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Typology, Teleology, and Essentialism: Comparing Cultures Across Time

I don’t know if I’ll actually undertake this or not, but I certainly have it on my mind. In my Pop Cultures of the English-Speaking World course, I usually teach a segment on the Flapper Girl, inviting students to compare this American, 1920s concept of the “New Woman” with the phenomenon that arose in the mid-2000s, where young women’s consumption patterns began to draw criticism and the label “된장녀” (Soybean Paste Girl) came into sudden and widespread use.

While the (Korean) term has kind of melted into the background, it’s still very much present in the minds of young people, a clearly understandable label that does from time to time get thrown around, almost always about some stereotypical figure, and much less often these days in accusation of any particular individual woman present. (I remember the days when male students would growl the word at certain female students in class — almost always those who were pretty, bright, and able to speak English, and very often women who did not at all fit the “definition” widely accepted today.)

Anyway, for the last few years when I teach pop culture, I have had students think about and write something about the similarities and differences between the Flappers and the Soybean Paste Girls. The result is almost always the same: they hold up the Flappers in a positive light, ignoring contemporaneous criticisms of these young women and focusing on the aspects of change that the flappers are now seen to have embodied. But when they talk about the Soybean Paste Girls, they tend to do things quite differently. Primarily, they take for granted the accusations hurled about by Soybean Paste Girls’ detractors, while taking for granted not only the truth of those criticisms, but also their general validity.

For example, one student argued that Soybean Paste Girls are more caught up in “conspicuous consumption” than the flappers were. Not only does this ignore the kinds of criticisms leveled at the flappers by their elders and by feminist contemporaries, it also ignores the sexist double standard by which a pair of women going to Starbucks and spending W12,000 on a couple of coffees is somehow an egregious expenditure, while a group of men going out to drink and spending so much larger amount of money on liquor and drinking food is taken for granted as a “normal” behavior among men. (Likewise, the criticism that the women who do this are unemployed ignores the reality that lots of male students who are unemployed go out to drinking parties too.)

The thing is, a comparison of all the points of similarity would be, well… it’s not what I want to write about. Nor is a point-by-point refutation of the confusion of my students’ discussion of the issues what I really want to write. What I want to write is something else… but I haven’t figured out quite what.

There are some concerns that dog me from the outset. One of them is my still-incomplete series of posts on “Gin Lane and Soju-Row,” which explored a similar Western/Korean parallel (but comparing attitudes and cultural construction of drinking, and the liquor industries, between the early 18th century in London and the present day in South Korea.

This in itself is one of those things I often warn students to be careful with: such facile comparisons abound, of course, in expatriate discussions of Korea, usually with the expats taking great pains to find some point in the West’s developmental history where they can point to, some slot in the past, into which they can neatly pigeonhole modern Korean reality. The dumbest and most annoying one, of course, is to compare Korea today to the 1950s in America — a comparison so fraught in so many ways that I wouldn’t know where to begin to dissect it. to put it shortly, the only reason they really say that sort of thing is that they (a) know very little history at all, and have a false sense of familiarity with the 1950s as inherited from their parents — they understand the 1950s the way Victorian Protestants understood Continental Catholicism, in other words, as a kind of fantasized boogeyman monster, rather than the reality — monstrous, perhaps, yes, but not in the way they’d been trained to think, and (b) because the expatriate, being faced for the first time with a situation beyond his or her cognitive control and referential frame, must find a “theory” to help them grapple with daily reality.

Allow me the first to say that every expat has a theory… or a set of theories. Asian expats tend to have them about the West, too; indeed, I find them pretty much throughout the writings of bicultural authors, as well; and those theories tend to accrete around the things that annoy or trouble us. That’s normal, and after all, pearls form around irritants. But not all pearls belong on jewelry, and most expat typologies of history also deserve to be chucked into the ocean.

Typologies of history: fancy words. It just means, the recurrence of patterns in history, over and over. Nietszche talked about it, yeah, but I get my theory from a filthier, earthier place: the Middle Ages was a time when typological thought was big. Think of it this way: Christians read the Bible in such a way as to see the Old Testament as full of prefigurations of the life of Christ. They saw Jonah in the belly of the whale as a kind of pre-echo of Christ’s descent into Hell, to free the Patriarchs, during the 3 days he lay dead in the tomb. They saw the betrayal of Jacob by Esau as a pre-echo of Jesus being betrayed by Judas. They saw Sodom and Gomorrah as echoes of the Flood, and in turn saw the Flood as an echo of the Apocalypse to come. They applied this logic forward in time, too: when a person was tempted, it was an echo of the Temptation of Christ during the forty days in the desert. When a person found himself faced with mortal peril, he or she was to think of Simon Peter falling into the sea, only to be fished out by a Jesus who walked across the surface of the waters. When a sinner got forgiveness, it was supposed to be understood as an echo of Christ asking God to forgive those who were crucifying him.

