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 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. 

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. 

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. 

The "Urban Landscapes" of Seoul and the Ethnographic Practice of Street Fashion Photography

“urban landscape”


A cultural landscape, as defined by the World Heritage Committee, is the "cultural properties [that] represent the combined works of nature and of man."[1]
"a landscape designed and created intentionally by man"
an "organically evolved landscape" which may be a "relict (or fossil) landscape" or a "continuing landscape"
an "associative cultural landscape" which may be valued because of the "religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element."
There are two main meanings for the word landscape: it can refer to the visible features of an area of land, or to an example of the genre of painting that depicts such an area of land.[1] Landscape, in both senses, includes the physical elements of landforms such as (ice-capped) mountains, hills, water bodies such as rivers, lakes, ponds and the sea, living elements of land cover including indigenous vegetation, human elements including different forms of land use, buildings and structures, and transitory elements such as lighting and weather conditions.

By repurposing the concept “cultural landscape”, I propose a new direction, one partially (and minimally) explored by the century-old practice of street and the much younger genre of street fashion photography, in which physical landscapes are affected by their human geographies in a direct way, whether commercially through consumption (“ladification” in Seoul), governmentally through zoning or other kinds of use restrictions, or traditional/customary patterns in land/building usage or cultural practices within certain spaces. 

What i hope to do is demonstrate how fashion plays a discursive role in the consumptive sense in certain neighbourhoods in seoul, partially by using street fashion photography as part of an ethnographic profiling of certain neighbourhoods that have become greatly marked by processes of uniquely Seoulish “ladification” and how specific fashions become markers of certain kinds of people who are themselves representative consumers of certain cultures of seoul.

This is part of my bigger “Cultural Geographies of Seoul” project that I’m planning to launch with my Visual Sociology students from this semester, with outstanding final term ethnographic profiling assignments acting as some of its first studies. 

Some preliminary thoughts/field notes from a photographic perspective, from my body of around 15 years of street photography and 12 years of street fashion photography work in Seoul:


Shinchon, August 2007.
IMG_5314 copy
Smoking on the move in shinchon. A decade ago, a young woman would never DARE openly light one up while walking on the street in Korea and even today, this sort of thing draws stares from other "respectable" young women. My companion while walking cl
A young lesbian couple goes at it in Shinchon's (in)famous Changcheon Children's Park.
Throwback Seoul Street Fashion: shinchon Park Couple, Shinchon , Seoul, 2011.
Throwback Seoul Street Fashion: Shinchon Girls, Shinchon, Seoul, 2011.
IMG_2972 copy


Within the neighborhood known as Myeongdong, it is easy to see the tension that the many street itinerants within this space feel as the (sole?) players culturally contesting both its use and its inhabitants. As even a single visit to the space shows, Myeongdong, as an area full of shops catering to its primarily female clientele, is one of open and conspicuous consumption, and has become the very symbol of that deadly sin and vice to the many itinerants of faith who come to not just proseyletize there, but to conspicuously condemn and exhort what they see as a place of unabashed sin, especially in its perception as a place of heavily gendered sin, i.e. the unfettered consumptive, concupiscent desires of young women on parade . Consumption is the main mode here, and young female consumers its prophets. 

This is Myeongdong.
Myeongdong Minnie-me.
Flower girl in Myeongdong.
A Myeongdong tourist delicacy: What I like to call The Potatornado.
Myeongdong has long represented the excess of Cardinal sins, where concupiscent consumption happens  but Myeongdong hasn't REALLY been that since the Eighties, at the latest. These evangelical Korean Christians need to update their play book and go to Gan

Towards a methodology:

Quantitative parameters: As much as possible, there should be an image of every type of representative social character (preferably recorded in the style of the environmental portrait, which is as much as record of the subject's relationship to the environment as it is of the subject him or herself, and the relationship between the surveyer  and the surveyed. A good environmental portrait makes a statement about these aspects and relationships. In addition to examples of social types, there should also be clear examples of the kind of social practices that define the area in the city, likely done in the candid genre of street photography. This sets the bar quite high in terms of the sheer amount of physical, in-person ethnographic engagement required of the researcher/photographer, and is both a visual proof-of-life as participant-observer, as well as a source of ethnographic data itself, as each picture is the result of social interaction, by definition. To truly document a neighborhood in all its conceivable parameters, there would likely be at least three to dozens of photohgraphs if experience is any guide. 

Qualitative parameters: The "write-up", being based on the restrictions of the photographic typology of social characters and social types, still begs extensive textual explanation. One might explain, first of all, how/why certain social type were identified, while providing written explanations of some off the elements in the visual texts, explications of social interactions with and between human subjects in the pictures, as well as variations/multiplicity of social characters and practices that may differ enough that additional explication is needed. Additionally, the photographs themselves can provide non-verbal, direct explication of what a given urban landscape is really, socially like, in terms of the way is peopled, which is why photographs are important at all as visual data, as they can provide a direct experience of places -- its social valence -- in a way that verbiage is often inadequate to express, which has defined an ongoing epistemological problem ever since the written word, especially as it finds expression in the highly stylized, academic form that inevitably privileges a very narrow, positivistic way of conveying social knowledge. 

The overall empirical logic: All qualitative, ethnographic research is inherently inductive and is but a small picture, a snapshot that is argued to be representative of a greater, whole reality. The analogue of street photography images in standard ethnographic practice is that of an ethnographer standing on a street corner counting the number of people sporting short haircuts from a significant distance. The traditional methodological analogue of a street fashion portrait in this new approach would be that of an ethnographer stopping each short haircut-sporting subject and asking them how they feel about their haircut and their motivations for getting it. This is the fine grain view, since there is significant social interaction involved to get to the taking of a street fashion portrait. By utilizing inter-dependent, multimedia and multi-modal angles of empirical inquiry that, taken in the aggregate, adequately conveys a complete,  compelling, and consilient social picture of the subject/s being studied, which also utilizes different levels of interaction between the investigator and complete strangers, the overall effect can be that of a great deal of coherence between the various approaches and interactional techniques that result in a level of epistemological consilience, ethnographic coherence, and overall compellingness that is rare to find in the social sciences. 

The "urban landscape" approach, broken down:

  • a mix of the two most visceral, compelling, and data-rich forms of photography ethnographers can use: street photography and environmental portraiture
  • overlapping, reinforcing streams of interaction -- photography, interviews, and some degree of quantitative analysis 

An example of place data gleaned from two environmental portraits taken at the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in Seoul:

Throwback Saturday. My absolute favorite picture from SFW. Gender taboos have come a long way, baby.  Traditionally, women are supposed to only smoke under a roof, not ever outside, out in public. This young lady in the picture IS ladies, nowadays. Not al
Shirt girl n friend

Data Analysis: In the two pictures above, one of a college-age young woman who felt comefortable not only smoking in public, but being photographed and published doing so -- a pretty significant social taboo only a decade ago in Korea -- and the other of a 17year-old high-school girl sporting a backwards checkered shirt in a way (inspired by the Korean media star Kim Na-young) that reveals not only a significant amount of bare shoulder, but a bare back and bra strap, reveal a great deal of social bravery for violating a taboo for young girls her age in public places. Aside from the fact that the checkered-shirt girl is almost certainly required to adhere to strict dress norms during the day (in her school uniform), for a girl her age, this attire would certainly be be deemed too risqué by anyone of authority whom she personally knows. However, both young women feel comfortable pushing the envelope of acceptability in the transiently wildly open space of Seoul Fashion Week (SFW) that takes place twice a year (in March and October) inside or in the immediate environs of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), which is also known as an area of relative sartorial and hence social freedom. What is significant from interviewing the "I'm Ladies" subject is the fact that she not only feels safe smoking in public immediately in the SFW/DDP area itself, but that she feels safe about her photo being taken and even published by me, the photographer. The same can be said for the backwards shirt-wearing girl, but whose sartorial precociousness itself being somewhat socially unusual should mean that her willingness to pose should perhaps not be too surprising, but it also helps define the FSW/DDP space as indeed one worthy of the "fashion district" moniker supported by the municipal government. Both young women are typical of the kind of social/sartorial bravery that is typically displayed in the area, for quite some time. 

IMG_5755 copy
IMG_5744 copy

The young lady in the pictures from 2008 is standing across the street from the finished structure in which the two women in the first pictures find themselves either in front of or inside, respectively, but the more open sartorial/social nature of the space became apparent to me more than a decade ago, as one of the first places I ever saw a Korean woman openly and proudly sporting a tattoo, which was much more of a social taboo then than it is today. 


