Why You Should Care about Korean Street Fashion…and Korean Shit in General

Fashion Is Important, But Not for the Clothes

Here’s the thing. I’m not a fashion guy. I’m not a fashionable guy. I’m not really into fashion. But I do find Korean street fashion endlessly, academically fascinating. I always have, since stumbling into its direction through my photography in around late 2006. Let me tell you why you might also find it intellectually interesting. See, I teach using my experience in the actual fashion field, as the first street fashion photographer in Korea, having shot street seriously and continuously, in the actual streets with actual real, random subjects (no “ringers”), from 2006 until the present day. I’ve been shooting street fashion portraits at Seoul Fashion Week from 2007 until now. But it wasn’t for the fashion, per se. I also use my photographs as social data, since my field of specialization is in Visual Sociology. When I have taught Visual Sociology at both Korea and Yonsei Universities in the past, I have always utilized street fashion as a case study and even sent my students to do photographs and ethnographic interviews with so-called paepi at Seoul Fashion Week.

I still do that while teaching ethnographic, market research techniques in my present position in the Business Administration department at the Hanguk University of Foreign Studies . Looking at fashion is a fascinating thing to do academically and intellectually, especially since so much communication is going on through clothing as cultural texts. And if you want to listen and watch this conversation as a sociologist, this conversation can tell you a lot about what’s going on in society. But you can also listen and look at this conversation in terms of the way it wends and shifts around the idea of how fashion fits into hallyu as a thing to be bought and sold (i.e. “marketed”), as I show my students in my Hallyu Marketing class. You can also use the case of Korean fashion to study the truly unique twice-a-year fashion industry event known as Seoul Fashion Week, which has become a cultural institution for street fashion folks and a new kind of socially unusual, un-Korean space of social openness and liberal sartorial norms, which itself was enabled by the housing of the event in, around, and at the alien DDP structure sitting in the middle of Dongdaemun since 2012. I send my Marketing Management and Marketing of Subcultures students there to get direct experience doing market research about culture, getting a chance to apply some of the dry theory of what our textbook simply calls “ethnographic marketing research” or what anthropologists and sociologists call “ethnography.”

Urban Studies people might call the study of the paepi congregating at DDP and how their culture is related to physical space and structures “human geography.” Because the DDP is interesting not just because of the architecture alone. It is also interesting how the building defines an alien space for social aliens.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza at night, Seoul, Korea. Copyright Eugene Lim.
This young lady is the kind of “social alien” who feels comfortable with other “socially unusual” people who define themselves through fashions and looks that often break social norms.

In this way, street fashion in Korea isn’t interesting just because of the clothes. (Since I’ll refer to “street fashion” as just “fashion” from now on, stick with me.) Fashion in Korea isn’t inherently interesting. Trends change but pretty much stay the same. Debating about what’s coming next season or what particular trend is cool or not is like debating about whether or not you’re a good person because you do or don’t like the color Royal Blue. Or whether you like French or Russian caviar. It’s pointless.

But what is awesome about Korean street fashion culture isn’t the amazing styling, although you can like it for that if you want to; it isn’t the subcultural aspects, cuz there ain’t any, really. The Korean paepi do not really constitute a counterculture, or any subcultural values different from the mainstream. Instead, they are fascinating as a new class of Korean superconsumers, as a group of youth who have found a way to gain social validation quickly and efficiently, as superconsumers who turn what Marx called the “commodity fetish” (Warenfetischismus) into a creative endeavor. They flipped a failing of capitalism into a veritable artform. They turned consumption into creation. Fucking think about that shit.

As the cultural product of hypermodernity, the Korean paepi are a testament to the power of human creativity to make the best out of a soulless system, to remix various social tendencies that make Korea Korea, such as South Korea’s unique form of postcoloniality, compressed development, and the cultural hybridity and textual impurity that helped make K-pop a culture industry juggernaut.

Korea has barely shaken off the reins of fasco-capitalism (and has only begun to culturally integrate the political form of democracy that came as a response to the decades of dictatorship and fascist capitalism that birthed modern South Korean culture) and still lives with its all-rationalizing ideologies. Now that it’s a consumer society in which the ideologies that rationalize social action are a function of the structural requirement to get us to consume, consume, consume, and even understand one’s own identity as being constituted by the things one consumes (or even see oneself as a commodity for consumption), and young people have become socialized into seeing themselves and everything they do as part of this system, it makes perfect sense that young people — who have never known a society not possessed of this rationale — have increasingly developed a fashion culture that reflects these values of identity expression through consumptive acts. So, understanding Korean street fashion culture as the ultimate expression of the culture of a young class of super-consumers, should be a pretty straightforward thing to do.

