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. 

A Pageant of the Vanities: Korean Studies Understood As Radical Epistemology

OK. Before we even get started using all kinds of fancy language and four-dollar words, I should do what most academics like to do and define terms. As in, what the Sam Hell is "epistemology"? One might wonder why I continue to use possibly scary and off-putting big words. Yet, if one of the points of reading is to learn new things, encountering a new word/concept doesn't have to be an intimidating experience. Especially if the writer doesn't act like a horse's ass and lord his or her upper hand in knowlegdge over the reader in some irritating, ongoing game of "nyah-nyah-nannie-nannie-boo-boo, I know more words than you doooo" intellectual stunting. But then again, this is the age of the Internet, of rolling down the "Internet superhighway" with ease and style, with supercomputers in our pockets, so we can easily look up unfamiliar terms. Wikipedia and DIctionary.com are friends here. I, as a writer trying to show you something new, have a responsibility to bring you up to speed naturally and comfortably, and as a teacher, should be judged by my ability to have the reader keep up with me, as long as that dear reader is meeting the writer halfway and putting some proverbial elbow grease into the reading. 

So I should explain simply by simply explaining that an "epistemology" can be thought of as a study or a close look at the way we know things. In other words, how do we know what we know? Yes, there are other, more specific ways the concept is used, such as a field or area of study in looking closely at the way knowledge is created. But here, it's enough to think about "epistemology" as a consideration of how we produce knowledge such as is found in approaches to understanding human nature -- do we look at biology or neurology, psychology or psychoanalytic models of personality? Rational considerations of logic and philosophy? Religion? The approach to answering the question affects the kind of answer we are going to get. Freud, the famous psychiatrist, came up with a markedly different answer than the Christian philosopher/theologian St. Augustine. Indeed, if you have marital problems, your pastor is going to give you totally different advice than your therapist will. It all boils down to the knowledge base you use to approach the problem. Indeed, as psychologist Abraham Maslov famously quipped, "It is tempting, if the only tool one has is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." A hardened, career military man might tend to approach administrative control in an organization as a matter of control, disciplining and punishing; an educator might tend to think of the task of management as one of educating members to an adequate level of competence while providing assessments along the way. 

If all this is relatively clear so far, I would like to propose cut to the chase now by proposing that a look at Korea (Korean Studies) might be not just a mere area of study, but a way of knowing -- an epistemology -- in itself. And what are we trying to know, pray tell? I would humbly like to suggest that it has to do with the same reason we look at cases in history or sociology or even great literature.  We are trying to peer into a universal truth of human existence, to identify some truism that we can take with us to other places in our part of the human experience. And at times, this greater utility is obvious. The lesson of Hitler and the Holocaust is not one for just the German people or the Jews. To be sure, the poignancy, pain, and particular pertinence of the Holocaust is extra relevant to German nationals and members of the Jewish diaspora. But the history of the Holocaust is powerful to all of humanity because of the tough questions the existence of the Nazis pose to us all: What is the nature of Modernity? What does "Progress" even mean? And one of the best, taken straight from the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which asks the key question we should be asking more often: "Just because we can do a thing does it mean we must do that thing?" It might seem a bit trite put this way, but only because the question has become so seemingly obvious and necessary to consider since the Holocaust thrust just such modes of questioning into our species' consciousness. The question becomes most acutely felt when considering another legacy of humanity's most modern, brutal war, the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. 

But I digress. I think, dear reader, you get my point. A look at history often yields more than just an accounting of events for the specific interests of relevant or affected groups. The pained, existential questioning of the futility of it all is beautifully described in a sonnet that transcends time and individual circumstances:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? 
 

In short,

Should I just give up?
Is all this struggle worth it? Cuz life sucks.
But maybe I should push on through to the end
and quite possibly prevail?

This is a universal mental struggle. And why Shakespeare is important outside of just being a part of the development of the English language or the development of entires modes of drama. He's asking important, universal questions through the lenses of specific experience. Again, this is why not just Germans study the rise of Hitler and it's not just the English who read Shakespeare's plays. It is through the study of certain kinds of specific experience that we can walk away with universally useful lessons and insights.

Yes, I am slowly getting to Korea here, and the reason you're reading this book, along with the reason why you will hopefully recommend it to a good friend after you do. I am going to tell you why you and yours should be interested in the case of Korea; why you should find this geographically and culturally far-flung society society deeply and grandly fascinating a case and place to consider; why you should care about the way things go in Korean society. 

