ugly feelings.

Something happened to me at the start of the year, but it’s been too close to talk about. But let’s leave that for a moment because I love to watch Korean soap operas and I’m gonna tell you why.

The narrative of the Korean soap opera goes something like this: plucky female heroine, unconventionally beautiful, poor family background, unsuccessful career, meets handsome, rich, egotistical man with burgeoning career and father issues. On meeting they dislike each other and argue profusely for the whole 16 or so episodes, all the while trying not to admit they are in love with one another, culminating in heartbreaking scenes like this (Info about the clip: they weren’t really married – another great thing about Korean soap operas is the often preposterous story lines):

Who loves someone for so long without respite, without return? This is love gone ugly. How long is too long? A couple months, 6 months, a year.

This is not about patience, this is a gesture that reads: even when I know you are not coming, I’m still waiting. This is a situation of suspended agency sustained by ambivalence. Ambivalence is not calm or linear or cathartic or moral, it offers no satisfaction or release, it bubbles away persistent, no object to direct it, no recovery in sight. And so the feelings of a love frustrated become ugly not transformative or magical. It interferes and obstructs, the single self-determining self is suspended indefinitely, and the love frustrated fills the environment, fills the space between the self and the other, its everywhere, huge but pitiful. It’s characterized by it’s flatness (lack of events) and yet expectant (hopeful for that one moment).

Anxiety is a negative affect that emerges at the emptying out of the imagination. When everything becomes equivocal, anxiety floods to fill the space, that terrifying space of non-signifiers, of the meaningless, the death of the imagination. Anxiety becomes a way of clinging on, compulsive habits give a structure in the horrifying swirl of what is not in the desperate attempt to stop the self-unraveling.

Anxiety is a restless undramatic signifier that says: something is not working. But the ambivalence arrives because as we know, it is awkward and troubling to detach from what is not working. Expectant emotions weigh heavily and colour in a picture of a life that could be lived. The anxiety can subsume to a baseline irritation, perhaps after being smothered by the chosen antidote, and the niggling fears and anxiety become minor and reabsorbed once again into the system of failed relations that produced them. Irritation becomes useful and functional when it adopts new objects of self-improvement and dancing on one’s own.

In the world of Korean dramas the two protagonists end up happily together. The waiting is finally provided with an endpoint. The flatness is filled with shapes and events and the love is recognised in one another and no longer shameful and ugly. It is beautiful and blossoming.


I have played with Sianne Ngai’s idea of ‘ugly feelings’ from her remarkable book Ugly Feelings (2005), Havard University Press.