I conduct these interviews with many of my photographic subjects in order to get a more complete picture of who they are in a broader social sense. These kids are doing what they’ve been socialized to do. Their particular mode of expression is new, but they’re being good consumer citizen-subjects.

In this way, fashion is a cipher for understanding the biggest cultural-structural shift in Korean society right now. It’s the ultimate expression of dominant (not counter- or subcultural) values, of (predominantly) youth culture making sense of the master narrative-imperative to eat, consume, and die and, above all, do not question authority unless it’s a “Critical Thinking Question” in the the back of school textbook chapters. It’s the end of a pretty weird and unbalanced equation in which the modern Confucian “iron cage” of ideology says one should respect authority, the hierarchy, and the Way Things Are Done™ yet participate in the new Creative Economy™, and be a good critical thinker, but not actually toooo critical.

It’s the way theorist Stuart Hall says that yes, while there is a structural imperative that we should all just shut up and be lemmings and consume culture and All the Pretty Things™ it hawks to us without question or exception, people do talk back to hegemonic control in their own ways. They read the meanings of cultural texts differently than they were intended, strip and denude them, break them apart and construct them, remix them, repurpose them, and a whole myriad of other things. To the extent that the Party propagandist, the movie director, the poet, or the fashion designer ENCODE the texts with specific meanings, individuals and communities of individuals DECODE them in different ways.

And in the wild consumer society of a South Korea that was once the “Han River Miracle” now given way to “Hell Joseon”, the creative act of resistance that is created by the critical space made possible by the idea of Hell Joseon is what constitutes the creative impulses behind Korean street fashion, especially in youth. In this way, Korean street fashion culture could no more spring up in the older culture of say, Korea in the 1990s (towards the end of the old Han River Miracle paradigm, for which the Korean “IMF Crisis” of 1997 was the death knell), than a bottle of vinegar could be expected to yield a flower from even the best possible seed.

Fashion has long been the medium in which signs and symbols freed from their original meanings and contexts mutate, merge, and become new things. In this way, even within the context of a heavy and imitative consumer capitalism, real people still find some way of assigning their own meanings to things, of using their agency to make a consumptive act a creative one.

From Lapsed Academic to Street Fashion Photographer and Ethnographer

I’m just gonna lay it out there. I came to Korea to write my doctoral dissertation in 2002 but didn’t finish for more than a decade. I instead quietly dove into street photography for the next 4 years before becoming the first street fashion photographer in Korea, blogging my pictures from late 2006 specifically about Korean street fashion, then started covering Seoul Fashion Week continuously from 2007.

My first street fashion portrait, taken of fellow office workers in July, 2007, on my (and their) lunch break when I was working at UNESCO, which was based in Myeongdong, downtown Seoul.
Taken in Shinchon/Ewha area in September, 2007.

My work has always been ethnographic. One of my favorite stories of taking a picture of the many couples one sees around Seoul can be summed up in the young lady’s two emails to me after we took the portraits:

