Posts Tagged ‘current issues’

On the Cosmopolitan Imagination & Contemporary Art Practices

Isaac Julien’s latest work Ten Thousand Waves (2010) is a 9-screen installation that was made in response to the 2004 Morecambe Bay tragedy in which 23 Chinese cockle-pickers drowned in an incoming tide off the coasts of Northwest England. All the victims were undocumented immigrants, working a high-risk job for little money in order to pay off debts incurred to migration traffickers or to send money back to families in their homeland. Julien, moved by this incident, began his research for the work, first enlisting the poet Wang Ping to compose Small Boats, a poem that is recited in the installation. Julien travelled to China from 2006-2009, working in the Guangxi province and Shanghai to research and produce Ten Thousand Waves. The press release for the installation states that the work “combines fact, fiction and film essay genres against a background of Chinese history, legend and landscape to create a meditation on global human migrations.” The piece also features an array of Chinese performers (most notably film actress Maggie Cheung), artists, and calligraphers.

I have chosen to look at this work as an articulation of what scholar and art historian Marsha Meskimmon has termed the cosmopolitan imagination, and as such, I am interested in how it operates within the realm of affect and the symbolic, providing a sensory and experiential interface between the audience and the represented other. I wonder what potential such an interface has for invoking the viewer’s imagination toward an empathic, ethical, and felt response? Furthermore, in thinking about the power of the imagination and the affective within this artwork, and within artistic practices in general, I also ask: What is art’s agency? What is its potential to make the world? I have found that Meskimmon’s book Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination provides a number of discursive insights from which to begin, and that lend themselves well to the productive interrogation of art and its potential to make new subjects and relations in an ever-increasingly globalized world. Julien’s body of work, along with the artworks examined in Meskimmon’s book, address this globalized world and the issues that rise in its wake, such as human migrations due to economic labor, human trafficking, or refugeeism, new encounters between the ‘native’ self and other, ethical or moral responsibility toward this other, and who we mark as citizen, guest, or alien.

The reality of migration in a globalized world has already created the need for significant shifts in practices concerning human rights, citizenship, and ethical directives at the local and global levels, just as it has also altered our shared material and imaginary worlds. This is what sociologist Saskia Sassen describes as the “bridging effects of globalization” which “produce both material conditions and novel types of imaginaries that make emigration an option where not too long ago it was not” (132). Sassen also describes patterns of international migration that are based in ethnic networks and that “operate within the broader transnational spaces constituted by neocolonial processes and/or economic internationalization” (146). I highlight these points as they provide further context for Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, and in understanding China’s position as a rising economic force in the globalized market that is still bound by traces of colonial history, particularly to England. Further, beyond the specific example of China, Sassen’s insights provide a much-needed expansion of how we understand the many registers of globalization across social, economic, technological and cultural landscapes. I would argue that Julien’s installation, as it operates in the realm of the aesthetic, also creates a novel type of imaginary – the cosmopolitan imaginary – that creates a space for encounter with difference – of the other and also of place.

Meskimmon describes cosmopolitan imagination as an emergent concept that “generates conversations in a field of flesh, fully sensory, embodied processes of interrogation, critique, and dialogue that can enable us to think of our homes and ourselves as open to change and alterity” (8). She also locates the cosmopolitan imagination in the space of the relational and dialogic: “Understanding ourselves as wholly embedded within the world, we can imagine people and things beyond our immediate experience and develop our ability to respond to different spaces, meanings, others” (8). She argues that art is one of the most significant sites for this imagination to come forth and manifest in the material world. I would also argue because it operates at the level of affect through the symbolic and the poetic it has the potential to call forth the pragmatic; it can serve to engender new relationships, subjectivities, and agencies in the world. To make this argument, it is important to understand affect as the foundation for “the production and transformation of the corporeal self through others … of intellectual rigor and exigent thought” (8); it is through affect as a felt and sensory knowing that we make ourselves with/in relation to others, as well as demystify the strangeness of the other.

