By Peter Zupanc
Isn’t capitalist system, which humans invented 200 years ago, growing into an uncontrollable beast that will devour human society?
Clock of Babel runs the whole world to the same rhythm of time.1]The Cabinet
The Cabinet starts with a description of the cabinet. Inside, there are files of amazing people. A man who is turning into a tree, a woman who is growing a lizard instead of a tongue, and many more. This is not regarded as much of a mystery, and we never learn what is the mechanism of their transformation. The fantastic simply exists, not to be questioned, though for sure, in other respects this is our world. The protagonist could have come straight from the pages of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs. When he is not describing the fantastic files, he is ranting about his predicament: “As long as you don’t ask yourself what you are doing, you can keep doing it until the end of life” or “the only thing that capitalism ever produced is anxiety”. Reading The Cabinet from the perspective of Bullshit Jobs seems appropriate in more senses than one. The Cabinet is a multipronged critique of capitalism disguised as a fantasy novel.
Korean films like Okja (Bong Joon-ho 2017) or Wailing (Gokseong, director Na Hong-jin, 2016) often reflect on social issues through the fantasy genre, and sometimes, even more effectively, through crime stories like Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho 2003) or Squid Games (2021). The Cabinet is, in essence, a book version of this trend. If you are coming to this novel straight from reading other anti-capitalist or at least capitalism-doubting writers, it will feel like a condensed version of everything you’ve just read. Condensed, but light, with an occasional very wry and stinging remark.
It is written with a blasé tone, from the point of view of a protagonist who wants to be passive and never wants to be surprised. Under the four-part – portal-quest, immersive, intrusion, and liminal – categorization of the fantasy genre proposed by Farah Mendlesohn in Rhetorics of Fantasy, The Cabinet probably stands closest to liminal fantasy. At the same time, the novel builds an expectation for an immersive turn where the protagonist rises up to the occasion and takes an activist stand. As David Graeber would have pointed out: we are, after all, choosing this system. Yet, this protagonist is indeed a conformist. Instead, the liminality is shattered in another way, via an intrusion – an outside force enters to upset the system and the protagonist’s niche in it. It is a forced encounter with capitalism, shaped by the global elite, as an intrusive force rather than a general background. The intrusion changes perspective but offers no resolution. The novel persists with the jarring and uneasy marriage of these two categories, the liminal and the intrusion.
Are these “unresolved” fantastic stories, with characters marked chiefly by their bizarreness, anything else but fanciful? I argue, they are. These stories are about people who are all dealing with extreme emotions, transformations, and odd rituals, but who find, perhaps exotic, solutions to their problems. They overcome feelings of not belonging, through connectedness to nature or even becoming more than human, one with nature. These are people who wouldn’t even be able to pretend that they can do something in order to get a salary – they look too wrong, they are possibly a danger to society, to the system or, literally, to their co-workers. The “fantastic” represents all those who cannot fit into a capitalist system or actively try to get out. There’s a man who wants to become a cat.
Capitalism is also being critiqued as a racist system – the fantastic people are often described in ways similar to how some ethnic groups have historically been characterised in racist discourses: exotic, extreme, and associated with weird rituals. Yet they are more like the anarchist settlers of Zomia described by the anthropologist James C. Scott, the novel is replete with references to the borderless people of South Asia. The fantastic people resemble these nomadic people escaping the idea of a state, “renamed and reshuffled so many times that to say any name at all is genealogically impossible.” Such hybridity can be found everywhere now, not just in Asia. We are all “renamed and reshuffled” and climate change is likely to uproot people further.
Keeping files on fantastic people is, at best, a way of mythologizing them, by delegating them to another kind, another space or another time – yet in The Cabinet (as in real life) the collections are most revealing about the collector. As Brian Attebery writes in Stories about Stories: “Us, the Moderns, see myth as something from an earlier age, and those who maintain it, living cultural fossils.” The cabinets of curiosities in the European tradition reached their apogee in the “Products of Victorian mania for collecting” – they became an exhibition of their own presumed identities, stopped in time, fossilized in the sticky tar of capital.
Surveillance, once enabled, is hard to restrict to specific groups. The filer is also filed. Everything about the protagonist is known by those with yet more power. In a light-footed way, The Cabinet also engages in a critique of surveillance capitalism, a system whose success writes Shoshana Zuboff “depends upon one-way-mirror operations engineered for our ignorance and wrapped in a fog of misdirection, euphemism and mendacity.” Liminality is what enables surveillance capitalism. It does not arrive with a catastrophe, a bomb, or even an announcement. It sneaks on you. It happens while you are checking the files in the cabinet, or, well, commenting on your neighbours’ cats on Facebook, or ranting about capitalism. What can you do? Well… you can become a tree.
Graeber, D. (2019). Bullshit Jobs: The rise of pointless work, and what we can do about it.
Mendlesohn, F. (2014). Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press.
Scott, J. C. (2010). The Art of Not Being Governed: An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Nus Press.
Attebery, B. (2014). Stories about stories: Fantasy and the remaking of myth. Oxford University Press.
Zuboff, S. (2015). Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization. Journal of information technology, 30(1), 75-89.
Zuboff, S. (2020). ” You are now remotely controlled”. New York Times, 24.
Schivelbusch, W. (2014). The Railway Journey. University of California Press.
 Clock of Babel recalls Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century, which among other things describes how our perceptions of distance, time, autonomy, speed, and risk were altered by railway travel; how the railways formed a need to synchronize the times between not only countries but also towns.
 Picking up key descriptions: “We are invited into fantastic, but we choose not to. Fantastic should be intrusive, disruptive to expectations, but it somehow isn’t. We are disoriented. Protagonist shows no surprise. Confrontation reduces the fantastic. There is a refusal to resolution…”