편지 #1
전 회색원피스에 긴 파마머리였꾸요,제 남자친구는 짧은
빡빡머리에 흰티셔츠를 입고 있었어요-
사실, 4일인 이번주 화욜날 남자친구가 군대를 갔꺼든요,
그래서 남자친구도 머리가 짧았던거구요-
이렇게 멜 드린건,
잘 나왔든 안 나왔든 상관없이 남자친구랑 같이 나온 사진들,
혹 보내주실 순 없으실지 여쭤보려고 메일 드려요..^-^
답 메일 기다리겠습니다.
편지 #2
안녕하세요^-^
이렇게 빨리 해결해 주실지는 몰랐는데 감사합니다..ㅎ
지금 남자친구는 군대에 가 있고,
저 혼자 남아있는 상황에서 사이트에 올라와 있는 사진들을
보니까..
가슴이 뭉클하네요..ㅠㅁㅠ
그때가 저랑 남자친구 마지막 데이트날이었꺼든요,
저희한테는 이벤트적인 일이었어요ㅎ
남자친구 휴가나오면 같이 식사라도..ㅎ
예쁜 추억 만들어 주셔서 감사합니다,
행복한 하루 보내세요⁰^/
Letter #1
Hello. I’m the girl who wore the gray dress with permed hair.
And my boyfriend was the guy with the white t-shirt and the really
short buzz cut -
Actually, my boyfriend went off to do his military service last week
on Tuesday the 4th.
That’s why my boyfriend’s hair was so short that day.
So I’m sending you this mail,
because whether or not the pictures of us together turned out well,
I was wondering if you could send the pictures to me.
I’ll wait for your reply.
Hello. I’m the girl who wore the gray dress with permed hair.
And my boyfriend was the guy with the white t-shirt and the really
short buzz cut -
Actually, my boyfriend went off to do his military service last week
on Tuesday the 4th.
That’s why my boyfriend’s hair was so short that day.
So I’m sending you this mail,
because whether or not the pictures of us together turned out well,
I was wondering if you could send the pictures to me.
I’ll wait for your reply.
Letter #2
Hello. I didn’t know you would take care of this so quickly. Thanks.
Now that my boyfriend is in the Army,
having been left behind by myself, looking at the pictures on the
site,
is a heart-wrenching feeling.
That’s because that day was our last day together,
so it was like a big event for us.
When my boyfriend comes back on leave, we should get a bite
together.
Thanks for giving us a beautiful memory.
Have a beautiful day.

And this is the essence of ethnographic portraiture, of ethnography itself. You’re looking for what’s really out there, as a participant-observer, in order to capture the details and fine grain and feel of lived reality — trying to capture specific personalities situated within a culture — and try to convey something meaningful about all that in a single image. So, “street fashion” photography, understood as an ethnographic endeavor, an effort to connect with people who are sending out messages expressing their identities and affiliations through their clothing, is about “fashion.” But it also isn’t, if you think about it. That’s the fundamental mistake so many young people these days caught up in the recent trendy thing to be — a “street fashion photographer”—make as they go about looking at clothing only in their photographs.

Why Fashion Is Sociologically Important
An article you should take a look at and an idea worthy of your intellectual consideration as to why fashion is sociologically so, so important to look at:

Fashion and the ways people dress are not only decided by the weather: because there are clothes you must wear and others that you just cannot appear in public anymore with, these seemingly individual decisions are in fact some truly social facts, as Émile Durkheim would probably have said. Moreover, the studying of fashion as a social phenomenon that influences the clothes we decide to buy, wear, and even be proud of (at least for some time) is possibly one of the easiest examples of what sociology is all about; with, in the case of fashion, numerous references to culture, norms, representations, consumption, social roles and models. Whenever a social scientist has to explain to any newcomer or non-sociologist the basics and purpose of the sociological science as a discipline, the understanding of fashion movements should be among the first examples that come to mind. Being ‘fashionable’ or, on the contrary, ‘out-of-fashion’ are the immediate consequences of judgments that are determined and limited by the cultural norms to which one belongs, at a given moment. Hence, whenever some people look at photographs of their youth, they are often ashamed of their previous looks and clothes even though they thought then they were absolutely à la mode.
http://soc.sagepub.com/content/47/2/407.short

“Appearance Stratification and Identity: Fashion as the Clearest Example of What Sociology is All About” (Yves Laberge 2013 47: 407 Sociology)

Clothing as Social Texts
See, it’s about the clothes and isn’t. Understood in the Cultural Studies context, clothing is indeed a social text — in fact, the most social one can imagine — but one can make sense of them without the context within which they exist. So, if one takes the example, of the biggest, most famous-est street fashion photographer — Scott Schuman, a.k.a. the Sartorialist, and his influence on birthing an entire wave of “street fashion photographers” in Korea when he visited and shot some Korean folks in 2009, you see the problem:

Scott Schuman/The Sartorialist’s image of a true Shinsa, shot in Shinsa-dong Seoul back in January, 2009.