Meskimmon further states that art can enable us to “encounter difference, imagine change that is yet to come, and make possible the new” (8). In this way, art as an articulation of the cosmopolitan imagination creates a transitional space, platform and an interface for the exploration or emergence of subjectivities and new kinds of ethical relationships. I greatly appreciate Meskimmon’s argument for the power of the imagination and of affect to be registers of experience that can effect change at the level of the subject, something she argues is “at the core of ethical and political agency in the most profound sense” (8). If art is to find its own agency, one that is not reliant on explicit activism or political actions, but rather upon its own devices of affect and imagination, then how and where can we locate it and ourselves through it? I am a believer in both art that operates purely at the level of the material and the symbolic, as well as art that is explicitly a social practice, i.e. – applied directly to a social situation and context – and do not believe them to be mutually exclusive nor binary opposites. I would argue that we should not limit ourselves to investigating one genre or form over another, but seek to find the many, hybrid, and varied ways in which this emergent form of artistic practice makes its way into the world of relations and the material. In the investigation of art and the cosmopolitan imagination, if the means by which we measure art’s agency is partially attributed to the making of relations in the world, then we should also consider the ways in which the subject’s ‘response-ability’ and ethical responsibility to the other is invoked. I wonder: How does aesthetic response make ethical response? Meskimmon states, “Connecting the universal with the concrete in and through imagination as a socially-transformative force, aesthetics becomes a primary site for the materialization of a cosmopolitan ethics” (43).


The making of an artwork such as Ten Thousand Waves was possible only through the artist’s own moral and ethical response to the Morecambe Bay tragedy and the deaths of 23 foreigners in the waters of England. As someone who had been working with ideas relating to migration, diaspora, and difference for virtually the entirety of his career, Julien was in many ways already deeply invested in the narratives of the victims. The tragedy brought to light the great challenges and dangers immigrants face in their journeys to lands of perceived greater opportunity as well as the pressing ethical dilemmas within the UK regarding the treatment of and (lack of) basic protections for the foreigner and the alien. It is difficult to accurately assess the efficacy of this work in terms of making ethical response without having the in-person, sensory experience of it. Even so, the power of its visual poetics, the placement of the screens in creating a dynamic and immersive media space within the gallery, and the editing of image and sound that vacillates between narratives of journeying through ancient myth and contemporary urban cityscapes all work to create a kind of experiential space through which the audience moves. An excerpt from Wang Ping’s poem Small Boats, which is used in the Ten Thousand Waves installation reads as follows:

Tossed on the Communist road
We chose Capitalism through great perils
All we want is a life like others
TVs, cars, a house bigger than our neighbors’
Now the tide is rising to our necks
Ice forming in our throats
No moon shining on our path
No exit from the wrath of the North Wales Sea

The tensions between Asia and the West, Communism and Capitalism, traditional and modern play out here, laying out a multilayered leitmotif for the installation. Julien himself is very much the cosmopolitan artist, able to claim a hybrid identity between his Caribbean ancestry, British upbringing, sexual identity, and whose scholarly and artistic practices are informed by postcolonial theory as well as an intercultural dialog. In an interview Julien describes his research process in China as being transformative, a kind of process that created an intersubjective conversation between himself, his Chinese collaborators, and the place and time of China in both contemporary and historical terms.

My researcher at that point, the artist Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, found these illustrated prints related to fables of the protector goddess Mazu, who, like the Morecambe Bay workers, originates from Fujian province. We read many fables but it was the “Tale of Yishan Island,” in which Mazu saves a group of fishermen at sea, that in a way allegorized the tragic events in northern England and related them to the story in China.[1]

Again, it is through placing dual elements into tension and dialog: fable and real life tragedy, the historical and the contemporary, the local and the global, that Julien crafts a work that resonates simultaneously within different registers of time and place, connecting the events of one location to another, and bridging experience across borders of nation and culture into a shared realm of affect, experience, and imagination. It is in this shared space that conversation across difference or an ethical response-ability engendered within the viewer can be made possible.


I use Julien’s work here as an example of how art in practice and in final form can articulate the very essence of the cosmopolitan imagination that Meskimmon began to elucidate. Juien’s work operates at the level of the symbolic and affective, and I would argue that other artists working in very different ways also contribute to this conversation. Further investigation into their work and their practices could help to flesh out and complicate the scholarly project of contemporary art and the cosmopolitan imagination. A few who come to mind are Brazilian born Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija, see – Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow, and Green (2010), The Land (1998), and Untitled (Free) (1992), whose work explores concepts of home, hospitality, and generosity; Allora and Caldazilla’s Chalk (2002) or Under Discussion (2005) which are works that investigate the limitations and boundaries of civic space and ideology across different national contexts, or Cuban born artist Tania Bruguera’s treatise on “Useful Art,” and her current participatory project with immigrant communities in Queens, New York, Immigrant Movement International.

