Indexing Korean Popular Culture
by Kyung Hyun Kim (Professor, UC Irvine)
During the conference in which most of the papers featured here were presented and discussed, there was one key term that brought together the diverse group of presenters, discussants, and participants who gathered from a wide array of fields such as media studies, art history, communications, intellectual history, cultural studies, ethnomusicology, sports studies, literary studies, film studies, performance studies, anthropology, and ethnic studies. It was not hallyu (Korean Wave) or postmodernism, and certainly not Yon-sama (who strangely did not get mentioned even once). It was, interestingly, ‘indexicality,’ a term that is familiar within the theoretical terrain of photography studies, but obscure perhaps beyond it, that became one of the ubiquitous concepts that punctured the hybrid and promiscuous condition that pulled all of us into conversation with one another.
During the conference, Timothy Tangherlini, a discussant for the popular music panel, first foregrounded the term. Indexicality originates from the ‘index,’ which was used by American semiotician C. S. Peirce during the latter half of the 19thCentury to underscore less than clear-cut signs that bear little resemblance to their original objects. His examples included a footprint, a weathervane, the word ‘this,’ and a photograph.1 More recently, it has been adopted by visual studies scholars to determine, in the words of Tom Gunning, “a physical relation between the object photographed and the image finally created.”2 Tangherlini argued that popular music only acquired meaning if it could trigger a greater degree of indexicality. In other words, a song (the equivalent of a photograph) that is heard on the streets, on the radio or television, or on a You Tube channel, would have to draw from our own cultural reservoir (the equivalent of the original object photographed) through various psychic signals that are put to work (like light-sensitive celluloid emulsion reflecting off the photographed object) in order for the song to make sense for us. So when you ask the question, “What is my indexicality?” a song must be manipulated and translated in the mind of a listener in order for it to qualify as a meaningful sign rather than just background noise. Later into the conference, papers given by Sohl Lee, Steven Chung, and Michelle Cho employed the same term, per Roland Barthes.3 Lee’s discussion of photographs taken in Pyongyang during Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy Era, Chung’s paper on photographs and clothing in 1950s Seoul, and Cho’s focus on contemporary star celebrities such as Won Bin and Kim Hye-ja all brought bear the need to deal with the term because modern and contemporary culture is characterized by a saturations of images that remind us that the complexities of the images’ referentiality require intellectual intervention. Like a classic yuhaenga (popular song) that is assigned to a young singer to be reinterpreted for a challenge in the currently vogue television program “I Am a Singer,” [Na nûn kasu ta] broadcast on MBC since 2011, the notion of indexicality allows us to reinterpret and re-experience a sign that constantly renews itself by detaching itself from its original time and place. And during discussions that spilled into the wee-hours of the night, questions on “indexicality” continued to be raised. Several of the Korean cultural critics who attended the conference wondered how the term would translate into Korean. Lee Dong-yeon suggested ‘chip’yosông,’ (指標性) which is closer to ‘mapping’ or ‘guidepost.’ I, relying on a pure Korean word, asked whether or not ‘sonkarakjil’ (pointing or taunting) might be a suitable choice.
