From Fashion Fandom to Fashion Field Phenom: "Paepi" as an Interruption in the Discursive Formation of "Hallyu" and the Special "K"

CAPTION: A young paepi middle school student who makes her own glasses accessories and who plans to open an online shop of her goods poses for the camera in Hongdae. Between her haircut, retro glasses, sukajan jacket, retro jeans, socks, and old-school shoes, she is a good channeller of the Korean “boko”  retro trend.

CAPTION: A young paepi middle school student who makes her own glasses accessories and who plans to open an online shop of her goods poses for the camera in Hongdae. Between her haircut, retro glasses, sukajan jacket, retro jeans, socks, and old-school shoes, she is a good channeller of the Korean “boko”  retro trend.

WORTHY OF CRITICAL ATTENTION?
There is a tendency to dismiss fashion and its concerns as superficial, trivial, and in the end, inconsequential. There is also the sense that fashion – especially “street fashion” – is too squarely located in the market itself, too near the ground, and hence too unfocused through the more evolved critical faculties of society’s cultural elites or well-connected aesthetes. And in that sense, street fashion is too unruly, too uncontrolled, and too unfocused to really make any real sense of. All of these things seem to be true if a look at most of the existing work on Korean popular culture is any guide, which is exactly why a look at street fashion, especially in the historically layered, compressed development-turbocharged, culture industry-driven petri dish that defines South Korea is a crucial necessity at this point in the conversation about Korean “popular culture”.

If one is to speak meaningfully of popular culture in the theoretical, academic sense, it is important to note that the “K-pop” and “K-cinema” incarnations of Korean popular culture are difficult to to describe as such, given how little most of these fields’ manifestations are rooted in the work and workings of everyday people. Along the lines of how Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described the “culture industry,” the “K-pop” and other commercial, corporate formations in the economy are best described as mere simulations of natural, popular cultural formations, more than entities that are an organic part of society themselves. As windows into the workings of the lived reality of everyday people, as a peek into the content of their social norms and values, a close look at the specific cultural products in these fields are not especially revelatory in themselves; rather, the more useful way of looking at these formations of capital production is in terms of the responses and forms of engagement they engender from normal people. Which is why the study of various fandoms is important and has accelerated and intensified in the way that theorists such as Stuart Hall would find critically useful to the study of “popular culture.”

  •  insert discussion of the appropriateness of looking at fashion as a way to read popular culture, starting with LaBerge (http://soc.sagepub.com/content/47/2/407.short)
  • "Appearance Stratification and Identity: Fashion as the Clearest Example of What Sociology is All About" (Yves Laberge 2013 47: 407 Sociology)
  • then Barthes, The Fashion System, quote about fashion as sociological cipher. 
  • then Rocamora, on the history of the "street fashion" image in the "Straight-Up"
  • then de Perthuis, on the ontology of the street fashion photograph, especially as an inherently mediated form of sartorial, social knowledge.  
  • (de Perthuis, Karen. 2016. “People in Fashionable Clothes: Street Style Blogs and the Ontology of the Fashion Photograph.” Fashion Theory 20 (5). Routledge: 523–43. doi:10.1080/1362704X.2015.1115656.)

WHAT IS "STREET FASHION"?

THE STREET AND THE "STRAIGHT-UP" REPRESENTATION OF REALITY
Given that haute couture fashion has always been a white, European space in its origination and articulation as a field, albeit one marked by brief and occasional interruptions by fleeting "guest appearances" of raced alterity brought with, on, and through colorful bodies, the inherent whiteness of the (high) fashion field has never been significantly interrupted. 

The first street fashion picture, featured in the "Straight Up" column of i-D magazine in 1980. 

The first street fashion picture, featured in the "Straight Up" column of i-D magazine in 1980. 

But in the lower realm of "street fashion," raced bodies have held a different valence in a field with a far shorter history, marked by most scholars of the subject from the first appearances of the "straight-up" fashion portrait in i–D Magazine in 1980 (Rocamora, 185).  It may be obvious that it is likely no coincidence that "street fashion", as an ongoing procession of the weird, found its origination and eventual articulation in the popular imaginary, as both a field and popular practice, through its first, Japanese iteration. 

The birth of Japanese "street fashion", especially as it found heavy mediation outside of the confines of Japan and the medium of paper through the early days of the World Wide Web in the latter half of the 1990s, left the indelible mark of Japanese otherness on the very idea of the street, fashion, and even Japan itself. 

The birth of Japanese "street fashion", especially as it found heavy mediation outside of the confines of Japan and the medium of paper through the early days of the World Wide Web in the latter half of the 1990s, left the indelible mark of Japanese otherness on the very idea of the street, fashion, and even Japan itself. 

But even the appearance of the vaunted Fruits in 1997, Japanese street fashion in the 1990s eventually found comfortable, permanent reception in the West as a part of the Orientalist view of "Wacky Japan" (Wagenaar) or even "Cool Japan" trope (Leavitt) One reason this is true has to do with the reception of the particular styles in question being essentially in-the-street manifestations of mostly Harajuku or Shibuya fashion as haute couture fashion objects with very little connection to real life sartorial uses or concerns. They were always objects of nearly pure spectacle, and there was a particularly Japanese warp and woof to "street fashion," especially as that was often embodied in  the "Harajuku girl" look, as well as a very particular trajectory to the structural forces, demographic shifts, and cultural manifestations as exemplified and incorporated by the kogaru in Japanese society that explain how the street fashion kids in Tokyo started appearing in the first place. (Suzuki et al) The origins and articulations of Japanese street fashion placed Japanese street fashion into a haute couture space of spectacle defined by extremely raced bodies through the work of photographer Shoichi Aoki (Black, 239) before settling, as a category, into a default, not-as-heavily-raced category that eventually became a normalized, photo-sartorial practice through the work of American photographer Scott Schumann. 

A TRULY POPULAR ENDEAVOR?
Much ado has been made about the putative genre of "K-pop" music, the allegedly rising star of "K-cinema," and even "K-Beauty."  But comparatively little attention has been given to a critical interrogation of the discursive formation denoted by the Chinese-originated term hallyu,  known in English as the "Korean Wave." Besides the problematic use of the wave metaphor apropos to a description of cultural flows, the obvious, inherent limitation of the moniker lies in that fact that waves ebb as much as they swell. Moreover, the notion of the a wave's relentless power is an inherent part of the Chinese journalist-coined word that signifies an unstoppable cultural force crashing over Chinese borders like a tidal surge that cannot be held back. As the Korean broadcast media instantly took to utilizing the term and its utility in denoting Korean popular culture's putative relentlessness out of feelings of nationalist pride, the birth of a new, mediated discourse of "Korean pop culture ascendant" was nigh. And for K-pop and all its siblings, the K-signifier would mark the inclusion of all types of pop culture product within the discursive formation of hallyu, which is actually an circularly-defined category of semantic vagueness that actually is the very basis of the category's surprisingly versatile and extremely facile utility in focusing Korean government concern, money, and other means of support. 

Some interrogation of the of the inevitably ethno-nationalist signification of things "K"  has been questioned by those who have taken up a study of Korean pop culture products, e.g. "What is the K in K-pop", with some attention being given to (cheekily) define what is actually Korean as signified by the K. However, little attention has been given to other implications of the signifying  act of placing a "K" prefix before a word describing a Korean popular culture field, such as found in "K-Drama" or "K-Cinema." If the original markets in which these popular cultures first began to flourish did not understand them as especially or specially "K", it is indicative of the fact that the "K" only has meaning outside of its original productive context. It is also indicative of the fact that the prefix actually has no real descriptive meaning, other than to indicate either that a) the cultural product was produced in Korea, or b) the persons involved in either the text or its production are "Korean"(in the ethno-nationalist sense of the term). Interestingly, the K-prefix rarely signifies any actual Koreanness, Traditionally defined in the very self-same ethno-nationalist discourse within which the product is generally uses) within the product itself. This leads to the crucial consideration of what the K-prefix actually signifies, and is a point that is rarely sussed out and debated: The "Special K" is a signifier that most accurately indicates the institutionally led, top-down discursive formation of hallyu and all its commercially interested agents. In short, the Special K indicates putative popular culture that is indeed not very popular in its origins. If anything, the industrial cultural text production machines indicated by the Special K , as found in K-pop, K-Cinema, K-Sports, K-Beauty, and even K-Fashion are textbook exmples of the "culture industry" formations and their role as devices of "mass deception" theorized about by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.

AN AUTOETHNOGRAPHIC INTRODUCTION TO A NEW FANDOM

Korean fashion fandom finds its origins in the unquely public nature of the Seoul Fashion Week ("Seoul Collection" until 200x) event's status as a government-funded culture event. Since most fashion weeks in the world are privately funded, pointedly unpublic affairs, the public nature of SFW comes from its operation having been dependent on taxpayer-colleted public funds, which necessitated granting some degree of public access, which thereby resulted in the culture of selling tickets, in rock concert fashion, to members of the public. Which resulted in behaviors and modes of interaction already fmiliar in other culture industry fandoms in Korea. (NEED SOME ARCHIVAL/HISTORICAL SOURCES HERE)

 

Model fans make their catch, armed with cameraphones and show schedules.  

Model fans make their catch, armed with cameraphones and show schedules.  

Fashion show fans were easy to identify and photograph after scouting them while waiting in lines for shows and it was quite unusual to see photographers shooting show attendees for their fashion...

Fashion show fans were easy to identify and photograph after scouting them while waiting in lines for shows and it was quite unusual to see photographers shooting show attendees for their fashion...

Often, the best and only place to photograph was in the parking lots when lines extended out from the main convention hall, a situation that generally yielded more dedicated fashion show fans. 

Often, the best and only place to photograph was in the parking lots when lines extended out from the main convention hall, a situation that generally yielded more dedicated fashion show fans. 

Or, alternatively, at the Seoul Fashion Artists' Association shows, which was a group pf Korean designers who had split off from the main Seoul Collection (Seoul Fashion Week) event for political/organizational reasons. 

Or, alternatively, at the Seoul Fashion Artists' Association shows, which was a group pf Korean designers who had split off from the main Seoul Collection (Seoul Fashion Week) event for political/organizational reasons. 


An Autoethnographic Take on Korean Street Fashion, 2006-2012: The Days of Fast Fast Fashion Fandom as Outsiders, Fandoms forming in a familiar, top-down culture industry field

  • entry into street fashion photography and the days of hiphoper.com (sic)
  • street fashion portraits as records of ethnographic interactions, early evidence of the spatial delineations of fashion field actors (field theory-based spatial analysis)
  • the "global fetish" and the markers of field success, Seoul as entry into 7 fashion capitals, mayoral plans, government support, Concept Korea ==> KAGFaC

This is a case in which a traditional fandom that grew around the edges of a culture industry, once transformed and differently enabled by the unique spatial matrix of the Dongdaemun Design Complex after SFW's permanent move there, would become  the main and most powerful actor in the KAGFaC field, as measured by the field's own "global fetish"-based markers.

HOW BODIES MOVE THROUGH FIELDS

In the bigger picture, this part of the article is both a response to and enhancement of ideas put forth by John Levi Martin (Martin).

What Martin is talking about is an extended metaphor taken from the physical sciences for use in social science, simply stated. And it has great utility as an explanatory metaphor, especially when explaining many far-ranging and diffuse social phenomenae.

Often, people seem to treat social phenomenae as something discreet and definable, akin to something "real" that one can pick up and touch with one's hands. However, the problem here is defining something that is inherently difficult to see, which is the defining characteristic of most social phenomenae -- you can't see the ism itself, but only its effects. Sure, sexism and racism, like gravity, all exist; but you can't see those things themselves. Like Isaac Newton in the apocryphal story connected to his name, he didn't “see” gravity, as indeed no one can or ever has, but could clearly see its effects in the apples falling from the tree. If one goes up into a tower and drops an apple, a rock, and a feather at the same time, we know that they're going to be pulled down, as all mass is inside a gravitational field. Einstein complexified this difficult question by stating that gravity is not a force transferred by some medium or particle across empty space. And that was the essential problem. What is the medium of transference of energy within a field? Is there some movement of a magical ether or some other mysterious thing that we can't see? No, says Einstein. Gravity is the warping of space-time around any object possessed of mass. And that leads us to the major aspects of field theory that will define the theory for us and explain it.

