An Intimate Thanks: Responding to the Comments on Seeing Like a child

What is it to have one’s words entrusted to another? I am so grateful to Andrew Brandel and Bhrigupati Singh for organizing this book symposium as well as to the six discussants who have offered such generous and thought-provoking comments. My response to these commentaries is not to give an authoritative reading of the text – how could I? – for it is in the writing that I came to find not what I already knew but that which I somehow need to know. Instead, in the spirit of intimacy, I take up the ways in which these readings have furthered my thoughts, particularly on the description of childhood as inseparable from the description and definition of the ordinary; what it is to write in the first-person perspective and the collective “we” from within an unending war; and care in the dying space.

Seeing as a child, the double protagonist, and the “I”

More than one of the commentators have drawn out the implications of the method of seeing like a child, a method through which I puzzle together words and tidbits of perceptions, and in so doing, learn (and relearn) kinship, violence, affliction, and death. I write as a child of parents who fled to the South of Korea from the North during the Korean War and whose subsequent migration in a context of ongoing war were conditions for the severing and suppression of kinship relations and the making of separated families. But I also write as the mother of Ella, now a four-year-old little kid, with whom I relearn illness and relearn death, as Veena Das notes in her discussion of the double protagonist. Sandra Laugier writes, “the book constitutes a reversal of the method of social science. What Clara does is to root her narrative in a child’s experience, to define the ordinary world as the world of the child, to literally, as she says, “write from the inside of my childhood memories”, which does not mean recounting these memories as an adult, but rather demonstrating at every minute how deeply they are inscribed in experience, in the body, in subjectivity”. It is through the route of seeing as a child – or the recovery and loss of voice through seeing as a child – that we perceive the ordinary, that discreet reality. Both Laugier and Rechtman note the strangeness or uncanniness of the ordinary. In distinguishing between the après-coup reconstruction and the use of the “I” in Seeing – or the “me” and the “I” -, Rechtman describes the “I” in my text as a route to the uncanniness of the ordinary – it is “not the expression of a self-consciousness, but the radical subjectivity that is involved as an actor of the ordinary (my emphasis)”. Yet, this radical otherness finds expression in nothing more nor less than the scenes of the domestic and in the work of care, as Laugier so acutely remarks. So, the child and the feminine moves description from the tension between the “I” and the “me”, achieved through an effort at self-consciousness, to the relation of the “I” and the “you.”

Let me turn to Veena Das’s discussion of the device of the double protagonist and her work on the grammatical person to take these thoughts further. Das finds two protagonists in the story: “the child that Clara becomes in the telling of a past not as something already known but as something to be figured out in the writing; and the child, that Ella is, the one who allows Clara to become the child she was allowed to be, but only intermittently.” Yet, it is both that there are two child characters and that these characters, Ella and Clara, are learning what it is to inhabit a life together, to – as Das writes in Textures of the Ordinary, “share this kind of past, this kind of laughter.” So, there is a centrality of the second-person stance for the first person: “The world counts—it has a say. However, how the world counts is somewhat different when we think of the first person as taking a third-person stance and a second-person stance. In the first case, the facts that are to be taken account of are “impersonal” facts… In the second case, I seek someone who can receive the words that give testimony to myself” (Das 2020: 136, my emphasis).

Might this second-person stance cast a light on the shifting tenses as expressions of care? When Das writes that “the power of the specifically marked moments of the past in the book, comes from the feeling that Clara is leaving these moments behind, as they too recede from her”, it may indeed be that leaving these moments behind are also gestures of care for Ella, for my father, for the weave of these generations.

History, the “adult world of war”, and a collective past

Let me take these threads on the “I”, the “you” and the ordinary into the discussion of history and “the adult world of war” to ask how a collective past might be shown or seen if we see as a child. Heonik Kwon receives the book as one that is probing a past repressed and concealed, and in this way “turns the space of kinship… to a field of engagement with history in such a way that this is yet unseen in the long disciplinary history.” Kwon sees the Korean War as an event bound to a generation, the war-generation, who carefully suppressed memories to protect their children. However, the children belatedly discover these memories with their probing eyes. Consider this picture of kinship as a subject of history alongside Rechtman’s remark that a condition of writing from the perspective of the child “requires erasing historical depth”, “with very little influence from any collective past.” Here, I take it that Rechtman is not saying that children are a tabula rasa but rather that a teleological narrative of the past cannot be imposed on the child’s perspective. Her perspective requires that we do not know the end of the story; for, she is learning what past is, what the feel of pastness is.

Monica Kim and Crystal Baik offer crucial interventions here from within the historiography of the Korean War and the study of diaspora. Kim acutely reads Seeing as “providing us with a way to think against the teleological thinking that U.S. imperial liberalism or South Korean nationalism relies upon. For the state – whether U.S. or South Korea – the scene of family, kinship, and the domestic is always supposed to function in an allegorical fashion, where the family is a heightened distillation of the state’s past, present, and future.” Indeed, the state view is one that perpetuates the notion of the family as the site of peacemaking and yet denies the life, labor, and lethality of care in the domestic. So, writing from the child’s perspective is not to assume a prepolitical or apolitical being, but rather resonates deeply with Kim’s remarks that “We are all attempting to describe an unending war while simultaneously trying to expose how states exert control over how we attempt to describe the war itself. It’s a political activity that can make one feel something akin to madness.” 