Situational Ethics and the Methodological Concerns of Street Photography in South Korea OR, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and see Street Photography as Viable Sociological Practice

I'm aiming high by arrogating to go for the American Journal of Sociology or American Sociological Review with this article. I'm swinging for the fences on this one by taking it slow, using British spelling, crafting careful and tight prose, and ladling the meat with heavy theoretical discussion of issues of great methodological concern, as found in being a participant-observer who has had to navigate the ethical concerns of the enlightened social scientist as participant-observer (even as I interrogate what that means as a citizen of a New Metropole now living and working in a society that has gone from existence at the periphery to now functioning as part of the center),  street photographer who is constrained by more practical concerns as found in the technical constraints of the photographic medium, social norms, and the limits of Korean law, and as an artist who also considers himself a social scientist not despite the camera but precisely because of its presence. 

 The  flâneur  writes back, and always fades into the crowd.. 

The flâneur writes back, and always fades into the crowd.. 

 Henri Cartier-Bresson shooting amongst the crows in 1974. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson shooting amongst the crows in 1974. 

Inevitably, and perhaps narcissistically, this article is an attempt to unify my visual sensibilities as a street photographer and artist as well as my use of the visual as a social scientist, as a Visual Sociologist. The method by which I do so will be as a dual-pronged attempt to unify the more artistic endeavour of street photography with the more formal observational methodology of social science that is now called Visual Sociology. Before progressing any further, it is important to note that both endeavours, no matter how divergent they are in their respective modes of expression and mediums of engagement, both have common origins in the modern city, modes of civilised existence, and even institutionalised urbaneness itself.

 Street Photography as both aesthetic pursuit, with compositional, exposure-related, and other technical concerns, as well as directed and effective social commentary that utilizes an interplay of semiotic elements evry bit as effectively as a commercial advertiser might, except that the "hunt" is dictated by a documentary realism that limits the photographer-practitioner to creating a bricolage capturing of found objects that Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment" when all the key elements come together in a single image.  

Street Photography as both aesthetic pursuit, with compositional, exposure-related, and other technical concerns, as well as directed and effective social commentary that utilizes an interplay of semiotic elements evry bit as effectively as a commercial advertiser might, except that the "hunt" is dictated by a documentary realism that limits the photographer-practitioner to creating a bricolage capturing of found objects that Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment" when all the key elements come together in a single image.  

Indeed, much as modern sociology has strong generative roots in the conflict of modernity and urbanization that sparked the social reform photojournalism of Jacob Riis or Louis Hine, the entire enterprise of sociology itself finds its origins in the socio-historical moment that produced the flâneur, who navigated, observed, and responded to the modern moment by participation in and dialectical engagement with the material conditions that created this a social character in 19th-century France in the first place. Indeed, it was flâneur extraordinaire Charles Baudelaire, who best exemplifies this description of professional social observer and artist-philosopher, who walked the streets of Paris as participant–observer and wrote poetry to express his thoughts, who coined the term "modernity" in the first place. (Frisby, PAGE)


Was on the poop chute at the movies when I had a sudden realization. This inspiration was such tha I had to write it on a paper bag I had in my pocket. But this will be the kernel of my paper and attempt to link the Parisian practice of flanerie to early

Since any serious attempt to look closely at the flâneur as an early form of sociologist must inevitably start with the scholar–philosopher Walter Benjamin, who wrote sagely on topics ranging from modernity, history, and totalitarianism, all the way to photography and the meaning of Art itself, I begin by not daring to go where no one has gone before, so I begin my analysis by inevitably depending on David Frisby, in his chapter "The City Observed: the Flâneur in Social Theory" from his book Cityscapes of Modernity

Aside from any single characterisation that might be made about him, Benjamin was certainly a thinker possessed of the ability to look at society in a structured way that was positively pregnant with theoretical possibility and immense critical acumen...

The Korean Paepi, The Mediated Self, and Fast Social Capital

 Fig. 1 -- Gyu-eun. A  paepi  (Korean  portmanteau  word from the Korean pronunciation of "fashion people" -- and informant from Seoul Fashion Week SS 2016 (in March 2015), who embodies the  paepis'  position as a site of creativity itself within the Korean fashion field, as her remixing of sartorial texts is as truly innovative and valued as most paepis' remediation and re-presentation of the virtual self.  (Photograph by author)

Fig. 1 -- Gyu-eun. A paepi (Korean portmanteau word from the Korean pronunciation of "fashion people" -- and informant from Seoul Fashion Week SS 2016 (in March 2015), who embodies the paepis' position as a site of creativity itself within the Korean fashion field, as her remixing of sartorial texts is as truly innovative and valued as most paepis' remediation and re-presentation of the virtual self.

(Photograph by author)


Korea is rapidly changing the nature of its social capital from that constituted by jaebol-oriented procedural specialists to start-up-focussed creative talents who intend to harness the innovative and creative dynamicism of a newly emerging creative economy. This article considers the Korean paepi as the center of an ethnographic consideration of how this representative group of outsiders that have voted with not just their proverbial feet, but with their entire sartorial bodies as they forge a new path to fast social capital partially using the infrastructure of fast fashion production that has organically evolved in central Seoul.

LONG ABSTRACT (478 words)

Korea is rapidly changing the nature of its social capital from that constituted by jaebol-oriented procedural specialists to start-up-focussed creative talents who intend to harness the innovative and creative dynamicism of a newly emerging creative economy. This article places the Korean paepi (a Korean portmanteau word from the transliteration of the English words “fashion” and “people” to yield pae + pi) at the center of an ethnographic consideration of how this representative group of outsiders mark a significant social shift as the nearly inevitable result of demographic changes in Korean society, as well as the cultural product of Seoul’s highly developed textile industry infrastructure. The paepi also exist because of the Internet and the social networks that have allowed the creation of a vibrant sartorial community that is literally changing the visible face of Korean society. A close consideration of the paepi is both relevant and important in understanding a new, important way that social capital is being defined in one representative segment of Korean society, as youth especially have voted with not just their proverbial feet, but with their entire sartorial bodies to form a new path to fast social capital partially using the infrastructure of fast fashion production that has organically evolved in places such as the Dongdaemun private branded hive (PBH) complex in central Seoul. The paepi utilise social network services on the Internet tobuild new hierarchies, standards, and norms of social capital that go outside of the hitherto traditional route of intense study, admission to as prestigious a university as possible, lifetime employment in a large company, and marriage to a spouse of similar social standing. The paepi are largely composed of youth in their late teens and early twenties who evaluate their success in their community in terms of Facebook’s ability to reify social capital success through Facebook fashion group popularity-as-Likes alongside raw numbers of Instagram followers. In keeping with the call for interdisciplinarity in social research articulated by Rowley (2014), this article employs ethnographic methods to discern the means and norms through which members of the greater, networked paepi community define and rank group membership in what has truly become the most organically and independently creative sector of a society presently occupied with a new state goal of fostering a ‘creative economy’, even as the state has been unable to dismantle the institutional and cultural infrastructure that has largely acted to stifle the very kind of creativity society now assigns great value. Interestingly, the extreme success of the paepi who define their sector of the fashion field in drawing international attention to the Korean fashion industry has begun to ruffle the feathers of the Korean fashion industry establishment, which has been struggling with the very same institutional culture barriers that have hindered other Korean organisational structures’ attempts to institutionally foster creativity, even with government mandates to do so. 

Keywords: Paepi, Korean fashion and textile industry, creative economy, Facebook, private branded hive (PBH), Dongdaemun, social capital, field theory





The Korean textile/fashion industry has played a much larger role in the development of Asian fashion than many know. When talking about Korean fashion, it is easy to see what's apaprent, what you see. Some might mark a point, perhaps 2006, 2009, 2012, when Korean street fashions were perhaps worth looking at. Some liketo only look at the high fashion sector, at the designers and their fashion designer associations, or focus solely on Korea's premier fashion event, Seoul Fashion Week. However, these ways of looking at things only focus on the easily visible, the parts of fashion that are easy for the eye to see, the parts that even the neophyte can easily observe. 