Within a field, there are 5 rules or conditions to think about objects that fall within its influence. The field, in both the physical sciences and social sciences senses:

1. Causes "changes in the state of some elements but involves no appeal to changes in states of other elements."
2. “Changes in state involving interaction between the field and the existing states of the elements" and
3. "The elements have particular attributes that make them susceptible to the field effect.”
4. “The field without the elements is only a potential for the creation of force."
5. The field itself is not directly measurable; its existence can only be proved by its effects.” (CITATION)

In the end, according to Martin, “Field theory, then, has several generic characteristics no matter what the domain of application." And that is key to our purposes here, as social scientists trying to explain phenomenae in social fields. (CITATION)

So, moving from the ideas of gravitational or electromagnetic fields in physical science, let's postulate that the social field defined by its effects on agents within it is one that is shot through with the “global fetish”, an aspiration to a vaguely-defined “global” that is shared by all agents within the field and indeed has come to partially define the legitimacy of the field itself. We should also not forget the way that Bourdieau imagined the field in his employment of field theory, as the arena of struggle for primacy within it, with cultural capital as the deciding factor of success. 

For the sake of ease of discussion, let us try to compress the lengthy idea of an intertwined and cross-permeated field of fashion in Korea that is shot through with global aspirational desire -- with a certain globality -- parallel to the way that the related forces of electricity and magnetism have come to be expressed as electromagnetism. The resulting field generated within and defined by agents in the Korean aspirationally global fashion complex (KAGFaC) affects agents as diverse as Korean high fashion designers, the fashion design associations they constitute, overseas and domestic fashion buyers, international and local press outlets, and the paepi that are a major point of concern of this paper in a variety of different ways.   The field -- and its global charge --  affects the nature and behavior of the agents, which then interact with one another in terms of their altered characteristics and resultant different self-interests.

Before moving on from a review of theory to a discussion of the paepi and the field of fashion they enter, it is necessary to take a brief aside to mention a South Korean societal phenomenon that charges the field of fashion with a specific and peculiar valence. 

THE “GLOBAL FETISH”

It is useful to remember the concept of sadaejuui when we look at the way in which the commercialization and commodification of Korean culture and the desire to promote and export it outside of Korea’s borders, which scholar  Hyunjung Lee has crystallized into the notion of a “global fetish” in staged cultural productions. She points out how the notion of the “global” in South Korea has become so highly prioritized that it has become its own rationale, one capable of explaining just about anything, or alternatively put, has become a rationalizing framework able to give meaning and worthiness to just about anything put into it, to the extent that the object promotes Korea or Korean culture in the global realm, or functions to “globalize” South Korea. Seoul Fashion Week has certainly been overcome with just such a "fetish" and it certainly informed my initial ability to enter the field as a non-Korean foreigner possessed of almost no fashion-related cultural capital worthy of granting my access to most fashion weeks in other parts of the world...

THE KOREAN ASPIRATIONALLY GLOBAL FASHION COMPLEX

A FIELD INSIDER
It is useful to begin an explication of what I will call the "KAGFaC" field with Seoul Fashion Week (SFW), the industry event that brings all major players in the field together in a highly organized and controlled way, with the goal of gathering the global gaze as a given. Here, I'll use the insightful example and theoretical framing of Joanne Entwistle and Agnès Rocamora's 2006 field theory analysis of London Fashion Week "The Field of Fashion Materialized: A Study of London Fashion Week." Therein, the authors were able to enter the major event in the field, a "fashion week" as fashion researcher academics. In my own case, I have been attending Seoul Fashion Week every season for more than a decade as a member of the field -- a freelance photographer for organizations from CNN Travel, The Korea Herald, and The Huffington Post as a participant-practitioner who is able to make even more in-depth analyses from the "inside." In addition to the several hats I have worn as a freelance photographer, I was already known during those years as the first street fashion photographer and blogger in Korea, having shot street fashion publicly since late 2006. Also, by around 2011, I had also begun working as the house and/or backstage photographer for at least three Korean fashion designers, namely Yang Hee Deuk (양희득), Doii Lee (이도이), and IM Seon Oc (임선옥). Lastly, I have been covering SFW as press under the auspices of a local fashion industry newspaper called TINNews (The Industry News) to provide highly stylized street fashion portraits, which has allowed me to enjoy great latitude in gaining access to other field members. 

Doii Lee fashion show at Seoul Fashion Week SS2011 (Taken October, 2010)

Doii Lee fashion show at Seoul Fashion Week SS2011 (Taken October, 2010)

THE KOREAN FASHION FIELD
At SFW, Korean high fashion designers do what they know how to do, which is to stage fashion shows (often through the industry event known as Seoul Fashion Week, which is partially supported by the city and national governments) and hope to garner international attention via the global gaze of overseas press and, to a lesser extent, overseas buyers. However, the main function of buyers within the commercial fashion field is to possess as many commercially viable items as possible to offer for resale in the stores and showrooms of the venues they represent. Since the obvious goal of high fashion designers is to sell clothes, mainly to buyers, designing runway shows to appeal to them while making the clothing easy to photograph for members of the media and commercial catalogues, the entire structure of the fashion show has shifted from that of a small, intimate affair designed to show clothes to a small, powerful elite gathered in a small room to one designed to have clothes paraded before a large, professional photo corps positioned at the end of a long runway, with the intention of having each piece of clothing shared as widely as possible in magazines, TV programs, and other forms of media. To this end, both still photographers and videographers not only expect but demand to be placed as close to centre runway position at the far end of the long runway, with general “house,” then designer “house” official photographers getting first priority for shooting placement before the beginning of each show, followed by photographers with official press passes from other outlets on a first-come, first-serve basis. The photo press clustered together at the end of the runway are the main focus of the show, since their role in getting the designer’s end product — the clothing — out to the world in a concrete way — through their photographs and recordings — is crucial to making sure the event has any impact at all outside of the halls of the venue, which has now become permanent and official, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), housed in the fashion/textile district of Dongdaemun, the traditional garment district that has been officialised by the Seoul city government as the center of fashion in Seoul, and hence, the entire nation.  Fashion writers and other members of the non-photographic press are seated, along with buyers and VIPs, along the side of the runway so as to facilitate being able to see all details of the garments on the runway, from types of stitches and materials to cuts and how the garment flows and falls upon the models’ bodies. Both photo and non-photo press are categorised into overseas and domestic categories, with the overseas press being given higher priority by being seated or allowed entry before the domestic press, since Seoul Fashion Week, supported as it is by funds from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, has prioritised the elevation of SFW into greater global prominence and gives special care to facilitate the jobs of members of the overseas press, even to the detriment of the functioning of the local press that is actually more responsible for documenting and promoting the work of the designers in question. VIPs such as famous pop stars and actors are crucial to adding to the social capital of designers who can successfully invite them to their shows, even as glitterati attendees benefit from the glamorous boost to their respective images in being photographed in a front row fashion show seat. It is worth noting that only SFW

And this is exactly why Korean street fashion and its constituent paepi are important as social phenomena to theorize. Because, of all the things worthy of the attention of the Cultural Studies academician that fall within the realm of even the widest definition of “popular culture,” street fashion is the most truly organic and naturally-evolved realm of linked social actions that aren’t controlled by a very monied and interested few. The field of Korean street fashion includes no political/governmental motivations to subsume this truly popular endeavor into the nationalist frame through the use of the “K” signifier. Far too much academic effort has been made to rationalize the appending of a K-prefix to words describing popular social phenomena, with little thought given to the inherent contradiction of studying the predations of political interests or the concatenations of capital as actual “popular” culture.

Simply put, the product of these formations are popular in their consumption, but not in their creation. And this limits their utility as a marker of what is really going on in the realm of social action. What is especially interesting about the street fashion paepi is how they have engaged in linked social actions that have come to define a field unto itself by turning consumption into creation. And that is the purest sense of how Cultural Studies ur-theorist Stuart Hall might describe the “Special K” signifier often assigned by institutionally-interested parties as the ultimate marker of top-down, oppressive, culturally exploitative power, whereas the much more organic, bottom-up, truly popular "discursive formation" signified by the self-created term “paepi” – by the Signified themselves – would mark the proper regard – and theoretical approach – to the serious consideration of the vibrant, sartorially-oriented community that has formed amongst South Korean youth. Such serious consideration should be a matter of course given their status not as a mere “subculture” or “tribe,” but as a “scene” of sartorial staging of consumption-as-creation the likes of which the world has never seen.

And this is exactly why Korean street fashion and its constituent paepi are important as social phenomena to theorize. Because, of all the things worthy of the attention of the Cultural Studies theorist that fall within the realm of the widest definition of "popular culture," the street fashion field/phenomenon/formation is the most truly organic and naturally-evolved realm of linked social actions that aren't controlled by a very monied and interested few. The field of Korean street fashion includes the least number of political/governmental motivations to subsume this popular endeavor into the nationalist frame and signifier of the "K." Far too much academic effort has been made to rationalize the appending of a K-prefix to  words describing popular social phenomena, with little thought given to the inherent contradiction of studying the predations of political interests or the concatenations of capital as actual "popular" culture. Simply put, the productis of these formations are popular in their consumption, but not in their creation. And this limits their utility as a marker of what is really going on in the real of social action. As this paper will show, what is especially interesting about the street fashion paepi is how they have engaged in linked social actions that have come to define a field unto itself by turning consumption into creation. And that is the purest sense of how Cultural Studies ur-theorist Stuart Hall might describe the "Special K" signifier often assigned by institutionally-interested parties as the ultimate "discursive formation" of top-down, oppressive power, whereas the much more organic, bottom-up discursive formation signified by the term "paepi"  -- by the Signified themselves -- would mark the proper regard -- and theoretical approach -- to the serious consideration of the vibrant, sartorially-oriented community that has formed amongst South Korean youth. Such serious consideration should be a matter of course given their status not as a mere "subculture" or "tribe," but as a "scene" of the sartorial staging of consumption-as-creation the likes of which the world has never seen. This analysis would be in line of Shane Blackman's excavation and explication of Steven Miles' far more theoretically useful notion of "lifestyle" as the best descriptor of what's is happening with the paepi:  

The work of Steven Miles is comparable with that of Bennett to the extent that he proposes a theory of lifestyle based on a critique of the CCCS theory of subculture and identifies consumer culture as offering individuality for young people. Miles’s interpretation is more structural; he argues that ‘lifestyles are not individualized in nature but are constructed through affiliation and negotiation . . . Lifestyles are, in effect, lived cultures in which individuals actively express their identities, but in direct relation to their position as regards the dominant culture’ (Miles 2000: 16). This argument is a reconfiguration of the CCCS theory of subculture with its implicit use of Gramsci’s ideas where he asserts the desire to speak about the dominant culture in terms of institutions such as school, the labour market and ‘power structures’ (2000: 9). For him youth identities are constructed through stable commonalties: ‘through consumer goods, which allows them to feel unique’ (Miles 1995: 42). It is clear that Miles wishes to promote an understanding of youth subcultural identity as stable, which offers agency, but he sees adherence to particular forms of collective solidarity as more ephemeral due to conditions of postmodernity. (Blackman, 122)

As those on the inside of it know, "paepi" is an aspirational lifestyle, marked by conspicuous consumption and sartorial display as the locus and point of the social activity itself, rather than as mere markers of other social norms or values outside of the consumptive acts themselves. 

NOT LEMMINGS, BUT LEADERS

As those on the inside of it know, “paepi” is an aspirational term, category, and even lifestyle, marked by conspicuous consumption and sartorial display as a way of self-expression through consumptive acts, and is a truly bottom-up way of being more than just a passive consumer, a mindless vessel of capitalism, or just another lemming following the herd. 

 

The Slow Dance of the Korean Street Fashion Paepi: Performing Hypermodern Corporealized Agency through "Hip(g)nosis"

Here, her clothing is a focused statement of alterity  comprised of a semiotic vocabulary of imposed meanings taken from consumer society,  which she literally embodies as a hypermodern melange of unmoored meaning. 

Here, her clothing is a focused statement of alterity  comprised of a semiotic vocabulary of imposed meanings taken from consumer society,  which she literally embodies as a hypermodern melange of unmoored meaning. 

The main argument here draws from Melissa Blanco-Borelli's fascinating and facile theory of "hip(g)nosis" that allows an understanding of the performative sartorial acts of the Korean paepi to be understood, in sum,  in three ways:

  1. as signifying acts marking them as a site of agency.
  2. a record of Korean modern history, industrial development, and massive structural changes. The paepi are, inevitably, a record and product of Seoul's rapid, forced, and fraught development. 
  3. a body technique.

