korea

Yoo Nam Saeng: CL and the Appropriative Modes of Fictive Criminality, Kebonics, and Symbolic Misogyny in Korean Rap Videos

Brief Abstract

South Korea (hereafter "Korea") is a supreme cultural appropriation machine and CL is its prophet. CL, née Lee Chaelin (hereafter, CL), is a master of appropriating African-American culture with apparent impunity, on two levels. First, on the basic level at which the term "cultural appropriation" is often tossed around in public discourse on hip hop and rap music as performed by non-black actors. Modes of signification themselves are being appropriated, as opposed to mere semiotic symbols and other concrete bits of hip hop-ricana. This article will take CL's video work as a point of departure and metonymic symbol for semiotic trends in Korean hip hop. (113 words)

Modes of Authenticity Signification

Before even beginning the explication of key, theoretical notions of authenticity in this paper, I want to first set forth a framework of understanding how CL successfully situates herself as a rap performer ostensibly within the genre of K-Pop but as an authentic performer of t(rap) music. She in fact appropriates not just aspects of (African-)American culture but modes of authenticity as a rapper that function within the America-based (original) form of the genre itself, namely the modes I choose to call "fictive criminality" and "field mastery." Yet, CL also creates her own modes of authenticity that situate her as authentically foreign-enough to gain authenticity as a virtuosic force back at "home" in K-pop itself. These modes CL-specific, hybrid modes utilize acts of symbolic misogyny and "mock ebonics" (McLeod, 134) that I will call "Kebonics."

I am not a K-pop fan. This is not to say that I do not occasionally enjoy songs that bubble to the top of the genre's popularity, but I generally do not keep up with any particular acts nor keep track of the artistic trajectories of its most popular performers. While I was indeed struck by the virtuosic qualities of CL as far back as her 2ne1, girl-group days and her solo hit "Bad Girl", I engage with CL as a rap artist in the context of my far older status as a rap fan from the time of my childhood and the time of the genre's popular quickening in the mid-to-late 1980s. As a fan, my priorities have always been lyricism, swagger, and musicality, in about that order, meaning that foundational male acts such as Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J, the Fat Boys, and Run-DMC form the outlines of my hip-hop habitus. When it comes to female MCs on the mic from that era who met my set of musical standards and priorities, acts such as Salt& Pepa, MC Lyte, and Queen Latifah informed the development of my musical tastes and preferences, especially as they find gendered form in my choices to purchase or otherwise consume their musical products. This is the way I end up engaging with CL as a rap performer, even in Korea. So her lyricism, swagger, and musicality played a big role in determining that I would really connect with "Dr. Pepper" when it came across my desk in 2015.

This article asserts that CL is charting a strategically wise, semiotically deliberate path out of the figurative building of K-pop as a genre and Korea itself, even as she utilizes "street cred" gained by recognition in the core of authentic hip-hop in the US market as the center, which thereby gives her even more "street cred" back home in the Korean hip-hop periphery. To paraphrase the words of the immortal Rakim, one of rap and hip-hop culture's founders, "CL gets stronger as CL gets bolder."

But what is the source of her boldness? I assert that indeed, as CL engages more directly with non-K-popped, foreign elements of the musical genre in which CL is seen -- even (and especially) in Korea -- to function, as in the underground form known as "trap" music, she bolsters her perceived level of hip-hop, foreign-originated authenticity. this is most clearly seen in her 2015 video "Dr. Pepper." but she wasn't the first to figuratively reach for this useful tool as a way to assert us-based, American authenticity in the Korean hip-hop genre.

Universal modes (inbound)
a) fictive criminality
b) field mastery
c) fictive foreignness

CL-specific hybrid modes (outbound)
c) symbolic misogyny  
d) mock ebonics (in Korea, specifically, Kebonics)

 

The "Global Fetish" and Sadaejuui


Before even getting into the specifics of K-pop, Khip-hop, or discussing any Korean pop culture text, it is important to first background the it all with some history, especially in terms of how Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, had to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid, as it were, before engaging in the construction of any project, tangible or abstract, in Korea.  And it was within the general historio-psychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national development took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, while that development process found internal validation through external markers.

Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been afected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means "deference to the greater power") "Korea" had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with "China" for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 andofficially ended Korea's political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial  relationship that would last until the Japanese empire's resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to "brush back" the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanqquisher's vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justified and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that "White is Right", since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do them was not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power. 

Symbolic GDP levels of 10,000 or 20,000 per capita GDP were important psychological moments for Korea, as were the 1988 Olympics, which was both an impetus and a symbol for Korea becoming modern, or at least, being seen that way. This sadaejuui pattern of thinking backgrounded everything Koreans did on their own, internally, with validation of these efforts coming from the outside, most importantly, the White West, and even more importantly, the USA. So, as the "global" has become more than just a pipe dream and a reality for a Korea with not just a highly developed infrastructure in heavy industry, factory production, and ideologies of anti-Communism that have served the Republic well, but which now has a highly developed popular culture infrastructure in music, film, food, and fashion, there is now a discernible "global fetish" that undergirds and validates Korean cultural projects. The recent "Premium Korea" ad from the CJ group is a perfect case with which to illustrate how sadajuui has evolved into a "global fetish" (a brilliant concept articulated by scholar Kim Hyunjung) that both undergirds and validates all commercial and cultural endeavors in Korea, as well as the Korean national project itself. 

Put simply, Korean people are quite used to bright and shiny, obviously and incongruously foreign things sticking out from Korean cultures, aesthetics, and things; indeed,  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. (Schmid)

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. 

 

On Authenticity

Here, I take Kembrew McLeod's cogent and useful discussion of the notion of authenticity in hip-hop from his article "Authenticity WIthin Hip-Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation" as a point of theoretical departure. Mcleod says that "...invocations of authenticity..." occurs not just in relation to hip-hop but can "...also take place in other cultures that, like hip-hop, are threatened with assimilation by a larger, mainstream culture." (Mcleod, 134) It is here that I would make a departure by way of making additions to his ideas while also linking the definition to the Korean case.  I would add that Korean hip-hop not a culture dealing discursively with assimilation into a larger mainstream, but necessarily functions within the context of the Korean historical concept of sadaejuui (사대주의), as part of a constant struggle to prove itself as legitimate both to Koreans at the periphery and American hip-hop at the center.

Metonymic Blackness and Crosscultural Cooning

In 2006,  Korean broadcasting network SBS's sketch comedy show "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) debuted an act/troupe called the "Know-Nothing Family (나몰라 패밀리). The act was comprised of several members dancing in a single-file, advancing march formation, African-American step show-style, to a heavily remixed and redacted sample of Sir-Mix-a-Lot's 1992 megahit "Baby Got Back." It was an apropos sample, denuded completely of cultural context, it sounds unmistakably American and black. Yet despite the fact of the sample's complete contextual denuding in his program, it was even more contextually useful and actually quite wieldy than its Korean appropriators knew. "Baby Got Back", as a 1992 song that was largely a battle cry against the semiotic violence of toxic whiteness, wore its oppositional blackness on its sleeve and amped up its most semiotically aggressive codes and markers. From repeated male call-and-response sequences evocative of amped up black male fraternity step show performers or the most "turnt up" moments of the dancing in a 1990s African-American nightclub. Indeed, this makes perfect sense in the Korean context, in which the main contact with blackness and black people is relatively recent, superficial, and heavily mediated without much representation by actual black people in society. John G. Russell addresses just this set of societal circumstances in his astute essay "Authenticity, Mimesis, and Racial Performance in the Transcultural Diaspora", which focuses on blackness in Japan: 

In Japan, blackness and black culture are seldom perceived as existing beyond what its media and popular culture provide through the global marketplace. First and foremost, blackness is embedded in performance, in showmanship. Like their counterparts in America, popular black tarento (television celebrities) in Japan are enlisted and paid to expertly enact local expectations of racial difference. (Russell, 65)

In the Korean context of "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사), the performance of socially unusual, extreme blackness appears as a metonymic marker of highly interesting foreignness that undergirds a humor unfamiliar to the general Korean audience. 