There two main points to consider here, by way of infrastructure and backgrounding the cultural evolution of the Korean paepi:


The importance of pronto moda fashion technology and infrastructure in the 1990s as a result of Korea's close relationship with the growth of Japanese street fashion as the crucial aspect of Korea's textile industry that would allow the development of an environment in which the paepi would flourish cannot be underemphasized. That the QR (quick response) technologies of the uniquely Korean PBHs (private-branded hives) housed in Dongdaemun actually enabled the production of the diverse and unusual styles, accessories, and accoutrements worn and used by the street fashion-leading kogal of Tokyo in the 1990s. In short, the researchshows that there would have been no Japanese street fashion movement -- no Shibuya and Harajuku in the way we know them today -- without Dongdaemun, its silent economic partner. And even today, the growth of the PBH's (from Migliore to Doota to APM) predominance in Korea's fashion economy would not have happened without Tokyo street fashion and the Japanese market as its major client. It's a two-way street, so Korea's DDM and the PBH evolved in an environment that required (and shaped) its evolution; here would be no growth in Korean street fashion in the way we see it today on the streets of Seoul without the QR-cycle-battle-hardened, fast fashion market sharpened, fickle fashion cycle honed PBH style of production in Dongdaemun. You don't get the ludicrously cheap prices and buffet-like extreme variety of fashion choices (often illegal knockoffs of looks taken directly from picture on ther Internet) that enables young Korean women to look exactly like and wear the clothing Sienna Miller was wearing in a picture of her within 48 of its being updloaded and disseminated across the world without the accelerated QR/pronto moda/fast fashion technology of the DDM PBH complex and places like it. And you don't get the latter without the 1990s Japanese street fashion market driving and sharpening it. (Kim and Kincade, 2009)

It is also crucial to understand and consider the demographic/societal changes that affect how the paepi are and how they came to be as agents of street fashion culture today. As in most things development related, the Japanese either experienced it first or set it into motion before Korea, but in a very similar way, given the demographic similarities and direct developmental connections between the two countries. Kawamura points out that in the Japanese case in the 1990s, an economic recession had destroyed not only old ways of thinking, but forced a shift to lower prices and a move away from the older way of branded items and outlets. This, along with the beginning of a sharp population decline, changed the way teens saw their futures. In combination with the prospect of probable unemployment even with a college degree, not to mention relative decrease in competition for spots in universities, create the social possibility for exploring life paths and identities outside of the study-college-job-marriage matrix for young girls. Hence, the environmental conditions for the eventual evolution of the kogal. (Kawamura, 2006) 

In short, the existence of the paepi and the Dongdaemun fast fashion complex are inextricably linked, made possible by an 8-cylinder, turbocharged, fast fashion super-engine housed in the middle of the capitol city, the center of commerce and culture for South Korea. Even as South Korean society has evolved into the government's always shifting ideational plans for an segyehwa (globalization) and an "idea economy" based primarily on consumption as nearly a patriotic duty, the place of youth in a new economic order dictaated by high youth unemployment, one oft the lowest birth rates in the world, and a rapidly aging population, old promises and new forms of subjectivity themselves have changed the way youth exist in Korean society. This is a relationship and a phenomenon I plan to explore with both visual and sociological data in an extended form, based on extensive ethnographic research. 


I initially conducted 7 structured, formal interviews in my office on the Hongik University campus, which was a process facilitated partially from my reputation and good personal rapport with several paepi after having photographed them and developed a working relationship with them, along with the reputation of Hongik University as the premiere arts university in the country, in which I was  then teaching a course called "Understanding the Art of Photography." This set of interviews was both foregroundded and followed up by countless planned meetings, chance encounters, and photo shoots with paepi on the streets and also repeatedly at the recurring fashion event Seoul Fashion Week (hereafter, "SFW"). It in this capacity that I can describe my interaction with my many informants as "participant observation," although this relationship was never formally defined as such until recently, shortly before the writing of this article began. 

The reason I chose the paepi for the present anlysis is quite simple. The paepi is the clearest and most obvious case study tool with which to explore the question that is the concern of this special edition, that of "The Role of Human Capital in Societal Progress in Asia." In choosing to explore this topic, I elected to redefine the new social imperative and paradigm of Progress laid down in South Korea by the Pak Geun-hye administration in its effort to prioritize the fostering of human capital in line with the new state goal of building a "creative economy," which has become the new buzzword of the day. 

Methodologically speaking, what might be unusual about this analysis is how it brings together ethnomethodology, semiotics, and a bit of film theory into an integrated visual sociological analysis in order to establish individual actors' motivations within a larger theoretical framework grounded in Bourdieu's field theory approach to understanding social interaction. In this way, a multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach offers a unique and powerfully integrated approach to explaining a new form that so-called Creativity has taken in South Korea. 

The Problem with Social Capital in Organizational Analysis

I'll begin the bulk of the analysis by defining a problem with the way Bourdieu and his idea of cultural capital is generally employed in management theory, business, and organizational analysis, beginning with a block quote From researchers Mustafa Emirbayer and  Victoria Johnson's article "Bourdieu and Organizational Analysis" to get the ball rolling.

Despite some promising steps in the right direction, organizational analysis has yet to exploit fully the theoretical  and empirical possibilities inherent in a relational perspective upon the social world. In particular, it has yet to explore in systematic fashion implications for organizational studies of the writings of the airport though, perhaps the most important of all recent contributors to the project of a relational sociology. Bourdieu has had virtually no impact on organizational analysis, perhaps in large part because, despite extended analyses of organizations... To be sure, certain concepts associated with this thought, such as field and capital, two of the cornerstones of his sociology, already widely known in the organizational literature. However, the specific ways in which these terms are being used provide ample evidence that the full significance of his relational mode of thought has yet to be apprehended. Moreover, the almost total inattention to habitus, the third of Bourdieu's major concepts, without which the concepts of field and capital (at least as he deployed them) make no sense, further attests to the misappropriation of his ideas and to the lack of appreciation of the potential usefulness. (Emirbayer et al, 1-2)

Harvard sociologist's frank followup to Emirbayer and Johnson's shot across the proverbial bow of the an organizational analysis field engaged in the misappropriation of Bourdieu's theoretical framework simply must be read directly as the touchstone and beginning point for my own analytical additions. 

The relational theorist Mustafa Emirbayer and the organizational scholar Victoria Johnson have thrown down the gauntlet to American organizational researchers, arguing that as a field we have not taken Bourdieu’s insights about the world of organizations to heart and that our theory and research are impoverished as a result. Their central argument is that while components of Bourdieu’s ideas have been picked up here and there, Bourdieu’s great power comes from its integration of the theory of the individual (habitus), the theory of social structure (the field), and a theory of power relations (the various forms of capital). The whole of this theory is more than the sum of its parts and so the potential of the theory has not been realized in American practice even if some of the parts have been embraced. Moreover, we have not explored the power of the theory as an approach to understanding a single organization, from the perspective of field, capital, and habitus. Where Bourdieu’s insights have been picked up, they have been considered at the interorganizational, not intraorganizational, level. (Dobbin, 1)



The "Extended Self"

First we should begin with a discussion of Russell W. Belk's notion of the "extended self." He begins his article on "Possessions and the Extended Self" by saying that

"We cannot hope to understand consumer behavior without first giving some understanding of the meaning that consumers attach to possessions. The key to understanding what possessions mean is recognizing that, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally, we regard our possessions as part of ourselves. As Tuan argues, "our fragile sense of self needs support, and this we get by having and possessing things because, to a large degree, we are what we have and possess (1980, p.472)" (Belk, 139)

Basically, what Belk is saying is that in consumer societies, our objects that we possess become actual extensions of ourselves, which is why we feel so devastated after a fire destroys our home and worldly possessions, or why theft often so viscerally feels like such a invasion and attack, like a violation. Indeed, Belk goes on to say that "Sartre maintains that the only reason we want to have something is to enlarge our sense of self and that the only way we can know who we are is by observing what we have." In this way, if one thinks upon the growth of American consumer culture and Conspicuous consumption in the 1950s, it makes sense that the automobile became a major mode of defining the extended self in United States culture for men, in the same way that fashion consumption came to play a much larger role In the way that women to find themselves in the processes of expanding concerns of fashion down from the rarefied air of the elite into the mainstream for many American women. Belk makes interesting note of how

"...mourning for dead loved ones also may be interpreted as grieving for loss of self. The prior possessions of the deceased can be powerful remains of the dead person's extended self. These remains are often the focus of normal and pathological morning. (Volkan 1984)" (Belk, 144)

It did not take much effort to update his update his own theory to keep up with important changes in media and self-mediation, as encapsulated in His article "Extended Self in a Digital World."

25 years ago, when Belk (1988) presented the concept of the extended self, theere were already personal computers. But there were no webpages, online games, search engines, virtual worlds, social media, Internet, e-mail, smart phones, MP-3 players, or digital cameras. Today, with these and other digital technologies, the possibilities for self-extension have never been so extensive. There is nothing deterministic about the effects of technological change, and current digital technologies are merely the latest in a human technological history that began in Paleolithic times. Nevertheless, it is evident that the current wave of digital technologies is fundamentally changing consumer behavior in ways that have significant implications for the formulation of the extended self. It is time for an update. This is not meant as a challenge to or repudiation of the extended self, which remains more vital than ever in the digital world. Rather, it is meant to consider what is similar, different, and in need of change, that is, an update.

It is at this point that we come to the face.  Before we move to the inevitable issue of Facebook,i want to foregroundsuch a discussion with the fact of a hypermodern South Korea that grew to adulthood within the pressure cooker of the Cold War, a culture of unfettered and unapologetic capitalism, and what many scholars refer to as the "compressed development" that formed a society that endured the development pangs of other industrial capitalist societies that often took more than a century or two, but which South Korea barreled through in a span of time not evenhalf as long, often within the single lifetime of a some octogenarian who have lived through it all.