One might ask the question of why a concept from critical dance studies should be applied to the case of street fashion paepi in South Korea, especially when the term evolved from a critical analysis of race and gender in the markedly different context of nationality, geopolitics, and the politics of race/gender in Cuba. An examination of Blanco Borelli's own explication of the term easily makes clear why it is an extremely facile theoretical tool that brings together the notion of gender,  corporeality, and performance:

Critical dance studies articulate the reality of the embodied experience. As a result, the term corporeality functions as a way to read the body along the social, cultural, and historical processes that shape it...dance studies allow the mulata to emerge as an active corporeality—a lived body with experiences in the material world—rather than as a static product of national discourses...(Blanco Borelli, 14)

Put simply, and parsed through the needs of this article, this theory from a field far, far away allows the performative, sartorial acts of individuals to be understood in the context of, as the result of, and in discursive opposition to the far larger forces of national identity and its neo-liberal reiterations,  the imperatives of marketing, advertising, and (self-)representation , and the consumptive relations of production. Put actually far more simply, it allows a closer understanding of individual identity expression within the context of far larger ideological and structural forces that try to shape people into units of production/consumption. It is my argument that the Korean paepi are engaged in the struggle to productively navigate and even resist these forces.  Their sartorial acts of identity performance are significant moments of ongoing efforts to make sense of the self within a veritable whirlwind of mediated messages, ideological imperatives, and X. The moments of that struggle are writ large and unapologetically on the (almost exclusively) young Korean bodies and interpellated into meaning through the use of many cameras connected to the greater social mediascape.

It is only in this mediated, photographically interpellated way that what many young, Korean, individual social actors can guarantee that what they do in their individually-invisible social life will indeed echo in eternity. (Do I have to quote this?) In this way of interpellation, it is not the the Althusserian notion of ideology mediating between large, incomprehensible societal structures working to define/control them, but rather an active, purposeful act of agency in which clothing and the camera can join in/at the realm of the corporeal to allow individuals to make sense of themselves outside of the strictures of the forces that would make sense of them. Inevitably and in this way, the sartorial acts of the paepi are ones of defiance. And even if there is no actual defiance either consciously or subconsciously involved, it is possible to say that even the act of actively trying to interpellate oneself, by and for oneself,  is one that is inherently defiant. And in the final analysis, quite un-Korean. 

In the bigger picture, this paper approaches the putative "paepi" as members of an increasingly youthed culture that focuses, crystallizes, and stages the performance of their hypermodern, corporealized agency, writ sartorially large on their bodies, as part of a struggle to make sense of an irrepressible, always interpellating self that is more than just the sum of various social forces, and is an attempt to offer a way of understanding who they are without the common tendency to theoretically overdetermine their identities as mere passive consumers, trend robots, or even kids of the "counterculture."  

Why Korean Street Fashion Is Important (And It's not because of the "K")

There is a tendency to dismiss fashion and its concerns as superficial, trivial, and in the end, inconsequential. There is also the sense that fashion -- especially "street fashion" -- is too sqaurely located in the market itself, too near the ground, and hence too unfocused through the more evolved critical faculties of society's cultural elites or more cultivated and connected aesthetes. And in that sense, street fashion is too unruly, too uncontrolled, and too unfocused to really make any real sense out of. All of these things seem to be true if a look at most of the existing literature on Korean popular culture is any guide, which is exactly why a look at street fashion, especially in the historically layered, compressed development-turbocharged, culture industry-driven petri dish that defines South Korea is crucial necessity at this point in the theoretical conversation.

If one is to speak meaningfully of popular culture in the Cultural Studies sense, it is important to note that the "K-pop" and "K-cinema" incarnations of Korean popular culture are difficult to difficult to describe as such, given how little most of these fields' manifestations are rooted in the work and workings of everyday people. Along the lines of how Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described the "culture industry," the "K-pop" and other commercial, corporate formations in the economy are best described as simulations of natural, popular cultural formations more than entities that are an organic part of society themselves. As windows into the workings of lived reality of everyday people, as a peek into the content of their social norms and values, a close look at the specific cultural products in these fields are not especially revelatory in themselves; rather, the more useful way of looking at these formations of capital production is in terms of the responses and forms of engagement they engender from normal people. Which is why the study of various fandoms is important and has accelerated and intensified in the way that theorists such as Stuart Hall would find critically useful to the syuudy of "pop culture." 

And this is exactly why Korean street fashion and its constituent paepi are important as social phenomena to theorize. Because, of all the things worthy of the attention of the Cultural Studies theorist that fall within the realm of the widest definition of "popular culture," the street fashion field/phenomenon/formation is the most truly organic and naturally-evolved realm of linked social actions that aren't controlled by a very monied and interested few. The field of Korean street fashion includes the least number of political/governmental motivations to subsume this popular endeavor into the nationalist frame and signifier of the "K." Far too much academic effort has been made to rationalize the appending of a K-prefix to  words describing popular social phenomena, with little thought given to the inherent contradiction of studying the predations of political interests or the concatenations of capital as actual "popular" culture. Simply put, the productis of these formations are popular in their consumption, but not in their creation. And this limits their utility as a marker of what is really going on in the real of social action. As this paper will show, what is especially interesting about the street fashion paepi is how they have engaged in linked social actions that have come to define a field unto itself by turning consumption into creation. And that is the purest sense of how Cultural Studies ur-theorist Stuart Hall might describe the "Special K" signifier often assigned by institutionally-interested parties as the ultimate "discursive formation" of top-down, oppressive power, whereas the much more organic, bottom-up discursive formation signified by the term "paepi"  -- by the Signified themselves -- would mark the proper regard -- and theoretical approach -- to the serious consideration of the vibrant, sartorially-oriented community that has formed amongst South Korean youth. Such serious consideration should be a matter of course given their status not as a mere "subculture" or "tribe," but as a "scene" of the sartorial staging of consumption-as-creation the likes of which the world has never seen. This analysis would be in line of Shane Blackman's excavation and explication of Steven Miles' far more theoretically useful notion of "lifestyle" as the best descriptor of what's is happening with the paepi:  

The work of Steven Miles is comparable with that of Bennett to the extent that he proposes a theory of lifestyle based on a critique of the CCCS theory of subculture and identifies consumer culture as offering individuality for young people. Miles’s interpretation is more structural; he argues that ‘lifestyles are not individualized in nature but are constructed through affiliation and negotiation . . . Lifestyles are, in effect, lived cultures in which individuals actively express their identities, but in direct relation to their position as regards the dominant culture’ (Miles 2000: 16). This argument is a reconfiguration of the CCCS theory of subculture with its implicit use of Gramsci’s ideas where he asserts the desire to speak about the dominant culture in terms of institutions such as school, the labour market and ‘power structures’ (2000: 9). For him youth identities are constructed through stable commonalties: ‘through consumer goods, which allows them to feel unique’ (Miles 1995: 42). It is clear that Miles wishes to promote an understanding of youth subcultural identity as stable, which offers agency, but he sees adherence to particular forms of collective solidarity as more ephemeral due to conditions of postmodernity. (Blackman, 122)

As those on the inside of it know, "paepi" is an aspirational lifestyle, marked by conspicuous consumption and sartorial display as the locus and point of the social activity itself, rather than as mere markers of other social norms or values outside of the consumptive acts themselves. 

 

On the Putative "Paepi"

This short section needs to be the definitive, yet succinct and brief explanation of the informal slang term "paepi" as both the portmanteau term from the first syllable of the Korean pronunciation of the English words for "fashion people" (pæ-piː /pae-pee) and also as a concept centering on people primarily (or greatly) concerned with fashion. But the explanation must also include the insight, gleaned from years of asking apparent paepi what they think of the term and whether they consider themselves a person within the category, that the term and concept itself is heavily fraught, contested, and approached with some degree of suspicion, even as it is highly facile as a referer for the purposes of easy, everyday discussion.

 

An Overview and Critical Backgrounding of "Street Fashion" -- The First Wave and Generative Moment of Japan

Given that haute couture fashion has always been a white, European space in its origination and articulation as a field, albeit one marked by brief and occasional interruptions by fleeting "guest appearances" of raced alterity brought with, on, and through colorful bodies, the inherent whiteness of the (high) fashion field has never been significantly interrupted. 

But in the lower realm of "street fashion," raced bodies have held a different valence in a field with a far shorter history, marked by most scholars of the subject from the first appearances of the "straight-up" fashion portrait in i–D Magazine in 1980 (Rocamora, 185).  It may be obvious that it is likely no coincidence that "street fashion", as an ongoing procession of the weird, found its origination and eventual articulation in the popular imaginary, as both a field and popular practice, through its first, Japanese iteration. 

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But even the appearance of the vaunted Fruits in 1997, Japanese street fashion in the 1990s eventually found comfortable, permanent reception in the West as a part of the Orientalist view of "Wacky Japan" (Wagenaar) or even "Cool Japan" trope (Leavitt) One reason this is true has to do with the reception of the particular styles in question being essentially in-the-street manifestations of mostly Harajuku or Shibuya fashion as haute couture fashion objects with very little connection to real life sartorial uses or concerns. They were always objects of nearly pure spectacle, and there was a particularly Japanese warp and woof to "street fashion," especially as that was often embodied in  the "Harajuku girl" look, as well as a very particular trajectory to the structural forces, demographic shifts, and cultural manifestations as exemplified and incorporated by the kogaru in Japanese society that explain how the street fashion kids in Tokyo started appearing in the first place. (Suzuki et al) The origins and articulations of Japanese street fashion placed Japanese street fashion into a haute couture space of spectacle defined by extremely raced bodies through the work of photographer Shoichi Aoki (Black, 239) before settling, as a category, into a default, not-as-heavily-raced category that eventually became a normalized, photo-sartorial practice through the work of American photographer Scott Schumann. 

The Age of The Sartorialist:
The Normalization, Globalized Aesthetic Standardization, and De-racing of "Street Fashion"

Here, we need to talk about street fashion as a normalized, heavily mediated and commercially interpellated,  photo-sartorial practice. Scott Schumann played a huge role in this.

(insereted from another piece here)
Too often, fashion editorials focus on only one extreme of aesthetic reality, namely the tallest, the thinnest, the prettiest, the sexiest -- all statistical outliers. But there's a very large middle range of height, style, and level of social normalcy. So we decided to do a concept on a look that really defines the dead center of a relatively conservative Korean women's fashion code. This idea comes from Korean comments that a lot of the paepi fashion and photographs of them are pleasant, haute couture thought pieces but are so far removed from many people's sartorial and social reality that the subjects don't even seem Korean.

Which is a very Korean thing to say. But there's something to that idea. What can street fashion photography tell us about Korean culture? And to take this line of thinking even further, what is even particularly Korean about Korean street fashion, if it's not all particularly Korean material, patterns, or even brand that we are looking at? Does this mean the only true Korean fashion is the traditional hanbok? What is Korean fashion, really? This is the crux of the existential problem with street fashion of any kind, especially if we are looking at fashion as a window towards understanding culture. And it also invites the inevitable epistemelogical question of what can we know about any society through a lensed view of it? This was exactly the problem when world-renowned street photographer Scott Schumann visited Seoul several years ago and took some shots of "Korean" street fashion. 

Scott Schuman, Seoul, 2009? 2011? (Double check)

Scott Schuman, Seoul, 2009? 2011? (Double check)

Herein lies the problem. This picture of a dapper and debonair gent peacocking around Gangnam is certainly fashionable and great to look at, but he is as much an outlier case in Korean society as he would be in any and many other countries. He's not representative case of what anything approaching how any kind of majority of Korean dress, no matter how broadly dressing "well" is defined, which makes him have much more in common with kindred spirits in London, Berlin, New York, Rome, or LA. What many street fashion photographers across the planet are actually documenting is an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman's much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea -- the Korean fashion field, actually -- had achieved the much-coveted status of the truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal since the days when former president Kim Youngsam's new segyehwa policy seemed like an overly hopeful pipe dream. 

Power, History, and Sadaejuui
What Scott Schumann surely didn't know about Korean culture -- and allowed Korea to fete his visit even as it scratched its collective and figurative head at his actual pictures -- was that certain key socio-historical frames of thinking were responsible for the extremely warm welcome he was given in a country where most everyday folks and fashion civilians had barely even heard of him. Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been affected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means "deference to the greater power") "Korea" had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with "China" for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 and officially ended Korea's political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial  relationship that would last until the Japanese empire's resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to "brush back" the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanquisher's vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justified and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that "White is Right", since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do them was not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power. 

The "Global Fetish"
And yes, Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid. And it was within that general historio-psychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national development took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, many Koreans like to conveniently forget), while that development process found internal validation through external markers. Symbolic GDP levels of 10,000 or 20,000 per capita GDP were important psychological moments for Korea, as were the 1988 Olympics, which was both an impetus and a symbol for Korea becoming modern, or at least, being seen that way. This sadaejuui pattern of thinking backgrounded everything Koreans did on their own, internally, with validation of these efforts coming from the outside, most importantly, the White West, and even more importantly, the USA. So, as the "global" has become more than just a pipe dream and a reality for a Korea with not just a highly developed infrastructure in heavy industry, factory production, and ideologies of anti-Communism that have served the Republic well, but which now has a highly developed popular culture infrastructure in music, film, food, and fashion, there is now a discernible "global fetish" that undergirds and validates Korean cultural projects. The recent "Premium Korea" ad from the CJ group is a perfect case with which to illustrate how sadajuui has evolved into a "global fetish" (a brilliant concept articulated by scholar Kim Hyunjung) that both undergirds and validates all commercial and cultural endeavors in Korea, as well as the Korean national project itself. And this mode of thinking imbricates the Korean fashion field as well, from the runway down to the street.

