XXVII.2 March - April 2020
Page: 90
Digital Citation

Redacted letters to the other Korea

Lisa Min

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Dear Reader,

This essay is an exploration of redaction as method, with particular emphasis on the process of designing such a method. The idea emerged from a closed workshop organized at UC Berkeley in May 2019 where scholars came together to discuss some of the pressing security and ethical dilemmas of working in the Eurasian socialist/postsocialist space. I presented on the way that my Polaroid camera troubled the usual way of seeing the "other Korea" (through the lens of security, human rights, and the Cold War) by its uncanny ability to be invisible in all of its flashy visibility [1]. I also spoke about the "after" of fieldwork, where one has to consider questions of risk and ethics, exposure and betrayal in the writing of every place, but how this was amplified given the circumstances and constraints of this field.

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I cannot call or message my interlocutors, let alone send letters. In the past I have had notes delivered through certain Euro-American tour guides that take groups of tourists into the country, but even those were always redacted. I never received a reply. How, then, to think about writing—the conversations left unfinished, the questions never asked, all of the excesses of fieldwork that remain suspended yet return and return? As a way to attend to this incommensurability, I started writing letters to my Korean comrades with black-line redactions (Figure 1). What became clear in the writing is that one doesn't just negotiate or resist power; one must also face it head on, even embrace it. The redactions demanded a kind of direct coming to terms with complicity, since it is first and foremost a procedure of the state that I appropriate but also emulate. And so the redactions come to mark a negative space in which political power and the aesthetic experience of that power are as seductive as they are menacing.

ins02.gif Figure 1.

It is with these conundrums and questions that redaction as method emerged as a project. I am working with two other anthropologists, Franck Billé (who organized the workshop) and Charlene Makley (one of the participants), to explore redaction as a practice at the limit, as a writing between complicity and refusal in the encounter with political power.

The letters work best when they feel intuitive and improvisational. They work through the cultivation of an embodied practice. But the body too is at risk. Punctured. Leaky. Voracious. The work of thinking through and of writing and rewriting, redacting and reredacting, not to locate power, the totalitarian, the self, or freedom, but rather to produce collisions and openings—this, it seems, is where the work of anthropology meets design.

As you will see, it's not so easy to write one of these things.

To write a letter to someone in the other Korea is to send a message in a bottle. Because the letter necessarily has to be redacted. Because you don't know what eyes will read it, and how or when it will be read. Because it may never be read. Yet still you send it, hoping against all hope, that something somehow will be communicated. In this sense, it is performative, an autoethnographic account of a superintimate brush with political power [2].

It is an impossible letter destined for a place beyond place that feels distant no matter how close you get. The other Korea, you see, is not a place that can be encountered directly. When you zoom in, when you try to uncover the secret beneath the surface of the visible, when you succumb to the temptation to unveil, you are met not with the truth of the state, but with its emptiness. In trying to find a language to address this world, I explore redaction as a form of writing that enables a certain access to the inaccessible.

What is it about redaction as an inaccessible space that amplifies what remains?

"Why redaction?" a friend asks of my letters [3] (Figure 1).

I say something about the illicit markings of black-line redactions, the visible trace of secrets, the suggestive quality of the words left in the wake of erasure, the thrill and pleasure of being in the midst of such a document.

"It's as good as poetry," he says.

But still, why must it be redaction?

To get to the redacted letter, I have to face the self that is writing.

It is a self that wishes to write an open, transparent letter (a utopian self).

It is a self writing while knowing the writing will be redacted (a troubled self).

It is a self that decides or knows what to redact (a self that takes pleasure in censorship).

It is a self that must necessarily come to terms with complicity, since it is first and foremost a procedure of the state that I at once emulate and appropriate. It is the anthropologist as writer, traitor, censor, collaborator. The anthropologist as implicated. And so, the redactions come to mark the negative space in which the aesthetic experience of political power is as seductive as it is menacing in the very intimate space of a letter.

But not every letter can feel its way through these sullied layers of selves.

"This one (Figure 2) is less successful, and I was thinking about why," the friend says.

ins03.gif Figure 2.

"Here, the redactions seem too perfectly included within the text, too much a function of the writing—there is no arbitrary quality, such as might be left by a censor."

Is it a question of how to write oneself into the thick of the black, and the between of the remainders and erasures, and to be both inside and outside it? How to inhabit this shared zone of impossibility? [4] How to write imagistically? [5] How to write obtusely? [6] How to reproduce this fleeting experience of the impossible ethnographically?

"This one," (Figure 3) my friend tells me, "could be amazing."

ins04.gif Figure 3.

"It's already amazing. But could be even more amazing if it were longer, and felt rougher somehow."

I at first wonder what he means by rougher, but then try to find a way to meet the roughness. Redaction as a technique of the state aims to purify, sanitize, to keep the aura of power illusive and sacred. Redaction as a practice of critical inquiry holds a more paradoxical stance. It at once contaminates and decontaminates [7]. So the letter needs to be rougher because censorship is a violence taken upon a text, but also because it is a writing torn and a writing faithful to the stutters of this writing through bits and noise and lint and dust [8]. And it needs to be longer, so as to contain that unwieldly experience of roughness, to make the torn self felt.

May this reach you, someone, whenever.

back to top  References

1. The "other Korea" in contradistinction to South Korea, the Korea we know how to understand.

2. I am thinking here with Kathleen Stewart on autoethnography. See: Stewart, K. An autoethnography of what happens. In Handbook of Autoethnography. Routledge, 2016.

3. Joshua Craze is the figure of the friend. He has been thinking about redaction in the context of the U.S. War on Terror. His installation work and accompanying text A Grammar of Redaction (2014;, as well as his novel in progress Redacted Mind (, have helped us think through our own project in taking up redaction as concept and method in anthropology. My gratitude to Joshua for allowing me to use parts of our exchange in this publication.

4. Stewart, 2016, 661.

5. Craze (2014) describes the redacted page as an image: "The redacted page is an image. To understand it, I realized I couldn't discount the redactions as if they were non-sense: the annoying suppressions that get in the way of significance. I couldn't look for words, as if the redactions didn't exist. I didn't want to hunt for significance—it is already there, in the black. I just didn't know how to see it." I take this to mean an imagistic, cinematic sensibility.

6. The "third meaning" or the "obtuse meaning" is that which expresses the impossible, that which remains within and without an imagistic articulation, the representation that cannot be represented. See: Barthes, R. The third meaning: Research notes on some Eisenstein stills. In Image, Music, Text. R. Howard, trans. Hill and Wang, New York, 2010, 52–68.

7. Stewart, K. On the politics of cultural theory: A case for 'contaminated' cultural critique. Social Research 58, 2 (1991), 395–412.

8. This is a writing in stutters. See: Hak Young Cha, T, Dictée. Tanam Press, 1982, 56.

back to top  Author

Lisa Sang-Mi Min is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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