Most important to consider here is, indeed, a blackness, as it is presented to the Korean audience, as one "embedded in performance, in showmanship." (Russell, 65) But if this blackness is, as I argue, a metonym for extreme foreignness, this makes even more perfect sense given the specific origins and performative deployments of the representations that mark their comedic lineage that goes back to the original parodic song by Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" and the comedic parodies of Lil' Jon that shows up in the performances of the "Know Nothing" crew, which obviously appropriated it from Chappelle's Show, which was popular in syndication, a bestseller on DVD, and a well-known comedic meme around when the Korean comedy show aired in 2006.  

Indeed, even taking the apparent crosscultural cooning not at face value, and even analyzing it intersectionally across the binary boundary line of Korean/other, there is nothing to suggest that there is anything above the level of pure farce and existence as the comedic foil for an uncritical, superficial disregard for black culture and the people who constitute it. Black people aren't the punchline, but are part of the joke, the humor itself. Unlike an appropriative, possibly even offensive representation of otherness that can be in any way transgressive, such as in the "performative possibilities" (Johnson) found in Antoine Dodson's forced stardom in legendary social media meme status ("Bedroom Intruder"), the humor found in "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) is as uncomplicated and flat as it is denuded of context, and in the end, any point of humanity that could bring the audience closer to the culture the performers have appropriated from. This is what makes the antics of "People Seeking Laughs" (웃찾사) coonery. 

 

Mastery and Fictive Criminality 

CL's "Dr. Pepper" video is again instructive here. . A lot of different keywords and bits of theory could be invoked here, several of which have recently entered the popular discourse and theoretical imagination: objectification and commodification of the female body, the heterosexual male gaze (even if it isn't employed by a male heterosexual), and sexual fetish totems. Structurally, CL in "Dr. Pepper" is no different from how Ice Cube and NWA demonstrated their mastery of the field and art, as well as over female bodies, by linking fictive criminality with the objectification of said female bodies as a sign of their virility and male power. Indeed, this is not very different from many videos in the genre. Behold, a classic example from the genre and anothet exemplary work, NWA's "Hello":

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 monument 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. This is the key way that Korean hip hop at the periphery approaches the American center. As non-black potential approriators, Koreans are coming at the center from the figurative and literal bottom and from the far outside, whereas someone like Eminem comes into the field from above, and from the inside of a culture that is already sensitive to the issue of whitely-raced appropriators. 

Fictive Foreign Spaces

I'll just say from the beginning that I'm not mad at Rain. I know he's gotten a lot of flak since the release of his most recent video, but I don't think it's really Rain himself that's the problem. I don't find his most recent video especially problematic in and of itself, actually.

The real problem  lies in the fact that the video is emblematic of the way that what I call “fictive foreign spaces” are used in Korean  media, especially as found in Korean  music videos and commercials, which are designed to communicate a message in a very short period of time and therefore rely  a great deal on facile signs and symbology to communicate quickly and efficiently. Basically, it's one way in which foreigners and representations of foreigners, as well as foreignness and representations of foreignness, are used to bolster Korean imaginings of the self, especially as it has to do with selling an idea or product.

 I first began noticing this in Korean television commercials.  In certain Korean television commercials, the backdrop for representations of a an idealized and perfect mode of middle-class comfort and domesticity is the archetypical American-style house, complete with white picket fence and windowsill upon which to place Mom's freshly baked apple pie to cool. Since Koreans are also consumers of American media and the American dream, they are familiar with the signs and symbology of that image.  Unfortunately, because of the specific  social, historical, and real landscapes of South Korea,  such houses and specific places simply don't exist. Unfortunately, I can't recall the specific television commercials that I'm thinking of here, so it's called to offer an example here on YouTube. But I can offer such a context in terms of the first Korean music video that I recall invoking such fictive foreign spaces against which to place the music and the artist into an authentic context. those of you who are true, diehard Korean pop fans will recognize the video below, which isn't structurally very different from what's happening in Rain's video.