Put simply and succinctly, Korea is the future; it is the future of us all, as a race of beings, a species already hellbent and careening out of a particular gate of culture and with tendencies as specific as a particular vector as we hurtle in a set direction through historical space. We've already been shot out of the proverbial and figurative cannon -- we're flying. Korea, as a confluence of different human, historical currents of Industrialization, Urbanization, Mechanization, and a resultant Modernity, is a unique petri dish in which we can watch certain key elements of hypermodern culture, such as an unimaginably fast, ever-accessible, Internet that has produced new forms of media that the fractured and impure, hybridity-filled, postcolonial Korean culture on rapid development steroids adapted to without blinking an eye, which is why a society that didn't have running hot water in most public buildings even by 1980 dropped "Gangnam Style" on the world only 32 years later. The point here is that in 1994, Koreans didn't even know what the Internet was; five years later, Korean teens were destroying the world's competition in Starcraft with the aid of the fastest broadband Internet connections on Planet Earth. And that just makes sense in Korea. In 1953, the poorest, most hopeless country in the world, with the lowest GDP. A little more than half a century later,  it has become the society that is lleading the world into hypermodernity. Korea has taken mass consumption, along with the idea that identity itself can and should be found through consumptive acts and choices, and run with it to a point that has left even the West -- ground zero for Modernity -- in the dust and scratching its collective head. A virtual world of digital avatars, plastic surgery that is damn near as fast, easy, and exact as Photoshop,  a digital democracy, along with the tyranny of the virtual mob. Still, what you will see from the Korean example is the fact that, like most things here in South Korea, it isn't that these issues are categorically unique to Korea; it's a matter of scale and sheer intensity. There is almost no social issue or problem in Korea that no other country has; it's just that Korea has it in spades; whatever it is somewhere else, in Korea, it's on steroids -- it's hulked out. 

As we delve deeper into the society and culture, pausing along the way to pick up some critical, crucial theory, all this will become clearer -- and even more interesting. And I would like to do it while looking at new media, popular culture, and the approach of Cultural Studies while avoiding the usual suspect subjects of K-Pop and hallyu (the "Korean Wave") as much as possible.

eWe are going to first take a look at how to look at culture before getting to a tool with which to break down any cultural product -- a cultural text -- into it's constituent, itty-bitty parts for our close inspection. Then we are going to look at what those cultural texts say or symbolize about things going on in Korean society before we get right into the deep heart of some of the inner workings of things Korean and then consider what all this means as a preview of Things to Come

In the end, this is an unblinking, unflinching, and therefore possibly stinging critique of Korean society, but only because the exercise is inherently worth it. 

On Social Constructions, the Minjok and the Matrix

 

As I have taught my students, both at the high school and the university levels, "race" – along with other concepts such as "gender" and "nation" – are all socially constructed categories that are not real. By this, I mean to say that such a "social construction" does not empirically exist outside of the social system that made it. Much as in The Matrix, the system and all of the meanings inside don't have any real meaning; but what I think makes that film – and the inherent social critiques it provides – work is the fact that despite the system having been constructed, it and everything within it becomes real because everyone within the system agrees on its reality. And if you die in the Matrix, you die in real life. I like that, because, as I explain to students, just because race is constructed as a social category doesn't mean it hurts any less when a cop is beating you with his billy club. Rodney King, Eric Garner, or Michael Brown,  couldn't have stopped and said, "Please stop, good sirs! Remember that race and my very blackness is a social construction no more real than your constructed whiteness!" POW, POW. CHOKE, CHOKE.

But at the same time, we can't forget that the very social categories we are trained to use are never constructed outside of the context of maintaining social hierarchy, control, and the interests of the greater power structure. The Matrix takes this literally, as human beings are represented as being the source of the system's power, yet that system is also the source of the individual's enslavement. "Sweet," I thought when I first laid eyes on this spectacular film back in 1999. "Now I finally have an easy and cool way to explain ideology and social constructions."

The complete control of the Matrix works only and precisely because it essentially hides its very existence.

In Gramscian and Chomskyian terms, I can now more easily explain to students that overt, forced coercion and control don't work; people inevitably resist, dictatorships are eventually destroyed, The Jedi eventually Return.  Like a Star Wars ending, the Death Star or Starkiller Base always gets blown up in the end. But when you create a system of complete hegemony – a term overused and hardly understood by most undergraduates who use it to sound cool – you really got something.

"Hegemony" is something I define to my high school history students as "control not through coercion, but consent." Antonio Gramsci said that if you fool people into desiring certain things, into believing that they actually made a choice about their present situation within a finite selection of choices, people generally tend to accept their fate, their social position. That's why Chomsky talks about the need to "manufacture consent" in liberal democracies; indeed, he says, it is within such systems that it is so difficult to resist and challenge the power structure. The media sets the terms of the debate, people protest through socially acceptable channels, voters decide between two candidates from two political parties that are essentially the same, and the show just goes on. So, as the Oracle says in the second Matrix film, everything is about choice. This is obvious from even the first film, when Neo is given the blue and red pills with which to make the symbolic choice to wake himself up from the Matrix – you have to choose to see the light; it can't be simply shown to you.

Remember, this is about your choice.

