SQUID GAME: Deathwork Festival of Atonement
We now know the answer to the Madman’s question in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science: “Where has God gone? I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I.... How shall we, the murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent?”
The answer is the Squid Game.
The “Squid Game” has in the past month become a global phenomenon becoming the highest rated K-drama TV series in 90 countries and becoming the first Netflix K-drama to reach this rank in the United States. The series started on September 17 and jumped to this status within days. If you missed the series, Squid Game inspired Halloween costumes will be everywhere in a few days. It is a troubling mirror of our post-pandemic zeitgeist and a reflection of our global cultural idolatries.
K-dramas are South Korean inspired TV dramas that are a part of a conscious effort of the Korean government to export the soft power of their cultural influence. Collectively this includes K-pop, K-beauty, and K-drama and is known as Hallyu or the Korean Wave. South Korea is a major exporter of popular culture and tourism, with the government allocating 1 percent of its annual budget to its cultural industries, including a $1 billion culture fund. “The South Korean mass media and entertainment industry has caught up with English speaking Western countries in terms of production value, technology, and talent.” South Korea is 1 percent the size of the United States with 280.8 million fewer people. It is roughly comparable to the size of Indiana. Yet it has become since the 1990s a global cultural force.
Koreans are both proud and embarrassed by the “Squid Game.” They take pride in its global success and yet are shamed by the “dirty laundry” it reveals about Korean culture. Household debt in South Korea has risen sharply in recent years to over 100% of its GDP—the highest in Asia. The top 20% of earners in the country have a net worth 166 times that of the bottom 20%, a disparity which has increased by half since 2017. This has created an economic cast-system, which on top of a society where there is great shame in financial bankruptcy, where educational and economic competition is fierce, where societal fragility is acute, and alcoholism and suicide a national pastime. South Korea is home to more alcoholics than any other country. Suicide in South Korea is the 10th highest in the world according to the World Health Organization, as well as the highest suicide rate in the OECD. This is the cultural backstory to “Squid Game,” but it does not explain its global popularity.
I am a fan of K-dramas. I grew up in Korea and played these games as a child. I am also a cultural analyst of contemporary post-Christian culture, particularly the millennial generation. So “Squid Game” was of immediate personal interest, while not being a fan of the gore.
“Squid Game” is not the typical K-drama, which posits generally lighthearted modern relational dilemmas and family dramas to reinforce traditional Confucian values. “Squid Game” on the other hand is decidedly post-Confucian and postmodern written and directed by 30-year-old millennial Hwang Dong-hyuk.
The series is an example of “blank fiction,” a zeitgeist literary genre with authors such as Brett Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho), Brian D’Amato (Beauty), Dennis Cooper (Frisk), Susanna Moore (In the Cut), and Lynne Tillman (Absence Make the Heart). These are the voices of modern designer nihilism, exercises in hedonism and rage, and most importantly the exploration and critique of commodification. Blank fiction is the grim reminder of the cultural consequences when “desire is sovereign and purchasing power the ultimate arbiter.”
“Squid Games” is the story of poor people who believe that the acquisition of money is the source of their salvation from their economic desperation; an aspiration they are willing to pursue at any cost. They are lured into playing common Korean children’s games where the game losers are summarily killed as in a dehumanized video game of blood sport gore. Here the innocence of childhood is exposed as being the progenitor of postmodern nihilistic violence of the fully realized commodity form. In “Squid Game” the two main contestants are old childhood friends who grew up in the same neighborhood playing these very games. The writer/director even gave these two antagonists the names of his own childhood friends. But the “Squid Game” is not child’s play. In the first episode approximately 240 people are killed in the first game, Red Light, Green Light—tracked by an animated computer-generated tally of killings. But then the final prize is $38.56 million to the final winner, a sum which is held in a see-through golden ball in the center of the room where the players are housed. Upon the death of a player the dead players share is added to the total prize. What unfolds is lethal selfish brutality that makes a virtue of lifeboat ethics and makes the Japanese film “Battle Royale” and the American film “Hunger Games” pale in comparison. This is violent ethical nihilism on steroids gone mainstream. Even when the players realize the life-and-death stakes in the game, they like the modern TV viewer, come back for more. This is surely a binge-worthy narrative. The allure of $38 million is worth the risk, the dehumanization, and the violence. Such salvation requires sacrifice.
The series is not simply an economic critique of advanced modern societies, i.e., consumer debt and class warfare, but an examination of a cultural idolatry of wealth at all costs being the ultimate solution to a vision of the good life.
Annually 90 million American play the lottery or roughly a quarter of the entire population with a total expenditure of $70.15 billion each year. Aspirations of salvation by money is not simply the purview of the wealthy but perhaps even greater among the poor. The extremely wealthy as “Squid Game” character Oh Il-nam explains are just as desperate to feel alive as the extremely poor. Not sufficient to watch the games, Oh Il-nam ultimately joins the games embracing all the risks therein. His existential numbness to life needs the frisson of the games. Pascal observes, “That is why gaming and feminine society, war and high office are so popular. It is not that they really bring happiness, nor that anyone imagines that true bliss comes from possessing the money to be won at gaming or the hare that is hunted: no one would take it as a gift.... That is why we prefer the hunt to the capture.” The games are diversions from thinking about the folly of our idolatries, which ramp up their addictive power over us to the point of total control. The “Squid Game” is an allegory of modern life for most people—thus its popularity. The merely fictional has a strong whiff of the actual. What are my personal variants of the Squid Game?
Blank fiction depicts a twisted world where violence is equated with power, cosmetic surgery a form of advertising, sex, and sex trafficking merges with visual commercials, where brand labels become identity, and drug dealing a celebration of entrepreneurialism. Before we wince at the violence, we should note the mainstream popularity of gladiatorial World Wrestling Entertainment, Mixed Marshal Arts, and Bare-Knuckle Boxing. Add to this the prevalence of violence in video games on XBox and PlayStation— “Call of Duty,” “Mortal Kombat,” and “Manhunt”—and you begin to see that the “Squid Game” is not an aberration, but an allegory of modern society. Moreover, it is a reality that is playing out on the streets of Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia every weekend.
Our lives are directed by our loves. Culture is shaped by the congealed idolatries of these collective loves. For many, the commodity form has become the force field of all social relationships. Here Nietzsche’s prophetic vision is unmasked—our cultural “spiritual decay lovingly dissected.” Marx warned that in the capitalist form when taken to extreme “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned.” This is the narrative arc of “Squid Game.”
Hwang Dong-hyuk repeatedly through the series brings Christianity into the crosshairs of his critique. Central to the rise of Korea’s economic success, this new Copernican Korean filmmaker sees the church and believers as complicit in its hypocrisy and corruption.
During this festival of blood, greed, and narcissism, remnants of humanness remain through the heavy undertow of the commodity form. Upon winning the $38 million, the protagonist Seong Gi-hun refuses to spend the money choosing to live in poverty as he did before the game. He has won the world at the cost of his own soul. Outraged over the dehumanization, “I am not a thing. I am a person” he turns to confront the purveyors of the game as the first season ends. Can he as a lone individual, complicit in his own choices, significantly wounded in his psyche, addicted to his passions, have the strength of character now to challenge the overwhelming cultural idolatries of modern society? Hwang Dong-hyuk leaves this as an open question. More personally, do we? This is the ethical lifeboat dilemma facing the modern believer.