In this, the seminal musical stylings of Seo Taiji and the Boys,  which hip-hop fans will quickly notice, owes quite a bit to the legendary American hip-hop group Cypress Hill, the 1st verse starts out with images of Seo Taiji leading a Western-style house that was symbolic of what could only be a middle-class fantasy to most Koreans, especially at that time in 1995. That  multi-story middle-class house with a fence just simply doesn't exist in South Korea, but it's quite familiar as a symbolic tool since Korean media viewers have always been heavily steeped in American signs and symbols, and even in the pre-Internet South Korea, was a metonymic symbol for "home."  and this, despite the fact that the actual homes in which South Koreans lived at the time or even now don't at all resemble that kind of American-style, independent, multi-story, Walnut Creek California "home." but Koreans perfectly understand the comfortable, domestic, middle-class fictive space that he is leaving. What I find even more interesting is how Seo Taiji representative the cold, unfeeling world outside in the bear industrial spaces in which he did his dancing in snowboarding year, a fictive cold “outer space” landscape that was punctuated with Korean style high-rise apartment buildings. to me, that was a much smarter and subversive music video. Of course, being a subversive wasn't the point of Rain's song, but it certainly was for Seo Taiji. in fact, I think today that one of the reasons they got into so much trouble with the censors and the terrestrial broadcasting networks at the time was because the viewer can pick up on this subversiveness in a general sense, but it is difficult to place the locus of its expression. in addition to the fact that my host family didn't have cable television at the time, I think that uncomfortableness with this video back then is one reason I never got to really see it very often, despite it becoming one of the most popular songs in the country and one you would hear at least 20 times a day upon walking out your door.

But back to Rain. Beyond the specific symbology of pneumatically enlarged butts and breasts, which others have obviously picked up on, what I find more insidious and possibly more problematic is the ways in which the faces and spaces symbolically linked to people of color in the United States have become the backdrop for Rain's musical stylings and wildings. It's about cultural appropriation, peopl, and I think people are feeling a bit bothered because now, the Koreans have gotten good at it. People forget about Psy, who is Korea's most famous "rapper," but he didn't get into deep trouble because as a rapper who is truly KOREAN in his mode of representation and apparent set concerns, he doesn't function in the American form of the genre, which is dominated by a certain aesthetic, from Eminem to Ice Cube. Psy doesn't function in that space, but in a specifically Korean one, where he is talking -- as he always has -- about class and gender relations. Gangnam Style, hello? What is more problematic about Rain is the way he self-consciously performs the most extreme forms of already highly performative African-American pop culture blackness. That is what he is fairly good at, his audience gets this as way of getting (and buying) his claims to an authentic connection to American, hip-hop-originated Africanity, and is precisely what American tend to find most odious and oversimplifies by labeling this "cultural appropriation" in public (often online) discourses. 

 And let's remember—this is not the 1st time that foreigners and even foreignness itself have been used by Korean musicians to define a fictive outerspace in which to step out of the confines of Korea and Koreanness itself.  the perfect example here is obviously going to be “Itaewon Freedom.”  `

Those familiar with South Korea's domestic music scene, and the physical terrain of South Korea and Seoul itself, will know that Itaewon, as the de facto “foreigners district” in South central Seoul, right next to the American military base there,  has long been associated with threatening foreign people, things, and ideas. But as scholar of Seoul city Kim Ji Youn has aptly described it, this foreignness is also  constructed as a commodity to consume, control, and mimick in terms of a "commodification of foreignness" that has specific uses. (Kim, 112) These modes of employ can be both commercial or aesthetic. As it came up in the song bearing that neighborhood's name, Itaewon was obviously styled by those in the apparent know as the place where one can truly relax and let down one's hair, free from the constrictive social rules and roles of Confucian Korean society. It was basically defining a fictive foreign space within Korean society, but interestingly, one that wasn't so fictive. Itaewon  Has actually long been a place where the more open-minded and freethinking partiers insole would go to escape the midnight curfew limitations of other party places in the city, and with the fact of all night partying that came with the legacy of a neighborhood that was generally left only to be patrolled by American military police and generally outside of the eyes of official Korean-dom,  the neighborhood had actually, place where in-the-know Koreans knew there was a certain kind of social freedom. Considering that until the gentrification of the neighborhood just several years ago, Itaewon was the actual and symbolic locus of Korean racial and xenophobic fears,  the image of the neighborhood has come quite a long way.

