Thursday, 3 February 2011

Placing the Future in South Korea?

Just doing some rapid postings here of some stuff I will further investigate (in my own time, even if I don't post it here, because my interactions with Korean faculty and students of late obliges me to do so). So I don't have time to really shape this as an essay.

Anyway,  Gord Sellar is curious why sci fi hasn't put down roots in South Korea. To him, the question is perplexing, insofar as the country appears to be influenced by foreign sci fi:

In recent years, the government has advanced proposals for such insane things as robotic nannies who could teach English to children — and even a goal to put one in every home by 2015, no less (here’s where The Economistmentions it)… which should alarm those worried about government surveillance and privacy, since the bots will doubtless be running on wireless networks and a virus-susceptible Windows BotX edition. They also are hoping to get robotic patrol-botsset up to guard the DMZ. Autonomous bots! As Michael humorously points out, we’d better hope they’re multilingual, or there will be a lot of dead hakwon teachers and immigrant factory workers. Actually, they don’t seem to be coming along too quickly anyway.

Notwithstanding these parallels, Sellar wants to argue that one should be careful about mapping civilizational developmental narratives in Western terms, asking:

"Would a Korean postmodernity even look familiar to a Westerner? Need a Korean imagine the future the way an American does? Granted, Korea is likely to import whatever generalized postmodernity actually succeeds here, as it has modernity, and as academics in some fields at least have been doing for some time, but would it necessarily have to do so?" 

The essay remains inconclusive, supposedly on account of the absence of a strong South Korean sci fi tradition.  Please note though, the piece is part of a series, so I would recommend following the listed links to see where else he takes the argument. What is significant for present purposes though, is the reference to William Gibson's well-known piece, "Modern Boys and Mobile Girls", from which can (according to Sellar) be inferred that the telling difference has to do with how "Japan and China, interestingly, both share something specifically with the Anglophone West that Korea does not, which is an awkward colonialist history". Unfortunately, this aspect of the essay remains undeveloped. What I think is more telling then is how the reference to Gibson is reinforced by his most recent piece, which appeared in the New York Times. Gibson has not given up on the idea of finding the future in a place. The reality of globalization leads me to question the viability of this position. So I would instead conclude, along with Samuel Gerald Collins, that a more fruitful line of inquiry could be conducted in terms of "cultural arbitrage":

  "...the gap that opens up between global modernity and the kind of hopes and expectations people have for their lives. Looking somewhere else doesn't mean that our life will become more like their life. But it does open up the possibility for reflecting on similar conditions in the US. That is, the "gap" opens up onto our contradictory experiences and expectations and forces us to question the course of our own futures."

Hence, the said approach treats Seoul not "as as a window onto the future, but as a means for thinking about our mutual futures".

I'm very keen to see where this goes.


gordsellar said...
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gordsellar said...
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gordsellar said...

Argh, did my final comment really gey eaten, or is it simply waiting to be approved? :o

Anselmo Quemot said...

I'm sorry, but I thought maybe you deleted the previous comments.

I hope you can forgive me if my posting seemed too flippant (simply rushing to get to my dinner) with regard to your work-- which I did try to say I need to follow up on in the future to see where you take things. Like your post I referred to, the tone of my posting was intended to be more exploratory, rather than critical. I wasn't sure where you might take the colonial history etc so I had to turn back to William Gibson instead.

So if you can point me in the right direction, I'd be much obliged.

gordsellar said...

But yeah, I'd be curious to see what you have to say after checking out the rest of the post series.

gordsellar said...


Yeah, the first comment was too short, and then I misspelled your name on the second, but there was a third comment I tried to post that apparently got eaten by the Ones Who Listen and Watch From the Ether. Or something.

I certainly wasn't offended, much more happy to see the topic was of interest to someone... I'd been reflecting earlier that week on how the subject of SF in Korea seems to be of interest to so very few people, actually.

As to pointing you in the right direction, well, to me the colonial era has much less to do with the (relative) unpopularity of SF (and the forms which are more accepted and popular here) than postcolonial era politics, historiography, and policies, if you ask me.

You'll notice that the post you linked is one of a series. In fact, you hit upon my very first post on the subject, expressing views I would return to (and rethink) later on. A later post actually starts off the series, and the best I can say is, for what I know of Korean SF, the gist is seeded throughout that series. Some parts are writeups of events, or publishing trends, or stuff like that; but there are also reflections on the Korean reception of the genre here and there. The links for the series post are listed at the end of the post, because it's a long, long list of links.