I mention these works as a kind of note to self as possible routes to investigate within this project. I believe it is in many forms of cultural production that we will find new platforms and interfaces for art as it can serve the aesthetic, social, and practical needs of a globalized world and the nomadic experience. Meskimmon’s book provides an important foundation in this investigation, which needs to be further expanded and investigated across artistic practices and platforms of cultural, social, and economic exchange at the (pluri)local and global scales.



Works cited

Meskimmon, Marsha. Contemporary Art and the Cosmopolitan Imagination. New York, NY: Routledge, 2010.

Sassen, Saskia. A Sociology of Globalization. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.

Special thanks to Soraya Murray for editorial supervision and insight.


05 2011

A Response to Benhabib (Notes on Rights Discourses for the Migrant)

Though global migrations have existed throughout history, the nature of their occurrences in the contemporary moment exposes several issues of increasing complexity pertaining to notions of citizenship, territory, and rights. The influx of refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, and others across territorial and hemispheric borders has greatly impacted discourses and practices in law on global and national scales, as well as exposed our own understandings of ourselves: our moral and ethical boundaries, our assumptions of the other, and how we incorporate the foreigner into our communities and polities. In her book The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (2004), Seyla Benhabib addresses the philosophical, juridical, and theoretical dilemmas and possibilities of citizenship, political membership, and rights claims in an age of increasing global migrations and the disaggregation of citizenship. Her work is a critical examination of the limits and tensions that exist between universal human rights claims and the self-determination of the sovereign nation-state concerning the rights of the foreigner, and offers new frameworks for juridical and rights discourse and democratic practices in an attempt to move beyond historical and contemporary fissures between notions of universal human rights, global justice, and the sovereign self-determination of the nation-state.

In a time of ever-increasing movements of people across borders, of increasing encounters between “nous et les autres,” and when cultures and societies across the globe are continuing to become increasingly hybrid and interdependent, it is arguably of utmost concern to rethink what is necessary and plausible in terms of protecting the rights of the foreigner, guest, or alien. In terms of realizing a cosmopolitical justice, I argue that we have been in a crisis of imagination. Benhabib brings to our attention that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is “silent on states’ obligations to grant entry to immigrants, to uphold the right of asylum, and to permit citizenship to alien residents and denizens. Despite the crossborder character of these rights, the Declaration upholds the sovereignty of individual states. Thus a series of internal contradictions between universal human rights and territorial sovereignty are built into the logic of the most comprehensive international law documents in our world” (2004, 11). Furthermore, not only have we been faced with these internal contradictions between the distribution and protection of rights at the levels of the universal and the nation-state, questions of and tensions between moral obligation and ethical directives must be carefully distinguished and openly brought to the table of rights discourse. Yet, in the envisioning of a cosmopolitical justice, what language and frameworks do we have to work from, where are the limits and borders of these frameworks, and what is necessary to begin to expand our discourses and practices concerning a normative theory of global justice? Benhabib, in a most thorough approach, addresses these questions. From critical readings of Immanuel Kant’s cosmopolitan right and Hannah Arendt’s critique of the nation-state, to her discussions concerning disaggregated citizenship and deliberative democracy, Benhabib’s writings offer important groundwork from which we may begin to consider what is possible as new modalities of citizenship and membership emerge. I agree with her argument that subnational and supranational democratic attachments and agencies that are not bounded by the nation-state “ought to be advanced with, rather than in lieu of, existing polities” (2004, 2-3). The questions remain: how, under what conditions, and by what protections?

Beginning with one of the earliest and significant documents in Western philosophy to address these issues, we are asked to consider Kant on hospitality and cosmopolitan right. I found this rereading of Kant especially provocative in that it illuminated elements of the document which may be useful for contemporary discourses, and also where it falls short of its intended aims, hence pointing us to where we may develop and amend a critical and visionary philosophical approach to the concepts of a cosmopolitan federation, the “right” of hospitality, and distinctions between the right of temporary sojourn and the privilege of the permanent visitor. The former being something one can demand, the latter being something that is earned or that must be agreed upon and granted as a special privilege with attendant obligations and duties. Kant states that “hospitality is not a question of philanthropy but of right” (2004, 26), and this particular regulating of interactions is situated at the borders of polity, and within the context of encounter between individuals belonging to different civic entities. Also within the right of hospitality the temporary sojourner cannot be turned away if doing so would cause his destruction. In contemporary practices, I find it significant to note that this article has been incorporated into the Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees (2004, 35). Signatory countries cannot turn the refugee or asylum seeker away should returning them to their home countries cause them danger, but what happens to them (granted a country does not refuse them entry) in the duration of first entry? Rights, protections, access to resources and other forms of civic, social, and political rights are left to the discretion of the sovereign state. Benhabib states:

