Michael Hurt
Jun 6, 2017 · 13 min read
Concupiscent colors and consumption, enabled by a very un-Confucian sense of self-expression,define the Hypermodernity of a sensually surreal and superconnected Seoul.

Grand Goals
Despite the heady and haughty title, the intent here is to produce a somewhat unusual book, yet one that is as simple and easy to get as the title is intellectually arresting and possibly even daunting. Put simply, on the one hand, this is a Korea book, and the first one to deal with a broader swath of Korean popular culture in a comprehensive and theoretical way, making it appealing as a source for Korean Studies, East Asian Studies, and even Asian American and Korean American Studies professors to assign in their classes. It is also going to be one of the first looks at Korean popular culture in a way that doesn’t centralize and overly privilege K-pop as the main mode of pop culture production.

A Source for Those Teaching Visual Theory.
In addition, it would be a good textbook for teaching in the woefully underdeveloped subfield of Visual Sociology and would be a good supplementary reading in any Sociology Overview course, as well as useful supplement in any social science methods courses. And, being written in an theoretically dense but not inaccessible style of prose, it would be appealing to those with an interest in Korean popular culture, and Asia in general. There are several engaging and interestingly done trade press books on Korean popular culture that gives an academic grounding in how to consider popular culture in a Korean/East Asian context, on a level that might be as commercially viable as Euny Hong’s book The Birth of Korean Cool, while still standing strongly aside many good academic books on Korean history, economy, and other topics.

Use this as readings when teaching Korean popular culture.
However, anything dealing with Korean mass or popular culture has been only published through the popular press. As a professor known for writing and researching on topics in contemporary Korean life and society, as well as in Korean popular culture, I constantly get requests from colleagues to use my academic blog posts at DeconstructingKorea.com about certain popular culture subjects to supplement the interesting bur insufficiently academic books on Korea they are inevitably forced to use. I’m taking more of my writing online and collating them here as a central index here on Medium so that they can get read and get feedback. So, the “chapters” will be listed below as links to the several places on the web I have written several decent essays, some of which I already assign in my classes, and some of which are intellectual bookmarks for individual academic papers I am writing. I am using this site as a place to develop an fully fleshed out book that can be written even as 1) it gets feedback from real readers and 2) can be a way to help create/prove the existence of an audience for this book I am writing, while 3) being a way to bring things together so I can get a bird’s eye view of how the whole thing is progressing. And the web format can be a great way to share some of the multimedia data I gather and produce as I work, which also can fit into an Internet-intermediated feedback loop quite interestingly. And the great thing about all this is that I can take advantage of academia’s conservatively dim and outdated definition of what it means to “publish.” I can publish things here, then get feedback that can help me hone and polish data and arguments. Also, since I would like professors and teachers to use this material if possible in classes, I would appreciate any feedback about anything from mechanical typos to more fundamental factual/logical errors or points I might (re)consider. And it is by laying everything out that I can see where the gaps lie, and doubtlessly, you will as well.

Note: Please forgive places where I have reused parts of my other articles in other places to construct full essays. Remember that this is my writing sandbox, and all things are still under construction here.

The “Chapters”

Chapter 1. The Futurist Gaze: The Value of Looking at Korea
This chapter sets the stage, getting us into big-ticket word-concepts such as “epistemology”, which gets the reader to ask the key question of how we know things. It also get the reader to think in a more “meta” way, about how and why works of literature might be important in bigger conversations about the meaning of life, existence, or other things besides the somewhat mechanical way schooling tends to approach literature these days, starting with basic things any high schooler should have been exposed to, such as the Bard’s infamously misunderstood existential query “To be or not to be?” and how that question can relate to those surrounding the logic of morality in war, or even the logic/morality of (Post)Modernity itself, which are word-concepts students have heard of but likely don’t understand well. Korea is a good foil against/with which to have this conversation. Key concepts: Epistemology, Modernity, Postmodernity, Hypermodernity — all of which will be taken up in subsequent chapters. But this is a good way to begin the conversation while also starting it off with the essential question of “How do I/What is a good way to think about Korea besides just as a topic of esoteric/my own peculiar interest (perhaps in K-pop/film/dramas)?” Also, the chapter defines how we will approach hallyu, which is as a “discursive formation” — a constructed thing, a phenomenon with an origin point as well as an ideological vector and tool. And one of the ways I’d like to appproach it is using case studies other than the low-hanging fruit that is K-POP. In my own ethnographic research experience, the best pop culture case study to center is that of youth culture and street fashion.

