A Koreanizing World? UX of Contemporary Korean Literature and Asia’s Calling | Ho Duk Hwang

by Critical Asia

by Ho Duk Hwang, June 2021】

1. A Koreanizing World? 82nyŏnsaeng Kim Chiyŏng (Kim Ji-young, Born 1982) and Asian Values

It is widely known that throughout the 20th century, under the turbulent experience of colonialism, developmental dictatorship, and democratization, modern Korean literature supplemented or acted as a surrogate for politics. While, in the past, the anti-regime stance of national literature (minjok munhak) and the non-regime stance of liberal literature (chayujuŭi munhak) both intensely opposed the authoritarian regime, Korea’s rapid economic development, progress of democratic practices, and the global hegemony of neoliberalism have left the unique path of Korean literature increasingly uncertain. Perhaps it is due to this that in Kindai bungaku no owari (2005)(The End of Modern Literature), Karatani Kojin wrote that since modern literature has come to an end even in Korea, now the task of modern literature has also ended worldwide. However, after 2016, with Korea’s ‘Feminism Reboot’ and the worldwide ‘Me Too’ movement, a new user manual for Korean literature has once again come to the fore.

For example, as of 2021, 82nyŏnsaeng Kim Chiyŏng (Kim Ji-young, Born 1982) was translated into 11 different languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, English, Spanish, German, etc., and international publishing rights more than twice that number have been sold (currently, 26 countries). While the worldwide fervor of feminism and the presale of film rights in 37 countries contributed to the phenomenon, the attention the novel has received in Asia is noteworthy. In Japan, 82nyŏnsaeng Kim Chiyŏng holds the record time for a Korean novel reaching number one bestseller, having sold over 200,000 copies, and, in China, it ranked first among bestselling novels in the largest online bookstore, Dang Dang. In China, apparently, the novel was read as relating to the life crises of women born after the 1980s (80后 balinghou), crises brought on by the pressures of both professional achievements and child birth/child rearing; however, the suffering of women brought on by the double standard of “independence and tradition” was raised even earlier in Taiwan (Jiang Yunfei, 蒋云飞). Even in Germany, the novel ranked 3rd in the bestsellers list of Berlin’s Dussmann das Kulturkaufhaus within a month of publication, and in America, it was selected by Time magazine for “The 100 Must-Read Books of 2020.” Considering Korean literature’s position in world literature, this phenomenon may appear unusual; however, considering the phenomenon of Feminism Reboot, a universal rapport of “even so, what has changed?” appears to be playing a role.

Reading the 66,000 book reviews on Douban (豆瓣网) and the 1000 reviews on both Japan and US Amazon, one feels that there is no longer a globalization of Korea but a Koreanization of the globe, namely that the ubiquity of Korean contradictions may constitute a common sensibility. Has it not already been shown by the woman ‘shaman’ that the contradiction of “Asian values” is in fact a world-historical contradiction? With late capitalism’s false promises of gender equality and women’s achievement, democratic society’s false rationality of meritocracy, the evaporation of society and the masses’ forced assumption of personal responsibility under neoliberalism—now, the southern part of the Korean peninsula is at once a place that exists everywhere and an ‘exceptional example’ of the extremes existing in every place.

2. The UX of the Literature Interface and Inaesthetic Reading—From Asian Slut to Korean Ab-beauty

On the other hand, in Korea, this novel and movie has become the target of so-called ‘backlash’, getting review-bombed among other things. In all this, its weaknesses as a novel, its aesthetic deficiency, became a large topic of debate among literary critics. So, how should we interpret this ‘deficiency’? How does this so-called ‘deficiency’ relate to the new political dimension of the Korean novel and its worldwide proliferation?

In the engine of neoliberalism that is Korea, the public’s feminist readers are the subjects continuing to produce impassioned theses concerning the distinction between ally and foe and new forms of community. A Korean woman critic wrote, “Amidst the strengthened reactionary current, feminism operates as the strongest vector dividing the self and the enemy.” So, does reading 82nyŏnsaeng Kim Chiyŏng require one to be aesthetically blind as some fierce proponents of literature-ism suggest? No. “One reads not because one is ignorant of the aesthetic weakness, but in spite of it. This is also the case for 82nyŏnsaeng Kim Chiyŏng. Women readers ‘let themselves be deceived’ because they want to be recognized as an innocent victim like Kim Chiyŏng.” (Hŏ Yun) Between the Korean readers’ strategic reading of ‘letting oneself be deceived’, and the critics’ inattentive reading of ‘not being deceived’, which is truly aesthetic? Whose side is aesthetic politics on?

Is not the ‘Kim Chiyŏng sensation’ ‘a type of performative femininity as a mask, adopted by the reading practice of Korean, Asian, and global feminists’? I want to call this the 21st century ‘User Experience’ of the ‘Literature Interface’. Instead of being deceived first by literature only to cry again at the hands of politics, right now Korea, Asia, and the world is experimenting with a new ‘how-to’—the reading technique of ‘letting oneself be deceived’ by the inaesthetic to gain truth, politics included.  Though paradoxical, are we not to apprehend the Kim Chiyŏng phenomenon as the inaesthetic politics of literature? At this moment, Korean literature appears to no longer perform its unique aesthetics, as Karatani Kojin once remarked, of acting as a surrogate for politics, but rather is experimenting with the universality of inaesthetics within ‘the possibility of translation’ (Alain Badiou). A young Korean woman writer Pak Minchŏng, resisting against the compulsive obsession of ‘Korean beauty’, wrote, “I am a general citizen. I am not an Asian Slut.” (Pak Minchŏng, “Sesil, Chuhŭi” [Cecil, Juhee], Pabiŭi punwigi [Barbie’s vibes], 2020)

Although Korean literature is performing the politics of the inaesthetic or ab-beauty, even within this ‘Koreanization of the world’, there is still hope because Korea is also the society that has subversive power—a force of resistance stemming from the depths of contradiction—to expel its most powerful politicians and influential literary personalities from the public forum. I cannot forget the sea of post-its pasted all over exit 10 of Gangnam station in spring of 2016 that read “The women who survived [we] will make a better world,” nor how the fierce protests of a women’s university that summer ignited the candlelight revolution of the winter of 2016.

In 1960s Korea—a land of poverty and dictatorship, a Korean theologian wrote the following on the world historical calling of Korea: as the “sewage of world history,” “the consequence of the world’s injustices has been placed on our shoulders, so if we cannot cleanly wash it off then there is no one else to do it.” (Ham Sŏkhŏn) If the world has been Koreanized, then that sewer is everywhere. In this sense, Korea and Asia continue to carry a world historical calling. Is it not that the world (Koreanized) is now aware that it must follow Asia’s calling?

(Translated by Ezra Tandela / UCLA M.A. Candidate) 

Ho Duk Hwang, Sungkyungkwan University, South Korea

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