The right of hospitality entails a moral claim with potential legal consequences in that the obligation of receiving states to grant temporary residency to foreigners is anchored in a republican cosmopolitical order. Such an order does not have a supreme executive law governing it…The right of hospitality expresses all the dilemmas of a republican cosmopolitical order in a nutshell: namely how to create quasi-legally binding obligations through voluntary commitments and in the absence of an overwhelming sovereign power with the ultimate right of enforcement” (2004, 29).

Again we have the collision between universal rights claims on behalf of the refugee and asylum seeker and the right to discretion of a sovereign nation-state in determining its own conditions of entry, access, political membership, and citizenship. To begin to find some kind of resolution in response to these tensions so that discourses may be conducive toward the production of actual change in civic and juridical practices, Benhabib proposes multiple routes and alternatives – though none perfect as separate mechanisms, yet each potentially flexible enough to accommodate particular contexts, and potentially more effective when considered as a collective set of possibilities. Elements of these proposed routes entail concepts of deliberative democratic practices, democratic iterations, citizenship as social practice, as well as the potentials of disaggregated citizenship and democratic attachments at the subnational and supranational levels.

To begin to delineate a few of the key points of her proposals, I will first highlight a few concepts and statements introduced in Benhabib’s The Claims of Culture (2002). First, she is clear in stating borders are necessary in maintaining the conditions for democracy (i.e. -democratic sovereignty principles), but that the porousness of borders is “necessary, while not sufficient, condition of liberal democracies” (2002, 153). She distinguishes the conditions of entry into a country from those of temporary residency, and each of these in turn from permanent residency and civil incorporation, and then to what she considers the final stage of political membership. She states, “At each of these stages the rights and claims of foreigners, residents, and aliens will be regulated by sovereign polities; but these regulations can be subject to scrutiny, debate, and contestation as well as to protest by those to whom they apply, their advocates, and national and international human rights groups” (2002, 154). This is part of Benhabib’s vision of a deliberative democracy, in which all those who produce or are affected by law openly debate, contest, and participate in what she terms as democratic iterations. In this vision, legal deliberations are transparent and applicable to legislatives, the judiciary, and the executive as well as to civil society associations and the media (2004, 179). It is also significant to note that the sociological components of citizenship which are defined in terms of collective identity, privileges of membership, and social rights and benefits, are “being pulled apart” in what Benhabib terms the disaggregation effect. Examples of this can be seen more concretely within the European Union, and in Southeast Asia and Latin America where ‘flexible citizenship’ is emerging as the norm (2002, 178-179). Under these conditions, is a legally binding standard for universal human rights becoming more plausible?

I would argue that the evidence of disaggregated and other forms of citizenship that are emerging within the twenty-first century, and as a result of contemporary globalization, give us compelling examples of what potentials, however problematic or ambivalent, are beginning to emerge. Benhabib poses the question: is disaggregated citizenship democratic citizenship?

The nation-state is waning; the line between human rights and citizens’ rights is being corroded…. Disaggregated citizenship permits individuals to develop and sustain  multiple allegiances and networks across nation-state boundaries, in inter- as well as transnational contexts. Cosmopolitanism, the concern for the world as if it were one’s polis, is furthered by such multiple, overlapping allegiances which are sustained across communities of language, ethnicity, religion, and nationality (174-175).

Still, this does not guarantee a democratic citizenship – not without the accompaniment and attachment to representative institutions in which there exists an accountability, transparency, and responsibility toward a given constituency. Even given the inherent tensions between democratic legitimacy and the realities of disaggregated citizenship, I think it is crucial to observe these emerging forms of citizenship closely, and begin to actively create new capacities for understanding and advancing new modalities of political membership. Perhaps this will entail creating spaces and conditions under which democratic iterations of public argument, deliberation and exchange through which “universalist rights claims and principles are contested and contextualized” can occur, but more so I would also argue that within an ever-increasingly interdependent world, it is essential for discourses of moral obligation and new ethical directives and structures be placed at the center of these deliberations.