However, if time is short, you can see some of the direction I'm oriented now, in my thinking, towards the end, especially in the trio of posts that include "[Literary] SF: A Social Phenomenon (Plus Some Detours)" and the two addenda (particularly Addendum #1). (I had a link but I cut it as I think the links are being caught in your blogspam filter.)

For what it's worth, an SF translator and fan I know, Hong Insu--I'm not sure if he'd want to be called a scholar, but he's the sort who actually got excited to see a Darko Suvin book--observed that many Koreans simply don't actually perceive certain pieces of Western cinematic SF as "SF". Which allows them to deride the genre, while watching Avatar multiple times and praising it as "amazing." I suspect that for most Korean audiences, Avatar was futuristic in that they wonder when the Korean film industry will be able to make films like that; we see the trappings of SF and say, "Ah, it's SF" because that genre isn't seen as kiddie crap in the West anymore. In Korea, where it generally is, people will find other genres to lump the stuff they like into, like, say, "animation."

(And I've had students who rejected Blade Runner basically because it's "too unrealistic." Given how hard it is to sell fiction books in general -- there's a bias toward nonfiction in the Korean book market -- that's hardly surprising. Fantastical fiction genres will have an even bigger struggle than mainstream fiction, with that kind of aesthetic dominating.)

I will also add, though, that the trouble Greg Egan faces with Korean audiences is a kind of measure of how most here like their SF: speculative, yes; scientific, no. My own story ("The Bodhisattvas", there's a link from my sidebar) was recently published and most people who read it in translation and commented to me about it -- friends, mostly (I haven't looked for comments online in Korean, though now my curiosity is piqued) -- said it was "very difficult" or "too difficult." That's pretty different from the reactions I got from Anglophones who read it, and I think it's indicative of a culture-wide attitude towards science, actually.

So there are lots of factors in play, I guess.

gordsellar said...
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gordsellar said...

Good grief, either I should still be asleep or your spam filter is giving me trouble. My longer post was swallowed twice, and I ended up reposting it. The last two comments before this one are, therefore, out of order. Sorry for all the deleted comments!

Anselmo Quemot said...

Indeed, who can account for the vagaries of Not me, that's for sure. I'm still clueless about the multiple deletions.

In any case, I'm certainly appreciative of your detailed, thoughtful response. Rest assured, if I'm able to put together something more on this topic I'll drop you a line at your blog or embed another link in my post to tip you off.

Given the amount of stuff you've posted, you can understand that if it happens, it will not be overnight. I'll take stock first to make sure we don't end up conducting a conversation at cross purposes.

Having said that, I can preview the kind of optic I'll probably use to read your work (time permitting of course!), and the issue more generally. I dropped a bit of a clue in my post by referring to globalization. My primary interest would be in working over that concept with respect to "glocalization" and "cosmopolitan public spheres").

In this vein, I've been reading Japanese theorists who use Habermas's work, and am familiar with this South Korean theorist:

Shin Jong-Hwa
The Limits of Civil Society: Observations on the Korean Debate
European Journal of Social Theory May 2000 3: 249-259, doi:10.1177/13684310022224787

So I wonder whether this social imaginary is inherently limited, and whether this is mirrored in the (un)popularity of Korean science fiction?

Please note, I don't think any of this excludes in principle any of the post-colonial variables you referred to, as it's more to do with a possible theoretical re-framing.

Hoping that will not now cannibalize this comment, I'd best sign off for now.

gordsellar said...

Yeah, I certainly don't expect anything at light speed!

As for Shin's ideas -- I managed to find the article online, somehow -- I think there's something there, though I think the problem is really much simpler, and tied to the popular ideology and historiography (and national priorities) promulgated right after independence and the Korean War, and how they continue to shape Korean identity, memory, and imagination. That's probably in overlap with some of what Shin (and you) suggest, though I'm saying something other than just, "The social imaginary is limited"--I'm saying something more like, "the social imaginary is stuck in a remix of western modernism" and, the closer you look, the more you see just how ready it is to fragment. But the solution so far has involved lots of Krazy glue, instead of a massive rethinking of what should be taught to young people.