For South Koreans, the massive changes that came with the advent of the Internet and Internet-enabled, so-called "social media" is not so fundamentally different then the changes brought about by having access to clean running water, private automobile ownership, hot water From the tap, and high-speed bullet trains, in progressive order of decades after the Korean War. By the time the 1990s came to pass, the advent of the personal computer wasn't such a shock to Korean sensibilities, in the same way that a population that hadn't even known email in the middle of that decade boasted of high-speed broadband Internet access in nearly every home by the beginning of the new millennium.  So the fact that the first decade of the 2000s brought with it YouTube, smart phones, Facebook, and other means of extending the self is not something that came as a great, fundamentally jarring, nor existential surprise to many South Koreans.

Before moving on from the concept of the extended self in general to a consideration of what this means for the Korean paepi, we should first move to a consideration of how the Korean concept of chemyeon -- the social "face"  -- is culturally situated within contemporary Korean culture. To do this, to attempt to measure the social value of the face in Korean society, requires the employment of heavy theoretical tools borrowed from one of sociology's greatest recent thinkers, namely Pierre Bourdieau. Generally, Bourdieau's explication of social capital is most useful here, despite the fact that it tends to be employed without much consideration to one of its most potentially powerful points of theoretical sharpness, that of the embodied cultural capital and habitus, and the crucially linked idea of field theory. (reference) We will return to the concept of chemyeon after sufficiently reviewing the basics of field theory so as to remind ourselves of its crucial importance to the concept of cultural capital. 


In the bigger picture, this part of the article is both a response to and enhancement of ideas put forth by John Levi Martin (Martin).

What Martin is talking about is an extended metaphor taken from the physical sciences for use in social science, simply stated. And it has great utility as an explanatory metaphor, especially when explaining many far-ranging and diffuse social phenomenae.

Often, people seem to treat social phenomenae as something discreet and definable, akin to something "real" that one can pick up and touch with one's hands. However, the problem here is defining something that is inherently difficult to see, which is the defining characteristic of most social phenomenae -- you can't see the ism itself, but only its effects. Sure, sexism and racism, like gravity, all exist; but you can't see those things themselves. Like Isaac Newton in the apocryphal story connected to his name, he didn't “see” gravity, as indeed no one can or ever has, but could clearly see its effects in the apples falling from the tree. If one goes up into a tower and drops an apple, a rock, and a feather at the same time, we know that they're going to be pulled down, as all mass is inside a gravitational field. Einstein complexified this difficult question by stating that gravity is not a force transferred by some medium or particle across empty space. And that was the essential problem. What is the medium of transference of energy within a field? Is there some movement of a magical ether or some other mysterious thing that we can't see? No, says Einstein. Gravity is the warping of space-time around any object possessed of mass. And that leads us to the major aspects of field theory that will define the theory for us and explain it.

Within a field, there are 5 rules or conditions to think about objects that fall within its influence. The field, in both the physical sciences and social sciences senses:

1. Causes "changes in the state of some elements but involves no appeal to changes in states of other elements."

2. “Changes in state involving interaction between the field and the existing states of the elements" and

3. "The elements have particular attributes that make them susceptible to the field effect.”

4. “The field without the elements is only a potential for the creation of force."

5. The field itself is not directly measurable; its existence can only be proved by its effects.” (CITATION)

In the end, according to Martin, “Field theory, then, has several generic characteristics no matter what the domain of application." And that is key to our purposes here, as social scientists trying to explain phenomenae in social fields. (CITATION)

So, moving from the ideas of gravitational or electromagnetic fields in physical science, let's postulate that the social field defined by its effects on agents within it is one that is shot through with the “global fetish”, an aspiration to a vaguely-defined “global” that is shared by all agents within the field and indeed has come to partially define the legitimacy of the field itself. We should also not forget the way that Bourdieau imagined the field in his employment of field theory, as the arena of struggle for primacy within it, with cultural capital as the deciding factor of success. 

For the sake of ease of discussion, let us try to compress the lengthy idea of an intertwined and cross-permeated field of fashion in Korea that is shot through with global aspirational desire -- with a certain globality -- parallel to the way that the related forces of electricity and magnetism have come to be expressed as electromagnetism. The resulting field generated within and defined by agents in the Korean aspirationally global fashion complex (KAGFaC) affects agents as diverse as Korean high fashion designers, the fashion design associations they constitute, overseas and domestic fashion buyers, international and local press outlets, and the paepi that are a major point of concern of this paper in a variety of different ways.   The field -- and its global charge --  affects the nature and behaviour of the agents, which then interact with one another in terms of their altered characteristics and resultant different self-interests.

Before moving on from a review of theory to a discussion of the paepi and the field of fashion they enter, it is necessary to take a brief aside to mention a South Korean societal phenomenon that charges the field of fashion with a specific and peculiar valence. 


It is useful to characterize the way in which the commercialization and commodification of Korean culture and the desire to promote and export it outside of Korea’s borders fits in terms ofHyunjung Lee's notion of a “global fetish”, in which she points out how the notion of the “global” in South Korea having become so highy prioritized that it has become its own rationale, one capable of explainingjust about anything, or alternatively put, has become a rationalizing framework able to give meaning and worthiness to just about anything put into it, to the extent that the object promotes Korea or Korean culture in the global realm, or functionsto “globalize” South Korea. 


It is useful to begin an explication of what I will call the "KAGFaC" field with Seoul Fashion Week (SFW), the industry event that brings all major players in the field together in a highly organised and controlled way, with the goal of gathering the global gaze as a given. At SFW, Korean high fashion designers do what they know how to do, which is to stage fashion shows (often through the industry event known as Seoul Fashion Week, which is partially supported by the city and national governments) and hope to garner international attention via the global gaze of overseas press and, to a lesser extent, overseas buyers. However, the main function of buyers within the commercial fashion field is to possess as many commercially viable items as possible to offer for resale in the stores and showrooms of the venues they represent. Since the obvious goal of high fashion designers is to sell clothes, mainly to buyers, designing runway shows to appeal to them while making the clothing easy to photograph for members of the media and commercial catalogues, the entire structure of the fashion show has shifted from that of a small, intimate affair designed to show clothes to a small, powerful elite gathered in a small room to one designed to have clothes paraded before a large, professional photo corps positioned at the end of a long runway, with the intention of having each piece of clothing shared as widely as possible in magazines, TV programs, and other forms of media. To this end, both still photographers and videographers not only expect, but demand to be placed as close to centre runway position at the far end of the long runway, with general “house,” then designer “house” official photographers getting first priority for shooting placement before the beginning of each show, followed by photographers with official press passes from other outlets on a first-come, first-serve basis. The photo press clustered together at the end of the runway are the main focus of the show, since their role in getting the designer’s end product — the clothing — out to the world in a concrete way — through their photographs and recordings — is crucial to making sure the event has any impact at all outside of the halls of the venue, which has now become permanent and official, the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP), housed in the fashion/textile districtof Dongdaemun, the traditional garment district that has been officialised by the Seoul city government as the center of fashion in Seoul, and hence, the entire nation.  Fashion writers and other members of the non-photographic press are seated, along with buyers and VIPs, along the side of the runway so as to facilitate being able to see all details of the garments on the runway, from types of stitches and materials to cuts and how the garment flows and falls upon the models’ bodies. Both photo and non-photo press are categorised into overseas and domestic categories, with the overseas press beng given higher priority by being seated or allowed entry before the domestic press, since Seoul Fashion Week, supported as it is by funds from the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, has prioritised the elevation of SFW into greater global prominence and gives special care to facilitate the jobs of members of the overseas press, even to the detriment of the functioning of the local press that is actually more responsible for documenting and promoting the work of the designers in question. VIPs such as famous pop stars and actors are crucial to adding to the social capital of designers who can successfully invite them to their shows, even as glitterati attendees benefit from the glamorous boost to their respective images in being photographed in a front row fashion show seat. It is worth noting that only SFW

[Integrate London fashion Week reference here.] 