Works Cited:

Benhabib, Seyla. The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 2002.

The Rights of Others. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.


05 2011

Righting the Wrongs of History

old-kr-flag-aRecently was talking to a friend in the US about Korea and global political history, or something along these lines. I was a bit surprised when, in passing, said friend mentioned, among other things, Korea’s role as colonizer in the context of historical global relations.

Surely, I did not just hear that, I thought. Surely, this person doesn’t believe Korea, of all the countries of East Asia, once colonized some other country? And if so, what country would that have been?? In my remote and lurking Korean (American) national pride, it was kind of like a little bit of salt on my race’s historical wounds (I realize I am conflating nation and race here, but that’s how insidiously unconscious this stuff can be). I was sadly reminded of how so many people in the West — and a lot of people I know — actually don’t really know very much about Korea and its history. And what they do know is abstract, vague, generalized at best.

And I guess, why should they? Much of Korean historical scholarship is written and consumed by those with a particular specialization in Korea or East Asian Studies, Korea has traditionally not been perceived as a major global power nation, and because of Korea’s history of invasions from outside forces, as well as a period of incredibly brutal colonization by the Japanese – Korea has been just a little bit protectionist, and also because of these factors, so much of written Korean history has been lost; documents pillaged and records destroyed (or stolen, see below), not to mention the systematic cultural and religious oppression by Japanese colonizers in forbidding the study of Korean history, art, and language, as well as making worship at Shinto shrines compulsory.

This is really Korean History 101. Pick up any book on the subject and one of the first things it will talk about is Korea’s unfortunate geographic location and the subsequent history of foreign invasion that’s descended upon “the Land of the Morning Calm.” Of course, much more could and should be said about this, but for now what I wanted to share was this opinion article from the Joong-Ang Daily: “Winning Back Stolen Culture”.

Case in point, this article states:

According to a recent survey by the Cultural Heritage Administration, a total of 107,857 Korean historic properties are scattered over 18 countries. Japan holds the largest number with 61,409 items, followed by the United States with 27,726 items. Some items, such as Uigwe, were confiscated by foreign invaders while others fell into the hands of collectors through trade.

France, Japan, the US — all have historical and cultural artifacts that were stolen during invasions and occupation currently displayed in their own libraries and museums. Koreans want them back. Why can’t these people return what is not rightly theirs? (This is all really working up my haan.)

dscf1667Righting the wrongs of history in Korea has undoubtedly been an ongoing  and deeply-rooted psychological, cultural, and emotional process that plays out on so many levels – from reclaiming stolen cultural artifacts, to former comfort women protesting every Wednesday in Seoul, to trying to correct the misconceptions of the outside world. Every nation has its own demons to exorcise, its own psychological and collective healing it must do. These are just a few examples of contemporary (south) Korea’s particular situation, and this is something that Koreans themselves will continue to negotiate and work through for a long time coming…


02 2010

Expressions of the Emergent: Korean Video Art, History & Memory

A recent paper I wrote concerning 3 Korean video artists & representations of modern Korean history & collective memory. It’s a long one, so if you want to read it in its entirety click on the link below.

Other relevant links:

Jin-Me Yoon
Park Chan Kyong
Koh Seung Wook
The Dongducheon Project @ Museum as Hub
Deleuze – Cinema 2
PDF version

Here it is:

Expressions of the Emergent: Korean Video Art, History & Memory

Video & the Project of Emergent History

Some say the nameless deaths buried in
the Sangpae-dong Public Cemetery
are ‘whores,’ while others say they’re
‘Yankee Princesses.’