Herein lies the problem. This picture of a dapper and debonair gent peacocking around Gangnam is certainly fashionable and great to look at, but he is as much an outlier case in Korean society as he would be in any and many other countries. He’s not a representative case of anything approaching how any kind of majority of Koreans dress, no matter how broadly dressing “well” is defined, which makes him have much more in common with kindred sartorial spirits in London, Berlin, New York, Rome, or LA. What many street fashion photographers across the planet are actually documenting is an increasingly global, non-culturally specific culture of dressing well, one that is enabled by global media outlets, the ubiquity of the Internet, and the homogenization of taste. What Schuman’s much fetéd visit to Korea actually meant to many Koreans concerned with his visit was how it marked a certain kind of recognition from the White West, that Korea had achieved the much-coveted status of the Truly Global that has been both a societal and state goal since the days when former president Kim Youngsam’s new segyehwa policy seemed like an overly hopeful pipe dream. Which is why — especially in korean fashion circles — people fucking lost their shit when The Great White Photo God touched down on Korean soil and pulled out his camera to point it at Korean people.

The Context of Power, Politics, and Sadaejuui
What Scott Schumann surely didn’t know about Korean culture was that certain key socio-historical frames of thinking were responsible for the extremely warm welcome he was given in a country where most everyday folks and fashion civilians had barely even heard of him. Korea in the modern era and for a good several centuries before it has always been afected by colonial or neo-colonial relationships with vastly more powerful sponsor states. This was true for China, which was never a conqueror or a sovereign over ancient Korea (Joseon), but a suzerain. The first great articulator (and architect) of modern Korean history, Shin Chae-ho, called this relationship (and the lackeyesque attitude/identity it engendered) sa-dae-ju-ui, a four character Chinese term that means “deference to the greater power”) “Korea” had enjoyed a mostly beneficial suzerainty relationship with “China” for a huge stretch of historical time by the time imperial Japan formally annexed Korea in 1910 and officially ended Korea’s political independence and forced Korea into a traditional, exploitative colonial relationship that would last until the Japanese empire’s resource needs clashed with that of the United States, causing the ill-fated political decision to “brush back” the US with the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched a war that would end with the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the end of the Japanese military empire, and suddenly thrust a newly liberated South Korea into the controlling hands of its former vanqquisher’s vanquisher. To allow sadaejuui to make sense of all of this, as the greater power changed from China to Japan to the United States, the language of power changed from Chinese to Japanese to English. The race of the Powerful Ones changed, as did the ideologies which justifieda and rationalized their cultural power, and the common sense ways of making sense of the world also changed, from the pure Han Chinese ideal that overlapped quite well with Korean notions of ethnicity and aesthetics, to one that privileged the pure, Sun God Ameterasu-descended, pure Yamato race of Japan, to that of the American notion that “White is Right”, since the fact that the racial hierarchy of their new occupiers mattered in how things got done and who got to do them was not lost on Koreans. The fact that few blacks were officers were black and almost all blacks were enlisted men was not lost on Koreans, and even Korean prostitutes knew not to cross the racial lines dictated by their clientele; you either took black guys or white soldiers, not both. Add to this the powerful messages sent by Hollywood films and American television, magazines, and popular music and it makes for quite a heady Cocktail of Western Power.

The “Global Fetish”
And yes, Koreans had to imbibe that special cocktail of geopolitical-cultural power, to drink that special flavor of the neo-colonial Kool-Aid. And it was within that general historio-psychological frame of sadaejuui that Korean national deveopment took place, with the concrete assistance and support of the USA (and former colonizer Japan, many Koreans like to conveniently forget), while that development process found internal validation through external markers. Symbolic GDP levels of 10,000 or 20,000 per capita GDP were important psychological moments for Korea, as were the 1988 Olympics, which was both an impetus and a symbol for Korea becoming modern, or at least, being seen that way. This sadaejuui pattern of thinking backgrounded everything Koreans did on their own, internally, with validation of these efforts coming from the outside, most importantly, the White West, and even more importantly, the USA. So, as the “global” has become more than just a pipe dream and a reality for a Korea with not just a highly developed infrastructure in heavy industry, factory production, and ideologies of anti-Communism that have served the Republic well, but which now has a highly developed popular culture infrastructure in music, film, food, and fashion, there is now a discernible “global fetish” that undergirds and validates Korean cultural projects. The recent “Premium Korea” ad from the CJ group is a perfect case with which to illustrate how sadajuui has evolved into a “global fetish” (a brilliant concept articulated by scholar Kim Hyunjung) that both undergirds and validates all commercial and cultural endeavors in Korea, as well as the Korean national project itself.