Baik takes forward these stakes in description, of attention to detail, of the low and diminutive, when she writes, “Yet, even while foregrounding the precarity produced by these nested forms of brutality, Seeing Like a Child also asks how we might know differently to potentiate other ways of being and imagining through and against conditions of violence.” Baik brings a life in multiple languages into view, such that we see learning language not confined to linguistics but rather to initiation into a form of life: learning Korean or learning English colored by a life in Korean and Korea is a “learning to speak again”. In so doing, she makes the point that seeing like a child does not “perceive the Korean War as a historical exception inherited and transferred to younger generations as intact kernels of unknowable truth” but rather perceives war as dispersed within the inhabitation of everyday life.

To put it rather bluntly, Kim and Baik’s comments suggest a difference between masculine ways of knowing war and the feminine knowing that comes from those gestures, words, fleeting emotions that are rendered unimportant in the Big Story of the Korean War, of men fighting men, who exact violence on women in the name of the purity of the nation.[1] Their comments raise the question of how a collective past might be woven from these different threads of experience. Might this be the labor of stitching and restiching that “us” – a community of women – that Kim and Baik refer to? Kim says, “Because for us who are embedded in what Clara calls the “ordinary tragedies,” the “fragments,” and the “myths” of the war – it can feel like we are trying to give shape to something we have already known for a long time” (emphasis mine). Baik says, “I want to circle back to grief and grieving albeit through a different conceptual opening that illuminates the diasporic repercussions of the Korean War – particularly for those of us [emphasis mine] who are because of the 70-year conflict.” In neither Kim’s nor Baik’s response do I sense the assumption of a consolidated identity, nor the assurance that care would heal and reconstitute kinship. Yet, their reference to “us” raises the difficult question of how the past can be repaired when we cannot find the vocabulary with which to name this violence.

Naming the cruelty

I take this question into the realm of kinship, attempting to respond to Das’s comments on how, within my father’s rage, he has “given Clara some words with which to name this cruelty, such that these are not nameless, amorphous, shapeless feelings…. She can and does repair the past because she can locate what stands in need of repair.” Das asks, “Suppose she could not quite get hold of what was in need of care, could Clara have created these connections that make “family”?” One response might be to ask what relations or connections are emphasized in Ella saying “this is family”, a scene of three generations. Yet, in shifting to the scene of siblings or sisters, might one sense these nameless, shapeless feelings? How does family look from the perspective of the sibling relation? Here, rather than respond to those sibling scenes in Seeing, I turn to Han Kang’s Vegetarian (채식주의자), a novel with a searing attention to the ordinary (Han 2007).

Let me focus here on the third chapter, which dwells in the sister relation. The younger sister Young-hye, now in a psychiatric hospital, has stopped eating. She is dying of starvation. The reader is taken into the swirl of emotion in the dying space through the focus on the older sister, In-hye, referred to only as “she” by the narrator. The sisters come from the same family and have the same father who displays a violent, yet anxious, authority. The reader might name the childhood scenes of the domestic that flit across In-hye’s eyes as the violence of patriarchy. But neither the narrator nor the sister protagonists can name what “it” is – it permeates the text as a nameless lethality. It gains expression in the texture of the sister relation, a relation in which the sisters gain different knowledge of family by virtue of their position: the father directs his ire at the world to Young-hye, the younger sister, beating her. In-hye, the older sister, finds her way to survive by appeasing her father – in place of her exhausted mother, she keeps her father satisfied by making a soup that goes with beer or liquor.[2]

As Young-hye is dying from starvation, In-hye asks herself, “Why should one not die?” The lethality in and of the ordinary is what Young-hye feels compelled to endure, almost despite herself, while her sister is letting go of the thin thread of everyday life. This is infuriating. Take the dream scene in which Young-hye’s voice awakens In-hye, who is exhausted from taking care of her sick son Jiwoo: “While sleeping, [she] hears Young-hye’s voice, starting out soft and tender, a bit later with a childlike simplicity, but then these are crushed out by a beastly sound. Because it can’t be felt when awake – an intense hatred – her eyes spring open and she falls alseep again” (156). Or the scene in the hospital when Young-hye is near death and In-hye grasps for words, sensing their failure: “‘Crazy, that’s what it is’ [addressing the dying Young-hye with a tone of rage, accompanying the discovery of utter helplessness]… She does not continue speaking. Instead extends her arm and places her index finger under the nostrils of her little sister. A thin, warm breath, slow but regular, tickles her index finger. Her lips minutely spasm” (203).