I'd say, if you hold up Azuma Hiroki's theories of SF as a refuge for modernism--ie. popular Hegelian-type thinking--at the time when modernism started to become really problematic in the minds of the West (ie. in this paper), and then look at how it is only starting to become so in some of the intellectuals in Korea, you'll come a long way to seeing why SF is unpopular here.

(And, frankly, if you look at the specifics of society, you'll see why, for a lot of young women, "Sex and the City" has utopianism to spare, basically.)

I sketch it out more carefully in the posts I mentioned, so don't take this in lieu of that. I'll wait patiently to see what you have to say about it, eventually... I've added your site to my blogroll, and I will check in occasionally as you have a lot of great stuff here!

Anselmo Quemot said...

Hi Gord,

Googling around I see you presented a piece on "The Host" for the Monash "utopias" conference a few years back. Wow! I love that film. I hope I can download the piece from your blog (?).

I thought that sounded interesting, because you appear to be tapping in there to some of what I'm talking about i.e. the ecological discourse surrounding that film linked to social movements and such-- a lot of overlapping territory there I think with public sphere (contestatory discourses)/civil society and such. I'd agree these relationships cannot be construed as being simple in any sense, but for me it is of interest to see if and how the modernism you refer to overlaps with the logic of modernity as such. You'd agree I'm sure, especially given your participation at the aforementioned conference, that sci fi is significant (Castoriadis speaks fittingly in terms of "radical imaginary significations) because it can be a utopian discourse: things can be other than what they are, so understood as a public discourse, it can never be fully occupied by power.

There's a lot of unpacking that'd need to be done in these respects though, so I don't pretend to have the answers at hand. I'll be mindful of what you've said here, and thank you for your kind remarks about the blog too.

gordsellar said...


Nope, the paper about "The Host" is actually sitting in the submissions queue for publication--Monash is collecting papers. However, I could let you look at it if you like.

I like The Host too, but essentially I think most people who don't know about the so-called "Miracle on the Han" and about the dictatorship that, er, made it happen, as well as the Minjung movement, and contemporary ROK politics, face an insurmountable challenge in understanding it. I saw some papers that kind of framed it all as being about the present, when to me it's all about the ongoing historiographic fight over how we ought to see the past, particular the heyday of the Park dictatorship.

As for the idea of contestatory discourses, yeah, that's something that your average Korean kind of has trouble catching onto. The truth is either A, or B. Even in minor things, people tend not to challenge others' statements unless there's a lot at stake. This is why the internet, and the increasing censorship/control-to-normalize-self-censorship is so crucial.

I'd agree these relationships cannot be construed as being simple in any sense, but for me it is of interest to see if and how the modernism you refer to overlaps with the logic of modernity as such.

Well, yeah, that's an interesting question, though it all depends on what you mean by "the logic of modernity." Hints? :)

You'd agree I'm sure, especially given your participation at the aforementioned conference, that sci fi is significant (Castoriadis speaks fittingly in terms of "radical imaginary significations) because it can be a utopian discourse: things can be other than what they are, so understood as a public discourse, it can never be fully occupied by power.

Actually, my paper on The Host discusses the uses of dystopian and utopian thought, though, not as thoroughly as I could. (I mostly talk about dystopianism on the left, and techno-utopianism on the right as a response, especially in the last couple of years since The Host came out -- the US Beef protests, and the co-called "4 Rivers Restoration Project.")

Anyway, feel free to email me if you'd like to see the paper. The stuff I mentioned earlier, though, about the unpopularity of SF and modernity and so on, was actually written up in the tail end of quite another paper, which I presented at WorldCon the same week. I'll probably be cutting it and seeding that into something else, though, as it's too good an idea just to sit in the code of a paper about culture-study, pedagogy, and SF in Korea.

Which, argh, reminds me, I have to submit a radically abridged version of a different paper (about SF films) to someone else next week, before I go on a trip! Yikes! Thanks for the reminder.

Anselmo Quemot said...

Don't want to pontificate too much here, so just on the modernity/modernism relationship, I'll just say that I understand the former in part as defined by the importance of autonomy i.e. the end of societies ruled by Divine Right, which were replaced by all those good Enlightenment values- emancipation predicated on the use of critical reason etc. This opens up communicative spaces outside parliaments where people can reason reflexively (civil society, public spheres).

