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Homogeneity, Culture, Conservativism, The Rebel, and Korea

Not sure to what degree any of this is true, but here are a few lines that occurred to me and I may (or may not) use it in that essay I’m writing about interracial relationship politics in South Korea. Criticism of this is welcome and invited; and I am thinking I need to borrow those Camus books about the Rebel from John so I can write this properly. Anyway, here it is:

In Korean culture, it often seems as if nonconformity must take on a form of guerrila warfare in order to survive the generalized pressure to conform. By guerrila warfare tactics, I mean that it must be carefully targeted, and distributed rather than concentrated, peripheral rather than central to any particular assault against the “norm.” A woman may refuse to marry, but still must dress impeccably, apply makeup with a skill that is—by common appearance—more practiced than any of her other skills, including logical thinking; and she must generally behave in such a respectable and attractive manner as to suggest the she could marry if she wished it. A young man may dress in a kilt and shove safety pins through the soft tissue of his nose, sporting a two-foot-long purple mohawk and army boots, but when addressing his elders and strangers at, say, a rough-concrete walled basement punk club, he still speaks using the honorific and generally polite language, and sounds rather like any other young Korean man of his age. (I have actually experienced both of these examples firsthand.)

Generalized nonconformity in itself is not conceivably a good thing anywhere in this society; rather, it is naturally taken as a strategy of self-determination that has a definite, limited scope and goal, a small and important step taken not by an individual as much as in unison by members of a self-declared sub-culture; the scope is necessarily delimited by an unspoken but generally understood boundary the violation of which is (in the current era) tolerated to a certain degree, but not beyond it, at any given point.

One therefore has about as much chance of convincing most Koreans that generalized nonconformity is a useful method of individuation as one has of convincing Americans that Al Quaida is made up of heroic freedom fighters and soldiers of God. The culture, the realities of life in Korean society, the system of relations, and the very methods of identity-formation that are ingrained from such an early age, and that (as far as I know) there are no real models in Korean literature upon which a radical nonconformist approach is glorified or personified in a successful figure, unlike in the West where most cherished characters from childrens’ books onward are all brutally nonconformist. The figure who stands completely alone, in the Korean imaginary, is not the heroic loner but instead the wangta, the outcast. The American myth of the lone cop who gets suspended and fights through the bureacracy to catch the bad guy. The heroic cop is the one who find a way to bond with a partner, no matter how differently they work, and together with his partner catches the bad guy. Lacking a myth that affirms and supports nonconformity as a good in itself, there is very little chance in Korea of decontextualized, generalized nonconformism catching on. This rankles many foreign observers, who find the culture too homogenous (or homogenized) and wish for more variety, more rapid change, and more freedom of thought. One could argue that it creates a slower pace for change and a greater level of stability within the culture. One could also argue that it is effectively the realization of a generalized depoliticization of the most common aspects of life; that it is a manifest victory of the dominant classes in the society (the older, the male, the monied).

Perhaps, in fact, the higher value afforded nonconformity in European and especially North American culture(s) is a result of a higher degree of heterogeneity in Europe in modern history. It would make sense for Korea, where contact with the foreign world was, until relatively recently, almost unhread-of. The long availability in the West of foreign literatures and arts, the widespread study of foreign languages, may have set the stage for a kind of receptivity to the alien, to the radically different that created a whole cultural narrative of the radically disjunctive and radically unconforming. The narrative of the un-conforming, when it survived into an age where monolingualism has reclaimed the minds of the people, and when consumer product-consumption has replaced widespread interest in artistic interchange between major cultures, would have likely transformed itself into a newer narrative, the nonconformist—said narrative having been transformed in fact when members of the culture took it up as best they could within a linguistically and culturally limited context, drawing on the nonetheless common examples of “radically different” cultures belonging the oppressed and disenfranchised “minorities” within the West, especially America. The fact that black youth culture seems the wellspring of all youth culture in America (and by extension a shocking amount of the rest of the world) is not ironic; what is ironic is that the generalized anticonformism that is at the heart of such youth culture is reborn as a mere “style” not only within (also somewhat conformist) white American culture and Korean culture alike, with the difference that the Americans at the very least pay lip service to the fable of the nonconformist.


Shawn called me on claiming that “there are no real models in Korean literature upon which a radical nonconformist approach is glorified or personified in a successful figure”, even thought I qualified that statement with the caveat, “(as far as I know)”. He rightly expressed doubt that I’d read a great deal of Korean literature—I’ve read as many translated short stories as I can, but that’s still only a smattering of this nation’s literature. I do include film in this category, and my broad survey of Korean film stands up to the claim, I think, but I ought to be careful in making such claims, all the same.

We had an abortive chat with Cheol Seong in the office about it, and the one major figure he could think of that embodied the nonconformist figure in Korean lit was Yi Sang, who happens to be one of the best of the Korean writers I’ve read in translation. However, I think it’s fair to say that the characters of Yi Sang’s creation that I have encountered would not really be considered “functional” or “successful” by normal Korean standards. Rather, they’re, as Cheol Seong said, “kind of losers”. Yi Sang kind of reminds me of a Korean Jack Kerouac, minus the drugs and plus some really messed-up relationships with women. I gotta get my hands on more of that guy’s writing, at least, whatever’s translated. If it’s not, maybe that could be a goal of mine; to work with a Korean in translating his stories into English. If there’s any classic Korean writer who ought to be translated into English, and whom English readers would “get” and enjoy, I think it’s him. (And I think Koreans by and large might agree it’d be a good choice; many people seem to hold Yi Sang in high regard, and several Korean writers I’ve met consider him their favorite writer.)

In any case, Shawn is right to question me as an authority on anything in Korea. I may have read more Korean lit than some of my readers, but I am, as ever, far from an authority. I’ll ask Lime about this after her exams and see what she has to say about it. Maybe I can get Cheol Seong back on the topic sometime, too.

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