Remember, this is about your choice.

 

If you want to get deeper and talk about our ability to choose – what is known in critical theory as agency – the fact that agent Smith is the key factor that sets the whole Matrix off course and into the hands of Neo is a brilliant expression of this idea within the plot: Neo having accidentally overwritten part of his resistant nature onto Smith at the end of the first movie, when Neo apparently "destroyed" him, made Smith into a literal "free agent," able to operate and make choices – self-interested ones – outside of the system. As it stated in the third film, Neo and Smith are Alpha and Omega, the flip-sides of the same coin. The only question is that of whether Smith's viral form of "free will" will eventually spread and take away that of humanity's, or whether the consequences of Neo's choice – as obvious Christ-figure and inevitable sacrificial lamb when he uploads himself as the code that will destroy Smith – will give humanity back its freedom, it's agency.

See, as we found out in the conversation with the very Freudian Architect in the second film, the role of "The One" is actually as a function of the system's full knowledge that some people – a very small fraction – will reject the program (ideology, social constructs) and resist. "This is about Zion," Neo realizes. The system plans for this eventuality by making the Matrix as real as possible – full of pain and pleasure, joy and pain – and the element of choice. The Oracle was "the intuitive program" who figured that shit out. But there's still that niggardly (and oh, yes, I do assign a lot of meaning to the fact that there were indeed a lot of niggas in the Matrix films, a series about resistance to enslavement) problem of the people who don't accept the program and will unplug, organize, and fight. "The One" is the control key that will take the best resisters and restart Zion as the Machines hit restart on the Matrix. Smart – "keep your friends close and your enemies closer." Better to have a group of resistance fighters whom you created and controlled and can eventually destroy when the time comes, rather than a real group of rabble-rousers outside of the system that is more difficult to co-opt and control.

 

In the end, everything ends as the Machines would want, with the one new caveat that those who choose to live in the fantasy world are now actually doing so by real, albeit passive choice, as defined by the fact that if you want to wake up and unplug from the Matrix, you can do so and live truly free. Mankind gets its freedom - its agency – back because of Neo's original choice and ultimate sacrifice.

"Shit gets deeper."

Let's come back to Earth and the matter of our "matrix" of the social construct. Now, some Korean folks might say that such concepts are "Western" and don't apply to Korea. Well, that might be a good argument were it not for the fact that the very notions of "race" and "nation" and "history" itself were all first invented in the West and had great influence on the East. Does that mean that these concepts are inherently Western and that the East exists in a western mode? No. What I mean to say is that like any idea that spreads far beyond the borders of its origin point – this being the intellectual equivalent of the gene, the "meme" – such ideas continue spreading because of their own inherent merit, regardless of the place where they originated. And the further away it runs and evolves away from its original creation point, the less it is tinged with the specifics of the culture that produced it. So such memes such as "democracy" or "inalienable rights" may have started with the American constitution, but that doesn't mean such ideas remain uniquely American anymore.

Such is the case with Korean academia, which, for people academics and intellectuals who know something about the origins of the ideas in places such as history and anthropology, owes a great deal of its intellectual origins with Japan, China, the United States, and Europe – in that order of degree. The very idea of the use of a "nationalist historiography" to overtly create pride in the nation and a sense of national identity itself – one that Koreans trace back to Shin Chae Ho – goes back to its original Japanese architects, who were greatly influenced by Prussian ideas of "History" all the way back in Europe.

The fact that most Koreans really don't know much about Shin – except for what they read in tertiary sources (textbooks), which were themselves compiled by companies outsourced by the Korean Educational Development Institute, a government body directly supported by the Ministry of Education – illustrates this point.

Even if the general Korean wanted to wade through the Chinese characters Shin heavily utilized to write his works and knew about the great intellectual debts he had to Chinese and Japanese scholars, it would be still nearly impossible to get direct access to his collected works; they recently went out of print and I am desperately trying to find a copy of one of the three key volumes in the series. Such is the importance Korean society gives to its most vaunted historiographical founder; the collected works of the architect of Korean history itself is something that most Koreans can't read without assistance, and can't even buy.

Here's my point: most of the intellectual concepts with which anyone in the world uses as the bases of their national identity – in the Korean case minjok is the key organizing concept – is in itself little more than 100 years old, when it was first deployed (borrowed from the Japanese concept minzoku in 1898 in the pages of the Hwangsung Sinmun, Korea's first nationalist newspaper).  The myth of Korean history and people going back to 5,000 years depends on a self-defining concept of "us" that must be inherently de-historicized in order to work. Think back on Korean history; it is fraught with fighting kingdoms, battling "nations." They inherently thought of themselves as different from one another to fight with each other, and whatever identity one had was surely defined as different from that of the others. And yes, Korean "culture" has links to them all. But historical links do not a national identity make. Ask Shin Chae Ho or any other nationalist who has helped construct a national history – you need to actively build a national identity through myths and heroes, stories and fables. There must be central organizing concepts chosen to organize the others – the notion of minjok so close to Shin's heart was not naturally understood to be "real" before the 1900's – the construction of the modern notion of minjok and the nation is Shin's legacy. If it had existed before, why would historians remember him?