Sadaejuui meets the Global through Korea’s biggest culture jaebeol, The CJ Group.

Hopefully, the way in which Korean street fashion is evolving in relation to the increasing international attention it enjoys should be much clearer, along with the understanding of the cultural context in which Schuman did his first work in Korea, the reception it received, and why. And hopefully, it should be clearer why identifying the KOREA in Korean street fashion photography is increasingly problematic, especially when understood within the context of how the question of identifying the specific and the local within a larger, global entity that is becoming increasingly popular by virtue of its universal appeal — should be easier to understand. Where is the local in an entity whose very popularity mostly comes from its globality? Where is the specific, the Koreanness, within an aesthetic system whose very logic and language is expressed in universal terms? What I find fascinating about understanding culture through fashion in Korea is looking at aspects of Korean fashion culture that have remained essentially unchanged for decades and are largely unaffected by greater global changes in preferences, or even by many more fleeting, specific trends; certain looks and genres of clothing are like the control group in an experiment, the constant, common factor that helps place into sharp relief that thing that you’re looking for. If one is concerned with Korean fashion, one has to think about this control group, the pure and unchanging Korean fashion points and what they indicate.

Working the Ethnographic Angle Since 2002
I started photographing the streets of Seoul in 2002 because i was trying to find the essence of Korea, inherently Korean things, practices, gestures, expressions, etc. It was , in short, an ongoing ethnographic study. At first, I was doing ethnography through pure street photography done in a documentary, verité style.

Shinchon couple, 2003.
Studying in KFC, Gwanghwamun, 2002.
Unexpected intimacy in the Line #5 subway, 2002.
The Makkeolli Man in Shinchon, circa 2003.
My interests soon started turning to beauty, gender, and the politics of performance and self-representation. Shinchon “star shots” studio, circa 2002.

In the end, taking ethnographic portraits in Seoul in the early 2000s was rewarding because it was so unusual a thing to do at the time. If one thinks about it, the idea of taking street fashion portraits of people one doesn’t know whom you met in the streets, for no particular reason other than the photographer simply wants to is pretty much the most alien thing one can imagine doing in a putatively conservative, Confucian culture. And I always did street fashion photography the real way, no ringers, no setups. I would wander the streets of certain neighborhoods, looking for visually interesting people. I’d been wanting to do that since 2002, but didn’t have a specific, reasonable excuse to do so.

A Decade of Street Fashion at Seoul Fashion Week

A dandy dude at Seoul Fashion Week in October, 2007.
A lovely lady from the same season, back at SFW in October, 2007.
In 2008, new, aggressively colorful colors were coming down the pike, and certain fashion-forward people (paepi) were its prophets.
By around 2009, super fashion people (paepi) were a regular fixture of Seoul Fashion Week.
Going into 2011, the paepi were an established part of the SFW scene.
Four young, modelesque beauties pose for the camera in 2013, when SFW took a change in pace and held the event in Yeouido. It was a good chance for me to try and more actively match the geography and the environment to the human subjects in the frame, and allowed me to break out of the photographic rut cause by having the event in dead, soulless venues made for conferences and conventions. The SETEC structure down in Hakyeoul was the worst, and was a challenge to shoot interesting within. These young women were a breath of fresh air and when I started lighting more interestingly, inspired by the chance to link vibrant subjects in the foreground to a background that was more alive. This photo made me feel more alive.
Shooting at the IFC mall in Yeouido in 2013placed my subjects into a more obvious conversation with the built structures of the city. And here, it allowed me to initiate a conversation about triangles. 2011 was an interesting time that allowed me to change my shooting styles along with changes in the environment in which I was shooting.
One of my favorite shots ever, also taken in Yeouido in 2013, in which I combined external strobe on a remote to spotlight this model’s top half, while the sun made a spotlight through the trees to highlight her slightly provocative normcore socks look.