The East Strikes Back:  Korean Street Fashion and the Paepi as a Site of Photo-Sartorial Performance 

We are talking Korean street fashion, in the wake of the standardization and normalization of the genre by and through the Sartorialist, and how the Korean aesthetic, as one developed from the peculiar and particular cocktail of cultural hybridity, textual impurity (Dal Yong Jin), and postcoloniality (YYY) enabled and amplified by the "social mediascape"  in the context of describing the success of hallyu, was able to quickly metastasize into the de facto street fashion aesthetic standard by which all others are now judged. To some extent, this must have to do with the fact that the original street fashion body was, in its initial iteration, Asian. In a similar way, the West has long been engaged in a relationship comfortable with a longing (and often Orientalizing) sartorial gaze towards the East.  (develop this)

Talking about the Korean paepi necessitates a conversation about the body as a site of cultural production. It is, therefore, useful to reference Melissa Blanco -Borelli's theoretically facile notion of "hip-(g)nosis." The body is a site/tool/act of, or a way to act out culture -- to produce it -- they are not mere passive conduits for culture to be produced through or on them. (Put some Stuart Hall on it here.) Most importantly, the paepi embody a hypermodern, corporealized agency created as the result of a self-actualized remix and rearticulation of imposed aesthetic, structural, and cultural signifiers, focused through a South Korean emphasis on body techniques (Tae-yeon Kim)

"If the body exists as a rich site of embodied knowledges determined and shaped by lived reality and socio-historical contexts, then hip(g)nosis is a theoretical method through which to understand it." (Blanco-Borelli, 42)

"If the body exists as a rich site of embodied knowledges determined and shaped by lived reality and socio-historical contexts, then hip(g)nosis is a theoretical method through which to understand it." (Blanco-Borelli, 42)

On the Invisible Labor of Beauty,  Hip(g)nosis, and the Photo-Sartorial Gaze

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"The varnished aspect of the Young-Girl's physiognomy must be explained by the fact that as a commodity she is the crystallization of a certain amount of labor expended in order to make her meet the standards for a certain type of exchange. And the form in which the Young-Girl appears, which is also the commodity form, is characterized by the concealment, or at least the voluntary forgetting, of this concrete labor." -- Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun, Chapter 4

There is little doubt as to the fact of the laboriousness of beautification.

Indeed, Melissa Blanco Borelli speaks to this -- without the pervasive, subtle misogyny that serves to ruin Tiqqun's otherwise ingenious work of gendered consumption and consumer culture Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl -- when she states, quite simply, that "Beauty appears laborless, its affect magical. Part of deeming something beautiful is erasing the labor that went into its production; effortlessness adds to ideas of successful beauty." (Blanco Borelli, 19) Blanco Borelli's theory of hip(g)nosis comes from an analysis of the mulata body, which is a decidedly different context from Korean street fashion and the paepi, but what is of particular relevance and use is the way hip(g)nosis theorizes embodied experience and the body as "a site of discourse." (Blanco Borelli, 15) 

It is in this way this paper will approach the performative self-stylings of the paepi. As the analysis progresses, it will stay centered around the easy to overlook yet obvious "corporeality." Again, mirroring Blanco Borelli's incisive concept of hip(g)nosis in critical dance studies, we will also "see the body as an intelligent materiality" and present the body "as an intelligent, powerful materiality that can(re)write history, comment on socio-political situations, and question the construction of its identity and bodily inscriptions." Of course, Blanco Borelli, in her important work She Is Cuba: A Genealogy of the Mulata Body, she is engaged in a decidedly feminist discourse about femininity that resists masculinist, colonialist regimes of control and domination that posits this resistance to external articulation from above as prima facie demonstration of raced, gendered agency, but that particular specificity in her theory of hip(g)nosis does not make the theory any less applicable for the purposes of this study of the agency of the Korean paepi.

Essentially, the discourse on the Korean paepi is  inherently, deeply gendered. No matter the popular, ostensive reason for looking at the Korean paepi, their main point of interest, from many angles, is the extent to which gender codes, boundaries, or even gendered modes of sartorial self-representation are challenged or actively broken. In a typical report covering the most recent Seoul Fashion Week (which, importantly, conflates both high fashion and street style in its analysis). Indeed, as he opines in British GQ that "Koreans Do It Better," writer Anders Christian Madsen waxes sociological:

"In a time of androgyny and gender-neutrality - embodied by Alessandro Michele's collections for Gucci over the past year - the look and attitude of Seoul's male youth makes total sense. While homosexuality is legal in Korea it's still somewhat taboo, paradoxically creating a youth scene of free expression where a certain look isn't necessarily associated with a certain sexuality.
It enables young men to dress up largely without prejudice, a scenario that's virtually unimaginable in the West. In Korea the term 'kkonminam' - flower boys - has long been used to describe the male look perhaps best known from K-Pop where elfin- looking young men transform themselves into effeminate porcelain roses ; without sexual connotation, mind you. Justin Bieber is a man's man compared to these boys, but girls still scream for them. For Seoul's fashion industry and its poster boys, the new menswear revolution is a reality." (Mansen in British GQ)

Gender transgressiveness, many reports on Korean men's style concur, is why Korean male fashion is the fashion scene to watch. And the referent on which the analysis depends is usually that of the putative inflexibility, narrowness, and hence conservativeness of maleness and its associated sartorial options in the "West."

Indeed, even in more general coverage of Seoul Fashion Week in extremely popular online magazines such as High Snobiety, such as in its most recent story/slideshow "The Street Style at Seoul Fashion Week SS18 Was Next Level", most of the images provided seemed to focus on (as it does in many western-based outlets covering Korean fashion on gendered sartorial acts such as couples clothing or gender-transgressing men and women as found in androgynous looks and significant signifiers, when not focused on the expected subjects of "striking patterns, bright colors and trending statement pieces", which are themselves also often contextualized as gender-transgressive. (High Snobiety, October 2017)

Indeed, in my own photographic practice, the question often comes up as to why I tend to shoot women in my portraits. Besides my standard, pat response that "women are generally the active subjects (doing) and objects (of) the fashion gaze" as a field, since my interest in street fashion portraiture is largely rooted in identity and gender in Korea, it makes sense that my own ethnographic and photographic gaze tends to skew female, as does the frequency of female subjects when counting my pictures. And when I do also take pictures of male subjects, it also generally tends to be through the discursive lens of gender and identity as I parse the image-interaction into sociological data. 

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza and the Staging of Korean Street Fashion 

It should almost go without saying that one does not perform a dance, play, or put on another performative act, alone or without an audience. And more often than not, connecting with an audience or onlookers is facilitated by a stage. This section will talk theoretically about "staging" from performance studies and more specifically, about the role of the DDP in socially focusing or enabling certain kinds of action in terms of architectural theory. (Patrik Schumacher, Zaheerah Yun)

How Bodies Move Through Fields

In the bigger picture, this part of the article is both a response to and enhancement of ideas put forth by John Levi Martin (Martin).

What Martin is talking about is an extended metaphor taken from the physical sciences for use in social science, simply stated. And it has great utility as an explanatory metaphor, especially when explaining many far-ranging and diffuse social phenomenae.

Often, people seem to treat social phenomenae as something discreet and definable, akin to something "real" that one can pick up and touch with one's hands. However, the problem here is defining something that is inherently difficult to see, which is the defining characteristic of most social phenomenae -- you can't see the ism itself, but only its effects. Sure, sexism and racism, like gravity, all exist; but you can't see those things themselves. Like Isaac Newton in the apocryphal story connected to his name, he didn't “see” gravity, as indeed no one can or ever has, but could clearly see its effects in the apples falling from the tree. If one goes up into a tower and drops an apple, a rock, and a feather at the same time, we know that they're going to be pulled down, as all mass is inside a gravitational field. Einstein complexified this difficult question by stating that gravity is not a force transferred by some medium or particle across empty space. And that was the essential problem. What is the medium of transference of energy within a field? Is there some movement of a magical ether or some other mysterious thing that we can't see? No, says Einstein. Gravity is the warping of space-time around any object possessed of mass. And that leads us to the major aspects of field theory that will define the theory for us and explain it.

Within a field, there are 5 rules or conditions to think about objects that fall within its influence. The field, in both the physical sciences and social sciences senses:

1. Causes "changes in the state of some elements but involves no appeal to changes in states of other elements."

2. “Changes in state involving interaction between the field and the existing states of the elements" and

3. "The elements have particular attributes that make them susceptible to the field effect.”

4. “The field without the elements is only a potential for the creation of force."

5. The field itself is not directly measurable; its existence can only be proved by its effects.” (CITATION)

In the end, according to Martin, “Field theory, then, has several generic characteristics no matter what the domain of application." And that is key to our purposes here, as social scientists trying to explain phenomenae in social fields. (CITATION)

So, moving from the ideas of gravitational or electromagnetic fields in physical science, let's postulate that the social field defined by its effects on agents within it is one that is shot through with the “global fetish”, an aspiration to a vaguely-defined “global” that is shared by all agents within the field and indeed has come to partially define the legitimacy of the field itself. We should also not forget the way that Bourdieau imagined the field in his employment of field theory, as the arena of struggle for primacy within it, with cultural capital as the deciding factor of success. 

For the sake of ease of discussion, let us try to compress the lengthy idea of an intertwined and cross-permeated field of fashion in Korea that is shot through with global aspirational desire -- with a certain globality -- parallel to the way that the related forces of electricity and magnetism have come to be expressed as electromagnetism. The resulting field generated within and defined by agents in the Korean aspirationally global fashion complex (KAGFaC) affects agents as diverse as Korean high fashion designers, the fashion design associations they constitute, overseas and domestic fashion buyers, international and local press outlets, and the paepi that are a major point of concern of this paper in a variety of different ways.   The field -- and its global charge --  affects the nature and behavior of the agents, which then interact with one another in terms of their altered characteristics and resultant different self-interests.

Before moving on from a review of theory to a discussion of the paepi and the field of fashion they enter, it is necessary to take a brief aside to mention a South Korean societal phenomenon that charges the field of fashion with a specific and peculiar valence. 

THE “GLOBAL FETISH”

It is useful to remember the concept of sadaejuui when we look at the way in which the commercialization and commodification of Korean culture and the desire to promote and export it outside of Korea’s borders, which scholar  Hyunjung Lee has crystallized into the notion of a “global fetish” in staged cultural productions. She points out how the notion of the “global” in South Korea has become so highly prioritized that it has become its own rationale, one capable of explaining just about anything, or alternatively put, has become a rationalizing framework able to give meaning and worthiness to just about anything put into it, to the extent that the object promotes Korea or Korean culture in the global realm, or functions to “globalize” South Korea. Seoul Fashion Week has certainly been overcome with just such a "fetish" and it certainly informed my initial ability to enter the field as a non-Korean foreigner possessed of almost no fashion-related cultural capital worthy of granting my access to most fashion weeks in other parts of the world...

THE KOREAN ASPIRATIONALLY GLOBAL FASHION COMPLEX

A FIELD INSIDER
It is useful to begin an explication of what I will call the "KAGFaC" field with Seoul Fashion Week (SFW), the industry event that brings all major players in the field together in a highly organized and controlled way, with the goal of gathering the global gaze as a given. Here, I'll use the insightful example and theoretical framing of Joanne Entwistle and Agnès Rocamora's 2006 field theory analysis of London Fashion Week "The Field of Fashion Materialized: A Study of London Fashion Week." Therein, the authors were able to enter the major event in the field, a "fashion week" as fashion researcher academics. In my own case, I have been attending Seoul Fashion Week every season for more than a decade as a member of the field -- a freelance photographer for organizations from CNN Travel, The Korea Herald, and The Huffington Post as a participant-practitioner who is able to make even more in-depth analyses from the "inside." In addition to the several hats I have worn as a freelance photographer, I was already known during those years as the first street fashion photographer and blogger in Korea, having shot street fashion publicly since late 2006. Also, by around 2011, I had also begun working as the house and/or backstage photographer for at least three Korean fashion designers, namely Yang Hee Deuk (양희득), Doii Lee (이도이), and IM Seon Oc (임선옥). Lastly, I have been covering SFW as press under the auspices of a local fashion industry newspaper called TINNews (The Industry News) to provide highly stylized street fashion portraits, which has allowed me to enjoy great latitude in gaining access to other field members. 