In the scan below, taken directly from the same stash of textbooks I lifted from my school and put in my bags before departing Korean in 1996, I have presented a section of the "Morals" textbook in the course of the same name that first-year middle school students are required to take.  And by the way, for the people complaining that the previous dictionary excerpts I presented were too "old" – my whole point in talking about these things is that is partially from such books and materials such as these that my former students – who are now in their early and mid-20's – form not only their own self-images, but images of others (non-Koreans) as well.

In this excerpt, the book asks why "we" would feel embarrassed to see a Korean behave recklessly in front of a foreigner, "our" face turning bright red in shame. Why would we feel like that? Because we all share the same "bloodline" and the same "consciousness" flows through that blood. I'll translate directly the paragraph I made a red star next to:

The minjok can be defined as having been passed down the same bloodline, using a common language, and that which has lived on between a common history and culture that is the basis of a consciousness of a community of 'us' that constitutes the group. Therefore – just like how we are constituted from the same blood as that of our ancestors – the minjok is made up of the concepts of family, ethnic group, or tribe, we sometimes point to the race and call it a large family. Just because a member of a large family lives far away doesn't mean that they stop being called family. In the same way, as a person born as a member of our race living in a foreign country, even if they have acquired another nationality, that person cannot come to the conclusion that they are not a part of our race.

 

So it's not difficult to see why Koreans tend to be so essentialist about "race" and "nation" and "people" as they are conflated into the concept of minjok. When your school textbooks are busy defining the limits of the nation in such strict and blood-based ways, it is difficult to even try to imagine something else as being true; in fact, since so many people talk and think about minjok in this way that supports what the textbook says, where in everyday Korean culture could one find an alternative model of identity, a different way of imagining being Korean? Is it any surprise, then, that the news announcers actually talked about the "crisis" in the national blood supply? It's not that there's missing a certain rare type of blood, but it was a minor scandal in the early 1990's that "foreign" blood was "diluting" the "pure" Korean blood that would be given to transfusion patients. It sounds ridiculous to Western sensibilities, which are used to thinking about race in mostly genetic terms; but in a country obsessed with consanguinity, family lineage, and a Korean "blood quantum" (to borrow a term from Indian country), it makes a perverse sort of sense. Especially when your textbooks have been saying so for years.

It's a difficult thing to wrap one's mind around – since we were all born, raised, and educated to not only think of such concepts as "race" and "blood" as real; but remember that we were also trained to not question the origins of such notions. If we did that, then the whole fantasy would come tumbling down, like being unjacked from The Matrix; for this reason, no matter how much importance middle school textbooks place on the importance of the minjok, they will never, ever discuss the origins of the term itself. I don't think it's even a grand conspiracy theory – the textbook authors, as writers of a tertiary source, probably never even thought of this issue as they compiled information from the available secondary sources (books), and they almost certainly did not do original historical research themselves, consulting primary sources from the times. No one ever thinks to ask the questions:

"How old is the present concept of the minjok?"

"When did the modern notion of Korean identity itself begin?"

"What were earlier versions of identity that existed on this land we now call Korea?"

If such questions were asked – in any country – the results would be surprising. They would also reveal what most national propagandists are loathe to reveal – that the structure (albeit not the content) of national identity itself across all the nations in the world is more similar than it is different; in fact, it is almost the same. We all have different myths, symbols, and rationalizing ideologies, but the way in which we use them is exactly the same. If you want to check out Benedict Anderson's foundational work in the field of nationalism studies, you'll see that while it is somewhat centered on many European examples, the mechanics work, even in the cases of Asian nations, and especially in the case of Korea.

How dissimilar is Korea, really, from Anderson's explanation? Like most other nations in the world, what was required to create the present, modern notion of "Korea" was a national language, the spread of literacy, forms of mass media such as newspapers, the creations of "invented traditions" that perhaps pre-existed the nation but surely found new authority once the state gave them official sanction, etc. The list could go on, and there are always historically specific reasons parts of the Korean case doesn't fit into the Western model written in the 1980's. But when you look at modern Korean nationalism's founding moments from the 1880's and the colonial nightmare that gave them real power, or the appearance of Commodore Perry's black ships in the 1850's and the resultant "choice" of the Japanese to abandon their old ways and modernize from 1868, or the case of what is now France, Germany, the United States, or any other modern nation – the details and individual contenst differ, but the vessel is exactly the same.