Those who resent the violence of U.S. soldiers
call them ‘Sisters of the Korean people.’
But what shall I call them?
Those no one has remembered nor named?
No, why do I even want to call them?
-  Seung Wook Koh, “Driveling Mouth” (2008)
Single channel video installation with color and sound (emphasis added)

The lines of text presented here are from Korean artist Seung Wook Koh’s single channel video about the lives and memories of sex workers in Dongducheon, a military camp town that lies approximately in between Seoul, the Republic of Korea and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). This particular city, whose infrastructures were first designed and implemented by Japanese Colonists, only to be ravaged during the Korean War and later rebuilt by the U.S. Military, has become a symbol of Korea’s traumatic and contentious modern history, replete with historical narratives of colonization, rapid modernization, and postwar industrialization. Hidden somewhere deep within the gaps of these major historical narratives are the personal stories, memories, and histories of the people of Dongducheon, the civilians who have become the dispossessed of the U.S.-South Korean military order. Their lives have arguably been the most affected by the tumultuous shifts and displacements of war and colonialism yet have been rendered virtually silent and invisible from public discourses. Koh’s work serves as a documentation of these gaps just as it poses these critical questions: Who have been the people of Dongducheon and why should we remember them, or call them forth – those who have been forgotten, unnamed, and made invisible? What does this act of remembrance provide for our understanding of the present moment and our future trajectories?

I argue that the answers lie within the understanding that the authorship of history is a claim of orders of knowledge and power, and additionally, that the act of constructing history is a social and political one, giving legitimacy to certain experiences, meanings, and subjectivities while delegitimizing others. In this process of construction, what is accepted as official history, usually crafted by a dominant regime, becomes codified as “historical truth,” creating the conditions that perpetuate hegemonic determinations of reality and orders of knowledge that serve the interests of some at the expense of others. In the context of Western civilization we have seen the results of this in the histories that have been used to legitimate colonialism, racism, sexism, and other corruptions of the Euro-American Empire. Yet, in any so-called pluralistic and democratic society – where polyphonous voice is to be valued as critical in sustaining the principles of democracy and the individual’s right to self-determination, there is a crucial need to give voice to the subjectivities that have been muted and the histories that have been suppressed. To do this means to critically look backward into time to search out the stories that disrupt, complicate, and threaten accepted notions of historical truth, shifting and enlightening our present realities and unlocking future possibilities. As one possible answer to Koh’s question, “why do I even want to call them?” I will refer to Gilles Deleuze who stated, “History amounts only the set of preconditions, however recent, that one leaves behind in order to ‘become,’ that is, to create something new…Men’s only hope lies in a revolutionary becoming: the only way of casting off their shame or responding to what is intolerable” (1990, 171).

Therein lies the task of a certain kind of storytelling – for the purposes of this essay, a certain kind of videomaking – that concerns itself with issues surrounding the representation of personal and collective memory, and the histories rendered silent by official narratives. What stories must be told so that we may understand our set of preconditions? How do we remember the events of the past in order to create the spaces for a “revolutionary becoming”? Additionally, because I will be investigating the ways in which time-based media approach these issues, how does the audiovisual medium of video form these narratives that often lie in the realm of the Foucauldian unthought, awaiting a language in which to think them? Within the context of poststructuralist discourse on history and how the medium of film has created new spaces for critique and revision, Robert A. Rosenstone argues that postmodern theorists have yet to bring forth a kind of writing that “brings the ways we know or think of the past into line with the poststructuralist critique of current historical practice” (1998, 199). An alternative method is needed, one that can fulfill the postmodernist claims against official history. Where Rosenstone looked to film to support these claims, I look to single channel experimental video, and its integration with the practice of what I will term emergent history, for its unformed, uncodified, and indeterminate qualities, as well as its numerous potentialities in challenging the assumptions made by prescribed “historical truths.”  Read the rest of this entry →


12 2009

Prelude to Ch’useok: Family Reunions


10 2009

Running around, Modernity, and Being here

It’s been a little while since I last posted… In the blink of an eye, things suddenly became very hectic – between trying to prep & take the writing portion of the GRE, language course starting, getting used to the commute to SNU which is roughly over an hour to attend a class that I really can’t understand, but which I will continue to attend because it seems really interesting & I actually think I will be able to glean a lot of good information – and then there was also the 가야금 (gayageum) class Saturday morning, immediately followed by a two day Mongolian dance workshop, also held at SNU. Though this had nothing to do with my research, I promised to videotape for Professor Lee, and it was interesting, even through the total lack of linguistic understanding on my part. With the combination of more grad school prep (aforementioned GRE, applications, as well a required research paper for the apps) and adjusting to life here, the research, etc. life has felt just a little bit schizophrenic.

But — I can say that through the chaos and running around all over town, I have experienced a few moments of harmony with being here. In these moments, something clicks, and suddenly I’m here, really here, living in Seoul, and I understand it – feel I understand it more and more until it feels like the place I call home. For now at least. It is the place where I am, not the place where I’m just here as a visitor to do some work and waiting to leave. These moments come and go, but they definitely come, and that is a good thing.