But let's be real: the employment of extras of color as the authenticity decorations in Itaewon Freedom's imagined foreign landscape was far more offensive than anything in Rain's music video. I mean, JYP was skirting blackface and telegraphing pretty offensive ideas of black people with the wigs and testicle-grabbing.  The only difference is that this video was made for domestic consumption while Rain is aiming at the international market.  And in his use and construction of what I'll now call “fictive foreign spaces", Rain and his people have become adept at playing the oldest game in town:  the complete , disingenuous appropriation of not only ethnic musical styles but actual  ethnic people into the commercial efforts of an outside artist who hails from a culture that is completely hostile to those very people. Let me remind you of what that means and why Rain is really guilty of the Korean music industry finally getting up to speed on true cultural appropriation skills that finally allow for the incorporation of members of the group in question. This is something that k-pop was really not capable of before, when the genre was about simply aping and reproducing styles that came from African-American culture, with the only way of highlighting that connection being that of pointing it out with inappropriate forms of racial comedy -- indeed, the "coonery" that John G. Russell aptly describes in Japan -- that utilized heavily charged (racist) racial symbology borrowed from the host cultures such as found in the case of the Bubble Sisters, who debuted in 2003 with a series of music videos and stage performances that went beyond mere blackface in the sense of darkening skin and simulating African features, but which directly duplicated the specific looks of the jiggaboo and pickaninny. 


 

Hence, one could make (or hide behind) the argument that they were ignorant of what the signs represented, despite having done enough homework to dig them out of relatively obscure racist histories of another culture. The problem here is that certain producers were trying to pull the fast one of American blackface being something one could just accidentally stumble across as simply darkening the skin to emulate a darker skin tone. The problem with that is that something like that, were it true, would be easily forgivable and understandable. The smoking gun for the Bubble Sisters was defined by the level of detail in reproducing the look itself. The pickaninny hair and other infantilizing symbols such as the pajamas and other baby accessories come from a very specific look in a racist genre of music and comedy in American history. So the very look of the Bubble Sisters was impossible without having done some very specific research. And the main problem with that group and its performance styles of blackface was that itis pretty much impossible to reproduce American blackface to the level of detail they did without picking up any information about the cultural context they came from and its very loaded meaning at the time.

So Rain's new music video has ruffled feathers mainly because Korean pop music has come such a long way since nobody really cared about it at all just a decade ago. It takes place within a much more global context and in front of a truly global audience, as opposed to the imagined one that South Koreans were always hoping was there but never really was. That being said, the watchful eye of the world wasn't there as it is today, digitally and enabled by  YouTube. So Rain, with his music video that demonstrates just how far Korean artists have become adept in the game of cultural appropriation vis-à-vis African American pop culture, demonstrates the extent to which the world is indeed now watching, as well as the fact that the Korean music industry, in being regarded as a world-class producer and reproduce or of songs that could be considered R&B, rap, or just about any other kind of “black music,” is now being held to similar  higher, international standards that any other songs in the genres would be anywhere else in the world.

 To put it simply, this is a sign that what's going on in Korean pop music now matters to other folks in the world, and yes, there actually watching now. So those in the industry should take the buzz and even criticism related to the racial symbology in Rain's recent video as evidence of the fact that Korean pop music has indeed, come a long way, baby, and from now on, it's time to be a bit more careful, considerably more thoughtful, and a lot smarter about the way Koreans represent not only  themselves but also the people from other places and races who walk amongst them.

 

Kebonics

A big question, beyond what's going on in a single CL video, in how Korean popular music gets away with so much “cultural appropriation” without rebuke or much pushback from hip hop fans who often point out the inherent contradictions in the process of appropriation. Why Korean cultural appropriation of African-American culture in K-pop seems to work without arousing much ire in the United States is because it is a fairly obvious borrowing, in which the borrowing itself is always inherently attributed, and instances of this borrowing is constantly linguistically and culturally marked. Instants of faux ebonics-inflected Koreanized English -- what this paper will call "Kebonics" -- deployment mark both Derridan différance and a connection with a semiotically-defined, authentic Black Hip Hop imaginary. This différance is underlined also by the status of South Korea's relationship with the United States, it's important to remember that this is not a case of a white American overculture borrowing African-American cultural forms and calling them its own, which is why its so irksome and an issue in the USA, but borrowing any aspect of black culture and using it in a Korean context is different because the act of borrowing is obvious as the borrowing isn't perceived as just African-American, but rather American, and hence a part of the neo-colonial US-Korea relationship.