In this way, one can't find any such thing as a "natural" national identity that isn't enforced by unnatural concepts instilled by unnatural institutions such as schools, national media, and invented traditions. People who live in what is now the "United States of America" still considered themselves English citizens up even until early 1776, even after the shooting war already started. How many times has the basic conception of "German" changed even in a single century? Germans alive in 1942 had a completely different notion of who was and wasn't a citizen – a true German – and the basis for inclusion within the group was based on notions of racialized pseudo-science which created concepts that the state wanted. Before that, there was a previous republic and before that "German" identity was centered around villages and provinces organized around the whims of royalty.

Look at the present notions of identity between even the two Koreas. What streak of historical continuity do the two Korea's really have in common between them? Yes, the two modern nations are "cultural cognates" of one another, but they are far more different than they are similar to one another. Historians always think in terms of the two competing concepts of historical "continuity and change" and try to trace historical connections to the past against historical breaks that mark the introduction of something new. One of the arrogant fantasies of South Koreans is that they share a lot in common with their "brethren" in north by these constructed notions of "blood" and consanguinuity; but I think it will come as a huge shock if and when the two Koreas come together to see that the differences of even a little more than half a century make for two really different peoples. Notions of social responsibility, the government's role in the life of the individual, and the fact of two hugely different economic/social ideologies of blind capitalism vs. authoritorian communism is going to make for two very different peoples coming together. Next to that, the rosy notion of minjok doesn't stand a chance.

Don't believe me? Let history play out – wait and see. See if the following doesn't come true:

– In the South Korean economy and society, North Korean men will become the most desired unskilled laborers, as they replace the undesirable foreign workers (because they are a threat to the "purity" of the Korean race) and will become available at whatever price the South Korean economy wants to pay them. They will be mostly based in the North, where the majority of South Korean factories will be, and on a limited basis as the result of special work visas that will be issued to them if they work in the South. These North Korean males will be shunned as marriage partners for South Korean women, and most South Korean families will 반대 the marriage of their daughters to North Korean men.

– North Korean women, however, will be the #1 hot commodity for South Korean men, as the recent disgusting media display of public (male) salivation over "North Korean beauties" and the re-popularization of the old saying of "남남북녀" (southern men for northern girls) indicate. Considering the fact that advertisements for "Marrying Vietnamese Virgins" are a common sight all over any Korean city – because of the ever-present problem of the male-tilted gender disparity caused by pre-natal screening that leads to the increasingly higher rate of abortions of girls as a couple without a son heads towards 2nd, 3rd, and 4th children – who better to marry than someone within "our" own minjok? I wonder which will win out – the dropping birth rate and the increasing expense of raising kids leading to less children overall and increased use of pre-natal screening to exterminate would-be daughters, or the inevitable (and positive) decreasing importance of gender itself in South Korean society. Hopefully the latter factor will grow such as to decrease the power of the former one, but only time will tell. But considering the myriad ways that women's bodies are already commodified as objects of consumption in South Korean society, North Korean women, with their lack of economic and social power, don't have much bright to look forward to in South Korea.

A movie with the popular saying as the title.

A movie with the popular saying as the title.

 
 

Yes, there will be famous examples of prominent and successful former North Koreans on formerly South Korean televisions, and in movies, newspapers, and other places in the public eye. But mark my words, the Korean notion of "minjok" will be utilized – as it has for a little more than 100 years – to accomplish the goals of the state and the elite that is largely in control of it. Images of reunited families and touching stories will abound on Korean televisions after any big national reunification. But that is, ladies and gentlemen, will be simply the beginning of another sad story, even as it will seem like the ending to one previous. Ideologies of nationalism shift and change with the times, but their utility to the group in power does not. I know many people won't agree, but see if this little chart of social hierarchy doesn't seem like it won't make sense, even before the fact:

– South Korean man
– South Korean woman
– North Korean woman
– North Korean man

Who would you want to be 10 years from now? Who do you think will have the most soci0-economic options? The least? How much will the power of the concept of minjok have once North and South are reunited? Who do you think will have the power to dominate the way North Korean history will be written and taught in the schools if North Korea ceases to exist?

And ya'll thought Ethnic Studies wasn't useful. 

On the Hybridity, Impurity, and Postcoloniality of Korean Popular Culture Texts

Untitled

These days, students can't read. Of course, students these days can read characters and words and sentences just as well as at any other time in modern history. But what I mean to say is that students can't read entire cultural texts and their many non-obvious, complex, and multi-layered meanings. This is especially true with my undergraduates in South Korea, who are the victims of a rote memorization-obsessed learning system in which the only contact with the fine arts of literature or even writing or poetry are through the dubious filtration of knowledge that comes with multiple-choice answers. And American education is heading more in this direction than it isn't these days, since assessing knowledge is easier through the device of 4 or 5 options with a single, correct answer. 