Even in the digital age, the trope of indexicality or ‘chip’yosông’ has found renewed interest and has been widely discussed4 because after decades of finding almost all ‘truth claims’ in any media representation to be inappropriate and too austere, postmodernism and poststructuralism’s massive attack against the real or realism is now showing signs of exhaustion. Even cultural studies has come to a realization that most cultural productions do legitimate a great degree of referentiality to real objects and people, and not only to empty objects and simulations of people. There are several reasons why I began this introduction of Korean popular culture with a lengthy discussion on indexicality. First, a discussion of indexicality allows us to move away from the national identity-based model of Korean popular culture. It requires the critics gathered in this volume to clarify and identify the origin behind a note, a frame, a taste, a run, a swing, a spin, a dribble, a scribble, a letter, and even a blog reply, even in a climate where all meanings behind these signifiers are threatened with extinction. Raising the question about the indexicality of these cultural productions and, to invoke a Deleuzian term, the ‘virtual-actual,’ the relationship between the actual object photographed and the virtual image produced, also demands that we examine Korean popular culture’s engagement with the foreign or Western, without necessarily falling into the ‘mimicry vs. subversion’ debate. Culture, as Homi K. Bhabha once described, must be “transnational and translational,” not in order to thrive in mimicry, but in order to simply survive.5 This ‘transnational and translational’ rule applies not only to cultural productions in a colonial and post-colonial setting such as Korea, but it also serves as a matrix for globally dominant post-war cultural industries. Needless to say, Hong Kong martial arts films and French nouvelle vogue have reshaped Hollywood at various moments of its own crisis, and it would not be at all an exaggeration to say that American popular music would not have had established its dominance had it not been for the major influx of southern blacks in all phases of music tracing it back to the 1920s to the present.
Second, a renewed focus on indexicality will hopefully renew the importance of the analysis of images, sounds, and forms, and therefore expand the current study of hallyu that so far has been overly reliant on terms that are perhaps even more vacuous than the postmodern signifiers themselves, such as the ‘right chord of Asian sentiments.’6 If indexicality opens new possibilities for theoretical interventions of once-irrelevant or peripheral nation-based cultural productions that go beyond the ‘mimicry/resistance’ model, as many of the essays gathered here attest, it would allow the study of contemporary Korean culture—in which hallyu has admittedly played a dominant role—to move beyond primarily data-driven, audience research. While this idea hopefully does not aim at dismissing all media studies-oriented research, focusing on indexicality would require us to closely attend to the forms and referentiality of various popular cultural subjects and reveal Korean popular culture’s capacity to deepen and widen popular cultural studies of not just the non-Western world, but also a truly global field of cultural studies. In order to do so, this volume is hopefully a first step toward a renewed commitment to diversify the interpretations of values set by the most obvious ideologies that determine image creation, and certainly a step beyond the superficial endorsement of the mass-media driven numbers-game (how much did it sell in Japan?) and sensational headlines that dominate after a single K-pop concert in Europe. An appropriate index of Korean culture suggests new ways of engaging referentiality, iconography, and signifying systems that extend far beyond the register of empty signifiers.
Third, indexicality also affords us to historicize Korean popular culture. It asks, after all, to precisely register all of the references between the image and the original artifact that it has traced. The emergence of cultural studies in South Korean academia can be traced back to the late 1980s, when the employment of cultural politics gained ground in the movement for social democracy, and to the early 1990s, when the cultural industries began to gain prominence. However, it was, as later will be further explained, during the early part of the Japanese colonial era (1910-1945) when the first instantiation of popular, which has its etymological roots in, as Michelle Cho reminds us, populus or the people, was pronounced in the form of minjok. Of course, this is not to suggest that popular or people, as evidenced by p’ansori, mask dance, and the choreography of martial arts, were not present prior to the 20th Century in Korea. And yet, just as much as one has a difficult time translating indexicality into Korean, ‘popular culture’ is also an idiom that is just as impossible to translate into Korean. It is a term that is translated as taejung (mass) munhwa (culture), but because taejung is an austere sociological subject that is often more depicted as ‘mass,’ or ‘public’ rather than ‘popular’ or ‘entertainment,’ a more apt translation would be inki (popular) or yuhaeng (trendy) munhwa. But this not only sounds awkward and anachronistic in Korean, but the word ‘inki’ also suggests an accouterment of commercial aspiration that ultimately removes the code of activism that normally underpins the term taejung. Also, interestingly, while taejung (mass or public) signifies agendas and assumptions that are steeped in democracy, cosmopolitan ideals, and protests that reimagine resistant forms of political collectives, inki or yuhaeng stands for its very opposite: individualism, crass market-driven merchandises, and star icons that sometimes belie the interests of the masses. Taking this bifurcation one step further, Jung Hwan Cheon, in his essay featured in the volume, writes, “the concept of the ‘popular’ theoretically borders on schizophrenic, and even moves in the opposite, neurotic direction, that of ‘minjok.’” But, as Cho acutely observes, “the contemporary era no longer admits a clear distinction between the mass and the popular.” I also feel somewhere between these two correlates; many of the essays gathered here locate the pulse of Korean popular culture, and the lexicons of taejung/inki/yuhaeng definitely run parallel to the discourse of modernity. This is the reason why Youngmin Choe, my coeditor, and I have decided to forego the discussions of almost all cultural phenomenon that predate the era of colonial modernity that took place during the early part of the 20th Century.