Eyes flashing open at the visceral hatred evoked by the sister’s inhuman sound; lips twitching with an amorphous rage. It is not just that standing vocabularies seem inadequate. In-hye is enduring a lethal knowledge of family so diffuse and so excessive that it suffocates the atmosphere.[3] When In-hye comes to the hospital to see her little sister, she brings the most delicious of foods – peaches in sweet syrup, the freshest of watermelon – foods that she knows her sister to have loved. Yet, Young-hye is unmoved. Care fails because In-hye cannot locate what is in need of care. And this is maddening. These nameless feelings permeate In-hye’s relation to herself, a wound that has gotten so large, a “black hole” that her body is being sucked into. These sister scenes show us what Sandra Laugier in her comments describes as the standing threat of skepticism in relation to childhood: of not finding a voice or not having it acknowledged. The sister relation raises the importance of describing multiple domesticities as braiding the impulses of life and death in the scene of family, such that we see the fragility in these words: “yes, this is family.”

Dying space: reaching reality, memory, and form of life

As a place to momentarily conclude, I want to dwell again in the dying space, this time of dementia. I thank Richard Rechtman for pointing out that, “Dementia is the counterpoint to childhood, but in either case, living without memory is also a real life nonetheless. Or a form of life…”  While so much of the anthropological literature on dementia has focused on the problem of memory and a critique of recognition, much less attention has been paid to the nitty-gritty reality of dying in the slow, unpredictable yet inexorable progression of a debilitating disease. This is not the right place for me to say something on what I am learning in home hospice, through the incredible labor to try to achieve a so-called “peaceful”, “comfortable” death.[4] For now, however, I want to think more closely on dying and the dispersal of experience in dreams, gestures, and in what Sandra Laugier remarks as the “casual play” of the child as a counterpoint to memory.


Some months ago, before the steep decline in my father’s condition that happened this past spring, Dad’s sister and mother were visiting him in dreams. Tears run from his closed eyes. He calls out: “Ok-sun-i! Ŏm-ma!”, his sister and mother who remain in the North. One of his arms is outstretched, reaching. At lunch, Dad asks me, “Where is my family?” Clara: “Andy and Alyse? [my twin brother and sister]” Dad: “Did they make it to the mountain? Are they hiding there?” Clara: “Yes, the family is ok. They are all ok.”


Mina, our daytime caregiver, says, “Your father is like a flickering flame.” He has become so weak, so emaciated, as if his body simply has no reserves left. Most of the time, it feels like he resides in a deep exhaustion: “I want to sleep” or just “sleep”, he says. But yesterday, my father says, “Hi” to Ella. Although his voice is thin and weak, his face momentarily lights up with a smile. It has been at least three months since we had heard that “Hi”, seen that smile. Ella outstretches her arms, big smile on her face, “Helloooo!!! Hi haraboji [grandfather]!!!”, the bubbling joy of her response matching and thus acknowledging the great achievement of effort that went into this voicing of the word “Hi”. We might not see this gesture again, I think. Yet, it’s as if Ella’s wondrous exuberance makes this brief moment last forever.


An image keeps coming to me: Ella and I are holding Dad’s hand and taking him to the gate of the bridge. His sister and mother are there to receive him to take him to “the other side”. The two Koreas joined in death but also in life, in Das’s beautiful phrase: the care of the living in the space of dying is joined with the care of the dead in the space of living.

Clara Han is Associate Professor of Anthropology at The Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of Seeing like a Child: Inheriting the Korean War(Fordham University Press, 2021) and Life in Debt: Times of Care and Violence in Neoliberal Chile(University of California Press, 2012), as well as the co-editor of Living and Dying in the Contemporary World: A Compendium(University of California Press, 2015).


[1] I note here the way in which women’s experiences of violence, particularly sexual violence in Korea, are marginalized in official accounts of war and empire. Anthropologist Seongnae Kim’s work on the constitution of public memory by women is of particular relevance here (Kim 2021).

[2] Conversations with Sojung Kim as she works on a stunning essay on translation and the ordinary in Vegetarian have been crucial for my thinking here. At a future time, we will take these questions further.

[3] At a later time, I will more fully take up what Veena Das describes as the “dark side of knowledge” or inordinate knowledge in relation to self-knowledge (Das 2021).

[4] Recent work in the palliative care literature on advanced dementia has shown the extent to which end-of-life care for dementia patients is modeled on the care of terminal cancer patients. However, the dynamics of progression of dementia make establishing a prognosis extremely difficult. The micro-unpredictability of dying and the slow temporality of decline make for significant differences in the management of concrete care issues than that of cancer patients.


Das, Veena

2020    Textures of the Ordinary: Doing Anthropology After Wittgenstein. New York: Fordham University Press.

2021    Knowledge. In Words and Worlds: A Lexicon for Dark Times. V. Das and D. Fassin, eds. Pp. 29-53. Durham: Duke University Press.

Han, Kang

2007    채식주의자. 경기도 파주시: 창비.

Kim, Seong Nae

2021    Memory politics and the emergence of a women’s sphere to counter historical violence in Korea. In Gender, Transitional Justice and Memorial Arts: Global Perspectives on Commemoration and Mobilisation. J. Boesten and H. Scanlon, eds. Pp. 75-96. New York: Routledge.