Chapter 2. Korea as the Beginning of Theory
This chapter’s goal is that of introducing some pure theory in 1) an interesting way and 2) in a Korea-relevant way. Here, in the first essay on The Matrix, we have a facile way to talk about social constructions through the best depiction of the nature of socially constructed reality ever put to film, as it provides a great running metaphor with which to talk about certain ideas grounded in seeming “reality” as anything but, but are rather very laboriously and purposefully constructed ideas. Whether it’s race in the United States or gender in Korea, this is often hard for students to wrap their minds around, as race and gender are often such seemingly crucial parts of lived reality in the United States and Korea, respectively. Especially in the case of the latter, the idea that the category of racial/ethnic/national belonging known as “Korea” as the result of a huge national, ideological project is one that has been especially hard for Koreans to accept (while the social constructedness of race in the USA is hard for Americans to really, really grok), but this seems to have become an easier sell in recent years, especially as the Korean society has evolved a critical space in which to think about the idea of “Hell Joseon.” Things have changed since I first wrote the original version of this essay back in 2006. The second essay, however, is another employment of the idea that Korea can be a great — arguably the best — foil for social theory. Other essays will be added to this chapter later.

Chapter 3. Selling Culture, Selling Girls, Selling Korea: A New Look a K-pop and Other Korean Pop Cultural Texts
This is where we get down to brass tacks. This is the first “case study” application of specific theory to Korean popular culture, starting with the elephant in the room — K-pop. It’s what has the most fans and superfans, and is most explicitly tied to gusts of national feeling. As this relates to the very American idea of “identity politics,” I believe this is how certain parties ended up attacking some portions of the argument as merely another example of many within the litany of non-ethnic Korean “experts” on Korean culture attributing seemingly everything in Korea to “Confucianism.” But these parties jumping on that bandwagon (see here at The Dissolve and here on Subin Kim’s blog) seemed to fail to see the forest for the trees, in that not only did I carve out an entire section of the essay to explicitly say “It’s all Confucianism” is indeed not what I’m saying, but wrote an entire other — very, very lengthy — section outlining how I was talking about “neo-Confucianism” as a very modern ideological frame — an “iron cage”, specifically— and was not trying to get into a debate about the gory details of “neo-Confucianism” or 성리학 or whether Martina Deuchler knows what she’s talking about or a whole litany of things that most critics of the piece disingenuously, and even gleefully tried to act like this piece was actually about. Which it was not. Still, it was an interesting exercise, one that proved my journalist friend’s warning completely right, when he said, “If you put ‘Confucianism’ in the title, that’s all anyone will see and they’re gonna come after you and it’s gonna be all about that.” Yet I dropped that word into the title to do exactly what it did — attract attention, get traction, and even find translation (through a Naver blog that really got the issue out far and wide, from the Huffington Post Korea, to a Donga Ilbo reporter calling me for a quote in her story on the issue), so it definitely sparked a conversation.

Chapter 5. Lensing Korea: Focusing Theory through the Camera

This chapter gets deeper into the meaning of fashion as consumption, as a form of social display, and as a social practice. It also starts broaching Baudrillard more deeply, as an extension of the The Matrix discussion, and gets into the theory of signs and symbols, especially as it has to do with Chapter 6, which is going to get the most heavily theoretical — but at the same time, these theoretical chapters will be the most chock full of concrete, visual examples and hopefully (somehow), the most interesting.

Chapter 6. The Street Speaks: Fashion as Cultural Text, Concupiscent Consumption as Expression, Consumptive Choice as Creativity

This chapter takes a closer look at street fashion as a social practice, analyzing how it functions as a complex web of mediated social practices. It looks at the meaning of street fashion on the ground in Seoul.

<TOPIC PLACEHOLDER>I want to publish a paper/essay on the role of “staging” and fashion week “street fashion” as a mediated social practice. I’d do a brief recap of the history of street fashion from STRAIGHT UP through FRUiTS to Scott Schuman and Instagram before getting to street fashion as a mediated social practice in detail.

This chapter requires the most integration of the content and topics below.

Chapter 7. The Cultural Geography of Seoul and the View from the Street

In this chapter, we look at the “street” as a “stage” of performance and identity display. And we deconstruct the notion of “street fashion photography” as mediated social practice, especially at fashion weeks across the world.

Chapter 8. The Camera, the Street, and New Visual Methodologies

The camera is not just a media tool or some such passive receptacle, essentially a fancy field recorder. It is a means of access, a heuristic lens atop an actual one, and it brings together different streams of data and method.

Chapter 9. Street Fashion as Methodology and a Means to Track Hallyu

This chapter gets most deeply into a heavier, theoretical consideration of the “Korean Wave” or hallyu. One of the unanswered — nay, scarcely addressed — questions of what this “discursive formation” is the fact that it doesn’t take its own metaphoric deployment seriously. This chapter considers the implication of the wave’s propagation and what is being putatively propagated. And it also gets down to the question of how and the deeper why of “Korean cool.” Why is Korean popular culture so popular? Or in the words of Malcolm Gladwell, why is the content so “sticky?”

Deconstructing Korea

A theoretical consideration of Korean pop culture and society.

Michael Hurt

Written by

A visual sociologist writing, teaching, and shooting in Seoul since 2002.

Deconstructing Korea

A theoretical consideration of Korean pop culture and society.

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