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.