Superstructure – The Image Society

Towards embodied cultural capital

One of the most popular discussions of the Korean face that occurs regularly within Western media, generally revolve around the issue of plastic surgery, both in terms of the size of the industry and the cultural symbolism belied by its popularity in Korean society. One of the best discussions of these discourses is the overview provided by Holliday and Elvfing-Hwang, (Holliday et al, 76) differentiates between domestic Korean version of the eoljjang ("best face) that would include a definition of a colonialist aesthetic mindset in terms of the desire to alter the face along the lines of media influenced notions of beauty and a desire to alter the face out of reasons related to the Korean notion of gwansang susul, which can be roughly translated as physiognomic  surgery, which is motivated not as much by Western notions of beauty but by Korean cultural ideas of ideal facial features based on older, Korean, neo-Confucian norms.(Holliday et al, 70) Here, the idea that the traditional notion of women's place in society is one of being possessed of the "subjectless bodies" that must be placed into the service of literally reproducing and propogating the state in the biological sense is crucial to understand here, which is one reason it the choice to invest in improvement of that body by converting fiscal capital into embodied cultural capital can be seen as a completely rational one. Although Holliday and Elving-Hwang point out that only seeing women as the subjects of the desire to consume and invest in the self doesn't see the problem of consumption for the trees, since men are also under social pressure to invest in the same plastic surgery to increase embodied capital, for the purposes of the present paper, I would suffice it to say that the traditional Confucian emphasis on the bodies of women as biological vessel and as a subject whose value comes from the body is the most salient point in any effort to understand why women in particular are collectively pressure to obssess over appearance in general and the FACE more specifically. (Holliday, et al, 75-76) 

The Ultimate Form of Embodied Cultural Capital

Bordieau explicated three forms of the cultural capital that is employed in the service of maximizing a social actor's success in a given field: embodied/incorporated, objectified, and institutionalized.  Embodied/incorporated cultural capital is the least obvious to the casual thinker and observer and it includes aspects of the person related to ways of thinking and behavior that gives advantage or disadvantage in the social field, and is something that Bordieau also called habitus. (Bordieau, The Forms of Capital) In short, embodied or incorporated cultural capital include aspects of the person that don't seem obviously acquired but rather are seen as essential aspects of who the person is, which is why habits learned from having been subject to certain kinds of education and socialization can become assets in achieving success in given social fields, as opposed to an objectified form of cultural capital that can be found in the purchase of a shiny, red sports car, or the institutionalized cultural capital that might come from the acquisition of a certain kind of academic pedigree. Although Bordieau did not explicitly conceive of embodied/incorporated cultural capital as being part of the body in a literal sense, it is difficult to ignore the fact that the body, understood as a natural part of the social actor herself and subject to social judgments in a social field possessed of such priorities, cannot be left out of this subset of cultural capital that is actually quite corporeal, especially when considering the etymology of the term in either the original French or English. (complete this idea later)

In examining the social phenomenon of plastic surgery in South Korea, it is important to see past the predominant Western bias of interpreting the desire to alter one's appearance solely in terms of the influence of neocolonialism or Western racial and aesthetic hegemony. One also has to consider the fact that the notion of the facein Korean culture is a bit different send in many of the western cultures that negatively evaluate individual social actors' attempts to change the public face of who they are. Given the fact of how important physiognomy is in the neo-Confucian origins of Korean culture as well as the commonly held beliefs about both facial characteristics and appearance in Korean culture, combined with the fact that this is the basis of a significant amount of social pressure and defined very high stakes for access to societal resources, it should come as no surprise that appearance, especially in the form that the face takes, constitutes a significant part of one's social capital. And considering the fact that plastic surgery procedures have advanced enough such that physiognomic and other feeling typical traits can now be amplified and improved as a direct function of access to economic resources (Taeyeon Kim), it defines a new way of converting economic capital into embodied form, although the value here lies in obscuring this conversion.

And in a society that has become technologically and socially accustomed to freely changing and customizing manifestations of the extended self, the signifier, it should come as no surprise to see the development of a desire to change properties of the signified, The original object itself, namely one's actual, biological face. Given the fact that every actor in social fields is, according to Bordieau, caught up in a struggle to maximize one's social capital in order to Best be able to maximize one's ability to play the game as it is defined in any given social field, the maximization of one's social capital via plastic surgery or any other form of body modification cannot be called anything other then a rational choice.

But lest this analysis get ahead of itself, we should first take a closer look at the technological and cultural context in which a peculiarly Korean social obsession with the face came into being. One cannot really understand either phenomenon of plastic surgery in Korea or the related idea of of how incorporated social capital can be converted into objectified social capital via the clinician's knife without understanding other technologically and aesthetically-routed to cultural practices around the face, namely in terms of the concept of eol-jjang




The paepi understand Dubord's notion of a society built around the superficiality of the visible and understood in semiotic argumentation as a matter of course. And they do so partiaally because of the a media environment from which they derive their habitus and even their basic understanding of self. 

A culture centered around the Korean portmanteau word eol-jjang, which is a mashing together of the Korean word eolgul (face) and the Korean slang word for "best" (jjang). Mostly with the use of small digital cameras, young Korean women became more than adept at using them at flattering 45° camera angles and wide lens lengths to create quite attractive portraits that were often considered strikingly, even surprisingly and unbelievably, different from the original subject. Eol-jjang was more than just a term that denoted a particular genre of picture, but soon evolved into a social activity unto itself on the normal, HTML-enabled web. Users would register for an account and submit their best eol-jjang shots to be viewed and ranked by other users. They were myriad cases of such face kings and queens becoming Internet famous and even actually famous in the realm of real life. While The medium of exchange has inevitably changed from top down controlled websites with multiple user accounts to Facebook Groups and Pages, both the concept and the term have endured, with the photographic form and social interaction having both remained the same, in addition to the fact that it is a fast way to gain social recognition and hence, social capital. Nowadays, in the age of countable "LIKEs" on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, the instant recognition in the Hegelian sense mixes with recognition in the literal sense of celebrity, making for a potent cocktail for fast social capital within the ultimate, virtual "imagined community" (Chua, 2006)

Finished photo class up in the Taco Bell as usual and immediately bumped into the Usual Suspects of Street Fashion, two of whom I shot at SFW. they didn't need to be convinced to strike a pose.

Fig. 2 -- Paepi. 


THE Primacy of the Signifier

In terms of where Korean society has led us, the face, as Baudrillard Might tell us, has been complexified in the new digital world, in which the signified — one's real face — is just a reality-based footnote to its virtual representation — The signifier, the digital picture. Indeed, in a society in which even employment pictures on resumes are expected to be Photoshop, artifice is no longer seen as deception, but merely the polite embellishment society expects that is akin to putting on make up before a big date on the morning of the visa job interview. It is expected, normalized, and destigmatized. And to the extent that this kind of social pressure may be placed disproportionally upon women, more women may get plastic surgery that men, but is no longer only gendered practice for women only in the same way that many men nowadays apply make up in Korean society. Facebook is the sum of these technologies and the very embodiment of the extended self, as technologically significant as all prior technological innovations before it combined, which are also its constituent parts. Still, it is important to note, along the lines of Marshall McLuhan's writings on the subject, that despite the fact that Facebook is the ultimate expression of the Dishley extended self in the very obvious way and that Facebook is the sum of all the technological advances that made it possible, but it also much more than the sum of its media parts. Importantly, Facebook has to find itself as not only a new medium of social interaction, but a medium of mass communication as well. More than television or any other form that has come since the advent of that miraculous invention that changed for old, it is Facebook That is the ultimate herald of the oft-quoted McLuhan, as he told us that "the medium is the message." Indeed, that particular medium has changed the way we conceive of ourselves and the way we interact with one another in the space of a surprisingly short time. Now that the meme of using so-called "social media" as Major forms of social interaction that perceived to be "real", the question of how this innovation has successfully blurred the distinction between the real and represented while begging Baudrillard's questioning of whether that even matters anymore. His famous, misattributed quote is informative here:

“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none.
The simulacrum is true.”

This is the world and media environment into which the paepi were conceived and in which they naturally function,  as citizen–consumers and members of communities both physical and virtual, analog and digital, flesh and data, online and off. The important point here is that the distinction between these dichotomies is as semantically irrelevant and Esoteric as the distinction between signifier and signified when discussing who is the more "real", the picture of the person or the person being pictured? Of course, this is an intellectually interesting exercise and a point of distinction to academics perhaps, but in the real world, this has become a meaningless distinction that defines the nature of the habitus that undergirds the social capital of people in this generation and particular social group.

The Photographic Practices and Visual Habitus of Korean Youth 

I begin here with a typology presented in loose chronological order to offer an overview of the breadth of photographic practices that define the technical and aesthetic repertoire of the paepi generation.  

"Star Shots"

 Fig. 3 -- Star Wallet, circa 2002. 

Fig. 3 -- Star Wallet, circa 2002. 