Though twenty years have elapsed since the inaugural issue of positions: east asia cultures critique selected ‘colonial modernity’ as its central theme, and fifteen years since the first-ever conference held at UCLA on the subject of Korean colonial modernity was organized by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson that later became a platform for their edited volume Colonial Modernity in Korea,7 the complexities that seek to partly contest the rigidity of the binary relationship between the colonizer and the colonized through ‘colonial modernity’ has not caught steam in Korean studies in the United States. While no single author monograph has emerged in the U.S. that has fully taken on this topic, in Korea, colonial modernity has become not only a hot intellectual item, but also a subject of broad public interest.8 After the 1999 publication of Kim Chin-song’s Sôul e ttansûhol ûl hôhara [Grant Dance Halls a Permit in Seoul], which was based on his research of popular culture and everyday life in colonial Korea, many books dealing with social life including dating and popular cultural consumption during that era have come into print. Bodurae Kwon’s Yônae ûi sidae: 1920-yôndae ch’oban ûi munhwa wa yuhaeng [Age of Dating: Culture and Trends of the Early 1920s], Cheon Jung-hwan’s Chosôn ûi sanai kôdûn p’utppol ûl ch’ara [If You Are a Man of Chosŏn, Kick a Soccer Ball], and Son Min-jung’s Politics of T’ûrot’û [T’ûrot’û ûi chôngch’ihak] are some of the books that contributed to making the study of the colonial era less didactic and essentially nationalist.9 Choe and I are extremely pleased to include essays from Kwon, Cheon, and Son, which are revised translations of their works originally published in these Korean monographs. These essays survey literature (Kwon), sports (Cheon), and popular music (Son), and offer ways for us to think about the time and space of Korea simply divided between minjok’s collective resistance against the Japanese colonial supremacy and the perpetuations of an automatic celebration of individual subjects at the dawn of modernization during the 1920s and the 1930s. Dwelling on modern emotions behind expressions of yônae (romance) in early epistolary novels, the fantasy of restored national manhood in the radio broadcast and the newspaper coverage that followed Sohn Ki-jung’s victorious marathon run during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and sorrowful yearning in 1930s yuhaengga (popular or trendy songs), all of these essays on colonial modernity re-inscribe modernist aesthetics. It is within the regime of the sublime, either in the celebration an athletic achievement or singing of a yuhaengga, where minjok, pure and uncontaminated, could fully denote the index of a fractured nation where its past references were fully nullified and its subjecthood revoked.
The 1950s are often noted as a period in Korea most known for total war and destruction, political corruption, and the demise of indigenous culture. However, a closer inspection of the flow of popular music, film, and even clothing at the time belie what Steven Chung calls “the discourse of Americanization in 1950s South Korea.” What is most striking about his essay and Kelly Jeong’s essay on screen star Kim Sûng-ho’s iconic persona during the Golden Age of Korean cinema (roughly from 1955 to 1972) is the ways in which they pay attention to gender terms. Their nuanced readings of screen surfaces monumentalize still images from movies, fashion magazines, and photo exhibits as an ultimately productive terrain of indexicality. While Chung pays attention to the unsung heroes of the 1950s, stylists such as Ch’oe Kyông-ja and Nora No, and various glossy covers from popular women’s magazines, Jeong traces the threads of confluence between the complicit patriarchic discourse necessitated by the ideologies carved by the tender liberal democracy the U.S. had to represent after the devastating war and its sometimes mischievous and corrupt client, the South Korean government, and the discomforting ruptures attended by her insights that tend to raise disturbing questions about irresponsible cinematic treatment of women.
