AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 309

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Session 309: Rethinking Korean Socialist Culture in the Twenty-First Century

Organizer: Sunyoung Park, University of Southern California, USA

Discussant: Namhee Lee, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

The end of the Cold War had arguably an ambivalent effect on critical scholarship on Korean socialism. On the one hand, the diminished political tension made it possible to rediscover socialist cultural traditions in an environment free from state censorship and public reprobation. On the other hand, the very fall of the communist bloc convinced many of the irrelevance of a leftist outlook, leading to the relative marginalization of socialist ideas in the mainstream scholarship. This panel aims to re-evaluate Korean socialist traditions from our twenty-first-century vantage point. Countering the Cold War perspective that suppressed and distorted the history of Korean socialist culture as a mere epigone of the Soviet model, the panel aims to rescue it as a relevant history in understanding Korea today. Of the four panelists, Sunyoung Park discusses the importance of rereading colonial leftist literature in a way that goes beyond the currently dominant nationalist and postcolonialist paradigms. Jung-hwan Cheon reconsiders the historical relevance of 1920s socialist reading circles to the rapid acculturation of the masses in modern Korea. Youkyung Son examines the hitherto ignored and yet significant role played by emotion and sensibility in colonial proletarian literary discourses. And Suzy Kim inquires into the preoccupations with the everyday in the socialist discourses of 1940s North Korea. Taken together, these papers present a range of new critical perspectives on Korean socialist culture as an integral part of modern mass culture, arguing both for its greater historical complexity and for its relevance to contemporary times.

Reading Colonial Leftist Literature after the Cold War
Sunyoung Park, University of Southern California, USA

Why should we reread the leftist literature of colonial Korea in today’s “post-communist” era? What new perspectives on Korean culture and history can we gain by attending to the works of writers such as Yi Kiyong, Kim Namch’on, and like-minded others? And how should our understanding of this body of literature differ from that of previous decades? This paper reflects on these questions by examining the critical reception of colonial leftist literature in South Korea and abroad during the past sixty years. It identifies three stages of such reception—an anti-communist, a nationalist, and a postcolonialist one—and it argues that both the nationalist and the postcolonialist approaches to leftist literature inherited some of the anti-communist biases of the previous era. During the decades after the Korean War and up to the present day, anti-communism has expressed itself in the nationalist exclusion or downplaying of leftist themes and in the postcolonialist dismissal of Marxism as a totalitarian doctrine. If we want to rescue colonial leftist literature to a more fruitful critical consideration, we will first have to shed the ideological accretions that are so persistently built in to a twentieth-century Cold War reading of it.

The Development of Mass Intellectuality: Reading Circles and Socialist Culture in 1920s Korea
Jung-hwan Cheon, Sungkyunkwan University, South Korea

This paper examines the development of socialist culture and the growth of mass intellectuality in 1920s Korea through an analysis of the contemporary emergence of the phenomenon of reading circles. The explosive growth of reading circles in the 1920s can be seen as the effect of fast expanding print culture that was joined with the rising tide of socialist activism. Reading circles thus began to proliferate with the increase of public education in the modern public spaces of schools, churches, and youth organizations, many of which were left-leaning. They began to emerge only when a critical mass of colonial Koreans came to share a certain intellectual and social equality, and when they came to have an institutionalized space where they could routinely interact. This modern Korean development of mass intellectuality had its historical peculiarity in that it was formed in a struggle against, rather than under the aegis of, the state. This paper examines how laborers, peasants, students, and intellectuals formed reading circles in an effort to understand their own situations and subjectivities. It suggests that as part of the early twentieth-century enlightenment movement, socialism played a major role in developing mass intellectuality by stimulating a popular desire for knowledge and contributing to expanding Korean print culture. The acquisition of literacy transformed the colonial masses into a more cultured intellectual collective to become the agents of social change.

"The Revolution of Sensibility": Emotion in Korean Proletarian Literature
Youkyung Son, Ajou University, South Korea

This paper aims to offer new insights into the proletarian literary movement of colonial Korea by reexamining it through the lens of recent theories of emotion. Previous critics have seldom noted the significance of emotions in colonial proletarian literature, as they have largely considered them to be secondary or irrelevant to political activities. Emotions, however, played a pivotal role in early socialist discourses. As a telling example, this paper examines the writings of Kim Ki-Jin, a foundational figure in the proletarian movement. Kamkak (sensibility) is a term frequently used in Kim’s ethical and political writings, where it refers to an emotional response to others’ suffering from which an artist’s ethics should originate. Restoring our sound instinct and sensibility, according to Kim, is crucial to building a socialist society, since “true sensibility” liberates human beings from the illusions of capitalist society by enabling them to gain an accurate knowledge of the world. Emerging from Kim’s vision of a “revolution of sensibility,” this paper suggests, is a socialist subject who is not a mechanical, emotionally repressed agent of a predetermined revolutionary history but rather an extraordinarily emotive, feeling subject who draws momentum for a revolution from her deep affective bonding with the community of the oppressed. This understanding compels us to reevaluate the historical relevance of the proletarian cultural movement whose visions of individuals and society have tremendously influenced Korea from the colonial era to the present.

Everyday Life in Extraordinary Times: North Korea in the 1940s
Suzy Kim, Rutgers University, USA

According to Henri Lefebvre, a defining element of modernity has been the abstraction of time and space. In response to the growing sense of alienation, the everyday became a critical concept by which to define and shape modern life in the twentieth century. The influence of the Soviet Union in shaping North Korea has received much attention, but there has been almost no attempt to understand the emphasis placed on the everyday in both cases. Placing early North Korean history within the context of the larger history of modernity, this paper seeks to understand the focus on the everyday in North Korean publications not only as an emulation of Soviet discourses, but more importantly as a local manifestation of similar preoccupations throughout the world. Using North Korean magazines and documents, the paper interrogates the significance of ‘the everyday’ in North Korea during a time of rapid social change (1945-1950). In doing so, the paper re-conceptualizes social change as that which takes place at the level of everyday life – more than simply the overturning of social classes as described in classic socialist discourse. In this sense, it is not surprising that North Korea as well as Soviet Russia targeted quite explicitly transformations in everyday life as a reflection of deep structural changes. The question is what kind of change does this reflect and how far does it go.