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

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

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

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

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

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

In short,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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