In the late 1990s and early years of the milennium, 



 fig 4 -- Cosplay, 2003. "COSPLAY" or "costume play" is a "migratory fan practice" that originated in Japan (Lammerichs 2013, 155) not in the strictest cultural sense but as a portmanteau word coined by Japanese game designer Takahashi Nobuyuki in the 1980s as he "the costuming practices of American fans on a visit to the United States." The practice became quite popular in Japanese fan communities, particlarly in anime fandoms. (Lammerichs 2011, 1.3) Interestingly, the concept is heavily associated with Japan because of the particular turn that the cosplay culture of Japan took, especially in terms of the conventions and associated photographic practices that evolved in photographic culture and which also found great purchase in South Korea. 

fig 4 -- Cosplay, 2003. "COSPLAY" or "costume play" is a "migratory fan practice" that originated in Japan (Lammerichs 2013, 155) not in the strictest cultural sense but as a portmanteau word coined by Japanese game designer Takahashi Nobuyuki in the 1980s as he "the costuming practices of American fans on a visit to the United States." The practice became quite popular in Japanese fan communities, particlarly in anime fandoms. (Lammerichs 2011, 1.3) Interestingly, the concept is heavily associated with Japan because of the particular turn that the cosplay culture of Japan took, especially in terms of the conventions and associated photographic practices that evolved in photographic culture and which also found great purchase in South Korea. 


The Sticker Picture

 Fig. 5 -- Yoojin's Sticker picture collection. 

Fig. 5 -- Yoojin's Sticker picture collection. 

 Fig 6 -- Sticker pictures were a major fixture in the lives of many Korean middle and high school girls, as it was for Q-yeon, now a university student.

Fig 6 -- Sticker pictures were a major fixture in the lives of many Korean middle and high school girls, as it was for Q-yeon, now a university student.

  diagram of the first  purikura  machine (Terashita, 87)

 diagram of the first purikura machine (Terashita, 87)

The "sticker picture" is a fixture in the photographic development of Korean youth who now find themselves in their twenties, especially for young women. Beginning with the importation and popularity of large sticker picture booths from Japan after their invention and rise in popularity in 1995.  (Terashita et al, 87) Called purikura (for the Japanese pronunciation of purinto kurabu or "print club")(Simonitch), this photographic practice is as purely Japanese as it is linked to subculture and fashion cultures in Japan (Groom, 194). The photographic practice is still alive and well in Japan, as well as the many countries in Asia, including Korea, where "sticker picture" booths and their offspring are still ubiquitous fixtures of many public venues of consumptive socialization. The influence of sticker picture practices can still be seen in the many smartphone apps of today that allow users to add cute symbols, frames, and designs to their pictures before they are shared on social media networks. 

The "Image Picture"

 Fig. 7 -- Q-yeon's image picture for...

Fig. 7 -- Q-yeon's image picture for...

 Fig. 8 Q-yeon's image picture for her...

Fig. 8 Q-yeon's image picture for her...

The Korean "image picture" is a ubiquitous photographic practice that can be most easily likened to typical rites of social recording that exxist in almost any family portrait studio on planet Earth. However, there is one crucial difference here worth highlighting as a peculiarly Korean practice and a critical part of a general, Korean photographic habitus. In the typical family portrait studio generally found anywhere in the world, there is a staff photographer employed by the studio who controls the equipment and takes the picture for a fee. This kind of professional photo service exists in Korea, of course, and is utilized by families and individuals for all kinds of uses from family portraits to passport and resume pictures. However, the "image picture" practice is a peculiarly Korean cultural invention that eschews the use of a permanent staff photographer in favor of an open studio format that provides the backgrounds, props, and lighting options that clients (or groups of clients) utilize as they take pictures with their own cameras. Typically, groups of students, often female, take image pictures to record their social groups or individual friendships, and it is typical to see small groups of high school friends, club members, or even just pairs or trios of close friends taking pictures of themselves in studios that provide everything from simple benches to pose with all the way to specialized clothing from animal costumes to wedding dresses and faux high fashion items with which to playfully pose. It is worth noting that the "dress cafe" was a popular destination for small groups of female friends in the early years of the new millennium, but the popularity of that trend in photographic practice has waned in favor of more general photo studios available for use to make "image pictures."

 Fig. 9 -- A "dress cafe" near Ewha Women's University, circ 2004.

Fig. 9 -- A "dress cafe" near Ewha Women's University, circ 2004.

Resume pictures

 Fig. 10 -- The caption on this resume in the "discsarded" pile reads "too old." The need to physically improve upon the "original", or at least heavily mediate with Photoshop, becomes concretely clear. 

Fig. 10 -- The caption on this resume in the "discsarded" pile reads "too old." The need to physically improve upon the "original", or at least heavily mediate with Photoshop, becomes concretely clear. 

In Korea, as of this writing, resume pictures are a required part of any formal application process. 

Amateur Editorial Shoots

  Fig. 11 -- Soyeon's preferred style seems to be duplicating the fashion editorial shoots that populate fashion magazines. 

 Fig. 11 -- Soyeon's preferred style seems to be duplicating the fashion editorial shoots that populate fashion magazines. 

 Fig 12 -- Yoojin engages in photography that often uses multimedia and abstract symbolism. 

Fig 12 -- Yoojin engages in photography that often uses multimedia and abstract symbolism. 

Amateur editorial shoots are...

High-Concept Selfies and portraits


 Fig. 13 -- Yoojin's self-portraits as creative and multi-textual as the mini-editorial shoots she often undertakes, which matches her street clothing style. 

Fig. 13 -- Yoojin's self-portraits as creative and multi-textual as the mini-editorial shoots she often undertakes, which matches her street clothing style. 

    Fig. 14 -- 


Fig. 14 -- 

 Fig 15 -- 

Fig 15 -- 

High-Concept Selfies are...

 Fig. 16 -- Paepi and photo collaborator Hye-ji's Instagram and Facebook profile shot, in which Photoshop as eye alteration tool need not be used in moderation or even have to reflect realistic proportions. The simulacrum is indeed true, with any understanding of  différance  from the signified being viewed as trifling and academic. What Hyeji "actually" looks like -- in a world where the self has become radically extended and increasingly virtually represented, in which images have become the person for many intents and purposes, where Photoshop is considered to be no more fakery than the application of makeup for polite social consumption -- has become increasing less relevant to social realities and options in hyperconnected and hyper-modern South Korean culture.

Fig. 16 -- Paepi and photo collaborator Hye-ji's Instagram and Facebook profile shot, in which Photoshop as eye alteration tool need not be used in moderation or even have to reflect realistic proportions. The simulacrum is indeed true, with any understanding of différance from the signified being viewed as trifling and academic. What Hyeji "actually" looks like -- in a world where the self has become radically extended and increasingly virtually represented, in which images have become the person for many intents and purposes, where Photoshop is considered to be no more fakery than the application of makeup for polite social consumption -- has become increasing less relevant to social realities and options in hyperconnected and hyper-modern South Korean culture.

 Fig. 17 -- Hye-ji on Instagram, apparently channeling Warhol's "Marilyn Diptych" except for the literal take on a "multiplicity of meaning" (Paglia)

Fig. 17 -- Hye-ji on Instagram, apparently channeling Warhol's "Marilyn Diptych" except for the literal take on a "multiplicity of meaning" (Paglia)

An Ethnomethodological Analysis: The Paepi, Fashion, and the Curated Self

 Fig. 18 -- Hye-ji's "Best Me" picture from her Facebook picture albums, with wig, generous application of the "Liquefy" filter in Photoshop, and creative color filters. Notably, Hye-ji has no pictures of herself on social media without this significant alteration of her eyes. In fact, this unrealistic feature in her pictures is one of the distinguishing (and possibly defining)aspects of her portraits and self-portraits.

Fig. 18 -- Hye-ji's "Best Me" picture from her Facebook picture albums, with wig, generous application of the "Liquefy" filter in Photoshop, and creative color filters. Notably, Hye-ji has no pictures of herself on social media without this significant alteration of her eyes. In fact, this unrealistic feature in her pictures is one of the distinguishing (and possibly defining)aspects of her portraits and self-portraits.