Doii Lee fashion show at Seoul Fashion Week SS2011 (Taken October, 2010)

Doii Lee fashion show at Seoul Fashion Week SS2011 (Taken October, 2010)

THE KOREAN FASHION FIELD
At SFW, Korean high fashion designers do what they know how to do, which is to stage fashion shows (often through the industry event known as Seoul Fashion Week, which is partially supported by the city and national governments) and hope to garner international attention via the global gaze of overseas press and, to a lesser extent, overseas buyers. However, the main function of buyers within the commercial fashion field is to possess as many commercially viable items as possible to offer for resale in the stores and showrooms of the venues they represent. Since the obvious goal of high fashion designers is to sell clothes, mainly to buyers, designing runway shows to appeal to them while making the clothing easy to photograph for members of the media and commercial catalogues, the entire structure of the fashion show has shifted from that of a small, intimate affair designed to show clothes to a small, powerful elite gathered in a small room to one designed to have clothes paraded before a large, professional photo corps positioned at the end of a long runway, with the intention of having each piece of clothing shared as widely as possible in magazines, TV programs, and other forms of media. To this end, both still photographers and videographers not only expect but demand to be placed as close to centre runway position at the far end of the long runway, with general “house,” then designer “house” official photographers getting first priority for shooting placement before the beginning of each show, followed by photographers with official press passes from other outlets on a first-come, first-serve basis. The photo press clustered together at the end of the runway are the main focus of the show, since their role in getting the designer’s end product — the clothing — out to the world in a concrete way — through their photographs and recordings — is crucial to making sure the event has any impact at all outside of the halls of the venue, which has now become permanent and official, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), housed in the fashion/textile district of Dongdaemun, the traditional garment district that has been officialised by the Seoul city government as the center of fashion in Seoul, and hence, the entire nation.  Fashion writers and other members of the non-photographic press are seated, along with buyers and VIPs, along the side of the runway so as to facilitate being able to see all details of the garments on the runway, from types of stitches and materials to cuts and how the garment flows and falls upon the models’ bodies. Both photo and non-photo press are categorised into overseas and domestic categories, with the overseas press being given higher priority by being seated or allowed entry before the domestic press, since Seoul Fashion Week, supported as it is by funds from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, has prioritised the elevation of SFW into greater global prominence and gives special care to facilitate the jobs of members of the overseas press, even to the detriment of the functioning of the local press that is actually more responsible for documenting and promoting the work of the designers in question. VIPs such as famous pop stars and actors are crucial to adding to the social capital of designers who can successfully invite them to their shows, even as glitterati attendees benefit from the glamorous boost to their respective images in being photographed in a front row fashion show seat. It is worth noting that only SFW

 

 

 

The Role of the Participant-Practitioner in Ethnography: The Methodology of Street Fashion Portraiture as a Lens of Social Investigation

ASpiring/rising model PAK Cha Hyeon -- whom I got to know through Facebook/Instagram after getting to know dozens of Korean "paepi" -- agreed to pose in and model the street fashion clothing of Korean high fashion designer YANG Hee-deuk, while I added value by shooting "street photography" at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) complex in a studio-lighting, fashion editorial style. 

ASpiring/rising model PAK Cha Hyeon -- whom I got to know through Facebook/Instagram after getting to know dozens of Korean "paepi" -- agreed to pose in and model the street fashion clothing of Korean high fashion designer YANG Hee-deuk, while I added value by shooting "street photography" at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) complex in a studio-lighting, fashion editorial style. 

Main argument

The paradigm of the "participant-observer" who studies a group as a "fly on the wall" while observing but not interfering has shifted for certain ethnographers into one of the "participant-practitioner," or an actor in a field on the terms defined by the other actors in it, and who, by being as specifically interested (whether commercially, personally, or otherwise) as other members of the field, is able to learn the "rules of the game" more effectively and accurately, along the lines defined by an effort to describe the social reality of the field according to the rules of its ethnomethodology.

I have been doing just this -- and developing the theoretical rationale along the way (see "grounded theory," Berthelsen et al)-- using street fashion photography as a figurative lens, along with the actual one attached to my Canon EOS 6D camera. My take is one of a new kind of photo-sartorial elicitation in which I position different field actors into a new relationship centered around the production of picture that can not be of specific use to the actors in the field, but also elicit new angles and insights on what is happening on the literal field of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza during the bi-annual Seoul Fashion Week event. Unlike traditional forms of photo elicitation, this is something far beyond simply giving cameras to subjects and hoping they will produce photographs that will shed light on an aspect of their identity or better outline the nature of their social status within a group or field or even showing images to interview subjects.

Indeed, this project onvolves the active recruitment of field participants in the process of creating a picture, a common project. I will be acting as not a mere participant-observer. The status of participant-practitioner is a function of my status as a practitioner within the field itself -- and while this involves technically "interfering" with or actively altering field conditions, the important point to remember is that as a participant-practitioner, my practices are bound by the rules of the field and the dictates of my interests as defined via the other field actors.  Both approaches/positions are actually quite similar in that they involve more than mere "participation" but actually abandon the front of objectivity-as-putative-social-neutrality and the decision to inevitably change the nature of field conditions in order to elicit an observable effect in/via a photograph, which can yield considerably useful insights. 

Some points to consider about different ways of looking at the street fashion (or any ethnographic) portrait:

  1. as a mere illustration of the photographic subject
  2. as an integrated summary of all the ethnographic interactions that happened behind the picture in order to produce it
  3. as a collection of visual data points and a map of their spatial, semiotic, or social relationships

 

Working Bibliography and Reading List

Berthelsen, Connie Bøttcher, Tove Lindhardt, and Kirsten Frederiksen. "A Discussion of Differences in Preparation, Performance and Postreflections in Participant Observations within Two Grounded Theory Approaches." Nordic College of Caring Science: METHODS AND METHODOLOGIES 31 (2016): 413–20.

Harper, Douglas. "Talking About Pictures: A Case for Photo Elicitation." Visual Studies 17, no. 1 (2002): 13-26.

Katz, Jack. "Ethical Escape Routes for Underground Ethnographers." American Ethnologist 33, no. No. 4 (November 2006): 499-506.

Oliver, John and Keith Eales. "Re-Evaluating the Consequentialist Perspective of Using Covert Participant Observation in Management Research." Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal 11, no. 3 (2008): 244-357.

 

 

 

Yoo Nam Saeng: CL and the Appropriative Modes of Fictive Criminality, Kebonics, and Symbolic Misogyny in Korean Rap Videos

Brief Abstract

South Korea (hereafter "Korea") is a supreme cultural appropriation machine and CL is its prophet. CL, née Lee Chaelin (hereafter, CL), is a master of appropriating African-American culture with apparent impunity, on two levels. First, on the basic level at which the term "cultural appropriation" is often tossed around in public discourse on hip hop and rap music as performed by non-black actors. Modes of signification themselves are being appropriated, as opposed to mere semiotic symbols and other concrete bits of hip hop-ricana. This article will take CL's video work as a point of departure and metonymic symbol for semiotic trends in Korean hip hop. (113 words)

Modes of Authenticity Signification

Before even beginning the explication of key, theoretical notions of authenticity in this paper, I want to first set forth a framework of understanding how CL successfully situates herself as a rap performer ostensibly within the genre of K-Pop but as an authentic performer of t(rap) music. She in fact appropriates not just aspects of (African-)American culture but modes of authenticity as a rapper that function within the America-based (original) form of the genre itself, namely the modes I choose to call "fictive criminality" and "field mastery." Yet, CL also creates her own modes of authenticity that situate her as authentically foreign-enough to gain authenticity as a virtuosic force back at "home" in K-pop itself. These modes CL-specific, hybrid modes utilize acts of symbolic misogyny and "mock ebonics" (McLeod, 134) that I will call "Kebonics."

I am not a K-pop fan. This is not to say that I do not occasionally enjoy songs that bubble to the top of the genre's popularity, but I generally do not keep up with any particular acts nor keep track of the artistic trajectories of its most popular performers. While I was indeed struck by the virtuosic qualities of CL as far back as her 2ne1, girl-group days and her solo hit "Bad Girl", I engage with CL as a rap artist in the context of my far older status as a rap fan from the time of my childhood and the time of the genre's popular quickening in the mid-to-late 1980s. As a fan, my priorities have always been lyricism, swagger, and musicality, in about that order, meaning that foundational male acts such as Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, the Fat Boys, and Run-DMC form the outlines of my hip-hop habitus. When it comes to female MCs on the mic from that era who met my set of musical standards and priorities, acts such as Salt& Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah informed the development of my musical tastes and preferences, especially as they find gendered form in my choices to purchase or otherwise consume their musical products. This is the way I end up engaging with CL as a rap performer, even in Korea. So her lyricism, swagger, and musicality played a big role in determining that I would really connect with "Dr. Pepper" when it came across my desk in 2015.

This article asserts that CL is charting a strategically wise, semiotically deliberate path out of the figurative building of K-pop as a genre and Korea itself, even as she utilizes "street cred" gained by recognition in the core of authentic hip-hop in the US market as the center, which thereby gives her even more "street cred" back home in the Korean hip-hop periphery. To paraphrase the words of the immortal Rakim, one of rap and hip-hop culture's founders, "CL gets stronger as CL gets bolder."

But what is the source of her boldness? I assert that indeed, as CL engages more directly with non-K-popped, foreign elements of the musical genre in which CL is seen -- even (and especially) in Korea -- to function, as in the underground form known as "trap" music, she bolsters her perceived level of hip-hop, foreign-originated authenticity. this is most clearly seen in her 2015 video "Dr. Pepper." but she wasn't the first to figuratively reach for this useful tool as a way to assert us-based, American authenticity in the Korean hip-hop genre.

Universal modes (inbound)
a) fictive criminality
b) field mastery
c) fictive foreignness

CL-specific hybrid modes (outbound)
c) symbolic misogyny  
d) mock ebonics (in Korea, specifically, Kebonics)

 

The "Global Fetish" and Sadaejuui


Before even getting into the specifics of K-pop, Khip-hop, or discussing any Korean pop culture text, it is important to first background the it all with some history, especially in terms of how Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, had to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid, as it were, before engaging in the construction of any project, tangible or abstract, in Korea.  And it was within the general historio-psychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national development took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, while that development process found internal validation through external markers.

Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been afected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means "deference to the greater power") "Korea" had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with "China" for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 andofficially ended Korea's political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial  relationship that would last until the Japanese empire's resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to "brush back" the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanqquisher's vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justified and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that "White is Right", since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do them was not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power. 

Symbolic GDP levels of 10,000 or 20,000 per capita GDP were important psychological moments for Korea, as were the 1988 Olympics, which was both an impetus and a symbol for Korea becoming modern, or at least, being seen that way. This sadaejuui pattern of thinking backgrounded everything Koreans did on their own, internally, with validation of these efforts coming from the outside, most importantly, the White West, and even more importantly, the USA. So, as the "global" has become more than just a pipe dream and a reality for a Korea with not just a highly developed infrastructure in heavy industry, factory production, and ideologies of anti-Communism that have served the Republic well, but which now has a highly developed popular culture infrastructure in music, film, food, and fashion, there is now a discernible "global fetish" that undergirds and validates Korean cultural projects. The recent "Premium Korea" ad from the CJ group is a perfect case with which to illustrate how sadajuui has evolved into a "global fetish" (a brilliant concept articulated by scholar Kim Hyunjung) that both undergirds and validates all commercial and cultural endeavors in Korea, as well as the Korean national project itself. 

Put simply, Korean people are quite used to bright and shiny, obviously and incongruously foreign things sticking out from Korean cultures, aesthetics, and things; indeed,  from Koreanness itself. And the way the sticking out happens is, for the most part, shot through with positive feelings, positive connotations. Ever since the beginning of Korean modernity itself -- and one shouldn't forget that the very ideas of progress, enlightenment, and modernity themselves were initially foreign concepts from outside, mostly filtered through Japan -- foreign things have always been associated with things that were generally understood to be good. (Schmid)

Then Korea enters its quite accidental encounter with America in the 1950s and ends up under the control and in the thrall of the notion of America and her things. American technologies, buildings, fashions, music, aesthetics, ideas, and even American English. And things American are not only obviously superior, but they are good

Americans, on the other hand, are generally used to a different relationship with foreign otherness within the realm of popular culture and aesthetic concerns. Americans generally don't like to watch subtitled films, listen to pop music in languages they don't understand, or wear fashions that obviously come from specific other places. Now, when one adds on the historically specific encounter with an entity such as Frenchness, the feelings become suddenly, starkly (and perhaps even viciously) negative. The French language itself sounds effeminate and offensively foreign to American ears in a way that Italian or Spanish do not (those languages are a whole separate set of stories), the idea of sporting French fashions seems pompous and even ostentatious, and one must consider the way that the descriptor French itself carries the notion of something done wrong or even perversely. The "French kiss" is a lewd, tongue-filled verson of a normal, decent kiss, since the French were known for doing things more lasciviously and decadently --immorally -- than Americans thought of themselves as doing. This is the particular way that Americans constructed Americanness against this particular other. Whatever the reasons or particular examples, the general Korean cultural attitude toward a certain kind of otherness vis a vis the great powers that have at different times exerted great influence over Korea has historically been one of deferential respect, especially as other great powers have carried with/through their influence ideas such as Enlightenment, Progress, or Modernity. Clear examples of how certain attitudes and positive "gusts of popular feeling" rode along with the concrete objects or technologies that marked these concepts were the Newspaper, the idea of National History, and the Department Store, respectively. In fact, one can argue, as scholar Katarzyna J. Cwiertka has brilliantly talked about in an essay called "Dining Out in the Land of Desire: Colonial Seoul and the Korean Culture of Consumption. 

