-driven pleasure. Gi-hun’s ethical gesture is designed to conceal this real obscenity.
It follows that Squid Game does not provide us with a fundamental critique of capitalism. Its primary focus is on the justice of the game, not the rejection of fatal competition. Gi-hun’s moral suture emphasizes that the just application of the same rule to all participants is necessary for distributing pleasure and implementing justice. The actual message that lurked in this utilitarian backdrop was the punishment of the poor ― a pack of villains who ruin fair competition. The disturbing narrative continuously devises moronic reasons as to why they are eliminated from the game. The scandalous description of those wealthy spectators reiterates the pornographic cliché of bourgeois literature: the rich do not want to make any profit by the game but merely watch it for enjoyment. Certainly, this story does not tell us anything about the capitalist mode of production.
What interests me here is why this Korean drama has been perceived widely as anti-capitalist. Why does this made-in-Korea Netflix original series gain vast popularity across the world? In his recent interview with El País, a Spanish media outlet based in Madrid, Byung-Chul Han argues that the global popularity of Squid Game indicates total domination and represents “a central aspect of capitalism in an extreme form.” Han’s understanding of the Netflix series is not far from the North Korean media’s vulgar realism. Han and the North Korean propaganda machine overlook the fact that the South Korean interpretation of capitalism in its drama productions does not simply reflect social reality. The symbolic representation is the part of the reality as such, where the Real of capitalism cannot be fully included within its formal logic. If adapting Slavoj Žižek’s terms, Squid Game is nothing more than perverted art designed to hide the obscene reality of capitalism from our daily life, then “we do not really want what we think we desire.” What we want is the sustainable state of desiring as such. Unlike Han’s presupposition, Squid Game does not exhibit the total completion of capitalism, but the ideological deception of the culture industry.
There is a homeostasis of capitalist perversion in this mechanism. Capitalism sells a critique of capitalism. Even Netflix produces and distributes The Social Dilemma, a documentary that criticizes the big data industry, like Netflix itself. This paradox does not mean that capitalism totalizes our unconscious. Instead, it implies that we enjoy the “interpassivity” of voluntary obedience to the regime. Endorsing Žižek, Robert Pfaller points out that “interpassive people seemed to avoid their desire and to transfer it instead to other people, animals, machines and so on” for their pleasure.[ii] The concept of interpassivity explains a way to gain enjoyment by renouncing our freedom to choose. If you think of interpassive arrangements in the case of Squid Game, you will see that its dramatic setting provides for its own reception. We already “know” the problem of capitalism that the Netflix product is supposed to show us before we start to watch it. In this actualization of media, i.e., in the mechanical operation of online streaming, our participation as Netflix spectators in the process turns out to be mere excess. In other words, the inner logic of the Netflix series (the utilitarian critique of the excessive desire, such as the subduction of unfair enjoyment from the distribution of pleasure) consummates itself without audiences in its realization.
By enjoying Squid Game, we can refrain from our surplus appreciation of capitalist obscenity and hand it over to Netflix. This disinterested mode to delaying the fulfilment of our desire is the ideological entailment of the new media. The normalization of surplus desire seems to reach even higher level in interpassive arrangements of algorithmic mechanisms. Now you do not need to think about what you should watch. More than that, you do not need to desire what you really desire. This normal state of voluntary obedience is the condition for retaining the capitalist mode of production.
[i] Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon Writings, ed. Miran Božovič, London: Verso, 1995, p. 34.
[ii] Robert Pfaller, Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017, p. 16.