It is in the realm of the habitus that we must locate a Cultural Studies-based look at the motivations that underlie social habits and choices. It is here that an ethnomethodology offers a deeper insight than what is generally described as a mere ethnography. Rather than approaching the paepi as mere illustrative examples within a typology, or more specifically (as is often the case), understanding them in terms of a sociological gaze already familiar with the fashion tribes of Japan, the analysis here takes a significantly different methodological step. The textbook definition of Ethnomethodology, for those unfamiliar with the term and approach, is "the study of sense-making in the social world, and as such turns to the raw material of the world for data." Like the more general category of ethnography within which ethnomethodology finds itself, EM is concerned with the gathering of empirical data within a group or type of people, but the approach differs from traditional ethnography in that the real-world, qualitative data does not exist merely as something to parse through with external theoretical tools; it is an approach that is crucially concerned with how members of the group that is subject to the participant-observer's analystical gaze construct the rules that they employ to make sense of their world, to carry out tasks, to get things done. The researcher's main goal is to discern the set of rules that the group uses to make sense of itself and exist in the real word. EM is very much grounded in the concerns of reality while being (in)famously unconcerned with the dictates of a staid and traditional structural functionalist sociology, for example, that tends to interpret social action in the narrow view of fostering social cohesion. One common tool of EM is conversation analysis (hereafter, CA), which takes a very different approach to evaluating social actions and even the social meanings of simple conversational exchanges. John Macauley puts it succinctly:

Ethnomethodology focuses on the scene while ethnography focuses on the group. From this perspective, the ethnographer will seek to spend long periods of time immersed in a field setting. They will attempt to broaden their understanding of relationships and activities of the group. They will take account of how the group live and make sense of their surrounding world. Often the ethnographer takes the position of participant-observer pursuing two roles, both as a member and reporter of the group (Hine 2000: pg5). Thus the focus of the ethnographer is firmly fixed upon the group - how the group develop rituals and create culture. The ethnomethodologist, in contrast, is more ambivalent towards how the group’s culture develops. Rather, the ethnomethodologist is concerned with how recognisable social order is created within the group. If the group is the locus of investigation Garfinkel suggests sociological method as appropriate. On the other hand if the locus of investigation is the processes that the group operate, then this is the realm of the ethnomethodologist (Heritage 1984: pg199). Thus, ethnomethodology shifts the focus
of analysis from the population to the scene - a view inconsistent with other forms of sociology. (McAuley, 10)

Here, it is crucial to understand what the place of what EM practoctoioners call "conversation anlysis" or CA for short, in which short snippets of speech-as-text are analyzed according to context-specific criteria, as opposed to their strictly-undeerstood function within a language. Generally, EM practitioners have come to the consensus that CA should be practiced on unmediated snippets of conversation observed by the observer herself, as opposed to understanding them in recorded or otherwise mediated encounters. (MaCauley, 11)

It is here that thismight seem to pose a problem for the purposes of our present analysis in that the "conversations"-as-pictures we are evaluating are in fact heavily mediated However, in the interest of utilizing this facile tool while updating it to be used with different kinds of social interactions, I postulate that the photograph, in the way it is utilized in social media, is very much tool -- or a snippet -- of a larger conversation in much the same way that Conversations take place betweenTo individuals speaking face-to-face. Obviously, the problem here lies in the fact that CA's original formulation would seemingly not allow mushroom for its use in a heavily mediated interaction such as found in the exchange of pictures on the social Internet. However, I would like to suggest here that's the profile pictures used by paepi to represent themselves to the world on Facebook, for example, are not merely the pictures that some people might take them for, as accurate representatives of reality, but heavily mediated statements about identity that are often quite divorced from the exigencies of the Real. They are very much textual statements whose contexts need to be understood before understanding what they mean.



And it is at this point that CA sets the ball to be handled by the next theoretical player, which is that of semiotics. And it is at this point that one might refer to the picture above of Hyeji, one of the paepi who allowed her picture to be used as fodder for this article's analysis.


Hyeji's case is what shows us the importance of ethnomethodology as placed within the framework of field theory, since the field can tell us how different actors relate to and compete with one another within its boundaries, but in order to understand individual motivations, via the semiotic conversations that they produce, it is important to  come to understand what motivates actors as they navigate a social field, in terms of what they are actually saying. And in the conversation about paepi, whose distinguishing characteristic is that of fashion and dress, it is in the realm of the body that we must locate our understanding of Bourdieau's cultural capital, especially in the embodied form he argues is most diffuse and difficult to see, but is crucial in the building of cultural capital. That is our of main concern in trying to understand who the paepi are as social actors within the KAGFaC field. 

 Fig. 19 -- "Entrepreneurial femininity." 2015.

Fig. 19 -- "Entrepreneurial femininity." 2015.

 Fig. 20 -- Hyeji playfully mimics the style of commercial ad photography in a photo that is a play with the signs and symbols of commercial advertising photography along with overt expressions of sexuality that would normally be considered a bit risque for a female minor in South Korea. But it is the simulation that Hyeji can deftly slip this somewhat sexual image can  under a social radar that often polices young women who violate accepted age and gender norms. 

Fig. 20 -- Hyeji playfully mimics the style of commercial ad photography in a photo that is a play with the signs and symbols of commercial advertising photography along with overt expressions of sexuality that would normally be considered a bit risque for a female minor in South Korea. But it is the simulation that Hyeji can deftly slip this somewhat sexual image can  under a social radar that often polices young women who violate accepted age and gender norms. 

 Fig. 21 -- It is interesting to note that Hyeji actually replaced the original picture with one that technically obscures the fact that she is consuming alcohol as a minor in the acceptably cute iconography of the sticker picture -- a common pictorial convention for covering faces and editing out visual information in Korea -- while maintaining the genre mimicry she is pointedly engaging in. 

Fig. 21 -- It is interesting to note that Hyeji actually replaced the original picture with one that technically obscures the fact that she is consuming alcohol as a minor in the acceptably cute iconography of the sticker picture -- a common pictorial convention for covering faces and editing out visual information in Korea -- while maintaining the genre mimicry she is pointedly engaging in. 


The paepi are successful at navigating KAGFaC as mediated people in the world of hyper-extended selves, as masters of what Brooke Duffy and Emily Hund have aptly described as an  "entrepreneurial femininity" in which many fashion bloggers and others do productive work in which the self is the product, as they themselves as fashion/photographic subject have become the product itself, the brand. (Duffy et al)

Duffy and Hund employed their term as they described Western fashion bloggers-as-entrepreneurs, mostly in the realm of Instagram and blogging platforms, but the concept is of great use in the Korean case. For the paepi are fluent in the way that (Western) social media creates not only the means, but the need to curate and even brand one's extended self. This is what some other actors (professional fashion designers and their brands) in the KAGFaC field pay other actors within the field (PR firms that represent brands and even the SFW brand of the city) to do but continually fail to gain traction in terms of the global charge of the field. These traditional actors fail on the level of globality, the very level where the paepi unintentionally succeed. And since KAGFaC is as dominated by Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as any other fields in an increasingly smaller and more globally interconnected world, the paepi rise to the top of the field and accomplish what professional fashion designers and their industry organizations cannot, even with the nearly inexhaustible resources and money of an actor such as the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism behind them.

With the global charge of the KAGFaC field lost upon most of the actors within it, most actors are not able to garner the coveted global recognition of which coverage in international press outlets is both a symbol and concrete enabler. And this is true, despite the fact that the putative paepi social actor is not even actually a single actor in motion as a unified body with a conscious will or action plan; despite being relatively bereft of other forms of fiscal, objectified or institutional social capital, or a relative modicum of the embodied cultural capital (habitus) that other actors are possessed of either individually or in tandem, this being English language ability that come through desirable educational pedigrees and preparation, along with the concrete connections this brings. Indeed, despite actually being apparently fatally crippled in the game of gaining primacy via globility within KAGFaC, when international press come even to cover the high fashion event Seoul Fashion Week, the only coverage revolves around street fashion, a conversation in which the paepi become the main cast and characters. 

The entrepreneurial aspect of their identities that spurs them on, but it is the struggle for fast social capital in the virtual communities tey have created that truly motivates them to engage in the struggle for primacy within the KAGFaC field. For example, Hyeji has 10,300 followers to her personal Facebook profile, which is no mean feat by any, even paepi, standards. 

Here, it is important to consider the paepi's unity as a social actor in the field not in terms of a singular agency, since they are really a group of individual agents flying in loose formation , united not by a unitary will, interest, or even avowed purpose. Their connective tissue as a social actor/group of social actors is defined by a being a living, breathing, fast-adapting site of creativity itself, defined and situated as they are within the KAGFaC field. This is the sense, constructed as it is for the purpose of theoretical facility, that we can look at the paepi organizationally. It is at this point I would like to quote Emirbayer et al at length again:

One might speak here of an organizational habitus, where it not for the dangers of reification inherent in such usage, dangers to which Bourdieu himself points whenever he invokes such generalizing notions as the class or group habitus. As we elaborate in the latter half of this article, emergent position takings on the part of an organization must always be understood, not as the self expressions of a singular actor, but rather, as compromise products of the whole complex in the negotiations and contestations unfolding over time within that organization understood as itself a field. (19)

It is at this point that I would venture to disagree only by way of offering my agreement that talking about a diffuse group of actors within the field as a single actor and then speaking of their organizational habitus is indeed engaging in the dangerous reification that can grossly oversimplify while obfuscating the complexity that needs to be taken into account in the final analysis.  Yet, I would disagree in that the way in which I argue that the very unity of the paepi is constituted,  in that their very unity as an agent comes from not agency, will or asingularity of purpose but by occupying a certain positionality within a "space of possibles" that defines them in terms of occupying a common cultural site of creativity, which is where one might argue the power of their organizational or group habitus finds its fullest ability to flower. Indeed, Emirbayer et al reminds us that "organizational actors distinguish themselves from others within their field by means of symbolically meaningful position takings — e.g., works, services, acts, arguments, products —which derive their semiotic significance in relational fashion from there difference vis-à-vis other such position takings within a space of position takings." And this is the key point at which the usefulness of our ethnomethodological study of the paepi comes into even sharper relief. Amirbayer et al asks this as a rhetorical question but actually goes so far as to answer it:

Now, what is the relation between culture, understood as a space of position–takings, and social structure, understood as a space of positions? Bourdieu has given more than one answer to this question, vacillating between a reduction his point of view – the space of positions as primary — and another that affirms the analytic independence of cultural formations. And our view, while the structure of the field of positions restricts the actual and potential position-takings available to specific actors within it, conversely, the structure of the field of position–takings effectively permits only certain kinds of organizations to assume particulars Stances or to enter into the field or market produce in particular kinds of goods or services hence the space of position takings retains, as a semantic structure of differences, the degree of relative autonomy to be the space of positions and the arguments of those positions, such the culture itself can be said to be relatively autonomous in respect to social structure... (Emirbayer et al, 15)

Indeed, this is where things get truly interesting, as this is the point where we can begin to theorize a relationship between a diffuse notion of culture and more concrete social structures, as enabled by an analysis using Bourdieu's concept of the field.