 

On Authenticity

Here, I take Kembrew McLeod's cogent and useful discussion of the notion of authenticity in hip-hop from his article "Authenticity WIthin Hip-Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation" as a point of theoretical departure. Mcleod says that "...invocations of authenticity..." occurs not just in relation to hip-hop but can "...also take place in other cultures that, like hip-hop, are threatened with assimilation by a larger, mainstream culture." (Mcleod, 134) It is here that I would make a departure by way of making additions to his ideas while also linking the definition to the Korean case.  I would add that Korean hip-hop not a culture dealing discursively with assimilation into a larger mainstream, but necessarily functions within the context of the Korean historical concept of sadaejuui (사대주의), as part of a constant struggle to prove itself as legitimate both to Koreans at the periphery and American hip-hop at the center.

Metonymic Blackness and Crosscultural Cooning

In 2006,  Korean broadcasting network SBS's sketch comedy show "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) debuted an act/troupe called the "Know-Nothing Family (나몰라 패밀리). The act was comprised of several members dancing in a single-file, advancing march formation, African-American step show-style, to a heavily remixed and redacted sample of Sir-Mix-a-Lot's 1992 megahit "Baby Got Back." It was an apropos sample, denuded completely of cultural context, it sounds unmistakably American and black. Yet despite the fact of the sample's complete contextual denuding in his program, it was even more contextually useful and actually quite wieldy than its Korean appropriators knew. "Baby Got Back", as a 1992 song that was largely a battle cry against the semiotic violence of toxic whiteness, wore its oppositional blackness on its sleeve and amped up its most semiotically aggressive codes and markers. From repeated male call-and-response sequences evocative of amped up black male fraternity step show performers or the most "turnt up" moments of the dancing in a 1990s African-American nightclub. Indeed, this makes perfect sense in the Korean context, in which the main contact with blackness and black people is relatively recent, superficial, and heavily mediated without much representation by actual black people in society. John G. Russell addresses just this set of societal circumstances in his astute essay "Authenticity, Mimesis, and Racial Performance in the Transcultural Diaspora", which focuses on blackness in Japan: 

In Japan, blackness and black culture are seldom perceived as existing beyond what its media and popular culture provide through the global marketplace. First and foremost, blackness is embedded in performance, in showmanship. Like their counterparts in America, popular black tarento (television celebrities) in Japan are enlisted and paid to expertly enact local expectations of racial difference. (Russell, 65)

In the Korean context of "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사), the performance of socially unusual, extreme blackness appears as a metonymic marker of highly interesting foreignness that undergirds a humor unfamiliar to the general Korean audience. 

Most important to consider here is, indeed, a blackness, as it is presented to the Korean audience, as one "embedded in performance, in showmanship." (Russell, 65) But if this blackness is, as I argue, a metonym for extreme foreignness, this makes even more perfect sense given the specific origins and performative deployments of the representations that mark their comedic lineage that goes back to the original parodic song by Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and the comedic parodies of Lil' Jon that shows up in the performances of the "Know Nothing" crew, which obviously appropriated it from Chappelle's Show, which was popular in syndication, a bestseller on DVD, and a well-known comedic meme around when the Korean comedy show aired in 2006.  

Indeed, even taking the apparent crosscultural cooning not at face value, and even analyzing it intersectionally across the binary boundary line of Korean/other, there is nothing to suggest that there is anything above the level of pure farce and existence as the comedic foil for an uncritical, superficial disregard for black culture and the people who constitute it. Black people aren't the punchline, but are part of the joke, the humor itself. Unlike an appropriative, possibly even offensive representation of otherness that can be in any way transgressive, such as in the "performative possibilities" (Johnson) found in Antoine Dodson's forced stardom in legendary social media meme status ("Bedroom Intruder"), the humor found in "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) is as uncomplicated and flat as it is denuded of context, and in the end, any point of humanity that could bring the audience closer to the culture the performers have appropriated from. This is what makes the antics of "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) coonery. 

 

Mastery and Fictive Criminality 

CL's "Dr. Pepper" video is again instructive here. . A lot of different keywords and bits of theory could be invoked here, several of which have recently entered the popular discourse and theoretical imagination: objectification and commodification of the female body, the heterosexual male gaze (even if it isn't employed by a male heterosexual), and sexual fetish totems. Structurally, CL in "Dr. Pepper" is no different from how Ice Cube and NWA demonstrated their mastery of the field and art, as well as over female bodies, by linking fictive criminality with the objectification of said female bodies as a sign of their virility and male power. Indeed, this is not very different from many videos in the genre. Behold, a classic example from the genre and anothet exemplary work, NWA's "Hello":

What I point out in the CL video above is the degree to which it successfully appropriates all kinds of cultural elements that are indeed alien to anything going on in Korean society and are loaded with meaning from value systems that are at least somewhat to completely incompatible with Korean society. Having a gold "grill" (with fangs, no less!), lascivious play with and display of a riding crop, which is a mainstay of S/M culture, the obvious nod to chola culture with the lowrider bicycle and the apparent moment of arrest by the police, which all adds up to a nod in the direction of LA gang culture, as well as urban life in LA, especially as punctuated by the allusion to actual biker gangs, then the performance of a dance "gang" with masks and apparently "dangerous" wear and moves. It is all topped off by a shot of  Adidas shoes tied together and thrown over a wire, which is a staple in urban, gang culture as a monument to someone dearly departed. None of these elements are familiar to the average Korean viewer and in fact likely feel quite foreign objects that mark foreign practices from foreign -- nay, American -- cultural contexts. 

The fact of the foreignness of these objects is not lost on a Korean viewer. Indeed, in the overlapping historio-psychological modes of Korean thinking of sadaejuui and modern Korean post-coloniality, it is the particular way in which they are foreign that is important. This is the key way that Korean hip hop at the periphery approaches the American center. As non-black potential approriators, Koreans are coming at the center from the figurative and literal bottom and from the far outside, whereas someone like Eminem comes into the field from above, and from the inside of a culture that is already sensitive to the issue of whitely-raced appropriators. 

Fictive Foreign Spaces

I'll just say from the beginning that I'm not mad at Rain. I know he's gotten a lot of flak since the release of his most recent video, but I don't think it's really Rain himself that's the problem. I don't find his most recent video especially problematic in and of itself, actually.

The real problem  lies in the fact that the video is emblematic of the way that what I call “fictive foreign spaces” are used in Korean  media, especially as found in Korean  music videos and commercials, which are designed to communicate a message in a very short period of time and therefore rely  a great deal on facile signs and symbology to communicate quickly and efficiently. Basically, it's one way in which foreigners and representations of foreigners, as well as foreignness and representations of foreignness, are used to bolster Korean imaginings of the self, especially as it has to do with selling an idea or product.

 I first began noticing this in Korean television commercials.  In certain Korean television commercials, the backdrop for representations of a an idealized and perfect mode of middle-class comfort and domesticity is the archetypical American-style house, complete with white picket fence and windowsill upon which to place Mom's freshly baked apple pie to cool. Since Koreans are also consumers of American media and the American dream, they are familiar with the signs and symbology of that image.  Unfortunately, because of the specific  social, historical, and real landscapes of South Korea,  such houses and specific places simply don't exist. Unfortunately, I can't recall the specific television commercials that I'm thinking of here, so it's called to offer an example here on YouTube. But I can offer such a context in terms of the first Korean music video that I recall invoking such fictive foreign spaces against which to place the music and the artist into an authentic context. those of you who are true, diehard Korean pop fans will recognize the video below, which isn't structurally very different from what's happening in Rain's video.

In this, the seminal musical stylings of Seo Taiji and the Boys,  which hip-hop fans will quickly notice, owes quite a bit to the legendary American hip-hop group Cypress Hill, the 1st verse starts out with images of Seo Taiji leading a Western-style house that was symbolic of what could only be a middle-class fantasy to most Koreans, especially at that time in 1995. That  multi-story middle-class house with a fence just simply doesn't exist in South Korea, but it's quite familiar as a symbolic tool since Korean media viewers have always been heavily steeped in American signs and symbols, and even in the pre-Internet South Korea, was a metonymic symbol for "home."  and this, despite the fact that the actual homes in which South Koreans lived at the time or even now don't at all resemble that kind of American-style, independent, multi-story, Walnut Creek California "home." but Koreans perfectly understand the comfortable, domestic, middle-class fictive space that he is leaving. What I find even more interesting is how Seo Taiji representative the cold, unfeeling world outside in the bear industrial spaces in which he did his dancing in snowboarding year, a fictive cold “outer space” landscape that was punctuated with Korean style high-rise apartment buildings. to me, that was a much smarter and subversive music video. Of course, being a subversive wasn't the point of Rain's song, but it certainly was for Seo Taiji. in fact, I think today that one of the reasons they got into so much trouble with the censors and the terrestrial broadcasting networks at the time was because the viewer can pick up on this subversiveness in a general sense, but it is difficult to place the locus of its expression. in addition to the fact that my host family didn't have cable television at the time, I think that uncomfortableness with this video back then is one reason I never got to really see it very often, despite it becoming one of the most popular songs in the country and one you would hear at least 20 times a day upon walking out your door.

But back to Rain. Beyond the specific symbology of pneumatically enlarged butts and breasts, which others have obviously picked up on, what I find more insidious and possibly more problematic is the ways in which the faces and spaces symbolically linked to people of color in the United States have become the backdrop for Rain's musical stylings and wildings. It's about cultural appropriation, peopl, and I think people are feeling a bit bothered because now, the Koreans have gotten good at it. People forget about Psy, who is Korea's most famous "rapper," but he didn't get into deep trouble because as a rapper who is truly KOREAN in his mode of representation and apparent set concerns, he doesn't function in the American form of the genre, which is dominated by a certain aesthetic, from Eminem to Ice Cube. Psy doesn't function in that space, but in a specifically Korean one, where he is talking -- as he always has -- about class and gender relations. Gangnam Style, hello? What is more problematic about Rain is the way he self-consciously performs the most extreme forms of already highly performative African-American pop culture blackness. That is what he is fairly good at, his audience gets this as way of getting (and buying) his claims to an authentic connection to American, hip-hop-originated Africanity, and is precisely what American tend to find most odious and oversimplifies by labeling this "cultural appropriation" in public (often online) discourses. 

 And let's remember—this is not the 1st time that foreigners and even foreignness itself have been used by Korean musicians to define a fictive outerspace in which to step out of the confines of Korea and Koreanness itself.  the perfect example here is obviously going to be “Itaewon Freedom.”  `

Those familiar with South Korea's domestic music scene, and the physical terrain of South Korea and Seoul itself, will know that Itaewon, as the de facto “foreigners district” in South central Seoul, right next to the American military base there,  has long been associated with threatening foreign people, things, and ideas. But as scholar of Seoul city Kim Ji Youn has aptly described it, this foreignness is also  constructed as a commodity to consume, control, and mimick in terms of a "commodification of foreignness" that has specific uses. (Kim, 112) These modes of employ can be both commercial or aesthetic. As it came up in the song bearing that neighborhood's name, Itaewon was obviously styled by those in the apparent know as the place where one can truly relax and let down one's hair, free from the constrictive social rules and roles of Confucian Korean society. It was basically defining a fictive foreign space within Korean society, but interestingly, one that wasn't so fictive. Itaewon  Has actually long been a place where the more open-minded and freethinking partiers insole would go to escape the midnight curfew limitations of other party places in the city, and with the fact of all night partying that came with the legacy of a neighborhood that was generally left only to be patrolled by American military police and generally outside of the eyes of official Korean-dom,  the neighborhood had actually, place where in-the-know Koreans knew there was a certain kind of social freedom. Considering that until the gentrification of the neighborhood just several years ago, Itaewon was the actual and symbolic locus of Korean racial and xenophobic fears,  the image of the neighborhood has come quite a long way.

