Clara Han’s Seeing Like a Child: Inheriting the Korean War (Fordham University Press, 2021) describes war’s dispersal into everyday life, intimacy and the domestic. Departing from genres of testimony, as well as auto-ethnography, Han seeks to write from a child’s perspective, both as the daughter of parents displaced by the war and who migrate to the United States, as well as the mother of a small child living with her grandfather – Clara’s father, who is progressively debilitated by dementia. Seeing Like a Child pays particular attention to the tiny, everyday acts that can piece a world together, without recourse to neat categories on which “adults may rely to narrate and create boundaries around the ‘event’” (4). We are brought into scenes of learning – what mother is, what father, sister, brother, aunt, illness, dying and death are. In so doing, we see the limits of trauma models, which pose inheritance as a matter of transmitting experiences of violence across generations (or not), and which takes the family as an institution settled in advance. Instead, Seeing Like a Child offers a route through which to understand how mass displacement and war are woven into everyday life and into (the making of) kin relations, and the catastrophic but also ordinary nature of affliction in the domestic.
Han opens her response to this forum by asking, “What is it to have one’s words entrusted to another?” For Han, the struggle to find a voice in one’s history, in a world devastated by violence and war, is not a solitary act of mastery over the story, but something that happens in small acts and gestures “within and through a life in which we are mutually absorbed with others.” (23) In ways quite distinct from “reflexive” writing in anthropology, we see a “braiding of the second and third person into the first person…far from being authorial or authoritative, this writing is continually asking what the conditions are for saying “I” – that is, what are the conditions in which we are challenged to have a deeper sense of ourselves and to be able to find a voice that we claim as our own.”(27) To a claim a voice is thus also to discover, in Sandra Laugier’s felicitous words, that such a claim is “both a subjective and a general expression: [voice] is what makes it possible for my individual voice to become shared…the singular claims a shared, common validity” (2015: 64).
We have brought together six commentators from a range of disciplines (anthropology, history, philosophy, and gender and sexuality studies) to discuss Seeing Like a Child. Sandra Laugier draws out the implications of the philosophical method in seeing as a child: description of the ordinary is inseparable from the relationship to childhood, and this description reveals both the life and lethality in care. Monica Kim shows how Han’s dwelling in the child’s perspective, and the description of the ordinary it entails, destabilizes and confounds the historical narratives deployed in the “adult world of war” while simultaneously showing how these (adult) narratives are violent forms of war-making in the everyday. Bringing further into focus the unending nature of the Korean War for the diaspora, Crystal Baik discusses how Seeing Like a Child asks us to consider the transborder articulations of loss, grief and grieving by shifting from an overwhelming emphasis on identity “between two cultures” to learning kinship, illness, and death. Heonik Kwon places Seeing Like a Child within the intergenerational context of Korean War, describing kinship as a study of history. Yet, focusing on the theoretical innovation of the “I” within the text, Richard Rechtman describes the method of writing as one that requires erasing historical depth in order to write the uncanniness of the ordinary. Veena Das dwells within the text, accompanying Han’s shifts in tense, to bring to light the work of repairing the past and knitting together three generations. Han’s response to these commentaries asks how the feminine region of voice opens description to the dark volatility in kinship and an attentiveness to the dying space.
We hope that readers will take Seeing Like a Child and these commentaries as an invitation to conversation.
“I” is not “me”: Comments on Clara Han’s Use of the First Person in Seeing Like a Child
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales
For the Time Being: Clara Han on Moods of the Present
Johns Hopkins University
An Intimate Thanks: Responding to the Comments on Seeing Like a Child
Johns Hopkins University
Bhrigupati Singh is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Ashoka University and Visiting Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Brown University. He is the author of Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India (University of Chicago Press, Oxford University Press 2015) and co-editor of The Ground Between: Anthropologists Engage Philosophy (Duke University Press, 2014).
Andrew Brandel is Lecturer on Social Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of Moving Words: Migration, Memory and Literature in Berlin (under contract with University of Toronto Press) and co-editor of Living with Concepts: Anthropology in the Grip of Reality (Fordham University Press, 2021).
2021 Seeing Like a Child: Inheriting the Korean War. New York: Fordham University Press.
2015 Voice as Form of Life and Life Form. Nordic Wittgenstein Review: 63-82.