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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The fact of the foreignness of these objects is not lost on a Korean viewer. Indeed, in the overlapping historio-psychological modes of Korean thinking of sadaejuui and modern Korean post-coloniality, it is the particular way in which they are foreign that is important. 

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

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

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

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

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

We are indeed thinking about you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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