In this way, the kebonical styizing practiced by CL and many other Korean performers operating withing genres universally thought of as American or at least foreign, is similar to the linguistic stylings of Asian Americans who utilize African American Vernacular ENglish (AAVE) as literal authenticators of cool and "to lay claim to participation in an urban youth style." (Reyes, 511)And yet, although the case of Korea is vastly different from that of Asians living in America, the positionalities are quite parallell. Vis a vis an (African-)American center and authority of authenticity, Asian performers of blackness make claims to connectedness with blackness, absent of the ability to lay claim to it directly as direct members of the group. And in a Korean context in which even using English words is a strong marker of large amounts of embodied cultural capital, making that connection with AAVE cum kebonics make the claim as seemingly natural or organic as it is, in actuality stilted or forced, i.e. performed. Given Korean society's long-held condescending or even derisive attitude towrards actual black people, this fraught and inherenetly contradictory process of lauding-while-insulting while borrowing from African-American culture is reminiscent of Ur-black comedian Paul Mooney's famous quip that "Errybody wanna be a nigger but don't nobody want to be a nigger."

 

In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down the power hierarchy, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down the power hierarchy, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. Another interesting semiotic strategy employed in CL’s videos that aid in the appropriation of African American music culture while also bolstering the perceived authenticity of the text as part of the same conversation with it, is the way she employed the same “fictive criminality” that US rapper Ice Cube and NWA demonstrated in declaring their own mastery of the field and art, as well as over female bodies, is by the linking of said fictive criminality with the objectification of said female bodies as a sign of their virility and male power. Indeed, this is not very different from many videos in the genre, or from what CL does in her own videos. This is what helps establish her as authentic, both in Korea and outside. 

 

 

The semiotic language of sadaejuui is one that CL speaks well, as she constantly works to establish and maintain her popularity by linking herself to both people and practices from the (African-)American center. Indeed, CL is fluent in the literal and semiotic "language of power" that Khip-hop must speak in order to be viable not just outside its borders, but within Korea itself. 

 

 

For CL to utilize American authenticity modes that in her videos, such as she did in "Bad Girl", could potentially be too much for a Korean audience,  yet utilizing women in the same way in her video is still (perhaps paradoxically) still a natural fit. This semiotic deployment of the woman's body is both uncannily unfamiliar yet eerily familiar. It is a display of her mastery over her sector of the rap field, and the use of dominated female bodies seems pretty semiotically familiar to a South Korean audience that is quite used to this formula as it evolved in the United States, the culture in which the form originates.

 

 

 

Symbolic Misogyny

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. 


In this video made by BIGBANG, one can see the particular Korean expression of this semiotic language of masculinized mastery in therap field in not only the rappers' domination of all the women in the video as servile sexual objects, but also in the way nationality is employed in this process, as the fact that modern versions of the Korean traditional hanbok are being worn by the Caucasian, western women as they playfully indulge the men their sexual flirtations is one lost on nary a single Korean viewer. This is a semiotic wink to the strong message here that a masculine Korea has dominated the West as symbolized by the sartorial domination of its women, as they wear the feminine hanbok even as the men wear exaggerated forms of  western dress. Indeed, the Korean male dominating the women of the metropole is as significant to the solidification of their assertions of internationalized male mastery as it is to the vainglorious drive to be seen as an internationally recognized Korean musical act. It all kind of blends together. It is here that I am reminded that there is an entire genre of pornography dedicated entirely to the idea of power play through clothing, with abbreviations such as CMNF (Clothed Male Naked Female) and ENF (Embarassed Naked Female). 

But back to CL's video here: I think she's also channeling the attitude of Trina, who is definitely "da baddest bitch" and is indeedis the archetype of contemporary rap female baddassery in the rap field in the United States. She sings the anthem of a masculinized mastery in rap that has truly been flipped onto its back and thrown in the face of the men who have antagonized her.

Trina here does it in the way that Americans can accept and let her get away with, but CL could never go this far, at least not in Korean culture,  unless it becomes a runaway hit and she can get away with overt rejection of male supremacy in Korea under the protection of the global gaze, in the same way that PSY got away with murder here with his own runaway hit videos. 