Korean Studies as Radical Epistemology

What I have been feeling, slowly figuring out, and making slow sense of, ever since I went off mission and didn’t finish the doctoral dissertation I came to do in 2002 until the late, late year of 2014, what distracted me from finishing my Ph.D. on time as my former grad school colleagues who are now mostly tenured, associate professors did, was my obsession with doing pure street photography in Seoul before shifting into what is now trendily called “street fashion” photography (or what I’d simply call ethnographic portraiture) in around 2006. Nowadays, I like to look back on this long period of time spent behind the camera looking at Korea through an ethnographic lens as some of the most valuable fieldwork I could have ever done, and wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything in the world. For it was this experience that allowed me to gain real, gritty and people-filled experience on the ground, in the streets. This experience, along with my eventual return to formal academia with the completion of my Ph.D. in 2014, allowed me to integrate a visual approach focused ostensibly through fashion with ethnographic goals through the quite underdeveloped subfield of Visual Sociology. It also allowed me to come to a crucial realization about the nature of Korean Studies itself. I realized that Korean Studies does not have to be looked at as merely an area of study or the study of a geographic area. It can be understood as a radical epistemology unto itself.

OK. Before we even get started using all kinds of fancy language and four-dollar words, I should do what most academics like to do and define terms. As in, what the Sam Hell is “epistemology”? One might wonder why I continue to use possibly scary and off-putting big words. Yet, if one of the points of reading is to learn new things, encountering a new word/concept doesn’t have to be an intimidating experience. Especially if the writer doesn’t act like a horse’s ass and lord his or her upper hand in knowlegdge over the reader in some irritating, ongoing game of intellectual stunting. But then again, this is the age of the Internet, of rolling down the “Internet superhighway” with ease and style, with supercomputers in our pockets, so we can easily look up unfamiliar terms. Wikipedia and Dictionary.com are friends here. Yet I, as a writer trying to show you something new, have a responsibility to bring you up to speed naturally and comfortably, and as a teacher, should be judged by my ability to have the reader keep up with me, as long as that dear reader is meeting the writer halfway and putting some proverbial elbow grease into the reading.

How We Know What We Know
So I should explain simply by simply explaining that an “epistemology” can be thought of as a study or a close look at the way we know things. In other words, how do we know what we know? Yes, there are other, more specific ways the concept is used, such as a field or area of study in looking closely at the way knowledge is created. But here, it’s enough to think about “epistemology” as a consideration of how we produce knowledge such as is found in approaches to understanding human nature — do we look at biology or neurology, psychology or psychoanalytic models of personality? Rational considerations of logic and philosophy? Religion? The approach to answering the question affects the kind of answer we are going to get. Freud, the famous psychiatrist, came up with a markedly different answer than the Christian philosopher/theologian St. Augustine. Indeed, if you have marital problems, your pastor is going to give you totally different advice than your therapist will. It all boils down to the knowledge base you use to approach the problem. Indeed, as psychologist Abraham Maslov famously quipped, “It is tempting, if the only tool one has is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” A hardened, career military man might tend to approach administrative control in an organization as a matter of control, disciplining and punishing; an educator might tend to think of the task of management as one of educating members to an adequate level of competence while providing assessments along the way.

Why Korean Studies (and Korea) Is Important
If all this is relatively clear so far, I would like to propose a look at Korea (Korean Studies) might be not just a mere area of study, but a way of knowing — an epistemology — in itself. And what are we trying to know, pray tell? I would humbly like to suggest that it has to do with the same reason we look at cases in history or sociology or even great literature. We are trying to peer into a universal truth of human existence, to identify some truism that we can take with us to other places in our part of the human experience. And at times, this greater utility is obvious. The lesson of Hitler and the Holocaust is not one for just the German people or the Jews. To be sure, the poignancy, pain, and particular pertinence of the Holocaust is extra relevant to German nationals and members of the Jewish diaspora. But the history of the Holocaust is powerful to all of humanity because of the tough questions the existence of the Nazis pose to us all: What is the nature of Modernity? What does “Progress” even mean? And one of the best, taken straight from the film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which asks the key question we should be asking more often: “Just because we can do a thing does it mean we must do that thing?” It might seem a bit trite put this way, but only because the question has become so seemingly obvious and necessary to consider since the Holocaust thrust just such modes of questioning into our species’ consciousness. The question becomes most acutely felt when considering another legacy of humanity’s most modern, brutal war, the twin bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.

But I digress. I think, dear reader, you get my point. A look at history often yields more than just an accounting of events for the specific interests of relevant or affected groups. The pained, existential questioning of the futility of it all is beautifully described in a sonnet that transcends time and individual circumstances:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

In short,

Should I just give up?
Is all this struggle worth it? Cuz life sucks.
But maybe I should push on through to the end
and quite possibly prevail?

