Rain on a Strange Roof: A Roundtable Review of Janet Poole’s When the Future Disappears

By | July 13, 2015 | No Comments

namdaemunro_colonial Seoul-SNK

The background image is of Namdaemun-ro, Seoul (or Keijo), during the colonial period. The photograph is likely taken from atop the Mitsukoshi department store, according to sources.

As another fully-loaded set of 1945 anniversaries approaches East Asia, it is fitting to look back at the period preceding Japan’s surrender and try to understand what had been created, and what was lost, with the Japanese defeat. The breakup of the Japanese empire in East Asia shattered the dreams, careers, and creative patterns not just of Japanese colonial and military officials, but also of many of their implicit and explicit collaborators. The work of the Korean intelligentsia (what today might be termed “the creative class”) during the colonial period is fraught historical terrain, to say the least. But, like its counterpart literature in modern French historiography, it has been the subject of a number of new and important books in recent years.

Janet Poole’s work on a handful of writers active in colonial Seoul takes the form of interlinked essays steeped in the meditative ethos of the writers themselves. We find ourselves among jobless editors incapable of killing the rabbits which are their only sustenance, aimless creatives who follow toads into the woods, and men who write sentences longer than Harry Harootunian without sleep. But amid these cloudy types, Poole weaves hard cultural debates over the nature of kokumin bukaku (literature of the people), Korean cosmopolitan identity, and the difficulties of harmonizing with the metropole. The result is a book that merits repeated encounter, assuring a future worth reading.— Adam Cathcart, Editor-in-Chief

Rain on a Strange Roof: A Roundtable Review of Janet Poole’s When the Future Disappears

by Sino-NK

Poole, Janet. When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 286 pp. ISBN: 978-0-231-16518-1

Modern Life is…? A Review

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

In the hands of popular imagination, history and historiography has the unfortunate tendency to rigid and retrospective periodization. We imagine distinct and determined moments of transition from one subjectivity to the next; from subject of the Yi to Imperial citizen to revolutionary comrade. We leave no space for transition or lag, no patience for the straggler or the traditionalist, no matter which tradition is ascribed to.

The truth of history, however, is more a case of narrative process than a series of distinct, identifiable moments, and whatever authentic content lies within is, of course, both somewhere in between and much more complex. We imagine the arrival of colonialism and imposed modernity on the Korean Peninsula as part of the progressivist project of Japanese Imperialism. Yet we know that in the European case, nineteenth century progressivism and rationalism had also seemed like the invincible culmination of historical development until it was thrashed, dashed and blasted to pieces in the trenches of the Somme. The future is, unfortunately, not all it promises to be. Thus, like the optimistic, energetic Pals regiments (hailing from Accrington, Grimsby, Leeds, Barnsley, and across northern Britain), whose future turned out to be an unexpected annihilation at Ypres and in Flanders’ fetid ditches, the authors, poets, and playwrights that formed what might be termed Korea’s modernist literary set in the first decades of the twentieth century likewise met a particularly confused, disappointing, and sometimes downright violent end.

Janet Poole’s fantastic book, When the Future Disappears: The Modernist Imagination in Late Colonial Korea, succeeds in doing what only the best writing can, stirring the heart and hackles of the empirically minded, as well as pushing the reader to access the vestiges of the intriguing group of artists’ output that forms the centerpiece of the book. Describing a moment of artistic ferment in colonial Chosun which is akin to the musical and filmic output of Harbin in newly cosmopolitan colonized Manchukuo, Poole introduces us to the hopes, anxieties, fears and dreams of distinctive writers such as Im Hwa, Pak T’aweon, So Insik and Choe Myongik. Moving with Poole through the fragments of these men’s lives and outputs is like falling down an unexpected rabbit hole of imposed modernity. The author takes the reader on multiple explorations of what exactly it was to be a modern citizen of Chosun, how that process relates to histories and pasts now out of favor, abandoned or forbidden and, for some, how social and political progress might be made in a framework of colonial subjectivity. Poole unpacks and then outlines some of the extraordinary moments of transformation among the group and their output: some transformations that involve abandonment of the past, negation of previous Korean subjectivities, and adoption of radical new forms of modern being such as Japanese Imperial subjectivity; and some that involve retreat and silence.