As Raymond Williams has argued, autonomy is obviously crucial for politics, and in his study, The Politics of Modernism, he found cause to bemoan the fact that the radical politics of the early modernists were eventually recuperated by the advertising industry and consumer culture more generally to the extent they became mere formal techniques. Hence, it could be argued that postmodern culture arises from this developmental logic. Signifiers are separated from signifieds, and the metanarrative of emancipation suffers accordingly.

I like your description of the "Krazy Glue" effect, as I think it could be used to highlight these "bricolage" tendencies. I'm not sure what Shin would say if I added "postmodern culture" to his equation: strong state + weak society= Asian country, but it seems to support my point.

But I'm sure you catch my drift, even if you disagree. Anyway, thanks for filling me in on your paper on The Host. I'll be sure to email.

gordsellar said...


Yeah, I think that definition of modernity isn't so close to what Azuma is talking about, nor what I mean when I say it. (Nor is it a particularly helpful descriptor for Korea; after all, the opening up of public spaces existed back into the dictatorships and even the Donghak and other peasant groups forced open spaces for peasant revolts when things were too intolerable. The Donghak and other peasant revolts came to mind during the US Beef Protests a few years ago, which, if you read my article on the subject, was very much driven by forces like folk myth, magical thinking, and so on... ie. things I suspect are are pre-modern by your definition.

In Korea, modernity of the kind you talk about was subverted by dictatorship, with racial freedom and racial unity (and economic development -- catching up with the Americans) given prime importance--and used to justify all kinds of individual unfreedoms and economic and political hardships along the way for the masses. The metanarrative of emancipation in Korea became emancipation from Japan, then from dictatorship, and then fizzled into, "Whew, we have a democracy!" without much work devoted to equipping people with the mindset that goes with democracy. The collapse in order that followed was not so complete as in the former Soviet Union, but is evident in many (non-economic) sectors: people used to drive in an orderly fashion, now they drive like maniacs. People used to have political convictions, even just oppositional ones; now, it's the battle between what Koreans call left and right, which look to me like a weirdly intertwined pair of far-right political parties, differing in subtle ways on who they hate and curse and blame more. Most people have become essentially apolitical, I suppose because they figured that was a luxury one could afford after "achieving democracy." I'm with C. Douglas Lummis in thinking that democracy isn't an electoral system, but a public mindset, and lacking that mindset, you don't have democracy, just an electoral system that is at best a sham, or at worst has a ticking clock attached to it.

Anyway, I'll save the rest for another time...

Anonymous said...
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Anselmo Quemot said...

Thanks for the provocative reply! I'd still hold to my definition of modernity though insofar as modernity can encompass an appeal to myth and tradition. This holds that tradition becomes informed by a reflexive dimension to respond to present day demands; something which can be distinguished from traditionalism. The past is always present, be it either in compulsive or articulate forms.

Gerard Delanty, a social theorist of modernity, has expanded on some considerable detail in is writings on Asian modernity (ies). For now though, I have to leave with a brief definition from another writer:

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition".

Anselmo Quemot said...

One final provocation, I'm wondering if there is a blindspot in some of the scholarship about South Korean modernity. So I ask the question, is there an equivalent to the Japanese term Nihonjinron that can explain who has a vested interest in characterizing the "mindset" of the average citizen, be they Japanese or Korean, as not being open to a more expansive definition of modernity?

"First, they implicitly assume that the Japanese constitute a culturally and socially homogeneous racial entity, whose essence is virtually unchanged from prehistoric times down to the present day. Secondly, they presuppose that the Japanese differ radically from all other known peoples. Thirdly, they are conspicuously nationalistic, displaying a conceptual and procedural hostility to any mode of analysis which might be seen to derive from external, non-Japanese sources. In a general sense then, nihonjinron may be defined as works of cultural nationalism concerned with ostensible 'uniqueness' of Japan in any aspect, and which are hostile to both individual experience and the notion of internal socio-historical diversity."

Now, you can cherry pick which aspect of this passage is worth emphasizing, but if it's admitted it is merely an ideology (derived from nationalism), then you have to accept it is a product of modernity: a synthesizing discourse intended to unify (read: simplify) in the face of the differentiation modernity promotes. But "is" cannot be derived from "ought", so the conceptual horizon has to open up to see this as a global process crosscutting modern societies (and needing to be supplemented by the concept of "glocalization" to show some "local", in a qualified sense, variations).

I'd be particularly suspicious of any references to "the masses" in this context.