The central flaw in all of this, of course, is that when you think typologically, you think of the world as having only one story, playing out in different forms, over and over. It does not equip you well for, say, a crisis of climate change, or the dangers of war in a world where war has been radically transformed by technology; it does not help you to think flexibly when faced with a new epidemic disease, and so on.

Nonetheless, thinking typologically is very common among expatriates, at least among many expats in Korea.

Which is not to say there aren’t questions of comparison worth asking. Consider a question like, “Does the development of specifically female consumer practice — and predominant male reactions to it — evolve in similar ways in modern societies, regardless of fine cultural differences?”

Which is to say, does modernity — which after all, shows up wearing a suit and tie most of the time — impose certain patterns of change and development inherently due to its own internal structures?

See, the thing is, typological thinking isn’t the only flawed approach to considering cultural difference. Another flawed approach is to discount parallels completely, and go for comparison’s jugular vein: to declare that, because Korea is founded on Confucianism and America is founded on Judeo-Christian culture, they are essentially different.

Note the word essentially. It’s stressed on purpose, because this essentialism is the pernicious poison that ruins most discussions of comparison and contrast. Expats do it sometimes — especially when they want to deride Korea — but it is especially a common move among Korean interlocutors. Someone will say, “In Korea, women are subject to a number of double standards. One of those, currently in transition, is the fact that smoking is widely accepted among men (at least in the right company) but is broadly frowned upon among women.” There’s nothing wrong with such a comparison, of course. The problem is when one tries to explain it, because, let’s be honest here, most people have a pretty terrible grasp of the past, of cultural change, of history. Most of us don’t have a clue how cultural change happens. We are taught patently false essentialisms that are supposed to explain everything, and we accept them as “tradition” or as “history” — which is one reason I had my students read Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s wonderful The Invention of Tradition.

The problem, in Korea, is that all roads are believed to lead back to Confucianism. Name a social problem, ask why it exists, and sooner or later in the excavation, you will find people defaulting out to, “It’s because of Confucianism,” just as a North American might default out to, “It’s because of Christianity” or “It’s because of Patriarchy” or “It’s because of the class system.”

Which, insofar as it gives people something to blame and rage against, well, more power to it. Now, there’s something to be said for the fact that Confucianism, in being equated with Korean culture in ideology, in education, and so on, has safeguarded a lot of the social problems that indeed do interlock well with Confucian patriarchy, is trotted out at times as a kind of bulwark against Westernization: we can’t give up our culture, we can’t let ourselves be changed by the foreign hegemon.

Okay, and, rhetoric is one thing, practice is another. People might nod their head to such exhortations, but it seems to me plenty of Korean women are quite in favor of the abolition of certain elements of Confucianism… or, perhaps, for the rediscovery of the fact that Korean culture is not essentially Confucian; that there was a culture here before the Joseon Dynasty refocused official culture on Confucianism; that an authentic and relevant Korean history prior to, and superior to, the historical simplifications and justifications for the status quo exists, waiting to be excavated again and carried out into the popular imagination.

But beyond all that, my point is that this kind of essentialization also ignores some very interesting patterns. For example, the fact that America, a society as far removed from Confucian influence, had strong strictures against women’s smoking a century ago, and that the marketing of cigarettes to women (now starting up in Korea) was a reflection of other patterns of change that happened in American culture… and that similar changes are occurring in Korea today.

But hey, hit the brakes. We’re on the verge of that typology again. Worse: it’s not just the idea that there is one story that keeps playing out again and again: it’s the  allied view that there is only one story, and it must be played out again and again. That, as one prominent expat who has since left Korea used to assume, Korea needs to have a “summer of love” the way America did (and never mind HIV, or the complaints of women who lived through the summer of “love” and its often-ignored coercions); that development and change are teleological, that there is only one way to develop and that Korea has a responsibility to follow America in its developmental changes.

That kind of thinking is anathema for several reasons. It likely does flow out from the kind of imperialist thinking that still exists in many minds, yes. But it’s also lazy, and stupid, and unimaginative. It’s dumb, dumb, dumb. I’m not saying that, say, Korean women looking to the lower degree of discrimination faced by Western women and being inspired to demand fairer work standards is silly, mind you. I’m saying that this business of imagining only one way to do things is dumb in itself; it ignores the problems inherent in every approach, the question of how strategy and tactics must consider the differing situation, environment, and circumstances that evolve and differ between different cultures, times, and places. There are many ways to skin a cat… or to mutate a culture.

If I do get around to discussing this parallel, it will be necessary to avoid all of these pitfalls: essentialism on one side, and the enmeshed illusions of telelogy and typology on the other. The former is easy: I revile it. The latter, though, is tougher, especially when asking that question that haunts me: is the range of possible trajectories itself limited by the structure and institutions inherent in modernity?

I should probably just write a dissertation or something, and get it out of my system. Ha.

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