I have just finished reading a new book on Korean cinema (New Korean Cinema, New York: NYU Press, 2005, edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Springer). It was a satisfactory read, most of the essays in it are good, some excellent. It has left me with some questions, though, and I am curious how other academics working on Korea think about these questions. Reading this book (and others as well), I have come across repeated statements on nationalism with which I find it hard to agree. The first one is the generally shared assumption that South Korea is an intensely nationalist country and that art (cinema) has to overcome nationalism (and nationalism alone) to become ‘real’ art. While superficially this may seem to be the case (especially from the outside), I have often found that, with the exception of the radical nationalists, nationalism is often a matter of rhetorics, not entirely perhaps, but to a significant extent at the least. Cultural studies in particular seem to take the all-pervasive influence of nationalism as a given, without problematizing what kind of nationalism is being discussed, in what context and from whom it emerges and for whom it is intended. The rhetorics of nationalism, as those of any influential ideology, must perhaps not be taken at face value, but be seen as a distinctive and for its users familiar way of communication.
Related to this is the also popular notion (present in several essays in this book) that due to the disappearance of the oppressively propagated nationalism of the 70’s and ’80s South Korea now is more fragmented, more anxiety-ridden and more diverse than it was during the 70’s and 80’s. While it is hard to deny that following the economic miracle, diversity in all shapes and forms flourished in South Korea, I would find it equally hard to argue that the Korea of the 70’s and 80’s was more of a united nation and less anxiety-ridden (although also less free) than it is now. The literature of the period may serve to prove this point; if anything, it is diverse, contradictory and far from unified. This notion of a more united, unfree Korea seems to me to be quite nostalgic, perhaps not entirely unrelated to all those nostalgic movies set in the 70’s that have come out the last five years, although these movies seem to cater to a different audience (해적 디스코왕 되다, 품행제로, 쇼쇼쇼, parts of 친구). What, then, to think of the appearance (and acceptance) of the notion of nationalist nostalgia in leftish academic writings, professedly anti-nationalist and highly critical of the political and social circumstances of the 70’s and ’80’s? Is this related to the idea that Korea became postmodern in 1988 (yet another idea present in some of the essays in this book I find hard to accept even if I knew what it meant exactly), with its exposure to the world at the occasion of the Olympics? The juxtaposition between free/chaotic and unfree/united is then cast in terms of postmodern vs. modern? Apart from the difficulties one would have in finding convincing evidence to support this argument, from an purely ideological point of view it seems to me that this is a rather Eurocentric argument, both excessively privileging theory and akin to the application of Marxist theory on Korean or East Asian history. Perhaps as a historian (and a historian of pre-modern Korea at that) I am biased with regard to these fact-finding missions trying to secure evidence for a developmental trajectory in Korea that is similar to the one(s) European and US societies followed (or are perceived as having followed).
Does the strict application of American social theory on Korean case studies transform or even distort the perception of Korean history? If post-Olympic South Korea is accepted as postmodern, does this necessarily entail the description of pre-Olympic South Korea as more unified, less fragmented and less free? Are these dichotomies good ways of understanding South Korean society and history? And, perhaps most importantly, isn’t the strict application of theory from the outside (as different from the flexible use of outside theory as a body of reference) a means to dominate the research object, rather than a viable way of understanding it? I am looking forward to your thoughts.