The book does its level best to construct traceable narratives from even the most fragmented and tenuous of lives as glimpsed from 2015. In particular, the chapter “Taking Possession of the Emperors Language”(Ch. 6) recounts a reconfiguration of linguistic commitment which surely must inspire scholars of other moments of cultural replacement and re-imagination, the implications of which had this reviewer reading from between his fingers at its most tumultuous of moments. However the book’s finest element, and in many ways one of the saddest pieces of writing this author has read in some time, comes in the epilogue, “Afterlives,” when the full horror dealt by history to this group of optimists and adventurers is illuminated. Colored and tarred by the political status quo and stasis of the post-liberation and post-Korean War period, many of the writers analysed in the book are regarded in the South as collaborators with the oppressive project of Japanese domination. Others are denigrated as Communists and Leftists, particularly those who followed the calling, promise, and aspiration of socialism in Kaesong and points north; these individuals were destined to endure disappointing ideological homecomings — in many cases death and torture in the purges of the 1950s. Still others disappeared or were simply forgotten. But Poole, in this inspiring piece of exploration, analysis, and uncovering does at least do some justice to this moment and its ultimately unfulfilled and uninspiring denouement. Just like the unfortunate Accrington Pals (80% of whom died in their first 90 minutes of combat), hopefully we will at least remember them.

Narrative & Empire: Visions of the Past, Visions of the Future

by Christopher Richardson

The specter of colonialism looms large in the history of the Korean Peninsula. The legacy of Japan’s imperial project, and its demise at the end of the Pacific War, continue to haunt the political, economic and cultural landscape of both North and South Korea. In the DPRK, the Kimist Cult of Personality demands the maintenance of a perpetual state of enmity between Koreans and the old colonial foe, and in the Republic of Korea state and society alike struggle to balance ancestral grievances and a desire for restitution, with the belated recognition that, just perhaps, Tokyo and Seoul ought to bury their hatchets–and not in each other’s skulls for once–in the pursuit of common economic and security interests.

Much of the problem, of course, rests in the unfinished business of history, by which I mean literally the business of historians and scholars, seeking to offer a full accounting of the experience of empire. Too often, in both North and South Korea, the colonial era is reduced to a caricature of Japanese villainy, with Koreans divided between the ranks of victims, collaborators, and valiant resisters. Indeed, the legitimacy of the DPRK is premised on a mythologized vision of revolutionary resistance to occupation, and in South Korea barbs continue to fly about whose grandfather did what and to whom. Adding further complications, upon decolonization many writers and intellectuals of the late colonial era would migrate to Kim Il-sung’s republic–some more willingly than others–leading to the suppression of their intellectual and literary legacies in the nationalist histories of a once-authoritarian Republic of Korea. And, in the ultimate tragedy, most of these men and their families soon ran afoul of Kim Il-sung, their names, writings, and indeed lives, extinguished in the DPRK that was to be their paradise (pp. 2-3).

Into the fractured, divisive, and all-too-often infantilized debate about Korea under Empire comes Janet Poole’s When The Future Disappears. Piercing the gloom of this so-called “dark period” of 20th Century Korean history, Poole illuminates the way the peninsula’s intellectuals, and writers in particular, responded to the experience of imperialization (pp. 4-5). Cutting through the hackneyed dichotomy of collaboration and resistance, Poole reminds us that by the late 1930s any hope Korea might soon regain political and cultural autonomy was fading. Old visions of the future had disappeared from view. After all, Poole notes, most of the writers of the late colonial era had been “born just before or after colonial rule had been imposed in 1910.” This meant, she argues, that “they had no lived memory of precolonial society, and all their schooling had taken place within the colonial education system” (p.10). Writers and intellectuals began to reconceive what it meant to be Korean, encountering the disruptions, and indeed potentials, of modernity within the context of an Empire that, for all they knew, might rule the peninsula for as long as had the Choson Kings.

Indeed, this so-called “dark period” of Korean history emerges as a time of intense experimentation, in which the fascist preoccupation with culture “offered a space for practices where notions of self, whether individual or communal, were elaborated and contested” (p. 8). Through an incredible array of texts, Poole teases out the innovative–sometimes collaborative, sometimes quietly defiant–ways writers and intellectuals responded to the challenges of urbanization, modernization and imperialization, all whilst enduring the systematic suppression of their native Korean language, in favor of the imperial tongue. Responses ranged from Choe Myongik’s exploration of the “urban everyday,” to “the politics of late colonial nostalgia” in the ruminations of philosopher So Insik, to Choe Chaeso, whose embrace of “fascist modernism” led him to perceive Japanese imperialization as the source of Korea’s national redemption.