After the presidency of Kim Dae-jung in South Korea (1997-2002), whose legacy was partly established through his generous and liberal cultural policies, it is hard to imagine that culture was a low priority for other presidents before him. During Park Chung Hee’s presidency (1960-1979), all segments of popular culture, as noted in various places in this volume (most notably in Hyun-joon Shin and Pil-ho Kim’s “Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Group Sound Rock” and Kyu Hyun Kim’s “Scribbling Colonial History: Ko Woo-young, Hur Young-man and the Ambivalence of Modern Korean Identity in Narrative Comics”), was heavily censored for their failure to promote the ideas behind Park’s rural revitalization campaign, anti-Communism, and export-driven economy. As Shin and Kim note, the Park Chung Hee regime took action against the new culture it deemed ‘vulgar’ (chôsok) and ‘decadent’ (t’oep’ye). Needless to say, popular culture during much of the 1970s was reduced to sanitary forms of entertainment that were sanctioned by the government.
It is probably not coincidental that the two essays that cover the 1970s and the 1980s are on the subjects of popular music on university campuses and in graphic novels. During this time of extreme political scrutiny, comics (manhwa) arguably emerged as one of the most significant cultural productions, providing both entertainment and social satire for the general public. One of the reasons for this was that newspapers were spared from pre-production censorship that television and film industry were subject to at the time. Ironically, adult manhwa thrived during the two decades of military dictatorship as serialized entertainment in daily newspapers and sport and entertainment dailies, making cartoonists Ko Woo-young and Hur Young-man celebrity auteurs. Kim Kyu-Hyun’s close reading of two 1970s texts by these two artists, Ko’s The Great Ambition [Taeyamang] and Hur’s The Maiden Mask [Kaksit’al], cuts across various historical blocs. Not only are they relevant during today’s hallyu because the work of these two artists continue to serve as treasure troves for adaptations for television, movies, and musicals, but their dealings with Korea’s experience with Japanese colonialism, as Kim poignantly argues, also continually ends up subverting its own nationalist agenda “by rendering the question of ethnic/national identity unresolved and ambivalent.”
The landscape of Korean popular culture begins to change radically during the early 1990s when censorship relaxes and the so-called college underground music and protest culture such as madang guk (open-space theater) is no longer required to impose counter-memory against the ruling forces. At a time when the binarism between officially sanctioned television stars and programs and protest culture germinated largely within college campuses begins to erode, it is Seo Tae-ji, who, along with a couple of aspiring dancers, become the darlings of both mainstream media and social and cultural activists. Seo would perfect dance routines, write his own songs, and choose hip hop outfits that would later strike a deep chord with Korean teenagers in 1992. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Seo would single-handedly create a template for the idol mania that soon began to define the hallyu era. Roald Maliangkay’s essay helps to locate Seo Tae-ji, arguably the most important pop icon in Korean history, by contextualizing it within Korea’s socioeconomic terms of the time: the increased purchase power of the middle class, popularity of post-authoritarian consumerist items in teenage fashion, CD industry boom, and proliferation of noraebang (Korean karaoke) and clubs.