In my experience teaching Korean popular culture texts in Korea to undergraduates, many of whom are Korean and many of whom are not, I have found that most undergraduates -- despite being possessed of a great deal of interest in subjects such as K-pop or Korean dramas -- are completely at a loss as to how to usefully talk about popular culture texts outside of an "I like it very, very much" manner. A problem that seems especially exacerbated in Korea, the inability to critically, academically engage in textual analysis stems from the fact that their professors have not trained them to do so. 

Most Korean students seem woefully unfamiliar with how to look at pop culture products as "texts" that require particularly trained kinds of "readings" or "subtexts" as anything other than simply heavily coded and obscure "hidden messages" that only certain, highly trained people can even discern. Most have never taken a literature class that encouraged close reading of texts, nor about the history of themes and literary devices as they took shape across a long period of time in particular cultures. Examples might be the convention of the Christfigur (as seen in Matrix: Revolutions, Robocop, or Man of Steel) or the idea of the Bildungsroman (as seen in the character arc of Luke in Star Wars: Episode IV). I believe students are unaware of the idea that most literature occurs across three essential types of conflict: man v. man, man vs. nature, and man vs. himself. If there is this high school-level literary literacy, it is usually a mere awareness that this is as a thing, with no experience critically reading literature beyond the level of a text to superficially understand, chracters to memorize, etc. 

 

This obviously presents a problem when I do something as simple as play a K-pop video for a class such as "The Sociology of Popular Culture." My Korean students, I've observed, have been passively trained to view popular culture as their teachers, instructors, and professors have, which is superficially, dismissively, and merely as what it ostensibly is: mere entertainment and something for which one flips one's mental/critical gears quickly and squarely into the OFF position. And this is in a country that has identified popular culture texts as one of its most vital export industries!

Case in point -- here's a video I like to show in my relevant classes to start off a conversation about reading cultural texts, 1) because everyone knows and tends to like CL, 2) CL has achieved a great deal of commercial success, and 3) because the video is chock full of various multicultural textual elements and clearly and cleanly appropriates their varied meanings into the service of her own meta-text.

And finally, this is a 4) textbook example of what Jin and Yoon are talking about in terms of the "hybridity" and "impurity" of Korean pop culture texts. 

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 momunment 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. 

Put simply, Korean people are quite used to bright and shiny, obviously and incongruously foreign things sticking out from Korean cultures, aesthetics, and things, 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. (assign Andre Schmid's Korea Between Empires here.)

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"). 

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. 

We are indeed thinking about you.

That's the way we make sense of cultural texts, whether it be music video, a Hollywood film, or even the clothing one wears (especially if that clothing is associated with an identity such as a social class or a subculture). These cultural texts are both a product of the interests of the base, while also acting as tools of the base in order to help spread, bolster, and justify these values in society. That's true in general. 

But when it comes to looking at Korean Culture specifically, to the point of understanding why a specific text finds cultural or popular traction, one has to get nitty gritty with more specifics of particular histories and social analysis to come up with useful theoretical nuggets that help explain why things are popular (and hence really interesting to analyze closely as a Cultural Studies scholar). So, when talking about Korea and K-pop or Korean cinema, or even Korean street fashion, we get the ideas -- if you look really closely and think about it in an informed and focused way -- that these cultural texts all have something in common: that they are pssossed of a large amount of hybridity, impurity, and I would argue, a creamy frosting of postcoloniality that rests atop a big, fat cake of sadaejuui

To elaborate upon and continue this argument, the crucial third factor to think about when considering the power and viability of Korean popular culture texts is that of their postcoloniality. One of the things that adds to the powerfully persuasive cultural torque of the Korean pop culture engine is the extent to which Korea has become quite comfortable with its postcolonial existence. This should remind us of the fact of sadaejuui again. Koreans are comfortable with not just the presence of cultural otherness in the Korean milieau, but also the mixing of them with Korean cultural elements, which should connect up nicely with the ideas of hybridity and impurity. Consider PSY's "Gangnam Style" video, which itself was a tour de force demonstrating all of the aspects mentioned here.  

INSERT: Short, semiotic breakdown of  "Gangnam Style" as a a paragraph HERE.

The polysemic, multilayered, mixed, hybridity-and-impurity-filled text of "Gangnam Style" lent itself to myriad pastiches, remixes, and re-interpellations, as the existence of many parody and even homage videos attest to, with the remake/remix/redo by the ANIINKA traditional dance troupe hailing from the Ivory Coast quietly being one of the very best and illustrative examples.

It's a work of interpretive genius, and only came to exist because of some of the same factors that allowed "Gangnam Style" itself to exist, which was that perfect storm of textual mixture, Youtube, and the "social mediascape." It is these self-same factors that allowed something as relatively obscure a traditional art form as the Zaouli dance from the Ivory Coast (well on the edges of the Periphery) to mix and meld with an impure, hybrid text from South Korea and propagate itself across YouTube to yield nearly 250,000 views. Such is the virally, volatile mixture that "Gangnam Style" allows.