Speaking of displacement, I am working my way through Roy Richard Grinker’s Korea and Its Futures: Unification and the Unfinished War, which discusses – many things, among them – Korea and modernity, a concept that addresses issues related to diaspora, displacement, separation (as in separated families from the War), shifting identities, the loss of tradition. Modernity: something that promises the new, exciting, seemingly boundless, and yet threatens everything a culture has identified as being; everything it has held sacred in defining itself. And here we are in Seoul -  a place that is now so far into modernity, what I think of as deep modernity. There is just no turning back. So what does that mean for unification? The South goes farther down a path of globalization, and the North remains frozen in time – in a time of pre-modernity, so far away from what is happening in the South, and the world, now. If unification seemed a complicated goal before (at least to outside critics), where does it stand now?

As I sat in a cafe near Ewha Womans University reading about unification being a sacred goal of all (South) Koreans; a goal assumed to be inevitable, but whose very achievement also threatens the foundation of S. Korean national identity, which is greatly based upon and defined by national division – I looked out onto the streets, full of young college aged women wearing the latest street fashions of Seoul, and I thought, Do any of these people even care? Most of them were born in the 1980′s and after – they are the children of a globalized and globalizing Korea. How do these issues that have so wracked their country for decades affect any part of their lives? The generations of people directly affected by the Korean War are beginning to fade, and I think that with that is the loss of something very, very important to the national, collective, cultural memory and psyche of this country. A recent survey from the Korea Peace Institute reported that out of over 1,000 S. Koreans aged 19-59, about half said that they could accept Korea remaining divided, so long as it is peaceful. This is a very different portrait than Grinker’s book (published 1998). It is too early to tell… I’m realizing a lot of the literature I have, though incredibly insightful and very important for my work, may also be outdated, even after just ten years. Things move fast on the road of deep modernity.

I can’t say if at this point unification would be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing – or possible/impossible – or if those questions are even relevant anymore. So much of discussion around unification just seems rhetorical. Not to sound like a pessimist, I want to believe in the possibility, but… I can say that the unification discourses that have been allowed to take place have been problematic for various reasons which I am too tired to go into here (i.e. – Germany).

And I can also say that I noticed how Koreans seem to really like Waiting for Godot. Unclear if it’s so much Beckett they like, or just the play itself. The latter would make sense. If you insert ‘unification’ as the ‘Godot’ that we await, but which never comes.

Then on the other hand, hundreds of families prepare for a much anticipated and very fleeting reunion with loved ones across the 38th parallel; a reunion that is most likely the last for many of these people. A complicated picture. Heartbreaking, really. All this Han!

Korea is such a deeply complex mystery to me – but I have the sense that understanding the nature of its mystery on a kind of gut level is going to be key to opening up some doors…

Non sequitur: some new words I learned this week

우주 (oo-joo) = The universe; cosmos

원리 (wol-li) = A principal, theory, fundamental truth => 우주원리

영가무도 (young ga moo do) = Spiritual dance

경과 (kyoung gwa) = Progression

There are a few other random thoughts I have had, but I cannot remember them now, so I will leave you with that.



09 2009

First statement since return

On Day of Mourning, 2 Koreas Meet in the South

In South Korea, Freed U.S. Journalists Come Under Harsh Criticism –

Even though I, like many others in the US, was so relieved when the Current TV journalists were pardoned by the North Koreans and watched their homecoming through every news outlet, I have to say that when they were arrested back in March by the DPRK, I thought, what the **** were they thinking?!? How could they have possibly allowed themselves to get caught like this? Naivete? Brash & blinded indie-style journalist guerrilla-ism? WTF?!

The incredulous-ness grew as I learned that they were covering the plight of North Korean refugees. – Great, not only did they risk their own lives through this ordeal, but also the lives of the very North Koreans they were trying to advocate for, and who would no doubt actually face the labor camps – not a guest house – should they get caught.

I wondered what happened to the tapes & materials they must have had on hand.

So I am glad to find this article on the Times site, which brings to light several of the very real problems this event has raised. Lives are still at risk, though the women are safely home. Maybe it will be helpful once they start talking, because the information here does not look good:

In South Korea, Freed U.S. Journalists Come Under Harsh Criticism –


08 2009