The Heung of K-Pop and Hallyu
K-pop is like a mutant cultural form that really doesn’t represent the culture it hails from. But it is a product of the society that produced it, in that it is an end-justifies-the-means kind of organism, and is analagous to a cultural “cancer” that grows in the host, expanding unchecked past any internal controls that society can place upon it, and in the Korean case, is enabled by the will to power that defines the “global fetish,” possessed of an inexorable power to propogate that bursts past any attempt to curb its inexorable advance. Much like junk food fuels the obesity epidemic in industrialized nations through food markets driven by pure consumerism, K-pop resembles the aspects of other items within its conceptual category, but is certainly not art. It is something that resembles art that fulfills other carnal pleasures for the sake of doing so. Junk food is indeed something that one puts in the mouth and ingests, but it has no nutritional value; it is merely pleasant to eat and sates hunger. K-pop girl “idol groups,” replete as they are with teenaged girls in fetish clothing performing sexually suggestive dances, indeed sates the “hungry eye,” but there is little else of value other than simply encouraging catering to the bases and most vulgar of tastes while encouraging the ratcheting up of market competition in music in the singular dimension in which it is the most apt pupil – brazen sexual titillation. In this way, the social harm is done, albeit slowly, like the proverbial frog not in the well, but the stewpot, heating up so gradually that the frog never even realizes it is, indeed, cooked. But like everything in present-day South Korean culture, as long as someone’s buying, it’s going to be sold.
Combined with the all-rationalizing power of the “global fetish,” such runaway cultural mutations become pushed by a culture industry intent on fulfilling hangukinron fantasies of Korean cultural dominance, albeit with a kind of cultural product that is no more Korean in form than the ever-popular Korean snack food the ChocoPie. Although made in Korea, and a product of Korean culture in the strictest sense of the definition, it says absolutely nothing about the culture it came from in the greater sense that hangukinron thinkers seem to be using.
What is peculiar about the Kpop idol group cancer is its ability to mask itself from the obvious fact of its non- Koreanness. It metastisizes even as it becomes more invisible and impervious to the obvious critique its existence begs for in South Korean culture that in the not-too-distant past was concerned with the encroachment of Western culture and habitually described itself as “conservative.”. But it does its damage nonetheless.
The Relations of Production
As Korea become a nation driven by “pop” or even “Lolita nationalism,” driven by the most crass kind of consumptive, carnal desires possible, it slowly loses the ability to check the very Frankenstein monster it created. Such unseen eventualities and realities will be the most ironic of all, given the ideological agenda hangukinron evolved from and the particular societal needs it was intended to meet. Indeed, Marx would agree:
“In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.”[Shaw, William H. "The Handmill Gives You the Feudal Lord": Marx's Technological Determinism." History and Theory 18, No. 2, May (1979): 150]
To extend this quote and line of reasoning, a consumer capitalist society with no qualms about sacrificing even (and especially) young girls for the sake of production begets "Lolita nationalism" as dancing girls on the screen, as well as a culture with a virtuosic ability to collectively turn a blind eye to the obviousness and pervasiveness of prostitution. In short, Marx might argue that the relations and interests of production might be cause for the most mercantile amongst a group to figuratively “sell their mothers,” (or daughters, as the case may be), in the case of actual or visual prostitution (Lolita idol groups). It is hangukinron thinking that becomes the enabling rationale to allow the latter to be possible. In one sense, it may be obvious to assert that no matter the actual needs of capital or the state, hangukinron thinking in terms of national pride would never allow for a public recognition of the role prostitutes in bolstering national goals (as footage of Korean government officials in the 1950’s awarding the work of Korean camptown prostitutes for their work in gathering capital for the nation from US soldiers suggested did briefly happen), but that self-same hangukinron that would allow for national interests to laud the work of KPOP artists violating every Korean Confucian norm of propriety in the international sphere, even if it did eventually force the expurgation of their prostitute sisters from the national pride-laden, globalization-boosterish, “cultural export” model that has come to be the catchphrase du jour in recent years.
Han Is for Victims; Heung is for Victors
As a most elegant proof of the wisdom of Marx’s words, the surprising decision by the Ministry of Sports, Culture, and Tourism announced the official retiring of the concept of han as a fundmental aspect of Korean culture and character, as part of the ten foundational concepts constituting Korean “cultural DNA.” [Online News Bureau. "“한국문화 유전자는 恨 아닌 興” (Korean Culture's Gene Is Not Han but Heung)." 서울경제(Seoul Economic Daily), 2012.09.18] The ministry finalized the ten attributes of Koreans in accordance to the value of sustainability for the future. They are: Heung, Perseverance, Sharing, Paradox, Fermentation, Propriety, Passion, Community Spirit, Togetherness, and Natural.
Koreans are born with a unique disposition of Heung, an excitable energy combined with all sorts of different emotions including joy, sorrow, hatred, and desire. Heung is combined with a dynamic, bright, and positive spirit and drives a passionate compassion. It is not a thing you can fake.179
Note the “unique” nature of Korean heung, an essentialized part of a new Koreanness. Importantly, this article published on Korea.net, a Ministry-controlled public relations outlet, prominently displayed a Spanish-language, full-sized newspaper spread with pictorial instructions as to how to do PSY’s signature horse dance. Of course, the government officialization of Korea’s noriteo culture of play is in line with the social relations that are a function of the consumer economy and would have likely been quite surprising to someone raised in the Korea of Kim Gi Chan’s golmok. In a Korea defined by the social relations of heung, nurtured in the structural cradle of consumer capitalism, anything goes, as long as you’re having fun. And if the outside world is buying what you’re selling, anything goes. And in the course of the culture's balls-to-the-walls, no-holds-barrred, anything goes quest for global recognition and its concomitant payout, what has disappeared is any sense of there possibly being too much, that things can be taken so far. Like the office worker on a business hweshik she really shouldn't be on, circumstances seem to require having fun at the party, but even when the going gets too heavy, there's not a sense that things have been ractheted up to excessive unless injury occurs.
Perhaps this is the definition of “Hell” we must reach at this point, the peculiar kind of existential hell that someone can only know after the fact of “selling one’s mother” and living with those terrible wages of sin, much like the fabled Judas Iscariot might have felt in a quiet moment while gazing upon his 30 pieces of silver. This is one reason anthropologists are more effective outside of their own cultures and why, as I mentioned previously, they are encouraged to leave their own cultures to do their field work. In some ways, as an outsider, access to the inside is difficult; but in certain other, more important ways, access to the true, inner core of a culture, where the dirty secrets lie, is actually far easier. The most problematic and perhaps deeply embarrassing parts of any culture are usually kept wrapped tightly beneath layers of social taboo and willful ignorance of that subject. This is one reason that in America, race is a favorite topic of comedians and movie comedies; many Americans are, deep inside, quite uncomfortable about the subject, so it is often as source of embarrassed laughter and shocked expressions when certain obvious things are pointed out that everyone thinks about, but which most people find too embarrassing to say aloud. Hangukinron thinking helps maintain a deafening silence on a variety of obvious social ills that would mead one to question the appearance of obvious cracks in the developmental dream.