This is a universal mental struggle. And why Shakespeare is important outside of just being a part of the development of the English language or the development of entires modes of drama. He’s asking important, universal questions through the lenses of specific experience. Again, this is why not just Germans study the rise of Hitler and it’s not just the English who read Shakespeare’s plays. It is through the study of certain kinds of specific experience that we can walk away with universally useful lessons and insights.

Yes, I am slowly getting to Korea here, and the reason you’re reading this book, along with the reason why you will hopefully recommend it to a good friend after you do. I am going to tell you why you and yours should be interested in the case of Korea; why you should find this geographically and culturally far-flung society society deeply and grandly fascinating a case and place to consider; why you should care about the way things go in Korean society.

Been doing Korean couples fashion/ethnographic portrait, taken in Myeongdong, Seoul in August, 2007.

Strange Things Are afoot…

See, the feeling I’ve had ever since my first extended “visit” to Korea on the Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship living with a host family and working in a Korean public school from 1994–96, was that something weird was going on in Korea. Not weird in the sense that anything was necessarily amiss it awry, but strange things were definitely afoot in the circle K.

When I took my thoughts on and experiences of Korea to graduate school with me, despite lacking both the theoretical acumen and the street-level sagacity needed to recognize the nature of what it was that I had found to be essentially and categorically strange about the putative “Land of the Morning Calm.” But after 17 total years of life as an adult in Korea, 15 of which have been in the capital city of Seoul, I have been able to make sense of South Korea’s strangeness and even give it a name.

But before I tell y’all what it is, I would like to make a short note and disclaimer here, given the long history of Westerners who’ve come East finding things here strange. This has been a thing ever since Isabella Bird Bishop wrote about the “gusts of popular feeling” in Korea in 1897. Here, the word “Orientalism” obviously rears its theoretically hoary head, laden as it is with the old tendency to negatively characterize the “East” or “the Orient” in comparison to a rational, West in the center. This is found in tropes that go by “Exotic” or “Shocking Asia” or even the more recent and seemingly harmless notion of “Wacky Japan.” This pattern of thinking was probably most famously set down for even western academics in Ruth Benedict’s seminal 1946 book on Japan The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. And yes, it’s something that even some people in these regions themselves often eagerly buy into, hook, line, and sinker. Generally, the orientalist line of argument or representation places the Oriental Other into a subordinate position vis a vis the West, America, France, whatever — wherever the analysis happens to be coming from. And it’s often a sneaky, creepy, and quiet kind of condescension that isn’t so readily apparent or patently obvious.

A marker of the End of History and The Last Woman.

Korea Is the Future of Us All

Put simply and succinctly, Korea is the future; it is the future of us all, as a race of beings, a species already hellbent and careening out of a particular gate of culture and with tendencies as specific as a particular vector as we hurtle in a set direction through historical space. We’ve already been shot out of the proverbial and figurative cannon — we’re flying. Korea, as a confluence of different human, historical currents of Industrialization, Urbanization, Mechanization, and a resultant Modernity, is a unique petri dish in which we can watch certain key elements of hypermodern culture, such as an unimaginably fast, ever-accessible, Internet that has produced new forms of media that the fractured and impure, hybridity-filled, postcolonial Korean culture on rapid development steroids adapted to without blinking an eye, which is why a society that didn’t have running hot water in most public buildings even by 1980 dropped “Gangnam Style” on the world only 32 years later. The point here is that in 1994, Koreans didn’t even know what the Internet was; five years later, Korean teens were destroying the world’s competition in Starcraft with the aid of the fastest broadband Internet connections on Planet Earth. And that just makes sense in Korea. In 1953, the poorest, most hopeless country in the world, with the lowest GDP. A little more than half a century later, it has become the society that is leading the world into hypermodernity. Korea has taken mass consumption, along with the idea that identity itself can and should be found through consumptive acts and choices, and run with it to a point that has left even the West — ground zero for Modernity — in the dust and scratching its collective head. A virtual world of digital avatars, plastic surgery that is damn near as fast, easy, and exact as Photoshop, a digital democracy, along with the tyranny of the virtual mob. Still, what you will see from the Korean example is the fact that, like most things here in South Korea, it isn’t that these issues are categorically unique to Korea; it’s a matter of scale and sheer intensity. There is almost no social issue or problem in Korea that no other country has; it’s just that Korea has it in spades; whatever it is somewhere else, in Korea, it’s on steroids — it’s hulked out.