In summary, the idea of the space of possibles (symbiotic or cultural structure), conceived in its interrelation with a space of positions (a social structure), provides us with crucial insights into the conditions for — and constraints on — organizational creativity. It allows us to see how new position – takings become possible with an organizational fields — but possible only for some and under highly delimited conditions — and how those possibilities then get acted on and realized by particular organizations. Organizations can have an important impact on the fields within which they are located, apprehending and season upon opportunities (lacunae) within the extant field of possibles and introducing key innovations wit in that field which other organizations then have to take into account and to respond to dialogically in turn. (Emirbayer et al, 15)

-- Explain the NYT, VOGUE examples, Google hits of search term "Korean fashion"

Indeed, since the extent to which the paepi have come to dominate the field in which they suddenly (and unexpectedly) find themselves occupying, a consideration of the cultural world of the paepis is crucial towards gaining an understanding of who they are and how they they came to occupy the space they do within the KAGFaC field, as is the need to understand how they construct the rules that constitute their identities around fashion as they do, and how the particular conditions of their habitus got them there. This is the key point at which we can utilise habitus as an incredibly facile tool with which to connect the micro world of individual psychology of motivations to that of agency within a macro field of larger social relationships and concerns. It is also the point at which we can discern how larger social forces can unintentionally create sites of creativity where they were not intended and why our theoretical tools can assist in identifying them as such while possibly helping to preserve them. 

Conclusion: The Paepi as a Site of Creativity and the Hyperreal

It is at this point that it becomes easy to bring together Belk's concept of the "extended self" and Guy Lebord's notion of "the Society of the spectacle" as we try to understand the nature of the paepi's creativity. As Korean society has become a place in which the division between the Signified and Signifier has not only become blurred to the point of irreversible unintelligbility, but in which that division has become regarded as meaningless, in which the Real has become indecipherable from Spectacle, it becomes possible to regard the present situation from the inside and in terms of the people who utilize these signs and symbols to make sense of their lifeworld as Korean paepi. Taken apart from the moral and ethical admonitions common in the west -- where there is what has been called a "fetishization of the natural" (Brown, 56) -- there is still a preoccupation with the perceived social and psychological harm done in an age in which the Original (or a state of Originality) no longer has any meaning, as the copies or digitally altered versions are able to stand in for it.

In terms of how the west understands Creativity in terms of a Primacy of the Original, even the persistence of discourses on the folly of Korean plastic surgery and the excesses of Korean beauty culture (Taeyeon Kim) are indicative of an essentially conservative and reductive notion of Creativity. Once we abandon the obsession with the "fetishization of the natural", the obession with the Original -- as many of the paepi have in their photographic and self-branding practices -- it becomes easy to see their fashion/photographic/representation practices in terms of an inherently postmodern and poststructuralist form of remixing, a form of hyperreal, postmodern pastiche-making that distinguishes their group and its generative activities as a veritable site of Creativity that can no longer be denied. And this is what makes those who cannot see past their apparently outrageous acts as anything other than social and semiotic distortion cannot see the value in what they produce and represent in terms of their place in a putative "creative economy." 

This December 2015 marks the five-year anniversary of Facebook's entrance into Korea, where it has enjoyed unparalleled commercial and social success. Korea is a prime market for the service in terms of the ways highlighted in this article, asthe infrastructrure of Korea's IT environment has led to an infrastructure of social practices and a habitus that comes together in a uniquely Korean way that has import for the world. As Facebook Korea's chief Cho Yeong-beom was quoted recently in The Korea Times, ""Up to 94 percent of Facebook users in Korea connect to it with mobile equipment, the highest such rate in the world." (Choi, Korea Times) Quoted in a similar article in The Korea Herald, Cho pointed out that Facebook-owned Instagram posted the fastest growth of any market in the world in 2015 as well, due to the peculiar traits of the Korean market's users, who are unlike anyone else in the world. (Kim, Korea Herald) This should not be surprising, given the particularly robust and focused utilization by the Korean paepi and their many followers. 

Indeed, as we have seen, even if we look at the paepi in terms of the government's framework of commodifying, packaging, and selling "cultural content" to the highest bidder, the paepi are doing a better job of it than others in their particular field. But if we look a bit deeper, enabled by the insights that an ethnomethodological understanding of how they make sense of their social world, how they understand themselves, it become easy to see that they have succeeded on a level we that it takes some time to understand. They are ahead of the curve; the Korean paepi are social actor on the cusp, on the bleeding edge of a society that is already the a vanguard in terms of media infrastructure and the uses it allows. The paepi are already comfortable being at the place to which societies are already hurtling, headlong and haphazardly, in which the Spectacle is as real and meaningful as any understanding of etic or objective Reality.

Indeed, in an age of mediated and "extended" selves, in which the effects of acts of terror have their most visceral social impact on glowing phosphor and LCD screens, in which Photoshop and surgical technologies lead to the same conclusion as expressed in the flesh. Far different from the fashion tribes of Japan such as say a celemba or a gyaru, for whom  clothing was nothing more than a cipher for certain social codes of group identification, the Korean paepi, understood not as a fashion subculture, but a social type grounded in both media and other social habituses related to their generational moment in time, constitute a unique site of Creativity itself that must be understood in their own terms such that we can see how important they are to our understanding of how media, society, and identity intertwine and interleave such that they change the very understanding of culture and Creativity itself.

This article has presented the paepi as a generationally unique group of people that finds itself placed within a field of social action by virtue of their ability to instinctively engaage in creative acts of semiotic remixing and representation through the production of various cultural texts, sartorial, photographic, and virtual, with which they produce knowledge about themselves and communicate with others in society, both inside and outside the group. The habitus and other structurally-formed social orientations that they possess and which helps them command creative forces is also shared by other social products of a recognized "creative economy" that has become commercialized into what has come to be known as "hallyu," most notably in the K-pop field. it is no coincidence that, even amongst the massive efforts of government-backed institutions to globalize and commodify aspects of Korean popular culture, two of the most globally successful products of the creative music field also came from quite unexpected individual actors, most notably performer PSY and singer CL. In 2012, many Korean pundits made great efforts to clearly understand and explain why it had been two relatively middling and (by Korean standards) unremarkable acts that had managed, by dint of international recognition, to succeed far beyond the dreams of other acts in the K-pop field. The answer is quite similar to what we have explored here in the field theory analysis of Korean fashion and the paepi, as that group was able to enter the field and succeed in many ways within it in ways that were quite unexpected by other field members.

In the parallel case of K-pop, it was also a particular kind of habitus, albeit one more aesthetically informed by musical genres and literal remixing, that made for the magical ingredient of success defined as global recognition. Although a lengthy exploration of PSY's ingenious connection with global trends in electronic music and ability to engage in multi-layered, subtextual social criticism disguised as comedy that allowed his music to connect with audiences both global and domestic, as well as CL's inspired appropriation of American the underground "trap" trend in American hip hop, her ability to rap in ebonics-0inflected English, along with her own skillful and careful prodding and titillation of potentially sensitive areas within Korean popular discourses of sex and gender would be beyond the scope of the present article, it is useful to point out the fact that mainstream actors in these fields completely miss the boat -- and the habitus-informed cultural knowledge -- that would allow them to succeed in their respective, increasingly globalized fields. In this way, the paepi within a global Korean fashion field and K-pop performers within one of popular Korean music share similar attributes that lead to their success in becoming leaders in their respective fields, even if it is to their own -- and others' complete surprise. These cases of success within various parts of the general "creative economy" is something that establishment societal actors would do well to study and consider much more seriously. As far as the paepi are concerned, this group of young culture mixers and makers are the site of the most creative creation of any sector of society active in hat could be described in any cultural field.




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