Outside of the concerns of dance scholars and ethnomusicologists -- and of course, people from Côte d'Ivoire itself -- this form of dance would probably remain in obscurity, save for the ingenious move of the Aniinka traditional dance troupe from Côte d'Ivoire in hitching its horse to PSY's juggernaut music video to gain a lot of publicity for itself. 

Two fashion design majors who say this is their look every day. Nobody move! This ain't no fucking cosplay, people.

These two young ladies, whom I interviewed briefly here, talk about some aspects of who they are, why they wear what they wear, and also some of the non-Korean influences of street fashion in relation to media. Their mixing and their look are possible in a time after the shift to complete comfort with (western) social media, the influences that it brought riding atop it, and the consumption-driven modes of expression that resulted, from the idea of being "fashion people" (paepi) to the creation of a critical social and psychological space for the idea of "Hell Joseon" in response to national political disenchantment. 

The "Urban Landscapes" of Seoul and the Ethnographic Practice of Street Fashion Photography

“urban landscape”

"Landscape": 

A cultural landscape, as defined by the World Heritage Committee, is the "cultural properties [that] represent the combined works of nature and of man."[1]
"a landscape designed and created intentionally by man"
an "organically evolved landscape" which may be a "relict (or fossil) landscape" or a "continuing landscape"
an "associative cultural landscape" which may be valued because of the "religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element."
There are two main meanings for the word landscape: it can refer to the visible features of an area of land, or to an example of the genre of painting that depicts such an area of land.[1] Landscape, in both senses, includes the physical elements of landforms such as (ice-capped) mountains, hills, water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea, living elements of land cover including indigenous vegetation, human elements including different forms of land use, buildings and structures, and transitory elements such as lighting and weather conditions.

By repurposing the concept “cultural landscape”, I propose a new direction, one partially (and minimally) explored by the century-old practice of street and the much younger genre of street fashion photography, in which physical landscapes are affected by their human geographies in a direct way, whether commercially through consumption (“ladification” in Seoul), governmentally through zoning or other kinds of use restrictions, or traditional/customary patterns in land/building usage or cultural practices within certain spaces. 

What i hope to do is demonstrate how fashion plays a discursive role in the consumptive sense in certain neighbourhoods in seoul, partially by using street fashion photography as part of an ethnographic profiling of certain neighbourhoods that have become greatly marked by processes of uniquely Seoulish “ladification” and how specific fashions become markers of certain kinds of people who are themselves representative consumers of certain cultures of seoul.

This is part of my bigger “Cultural Geographies of Seoul” project that I’m planning to launch with my Visual Sociology students from this semester, with outstanding final term ethnographic profiling assignments acting as some of its first studies. 

Some preliminary thoughts/field notes from a photographic perspective, from my body of around 15 years of street photography and 12 years of street fashion photography work in Seoul:

Shinchon:

Shinchon, August 2007.
IMG_5314 copy
Smoking on the move in shinchon. A decade ago, a young woman would never DARE openly light one up while walking on the street in Korea and even today, this sort of thing draws stares from other "respectable" young women. My companion while walking cl
A young lesbian couple goes at it in Shinchon's (in)famous Changcheon Children's Park.
Throwback Seoul Street Fashion: shinchon Park Couple, Shinchon , Seoul, 2011.
Throwback Seoul Street Fashion: Shinchon Girls, Shinchon, Seoul, 2011.
IMG_2972 copy

Myeongdong:

Within the neighborhood known as Myeongdong, it is easy to see the tension that the many street itinerants within this space feel as the (sole?) players culturally contesting both its use and its inhabitants. As even a single visit to the space shows, Myeongdong, as an area full of shops catering to its primarily female clientele, is one of open and conspicuous consumption, and has become the very symbol of that deadly sin and vice to the many itinerants of faith who come to not just proseyletize there, but to conspicuously condemn and exhort what they see as a place of unabashed sin, especially in its perception as a place of heavily gendered sin, i.e. the unfettered consumptive, concupiscent desires of young women on parade . Consumption is the main mode here, and young female consumers its prophets. 

IMG_1001
This is Myeongdong.
Myeongdong Minnie-me.
Flower girl in Myeongdong.
A Myeongdong tourist delicacy: What I like to call The Potatornado.
Myeongdong has long represented the excess of Cardinal sins, where concupiscent consumption happens  but Myeongdong hasn't REALLY been that since the Eighties, at the latest. These evangelical Korean Christians need to update their play book and go to Gan

Towards a methodology:

Quantitative parameters: As much as possible, there should be an image of every type of representative social character (preferably recorded in the style of the environmental portrait, which is as much as record of the subject's relationship to the environment as it is of the subject him or herself, and the relationship between the surveyer  and the surveyed. A good environmental portrait makes a statement about these aspects and relationships. In addition to examples of social types, there should also be clear examples of the kind of social practices that define the area in the city, likely done in the candid genre of street photography. This sets the bar quite high in terms of the sheer amount of physical, in-person ethnographic engagement required of the researcher/photographer, and is both a visual proof-of-life as participant-observer, as well as a source of ethnographic data itself, as each picture is the result of social interaction, by definition. To truly document a neighborhood in all its conceivable parameters, there would likely be at least three to dozens of photohgraphs if experience is any guide. 