One of the most troubling areas in a volume that attempts to comprehensively cover all aspects of Korean popular culture unsurprisingly is North Korea. It is partially because, as discussed above, the term ‘popular’ is netted within the axioms of individualism, commercialism, and star system that are utilized to market and sell capitalist merchandise. Scanning across the urban landscapes of Pyongyang, it is impossible to locate any faces that actually market products of any kind. Neither do their single channel television nor their newspaper feature advertisements or product placements. But it is not as if Pyongyang lacks a star. Its great leader Kim Il-sung and dear leader Kim Jong-il, of course, are popular icons that register profound resonances with the people there. Travis Workman, in his essay, “The Partisan, the Worker, and the Hidden Hero: Popular icons in North Korean Film,” repudiates the widely accepted notion that the consumption of socialist realism rests on a lack of viewing pleasure, and instead urges us to rethink the bodily spectacle and emotional intimacy that North Korean cinema creates for its masses. Workman’s main argument is that the ‘hidden hero’ films from the North reverse Freud’s famous dictum, “where the id was, the ego must come into being,” into “where the superego was, the id must come into being,” which then allows them to prefigure the Leader and his association with the hidden hero before even the ego is formed. This is an unusual way to think about the pleasure of viewing, which of course relies on the question posed above, “What is the indexicality of this image?” since the prominence of either of the two leaders so presumably reduces any gap between the image and its referentiality. Why even bother figuring out the indexicality between the photograph and the actual object at which the camera is aiming when there is nothing deferred or subconsciously referenced?
This is precisely the question that is taken up by the South Korean photographer who spent several weeks in Pyongyang, Back Seung-woo, whose work, Blow-up, is the central concern in Sohl Lee’s essay. Her essay, as do the ones by Michelle Cho, Olga Fedorenko, and Stephen Epstein, continues to explore the complex exchange of the image’s production and projected fantasy that tend to overdetermine a cultural production’s representational surface. What Lee notes in Back’s work is how the photographer, who initially had thought that the censored images he had captured while traveling in North Korea in 2001 at the height of Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy era had no value (for they failed to solicit capitalist pleasure that must impinge on the intriguing set of index photographs usually serve), retroactively finds out that the opposite is true when he disproportionately blows up the same ‘uninteresting’ photos. Michelle Cho similarly argues that a gap must be created between the semiotic content of the screen celebrities such as minam (good-looking boy) and ômma (mother) and the ‘true’ characters that these stars sometimes depict before self-reflexive fun can take place. Cho’s focus on Bong Joon-ho’s 2009 film Mother mounts South Korea’s ceaseless projections of fetishistic properties and desires around star’s faces, bodies, and movements also extends the position raised elsewhere in the volume by Stephen Epstein, with the aid of James Turnbull. Epstein and Turnbull while dissecting not only the words and melodies of girl group songs, but also their suggestive visual figurations in music videos, reject the girl groups’ empowerment argument that has been embraced by some local critics and problematizes “a conscious manipulation of the male gaze, or narcissistic self-exploitation directed at same-sex peers that dismisses patriarchy only to careen into the similarly problematic dictates of consumerist late capitalism.” Complicating this debate between the subversion of austere gendered conventions and reaffirmation of preexisting patriarchal (and even nationalist) discourse are the performative and grossly exaggerated nature of the girl group music videos that tend to naturalize conflicting messages.
The confluence of mixed messages in gender and national identity also continue to dominate other essays on contemporary popular Korean culture. Rachael Miyung Joo, Fedorenko, and Katarzyna J. Cwiertka all have contributed essays that each specify sports stars, advertisements, and food. Ironically, these topics make up second-tier subjects of hallyu, while K-pop, K-drama, games, and cinema usually round up most academic rackets on the subject of recent Korean wave. However, no one can argue that sports, advertisement, and food are deeply rooted in the actual material conditions and routines of quotidian life in South Korea. Joo’s “Korean Female Athletes Traveling Across Nation and Gender” brings together issues of mass culture representation, transnational border-crossing, and sexual discrimination that have been raised elsewhere in the volume in a more concentrated fashion. While acknowledging the meteoric rise of Korean female stars in golf and figure skating even in the mainstream U.S. media as ‘new women,’ Joo raises questions on the sustained racist, sexist, and ultimately parochial nationalist ideologies that undervalue the trajectories of their arcs of success across the globe. Fedorenko’s essay also compellingly draws on how advertisements make the alienation of work in a capitalist system not only natural, but even worthwhile by encouraging enjoyment behind the consumption of commodities. Her astute ideological critiques against the seemingly benign advertisement campaigns that engage humor and humanism, while not completely abandoning new subversions that they potentially can realize, provoke that all critiques of South Korea’s recent economic success would now have to seriously consider a close analysis of mass culture. Cwiertka’s essay on hansik campaign examines culinary nationalism and the ways in which food intersects with Korea’s economics, history, taste culture, and most importantly the desire to redefine national identity by repudiating its once-upon-a-time stereotype of pungent smell.
