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

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.



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. 


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. 

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 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.