But let's be real: the employment of extras of color as the authenticity decorations in Itaewon Freedom's imagined foreign landscape was far more offensive than anything in Rain's music video. I mean, JYP was skirting blackface and telegraphing pretty offensive ideas of black people with the wigs and testicle-grabbing.  The only difference is that this video was made for domestic consumption while Rain is aiming at the international market.  And in his use and construction of what I'll now call “fictive foreign spaces", Rain and his people have become adept at playing the oldest game in town:  the complete , disingenuous appropriation of not only ethnic musical styles but actual  ethnic people into the commercial efforts of an outside artist who hails from a culture that is completely hostile to those very people. Let me remind you of what that means and why Rain is really guilty of the Korean music industry finally getting up to speed on true cultural appropriation skills that finally allow for the incorporation of members of the group in question. This is something that k-pop was really not capable of before, when the genre was about simply aping and reproducing styles that came from African-American culture, with the only way of highlighting that connection being that of pointing it out with inappropriate forms of racial comedy -- indeed, the "coonery" that John G. Russell aptly describes in Japan -- that utilized heavily charged (racist) racial symbology borrowed from the host cultures such as found in the case of the Bubble Sisters, who debuted in 2003 with a series of music videos and stage performances that went beyond mere blackface in the sense of darkening skin and simulating African features, but which directly duplicated the specific looks of the jiggaboo and pickaninny. 


 

Hence, one could make (or hide behind) the argument that they were ignorant of what the signs represented, despite having done enough homework to dig them out of relatively obscure racist histories of another culture. The problem here is that certain producers were trying to pull the fast one of American blackface being something one could just accidentally stumble across as simply darkening the skin to emulate a darker skin tone. The problem with that is that something like that, were it true, would be easily forgivable and understandable. The smoking gun for the Bubble Sisters was defined by the level of detail in reproducing the look itself. The pickaninny hair and other infantilizing symbols such as the pajamas and other baby accessories come from a very specific look in a racist genre of music and comedy in American history. So the very look of the Bubble Sisters was impossible without having done some very specific research. And the main problem with that group and its performance styles of blackface was that itis pretty much impossible to reproduce American blackface to the level of detail they did without picking up any information about the cultural context they came from and its very loaded meaning at the time.

So Rain's new music video has ruffled feathers mainly because Korean pop music has come such a long way since nobody really cared about it at all just a decade ago. It takes place within a much more global context and in front of a truly global audience, as opposed to the imagined one that South Koreans were always hoping was there but never really was. That being said, the watchful eye of the world wasn't there as it is today, digitally and enabled by  YouTube. So Rain, with his music video that demonstrates just how far Korean artists have become adept in the game of cultural appropriation vis-à-vis African American pop culture, demonstrates the extent to which the world is indeed now watching, as well as the fact that the Korean music industry, in being regarded as a world-class producer and reproduce or of songs that could be considered R&B, rap, or just about any other kind of “black music,” is now being held to similar  higher, international standards that any other songs in the genres would be anywhere else in the world.

 To put it simply, this is a sign that what's going on in Korean pop music now matters to other folks in the world, and yes, there actually watching now. So those in the industry should take the buzz and even criticism related to the racial symbology in Rain's recent video as evidence of the fact that Korean pop music has indeed, come a long way, baby, and from now on, it's time to be a bit more careful, considerably more thoughtful, and a lot smarter about the way Koreans represent not only  themselves but also the people from other places and races who walk amongst them.

 

Kebonics

A big question, beyond what's going on in a single CL video, in how Korean popular music gets away with so much “cultural appropriation” without rebuke or much pushback from hip hop fans who often point out the inherent contradictions in the process of appropriation. Why Korean cultural appropriation of African-American culture in K-pop seems to work without arousing much ire in the United States is because it is a fairly obvious borrowing, in which the borrowing itself is always inherently attributed, and instances of this borrowing is constantly linguistically and culturally marked. Instants of faux ebonics-inflected Koreanized English -- what this paper will call "Kebonics" -- deployment mark both Derridan différance and a connection with a semiotically-defined, authentic Black Hip Hop imaginary. This différance is underlined also by the status of South Korea's relationship with the United States, it's important to remember that this is not a case of a white American overculture borrowing African-American cultural forms and calling them its own, which is why its so irksome and an issue in the USA, but borrowing any aspect of black culture and using it in a Korean context is different because the act of borrowing is obvious as the borrowing isn't perceived as just African-American, but rather American, and hence a part of the neo-colonial US-Korea relationship.

In this way, the kebonical styizing practiced by CL and many other Korean performers operating withing genres universally thought of as American or at least foreign, is similar to the linguistic stylings of Asian Americans who utilize African American Vernacular ENglish (AAVE) as literal authenticators of cool and "to lay claim to participation in an urban youth style." (Reyes, 511)And yet, although the case of Korea is vastly different from that of Asians living in America, the positionalities are quite parallell. Vis a vis an (African-)American center and authority of authenticity, Asian performers of blackness make claims to connectedness with blackness, absent of the ability to lay claim to it directly as direct members of the group. And in a Korean context in which even using English words is a strong marker of large amounts of embodied cultural capital, making that connection with AAVE cum kebonics make the claim as seemingly natural or organic as it is, in actuality stilted or forced, i.e. performed. Given Korean society's long-held condescending or even derisive attitude towrards actual black people, this fraught and inherenetly contradictory process of lauding-while-insulting while borrowing from African-American culture is reminiscent of Ur-black comedian Paul Mooney's famous quip that "Errybody wanna be a nigger but don't nobody want to be a nigger."

 

In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down the power hierarchy, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down the power hierarchy, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. Another interesting semiotic strategy employed in CL’s videos that aid in the appropriation of African American music culture while also bolstering the perceived authenticity of the text as part of the same conversation with it, is the way she employed the same “fictive criminality” that US rapper Ice Cube and NWA demonstrated in declaring their own mastery of the field and art, as well as over female bodies, is by the linking of said fictive criminality with the objectification of said female bodies as a sign of their virility and male power. Indeed, this is not very different from many videos in the genre, or from what CL does in her own videos. This is what helps establish her as authentic, both in Korea and outside. 

 

 

The semiotic language of sadaejuui is one that CL speaks well, as she constantly works to establish and maintain her popularity by linking herself to both people and practices from the (African-)American center. Indeed, CL is fluent in the literal and semiotic "language of power" that Khip-hop must speak in order to be viable not just outside its borders, but within Korea itself. 

 

 

For CL to utilize American authenticity modes that in her videos, such as she did in "Bad Girl", could potentially be too much for a Korean audience,  yet utilizing women in the same way in her video is still (perhaps paradoxically) still a natural fit. This semiotic deployment of the woman's body is both uncannily unfamiliar yet eerily familiar. It is a display of her mastery over her sector of the rap field, and the use of dominated female bodies seems pretty semiotically familiar to a South Korean audience that is quite used to this formula as it evolved in the United States, the culture in which the form originates.

 

 

 

Symbolic Misogyny

Indeed, as several top Korean Studies scholars of modernity in Korea have argued elsewhere, even the very notions of modern identity and subjectivity themselves found expression and focus through now-seemingly-mundane things/places/concepts such as the department store, the radio, the movie theater, the public school, or even popular notions, such as the "modern girl" or "culture" -- and it should not escape the astute reader's notice that many of these concepts revolve centrally around new forms of modern media and modern modes of economic consumption. None of this relationship between what "historical materialist" historians such as the infamous Karl Marx call the fundamental and concrete, economic base of society (you could think of this as one might the hardware of a computer, which is one way I tell my students to think about it) that largely creates/controls/influences the malleable, less concrete stuff atop it (one might think of this as the "software") called the superstructure has changed much. This is what Cultural Studies folks believe, and how such scholars think -- that the stuff in our heads, or that comes from our heads, such as found in ideas or beliefs (ideology), things with messages such as novels, movies, and music videos (cultural texts), or even practices (say, like bowing to one's elders, trends in popular dance) all exist within the bounds of social norms (rules to live by) that support the smooth operation of the base. 

Yes, even -- and perhaps especially -- everyday fashion. If say, one lives within an economy defined by consumer capitalism that encourages -- nay, relies upon -- people consuming things to keep the fires burning and the wheels turning, and one of the popular impetuses of buying is argued to be that one's identity can best be defined through what one buys (such as in cell phone cases, t-shirts, or even the clothing one buys that define "looks" that identify our affinities, such as in "punk" or "goth"), it is easy to see why this kind of behavior bolsters a value that helps keep all kinds of consumption happening and seen as a positive social good. This is a Cultural Studies way of looking at say, Korean street fashion as a cultural text, as a social and economic activity that helps keep the machine of the base humming and thrumming and helps everything in society just make sense. 


In this video made by BIGBANG, one can see the particular Korean expression of this semiotic language of masculinized mastery in therap field in not only the rappers' domination of all the women in the video as servile sexual objects, but also in the way nationality is employed in this process, as the fact that modern versions of the Korean traditional hanbok are being worn by the Caucasian, western women as they playfully indulge the men their sexual flirtations is one lost on nary a single Korean viewer. This is a semiotic wink to the strong message here that a masculine Korea has dominated the West as symbolized by the sartorial domination of its women, as they wear the feminine hanbok even as the men wear exaggerated forms of  western dress. Indeed, the Korean male dominating the women of the metropole is as significant to the solidification of their assertions of internationalized male mastery as it is to the vainglorious drive to be seen as an internationally recognized Korean musical act. It all kind of blends together. It is here that I am reminded that there is an entire genre of pornography dedicated entirely to the idea of power play through clothing, with abbreviations such as CMNF (Clothed Male Naked Female) and ENF (Embarassed Naked Female). 

But back to CL's video here: I think she's also channeling the attitude of Trina, who is definitely "da baddest bitch" and is indeedis the archetype of contemporary rap female baddassery in the rap field in the United States. She sings the anthem of a masculinized mastery in rap that has truly been flipped onto its back and thrown in the face of the men who have antagonized her.

Trina here does it in the way that Americans can accept and let her get away with, but CL could never go this far, at least not in Korean culture,  unless it becomes a runaway hit and she can get away with overt rejection of male supremacy in Korea under the protection of the global gaze, in the same way that PSY got away with murder here with his own runaway hit videos. 

Trina is someone with whom CL must surely be familiar, especially in that her own music video "the baddest girl" seems to be functioning in the same mode (and even share the same music video titles) of social pushback against traditional male-defined roles of femininity.

But of course CL could never take her assertions of sexuality and throwing that back in the face of male sexual power in quite the same literal and direct way, which is why it's channeled through traditional symbols of sexual ownership, namely the barely clad girls writhing in front of the camera in her Dr. Pepper video at the top of this post, as ubiquitous symbols of her mastery. 

Semiotically, there's actually quite a bit going on here. One thing that strikes me about this video is the fact that she is the only woman amongst every female in the video who gets to wear high heels, which is very symbol of female sexual power. It strikes me that all of the other women, the backup dancers on the ground, are shown without their faces and stripped of any symbol of female sexual assertiveness. In a way, the only women who are stripped of that power and opened to the mastery of others as represented by the heterosexual male gaze, are the women writhing on the ground, and this imagery makes it very clear that the women who are presented semiotically as signs/accoutrements of male mastery, very much does not include CL, who literally stands on top of things, performing and laying down the raps with the other male rappers featured in the video. She is not a girl who gets fucked but does the fucking, along with the men. IN this sense, the aesthetic deployment here is one found in CMNF (Clothed Male Naked Female) pornography. Such an aesthetic was not lost on Robin Thicke in his photo shoot for Treats! Magazine, a photo shoot and set of semiotic, sartorial ideas that was the inspiration for his music video "Blurred Lines."

Indeed, the interplay between clothing and power is apparent in Thicke's final video, in which he is clothed in the ultimate embodiement of male power, in a classic dark gray suit, open-collared black shirt, and aviator glasses. The women are obviously objects of his gaze and control, and are conspicuously unclothed. CL employs this mode of sartorial domination in her Dr. Pepper video, to great effect. This mode of semiotic employment is one not lost on the viewer, even if the particular points of its deployment are not consciously obvious. Indeed, the meta-argument in the symbolic empowerment of the men in the actual defrocking of all the women in Thicke's video speaks to a visible, visceral sexual domination of women in that video, and is a semiotic mode that CL deploys quite well in her own video. 

On "Cultural Appropriation"
But a big question, beyond what's going on in CL's video, in how Korean popular music gets away with so much cultural appropriation without rebuke or much pushback from hip hop fans who often point out the inherent contradictions in the process of appropriation. Why Korean cultural appropriation of African-American culture in K-pop seems to work without arousing much ire:

It's an inherently conscious cultural appropriation.
It's a fairly conscious process, in which the cultural borrowing is always inherently attributed. In the case of South Korea's relationship with the UNited States, it's important to remember that this is not a case of a white American overculture borrowing African-American cultural forms and calling them its own, which is why its so irksome and an issue in the USA, but borrowing any aspect of black culture and using it in a Korean context is different because the act of borrowing is obvious as the borrowing isn't perceived as just African-American, but rather American, and hence a part of the neo-colonial US-Korea relationship. In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. 

