I am currently auditing a course on visual cultures in Korea, led by Columbia professor Theodore Hughes at Yonsei University. This week’s theme is “Colonial Cosmpolitanisms: Visuality and the Remaking of Seoul as Modern Metropolis.” Each week, the students are required to write a response to the readings, discussions, and field trips covered that week. I figured I’d contribute my own reactions and responses, for what it’s worth:
The past few days have gotten me thinking about history and memory, haunting and erasure, legacies, tradition, and globalization. I think that the erasure of colonial history, in the tearing down of buildings, in the renaming of streets, is, in a way a revision of history. To that end, I think our discussion of how these erasures do not “solve” the problems of Japanese imperialism is significant. Much of my work work focuses on the trauma, melancholia, and haunting of history, and our walk through Seoul on Monday revealed to me the palimpsestic quality of Seoul’s landscape. Even with shiny facades and new names, evidence of the influence of past eras remains in vestiges at every turn. Time and progress lie in layers, each era never fully erased. Anachronistic buildings remain to haunt Korean modernity much like the legacies and unhealed traumas of imperialism and war.
I am also thinking about complicating our understandings of Japanese imperialization, traditionalism and globalization. I don’t think these things are necessarily mutually exclusive. Korea’s wholesale dismissal of Japanese imperialism obscures the fact that the Japanization of its colonies could be seen as a form of globalization decades before the era of 신세계.* Conversely, a purely nostalgic view of Korean traditionalism ignores the socio-economic disparities and gender inequalities of Confucian society. Equating traditionalism with Korean nationalism also ignores the fact that for the majority of the peninsula’s history, it has not been a unified nation-state.
I was reminded how these notions of traditionalism and Westernization become complicated the other day when I attended the Korean Queer Culture Festival. I found the anti-gay protesters’ demonstrations to be an example of how so often we pick and choose aspects of history or
ideology to suit our needs without acknowledging how they can often speak to both sides of an argument. The anti-gay protesters argued that an “introduction” of homosexuality into Korea is destroying the “traditional” moral values of Korean culture. To emphasize this, many of the protesters dressed in hanbok and played samulnori. However, they also held a ballet performance, sang hymns, and congregated as representatives of their churches—all of which are cultural aspects with Western origins. I found it rather ironic that they were protesting the deviation from “Koreanness” in homosexuality through Western cultural performance and the invocation of Christian religious morals. Not to mention the fact that homosexuality isn’t exclusively a Western innovation that has “tainted” Korean sensibilities.
*Credit to Kristen Sun for pointing this out.