work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

displaying emotional attachment to the leader…

12.19.2011 · Posted in Uncategorized

On the occasion of the death of Kim Jong-il I notice how the notion that he was popular and beloved by many in North Korea keeps popping up (together with some idea that this is the result of total control of the media and complete insulation from the outside world). The BBC has a series of pictures headlined “North Koreans mourn“. I suggest to be careful with such assertions. From the experience of other totalitarian regimes we know that the display of authentic emotions and convictions becomes the repertoire of the denizens of such states – part of their survival techniques. Lisa Wedeen has provided a brilliant analysis of how this works in the case of of Syria – highly recommended reading in conjunction with the images currently on display on the BBC News website. The most intriguing insight here is that in fact the absurdly over-acted emotional authenticity betrays its opposite – and that in fact not believing the regime’s ideological fantasies and not loving the leader make the display of belief and love all the more convincing testimonies of the regimes power.

“Citizens in Syria are not required to believe the cult’s flagrantly fictitious statements and, as a rule, do not. But they are required to act as if they do.” (Wedeen 1998: 506) The regime’s “power is located in the regime’s ability to enforce and sustain the regime’s fictions, and thereby to demonstrate ‘real obedience.’ And ‘real obedience’ relies on not believing.” (Wedeen 1998: 511)

North Koreans may actually feel about the dead leader and his son, the newly appointed next leader in the same way that many Syrians today feel about the two Asads (the dead and the living) – they may feel relief, anxiety, schadenfreude… some may actually be in mourning, some will just be indifferent – but all must be seen weeping. There is a moral question here, too: What is the difference between showing these pictures and showing the forced confession of somebody imprisoned by a regime known for its use of torture?

Wedeen, Lisa (1998): ‘Acting “As If”: Symbolic Politics and Social Control in Syria.’ In: Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol.40, No.3, pp.503-23

update 3pm

still amazed how the grief displayed is presented as genuine – is it that difficult to notice that there is a very limited repertoire in tearful comments (“how could he leave us”, “he was such a great leader”…) – clearly people have been picking up from the state media how to react and what to say?

update the next day…

the BBC on a more reflective note (but still not abstaining from showing videos of weeping people): – acknowledging the possibility of “competitive crying”:

In her book Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick wrote, referring to Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994: “The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who could weep the loudest?” One young student in Pyongyang felt nothing as all around him were wailing, she noted. “His entire future depended on his ability to cry. Not just his career and his membership in the Workers’ Party, his very survival was at stake. It was a matter of life and death.” He was saved, she wrote, by holding his eyelids open and his eyeballs exposed until they burned and began to tear up. Once they started, he began sobbing like everyone else.

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