Working Bibliography
 

Cwiertka, K. J. (2011). Dining Out in the Land of Desire: Colonial Seoul and the Korean Culture of Consumption. In L. Kendall (Ed.), Consuming Korean tradition in early and late modernity : commodification, tourism, and performance (pp. 258 p.). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Holland, N. J. (1988). Purple Passion: Images of Female Desire in "When Doves Cry". Cultural Critique, No. 10, Popular Narrative, Popular Images(Autumn), 89-98. 

Johnson, A. (2013). Antoine Dodson and the (Mis)Appropriation of the Homo Coon: An Intersectional Approach to the Performative Possibilities of Social Media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 30(No. 2, June), 152-170. 

KIM, J. Y. (2014). COMMUNITY OF STRANGERS: ITAEWON FROM ‘AMERICANIZED’GHETTO TO ‘MULTICULTURAL’SPACE. (Ph.D. Thesis), NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE.   

McLeod, K. (1999). Authenticity Within Hip-Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation. Journal of Communication(Autumn), 134-150. 

Reyes, A. (2005). Appropriation of African American slang by Asian American youth. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 9/4, 509^532. 

Ronkin, M., & Karn, H. E. (1999). Mock Ebonics: Linguistic racism in parodies of Ebonics on the Internet. Journal of Sociolinguistics(3/3), 360-380. 

Russell, J. G. (2012). Playing with Race/Authenticating Alterity: Authenticity, Mimesis, and Racial Performance in the Transcultural Diaspora. CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 12(Number 1, Spring), 41-92. 

Schmid, A. (2002). Korea between empires, 1895-1919. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stephens, V. (2005). A Close Reading of Eminem's Genderphobia. Popular Music, 24(1, January), 21-36. 

Um, H.-K. (2013). The poetics of resistance and the politics of crossing borders: Korean hip-hop and ‘cultural reterritorialisation’. Popular Music, 32(1), 51-64. 

Korea is the Most Exemplary Case of Consumption = Slavery

By investing youth and women with an absurd symbolic surplus value, by making them the exclusive bearers of the new esoteric knowledge proper to the new social organization that of consumption and seduction|the Spectacle has thus freed the slaves of the past, but has freed them AS SLAVES. -- Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun, Chapter 1

Korean Young-Girl Rule #3: Consumption is ostensibly the source of liberation for the girl in Korean society, but is actually the source of her slavery. 

The Unnatural Naturalness of the Korean Young-Girl

 

"The varnished aspect of the Young-Girl's physiognomy must be explained by the fact that as a commodity she is the crystallization of a certain amount of labor expended in order to make her meet the standards for a certain type of exchange. And the form in which the Young-Girl appears, which is also the commodity form, is characterized by the concealment, or at least the voluntary forgetting, of this concrete labor." -- Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun, Chapter 4

Korean Young-Girl Rule #2: the labor, both physical and emotional, invested in looking the desired part, is always masked and hidden in order to look effortless and natural. 

 

Girls Selling (Their) Meat

The connection between K-pop girls and selling meat should be fairly obvious.

The connection between K-pop girls and selling meat should be fairly obvious.

Shame for the Young-Girl consists not in the fact of being bought, but on the contrary of not being bought. She doesn't get glory just out of her value, she gets glory out of having a price put on her too.
           -- Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun (Chapter 4)

I will simply make the addendum: "...especially when she is semiotically associated with the selling of meat."

Korean Young-Girl Rule #1: When girls are used to sell meat, the girls become the meat themselves. 

 

Hypermodern Confucianism: Innocence Porn, Soju Girls, and the New Korean Taliban

This post, along with more than just a few good ideas, finds its origins in grading undergraduate papers. 

But what really got me going was this video I was turned onto from a student in a group I advise that is in the process of starting a magazine that mounts a feminist critique of popular culture in Korea. Behold, the culturally coded representations of gendered "innocence" that is a big part of the desirability quotient in the K-pop girl group videos these days.

Videos such as this make me Marvel Studios' Hulk angry, mostly because they are insulting to my intelligence as a viewer, before even mentioning how insulting and constricting they are to actual women. The funny thing is that this wank-material garbage is, I am told, the new "innocent" trend for the K-poppers. Or what I not so whimsically call Korean Pseudo-Confucian Taliban innocence porn, i.e. garbage I'd never let my imaginary kids watch. I'd frankly prefer they watch good ole fashioned PORN. At least porn is straight up about what it is. And that's the trick. 


What precipitated this tirade was my college student who told me her entire girls' middle school had to compose handwritten letters to soldiers as someone of palliative and patriotic, pussy-popping duty. Are Korean middle school girls really doing this? How is this in any way seen as appropriate? 


These representations make categorical arguments about women. And their ubiquitousness is matched only by the sheer variety of these representations that tend to only portray women as objects of beauty or sexual utility. Sure, there are a FEW powerful women of power and influence, but where are their representations? And given how many consumers ARE women, the excuse that "sex sells" don't work, given the relative cornucopia of presentation of men. This is a categorical argument enabled by the sheer uniformity and egregiousness of the representations.

You know why -- really WHY -- we don't see some hot K-pop boytoy suggestively fondling some jamwae melons with his tongue out, sticking and licking the stamen inside a flower? because society SIMPLY WOULD NOT HAVE IT. But for women, it's par for the course. As Morpheus said in The Matrix, "This is about control." Control that turns actual human beings into units of labor and/or commodities to be consumed. 

From here, this conversation requires a primer on hegemony and modes of representation to allow a higher-level conversation than is generally had around stereotypes as "bad" or "good" or even "true", which is a conversation that misses the point about why modes of representation are ideologically useful while being, more often than not, actually dangerous. 

But before we get really deep into this, let's back up a moment so I can give you some theoretical tools.

Base and Superstructure: How the System Works

Here is where we talk about Marx's real importance to us now and the warning he was trying to give, but is often missed because people can't see past the political aspect of his legacy. The thing to understand about Karl Marx is that he isn't important to Critical Theory or Cultural Studies people as a "Communist." The political applications of his ideas are not our main concern here. What is more important to get, to truly grok, is not so much Marx as a philosopher, nor as an economist, but as a very particular kind of historian. He was of the very strong opinion, popular in his time in intellectual circles, that human history was a process, an evolutionary force moving forward in time and levels of development, as part of an inexorable, inevitable, nearly pre-destined Progress. Yes, with a capital P. This was a Big Idea in the late 19th century.

Much like an organism reaching adulthood as measured in years, or an entire species evolving and improving over milennia or eons, human history was possessed of an evolutionary arc. And for Marx, the developed animal of "Man" and his way of life, his History (and I do mean "he") could best be understood in terms of the material conditions of production -- what we would call the economy. Somewhere back in the mists of prehistory, humans decided to band together and cooperate in raising efficiency of procuring food, shelter, and physical security for the survival of the species. Marx was primarily concerned with the material means of production in a society, its BASE. Was it a feudal economy, in which a small group of people owned all the land used to make food? The guys who owned it (and it was usually a bunch of guys) called all the shots, made all the legal, social, and pretty much every other kind of rules that others had to follow. pretty much all the ruling ideas, social norms, beliefs, customs, and everything was a function of this material BASE. The idea was that all these in-the-head aspects of life, such as to whom one curtsies, whether you bow or not, how you greet inferiors lower on the totem pole, etc. were all relations determined by your position in the system of production. If you owned the land, the rules favored you -- you were a boss, a lord. If you just lived on and farmed someone else's land, you were a serf, one of the masses without a name. And you behaved accordingly.

And the social rules that served to keep this system running smoothly -- all the stuff in your head that justifies your position and the system -- this is the the SUPERSTRUCTURE that sits atop the BASE. The base is the hard stuff -- the girders and the pylons that define the shape, stability, and heft of the building. Put even more simplistically, the base is the computer hardware, while the superstructure is the software that keeps everything running smoothly. One doesn't make sense without the other. 

So, according to Marx, all human ideas and endeavors that originate in our heads -- customs, culture, religion, and beliefs -- exist in the superstructure and are a function of what is going on in the base. All social ideas, behaviors, and relations exist because they make sense with the base; they are the relations of production. Hence, in most agrarian, feudal societies, social relations looked pretty similar because the mode of production -- stuff down in the base -- was similar: a division of labor based largely on physical differences in biology. And women's role in society was often linked to her reproductive role. Without getting into a big discussion about sex, biology, and gender, suffice it to say that the division in productive labor led to linked differences in social roles, for better or worse. But the same process of changes in the base leading to changes in the relations of production in what we call culture, customs, and social norms continued as most human societies shared the same essential mode of production -- agrarian capitalism that we now call feudalism. That system, for all the variations/differences across the world, was pretty much the same thing: a bunch of elite guys owned all the land, usually through hereditary titles and belief in magical systems of religion that assigned said titles to certain classes of people. And those who owned the land had all the money, however that was defined in different places. People whose lived on that land and performed all the labor generally didn't have any social power and were assigned social statuses that weren't too desirable, such as serf or peasant, or in the Korean case, cheonmin  (commoner) or nobi (servant/slave). What also evolved was a system of rules and beliefs that explained and justified why you were in the class in which you found yourself. The point here is that while yes, there were all kinds of differences in circumstance and situation, human societies generally went through the same evolutionary path, were governed by the same general rules. 

What Marx is saying as a materialist historian -- in other words, as a historian who doesn't believe that history comes in cycles (as the Egyptians did) or that history is just a growing collection of kings and queens and their kids to add to a the registers of royal families (as in say, the Chinese way of doing it) -- is that what drives history is change in the material base of society, as in technology and the way this changes how things are produced. And history moves forward in stages, like an evolving organism. 

You might have heard about this notion, but with the caveat that the endpoint is socialism. 

 

On Representation.

Now, we have to talk about Stuart Hall, and I don't mean the textbook publisher. 

On Hegemony.

Let's now talk about social control. And hypermodernity, which is the much-fabled state French theorists have imagined, but which Korea has beat the rest of the world to. 

Prepare yourself for "Confucian pornography (h/t to Emmanuel Pastreich for his helpful comment on that one). A student turned me onto this video, with the following commentary:

"옛날에는 걸그룹의 "교복" 의상들이 그래도 "컨셉트" "무대의상"이라는 느낌이 들도록 변형이 되었었다면 (원더걸스 - 아이러니 처럼) 이 뮤비의 의상들은 정말 학생들이 입는 교복을 좀 줄인 것처럼 보이네요;;
전자도 문제가 되지만 이건 진짜 크리피합니다ㅠㅠ"

Basically, she laments that in days of yesteryear, the school uniform was just utilized as dress for the performance of the metaphorical "schoolgirl", as with the Wonder Girls and their dress that was schoolgirlISH, and not so much ACTUAL KOREAN schoolgirls with just really short skirts. I would add that what has always struck me about the performance of the metaphorical schoolgirl in K-pop was how much there seemed to be an effort to skirt around the actual, literal reproduction of the Korean schoolgirl uniform; it was always schoolgirlish -- not actual Korean school uniforms. Even in dramas, they are so stylized and prettied up that everyone Korean kind of knows they aren't actual schoolgirls. There always seemed to be a semiotic wink that "this isn't real" and "we're going to leave that one last line uncrossed", but this video, as my student suggests, BOLDLY crosses it, even as it actually has the very much realistically uniformed schoolgirls literally wink as they cross that line with the unrealistically short skirts that they spin up into the air, which shields the text from criticism for overtly sexualizing actual schoolgirls by doubling down on the unrealistic, overdone aegyo-as-plausible-deniability for the videomakers and the group. This video is Confucian pornography, plain and simple -- actualizing the sexualization of young girls but cloaked within a Confucian set of semiotics and values. It's very insidious and effective.

This one is even worse, if you can believe it.

But lest I lose you here, I do want to put in the idea that yes, one can make a music video about "schoolgirls" in school uniforms -- and these are done in the exact style of real Japanese schoolgirl uniforms -- which, in the stylized form is just about the most heavily semiotically sexualized thing in the world -- yet the effect isn't creepy at all. I think the fetish aspect is harder argued (semiotically, not overtly) in the K-pop genre, as Korea is REAL good at, in a neo-Confucian frame, at presenting sexy in terms of a plausible deniability of sexuality that Japan (the land that invented the used panties vending machine and the bukkake) doesn't even bother with. Korean naughtiness RELIES on this plausible deniability of sexiness, usually under the protective cover of polysemic vagueness, or at least positing an alternative reading out to even the most obvious textual reading.

 

 

The "Iron Cage" of Hypermodern Confucianism in Korea

I like to talk about Marx's "Iron Cages" in my social science classes. It has most famously and popularly been talked about in recent decades through Ronald Takaki's landmark book of the same name.