As we delve deeper into the society and culture, pausing along the way to pick up some critical, crucial theory, all this will become clearer — and even more interesting. And I would like to do it while looking at new media, popular culture, and the approach of Cultural Studies while avoiding the usual suspect subjects of K-Pop and hallyu (the “Korean Wave”) as much as possible.

We are going to first take a look at how to look at culture before getting to a tool with which to break down any cultural product — a cultural text — into it’s constituent, itty-bitty parts for our close inspection. Then we are going to look at what those cultural texts say or symbolize about things going on in Korean society before we get right into the deep heart of some of the inner workings of things Korean and then consider what all this means as a preview of Things to Come.

In the end, this is an unblinking, unflinching, and therefore possibly stinging critique of Korean society, but only because the exercise is inherently worth it.But that’s not what I’m doing here. Simply put, my take on Korea puts it on a sort of teleological, developmental pedestal, and even makes Korean society part of the endgame for the Enlightenment project of Development and Progress, and even places Korea at the End of History itself.

You see, what I mean to assert here is that Korea is the Future. It’s a taste of the End Times, but not in the apocalyptic, Revelations, Seventh Seal sense of the “End,” but rather in the sense of how so-called “materialist historians” such as Karl Marx, Max Weber or Francis Fukuyama would mean it, or how sociologists such as Herbert Spencer or Émile Durkheim would see societies evolving towards a discrete and discernible endpoint. You see, South Korean society is the culmination of the many designs and desires that find their original origins in the putative “West,” ranging from industrial capitalism, scientific rationality, nationalism, and even the advent of a massly mediated, heavily commodified popular culture. All of these elements of modernity found their origins in the West before finding eager purchase in the countries and cultures of the Rest. And its most apt pupil was found in South Korea. Indeed, there is no god but scientific, rational Modernity and Korea is His prophet.

This girl from Hong Kong at Seoul Fashion Week is straight RUNNING SHIT while decked out in Korean street brands.

On South Korean Hypermodernity

OK, right now, I’m talking big, big, shit here. I would venture to guess that most readers would have assumed I would talk about how big, great, and wonderful Korea is cuz Neo-Confucius, cuz Korea traditional culture, cuz South Korean culture industry and K-pop. But those are just stepping stones or the mere formative processes that mark contemporary Korean reality. I’m not about the small-fry stuff. See, I came here to chew bubble gum and talk about the (mostly) Frenchilicious concept of Hypermodernity, the world capital of which is Korea. And I’m all out of bubblegum.

The Short of It, in a Nutshell

Put really simply, Korean street fashion is pretty fucking awesome. And not because of the particular creativity of styles, or because it’s an amazing, edgy subculture, cuz it’s neither of those two things. Despite having written a purposefully provocative post on the subject before, Korea doesn’t have a Harajuku and likely never will. Hell, Even Japan doesn’t have a goddamn Harajuku anymore. That shit is over. And Uniqlo, as the harbinger of change in the fast fashion industry that has changed the terrain of the apparel world as a while, helped kill it.

But what is awesome about Korean street fashion culture isn’t the amazing styling, although you can like it for that if you want to; it isn’t the subcultural aspects, cuz there ain’t any, really. The Korean paepi doesn’t really constitute a counterculture, or any subcultural values different from the mainstream. Instead, they are fascinating as a new class of Korean superconsumers, as a group of youth who have found a way to gain social validation quickly and efficiently, as superconsumers who turn what Marx called the “commodity fetish” (Warenfetischismus) into a creative endeavor. They flipped a failing of capitalism into a veritable artform. They turned consumption into creation. Fucking think about that shit. As the cultural product of hypermodernity, the Korean paepi are a testament to the power of human creativity to make the best out of a soulless system, to remix various social tendencies of postcoloniality, Korea’s compressed development, and the cultural hybridity and textual impurity that helped make K-pop a culture industry juggernaut.

Korea is where those things I started to notice that were in other places, not to mention theoretically mapped in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory, but were starting to become uniquely Korea-shaped and the best examples possible for the application of even seemingly alien western theoreticians, such as gender identity and performance, the excesses of consumer capitalism…

…to be continued (still writing)…


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