Trina is someone with whom CL must surely be familiar, especially in that her own music video "the baddest girl" seems to be functioning in the same mode (and even share the same music video titles) of social pushback against traditional male-defined roles of femininity.

But of course CL could never take her assertions of sexuality and throwing that back in the face of male sexual power in quite the same literal and direct way, which is why it's channeled through traditional symbols of sexual ownership, namely the barely clad girls writhing in front of the camera in her Dr. Pepper video at the top of this post, as ubiquitous symbols of her mastery. 

Semiotically, there's actually quite a bit going on here. One thing that strikes me about this video is the fact that she is the only woman amongst every female in the video who gets to wear high heels, which is very symbol of female sexual power. It strikes me that all of the other women, the backup dancers on the ground, are shown without their faces and stripped of any symbol of female sexual assertiveness. In a way, the only women who are stripped of that power and opened to the mastery of others as represented by the heterosexual male gaze, are the women writhing on the ground, and this imagery makes it very clear that the women who are presented semiotically as signs/accoutrements of male mastery, very much does not include CL, who literally stands on top of things, performing and laying down the raps with the other male rappers featured in the video. She is not a girl who gets fucked but does the fucking, along with the men. IN this sense, the aesthetic deployment here is one found in CMNF (Clothed Male Naked Female) pornography. Such an aesthetic was not lost on Robin Thicke in his photo shoot for Treats! Magazine, a photo shoot and set of semiotic, sartorial ideas that was the inspiration for his music video "Blurred Lines."

Indeed, the interplay between clothing and power is apparent in Thicke's final video, in which he is clothed in the ultimate embodiement of male power, in a classic dark gray suit, open-collared black shirt, and aviator glasses. The women are obviously objects of his gaze and control, and are conspicuously unclothed. CL employs this mode of sartorial domination in her Dr. Pepper video, to great effect. This mode of semiotic employment is one not lost on the viewer, even if the particular points of its deployment are not consciously obvious. Indeed, the meta-argument in the symbolic empowerment of the men in the actual defrocking of all the women in Thicke's video speaks to a visible, visceral sexual domination of women in that video, and is a semiotic mode that CL deploys quite well in her own video. 

On "Cultural Appropriation"
But a big question, beyond what's going on in CL's video, in how Korean popular music gets away with so much cultural appropriation without rebuke or much pushback from hip hop fans who often point out the inherent contradictions in the process of appropriation. Why Korean cultural appropriation of African-American culture in K-pop seems to work without arousing much ire:

It's an inherently conscious cultural appropriation.
It's a fairly conscious process, in which the cultural borrowing is always inherently attributed. In the case of South Korea's relationship with the UNited States, it's important to remember that this is not a case of a white American overculture borrowing African-American cultural forms and calling them its own, which is why its so irksome and an issue in the USA, but borrowing any aspect of black culture and using it in a Korean context is different because the act of borrowing is obvious as the borrowing isn't perceived as just African-American, but rather American, and hence a part of the neo-colonial US-Korea relationship. In short, unlike the American overculture discovering Elvis after an appropriative act of borrowing down, a Korean musical act channeling the style and execution of American hip hop is borrowing up in very essentially different power relationship to the culture at the periphery and the one that defines the center of the metropole. 

Working Bibliography
 

Cwiertka, K. J. (2011). Dining Out in the Land of Desire: Colonial Seoul and the Korean Culture of Consumption. In L. Kendall (Ed.), Consuming Korean tradition in early and late modernity : commodification, tourism, and performance (pp. 258 p.). Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press.

Holland, N. J. (1988). Purple Passion: Images of Female Desire in "When Doves Cry". Cultural Critique, No. 10, Popular Narrative, Popular Images(Autumn), 89-98. 

Johnson, A. (2013). Antoine Dodson and the (Mis)Appropriation of the Homo Coon: An Intersectional Approach to the Performative Possibilities of Social Media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 30(No. 2, June), 152-170. 

KIM, J. Y. (2014). COMMUNITY OF STRANGERS: ITAEWON FROM ‘AMERICANIZED’GHETTO TO ‘MULTICULTURAL’SPACE. (Ph.D. Thesis), NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF SINGAPORE.   