One of the most frequently used phrases to describe South Korea these days is “the most wired nation.” Nearly every home in South Korea is wired, and almost every living human being there owns a cell phone. But underexposed behind this high-tech savvy image Korea upholds that provokes even the envy of the West is also the unpropitious title that Korea holds as the only country in the world where ‘internet addiction’ is a legitimate psychiatric disorder with a staggering number of 800,000 or more are at risk. If essays on earlier cultural productions (Shin/Kim or Chung) were concerned with readings that pegged textual matters either as ideological mimicry or align them as a resistant subculture that proposes an alternative to American cultural hegemony, the mimicry vs. subversion debate vanished almost all from these discussions on contemporary internet culture. Both Inkyu Kang and Regina Yung Lee point to the internet as sites of their research and yet their articles diverge onto two completely different paths: Kang responds to the question as to why game consoles have largely failed in a country where the game craze has caught on, while Lee attempts a Deleuzian interpretation of a unique U.S. fandom site that re-narrates K-dramas through still recaps and commentaries. Kang attributes the immense unpopularity of game consoles and popularity of the PC bangs in Korea to Confucianism. Youth culture, he suggests, can only thrive in a public space that is outside the remote reach of parental surveillance. The marketing of computers and internet broadband as a must-have learning device in Korean homes rather than a gaming tool has also played huge roles in making Korea an over-wired nation. On this side of the continent, Lee probes the almost clandestine activities of cross-cultural translations on internet; from moving to still images, from aural sounds in Korean to English letters on monitor screen, and from Korean production to American reception, offering one final reminder that indexicality—and with it its photographic incarnation and modernist illumination—still matters in the age of the internet.
John Whittier Treat explicitly wrote in the introduction to his edited volume of Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture that while “popular is the proprietary concern of nearly all the social sciences and the humanities, but is not the only object of study for any field.”10 In the Korean studies field, not unlike its Japanese counterpart, it is almost impossible to identify scholars who exclusively teach subjects of the popular. However there is one fact distinguishes Korean studies perhaps from Japanese studies: unlike noh theater, Kurosawa films, and the literature of Kawabata and Mishima during the post-war years that have become the anchoring points of Japanese studies in the U.S. academia, Korean studies had a difficult time selling its tradition and modern aesthetics in course syllabuses until hallyu (Korean Wave) came along. Its churning out of entertainment coveted by a huge number of young fans who happened to enroll in our classes in the universities, has precipitated a demand-led research career change. While I hope this volume will find its way into many classrooms in the U.S., I also admit to making the best of an awkward situation in which there is not yet a substantial branch of even a sub-field called “Korean popular culture.”
This is actually one of the reasons why an editorial decision was made to compartmentalize sections the ways in which we did: along field demarcations rather than along the lines of historical chronology. This way, each and every section forces a dialogue outside its own historical specificities and can easily point to the affective power, genre, and stylistic mutations of each of the popular discourses over time. After all, index, as Pierce poignantly observed in the 19th Century, is nothing more than a mere pointing finger or a sonkarakjil.
This project was incubated by a grant from “Curriculum Development for Teaching Contemporary Cultural Topics in Korean Studies,” the Academy of Korean Studies.