Qualitative parameters: The "write-up", being based on the restrictions of the photographic typology of social characters and social types, still begs extensive textual explanation. One might explain, first of all, how/why certain social type were identified, while providing written explanations of some off the elements in the visual texts, explications of social interactions with and between human subjects in the pictures, as well as variations/multiplicity of social characters and practices that may differ enough that additional explication is needed. Additionally, the photographs themselves can provide non-verbal, direct explication of what a given urban landscape is really, socially like, in terms of the way is peopled, which is why photographs are important at all as visual data, as they can provide a direct experience of places -- its social valence -- in a way that verbiage is often inadequate to express, which has defined an ongoing epistemological problem ever since the written word, especially as it finds expression in the highly stylized, academic form that inevitably privileges a very narrow, positivistic way of conveying social knowledge. 

The overall empirical logic: All qualitative, ethnographic research is inherently inductive and is but a small picture, a snapshot that is argued to be representative of a greater, whole reality. The analogue of street photography images in standard ethnographic practice is that of an ethnographer standing on a street corner counting the number of people sporting short haircuts from a significant distance. The traditional methodological analogue of a street fashion portrait in this new approach would be that of an ethnographer stopping each short haircut-sporting subject and asking them how they feel about their haircut and their motivations for getting it. This is the fine grain view, since there is significant social interaction involved to get to the taking of a street fashion portrait. By utilizing inter-dependent, multimedia and multi-modal angles of empirical inquiry that, taken in the aggregate, adequately conveys a complete,  compelling, and consilient social picture of the subject/s being studied, which also utilizes different levels of interaction between the investigator and complete strangers, the overall effect can be that of a great deal of coherence between the various approaches and interactional techniques that result in a level of epistemological consilience, ethnographic coherence, and overall compellingness that is rare to find in the social sciences. 

The "urban landscape" approach, broken down:

  • a mix of the two most visceral, compelling, and data-rich forms of photography ethnographers can use: street photography and environmental portraiture
  • overlapping, reinforcing streams of interaction -- photography, interviews, and some degree of quantitative analysis 

An example of place data gleaned from two environmental portraits taken at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul:

Throwback Saturday. My absolute favorite picture from SFW. Gender taboos have come a long way, baby.  Traditionally, women are supposed to only smoke under a roof, not ever outside, out in public. This young lady in the picture IS ladies, nowadays. Not al
Shirt girl n friend

Data Analysis: In the two pictures above, one of a college-age young woman who felt comefortable not only smoking in public, but being photographed and published doing so -- a pretty significant social taboo only a decade ago in Korea -- and the other of a 17year-old high-school girl sporting a backwards checkered shirt in a way (inspired by the Korean media star Kim Na-young) that reveals not only a significant amount of bare shoulder, but a bare back and bra strap, reveal a great deal of social bravery for violating a taboo for young girls her age in public places. Aside from the fact that the checkered-shirt girl is almost certainly required to adhere to strict dress norms during the day (in her school uniform), for a girl her age, this attire would certainly be be deemed too risqué by anyone of authority whom she personally knows. However, both young women feel comfortable pushing the envelope of acceptability in the transiently wildly open space of Seoul Fashion Week (SFW) that takes place twice a year (in March and October) inside or in the immediate environs of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), which is also known as an area of relative sartorial and hence social freedom. What is significant from interviewing the "I'm Ladies" subject is the fact that she not only feels safe smoking in public immediately in the SFW/DDP area itself, but that she feels safe about her photo being taken and even published by me, the photographer. The same can be said for the backwards shirt-wearing girl, but whose sartorial precociousness itself being somewhat socially unusual should mean that her willingness to pose should perhaps not be too surprising, but it also helps define the FSW/DDP space as indeed one worthy of the "fashion district" moniker supported by the municipal government. Both young women are typical of the kind of social/sartorial bravery that is typically displayed in the area, for quite some time. 

IMG_5755 copy
IMG_5744 copy

The young lady in the pictures from 2008 is standing across the street from the finished structure in which the two women in the first pictures find themselves either in front of or inside, respectively, but the more open sartorial/social nature of the space became apparent to me more than a decade ago, as one of the first places I ever saw a Korean woman openly and proudly sporting a tattoo, which was much more of a social taboo then than it is today.