McLeod, K. (1999). Authenticity Within Hip-Hop and Other Cultures Threatened with Assimilation. Journal of Communication(Autumn), 134-150. 

Reyes, A. (2005). Appropriation of African American slang by Asian American youth. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 9/4, 509^532. 

Ronkin, M., & Karn, H. E. (1999). Mock Ebonics: Linguistic racism in parodies of Ebonics on the Internet. Journal of Sociolinguistics(3/3), 360-380. 

Russell, J. G. (2012). Playing with Race/Authenticating Alterity: Authenticity, Mimesis, and Racial Performance in the Transcultural Diaspora. CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 12(Number 1, Spring), 41-92. 

Schmid, A. (2002). Korea between empires, 1895-1919. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stephens, V. (2005). A Close Reading of Eminem's Genderphobia. Popular Music, 24(1, January), 21-36. 

Um, H.-K. (2013). The poetics of resistance and the politics of crossing borders: Korean hip-hop and ‘cultural reterritorialisation’. Popular Music, 32(1), 51-64. 

Korea is the Most Exemplary Case of Consumption = Slavery

By investing youth and women with an absurd symbolic surplus value, by making them the exclusive bearers of the new esoteric knowledge proper to the new social organization that of consumption and seduction|the Spectacle has thus freed the slaves of the past, but has freed them AS SLAVES. -- Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun, Chapter 1

Korean Young-Girl Rule #3: Consumption is ostensibly the source of liberation for the girl in Korean society, but is actually the source of her slavery. 

The Unnatural Naturalness of the Korean Young-Girl

 

"The varnished aspect of the Young-Girl's physiognomy must be explained by the fact that as a commodity she is the crystallization of a certain amount of labor expended in order to make her meet the standards for a certain type of exchange. And the form in which the Young-Girl appears, which is also the commodity form, is characterized by the concealment, or at least the voluntary forgetting, of this concrete labor." -- Raw Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl by Tiqqun, Chapter 4

Korean Young-Girl Rule #2: the labor, both physical and emotional, invested in looking the desired part, is always masked and hidden in order to look effortless and natural. 

 

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

Untitled

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”

"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:

Shinchon, August 2007.
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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.
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Myeongdong:

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. 

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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. 

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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...

Why Street Fashion Is Sociologically Important

Slippers by day...

An article you should take a look at and an idea worthy of your intellectual consideration:

Fashion and the ways people dress are not only decided by the weather: because there are clothes you must wear and others that you just cannot appear in public anymore with, these seemingly individual decisions are in fact some truly social facts, as Émile Durkheim would probably have said. Moreover, the studying of fashion as a social phenomenon that influences the clothes we decide to buy, wear, and even be proud of (at least for some time) is possibly one of the easiest examples of what sociology is all about; with, in the case of fashion, numerous references to culture, norms, representations, consumption, social roles and models. Whenever a social scientist has to explain to any newcomer or non-sociologist the basics and purpose of the sociological science as a discipline, the understanding of fashion movements should be among the first examples that come to mind. Being ‘fashionable’ or, on the contrary, ‘out-of-fashion’ are the immediate consequences of judgments that are determined and limited by the cultural norms to which one belongs, at a given moment. Hence, whenever some people look at photographs of their youth, they are often ashamed of their previous looks and clothes even though they thought then they were absolutely à la mode.
http://soc.sagepub.com/content/47/2/407.short

"Appearance Stratification and Identity: Fashion as the Clearest Example of What Sociology is All About" (Yves Laberge 2013 47: 407 Sociology)

Girls in short skirts and soju. Semiotically linked in the culture in a way that Murica's Bud Girls don't know nothing about.
Korea, the land where everything is sold through a girl in a short skirt. On a repeat loop. And sometimes they throw in the girl.
"Women Soldiers."  Of course, kpop imaginings of women everything influences this look. Including the skirt lengths. The only military uniform I've ever seen shorter on a woman was Lt. Uhura on Star Trek. Granted, she WAS sitting most of the time, butt...
Still, in Seoul, the Code and Cult of Demure Domesticity dictates that, despite wearing a Ludicrously Short Skirt, the shoulders should be covered.
Even in coat weather, or sleet and snow, the skirts stay high as they ever were during the dog days of  summer.
Yongsan princess.