Poole’s most fascinating research surveys the lives of writers who, in fact, embraced this vision of Empire, exhorting their countrymen to join Japan’s war effort, even to the point of blissful death for the emperor. These are fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, because they make salutary reading from the point-of-view of nationalist Korean history, which all-too-often occludes the extent to which Koreans embraced Tokyo’s idea of empire, and Korea’s place within it. Yet they are most remarkable because, far from finding quaveringly weak or preening quislings in the ranks of Korea’s pro-Japanese writers and intellectuals, Poole finds that men like Choe Chaeso embraced the imperializing project precisely because they believed that the best way to defend Korean national identity was by rallying to the emperor’s cause.

For Choe, embracing a vision of Japanese and Korean oneness was, paradoxically, perceived as an act of resistance, resistance against Western power, and against the creeping decadence of the fin de siècle cosmopolitanism, individualism, and liberalism he believed were rapidly corroding Japanese and Korean politics, society and arts, as they had already corroded the European metropolises which Choe had studied with fascination, fear and contempt. Instead, Choe proposed that “new beauty is to be discovered in an entire school’s worth of children marching in formation” (p. 174), and in those texts he termed “Happy Literature,” in which Koreans were depicted “living happily without division and conflict but according to one intention” (p. 175). And to what end? Ultimately, for Choe, “a meaningful life… is one that sacrifices itself for the emperor” (p. 173).

It sounds familiar, does it not? Indeed, for those of us interested in the art and culture of the DPRK, a further revelation in Poole’s research is the extent to which the literature of Korean fascism, and the proletarian literature of resistance that would produce most of the first generation of North Korea’s “soldiers on the cultural front,” had more in common than that dividing them. Each had rejected the ideal of art for art’s sake, and both–in their own ways–sought to protect Korea from perceived enemies, foreign and domestic. This will come as no shock to adherents of Brian Myers’ thesis that the DPRK is, above all, a fascist state, more closely related to the politics and culture of Imperial Japan than the communist politics and culture of the Soviet Union.

Yet Poole’s rigorous and sensitive exploration of Korean writing draws out the affinities between the seemingly competing schools of Korean fascist and proletarian literature in careful ways. Poole’s scholarship is exquisitely detailed, and clearly a labor of love for its author. When The Future Disappears is a fine work of scholarship, illuminating a period of Korean history that was certainly bleak, but by no means devoid of light.

In Their Nostalgic Yearnings Lies Hope?

by Steven Denney

Critiquing Korean-language colonial histories, historian Michael Kim protests the fudging of nationalist and national history. While he sees recent work on colonial Korea in the English-language literature making great theoretical and empirical strides towards a more sophisticated understanding of the colonial period, Kim finds a tendency in such work to lose the Korean voice. English-language work often (though certainly not always) fails to adequately engage Korean-language sources.

What better way to avoid this linguistic pitfall than to write an entire book based on Korean authors writing in the colonial period? This is precisely what the University of Toronto’s Janet Poole has done in When the Future Disappears. Overcoming, quite easily, the clichéd dichotomy between resister (righteous) and collaborator (dishonorable), Poole pursues a close-reading of works penned by Korean intellectuals: interrogating and interpreting their literary and political ideas for the reader all the while being careful to properly contextualize.

Poole’s work is a close study of the Korea’s colonial generation—those who had “no lived memory of annexation, just the inexorable fact of its consolidation, followed by the radicalization of an education in the metropole in the 1920s, when socialist thought held sway and nourished special bonds between Japanese and Korean intellectuals.” (p. 61) These intellectuals “had subscribed wholeheartedly to the ideology of modernism and pledged to further its goals.” (p. 61) But how they did this, in the troubled position of colonial-subject, varied greatly.

Socialist visionary So Insik (see Ch. 2), for instance, encouraged an embrace of the contradictions of modernist decadence and admonished his contemporaries to overcome “Korean” tradition and the classics, which softened a sense of contemporary crisis and the need for transformation, pushing a universalist worldview. According to Kim Keongil, “[So] rejected the Asianism that proclaimed ‘Asia is one’ or ‘the East belongs to East Asians.” His rejection of essentialism was connected to a broader critique of the treatises on “Western progress” and “non-Western backwardness,” a discourse which supported Japan’s self-proclaimed role as leader of Asia. In contrast, So “suggested that the East Should be understood in relation to the movement of capital and exchanges of knowledge and culture.”

For other intellectuals, like Choe Chaeso (analysed in Poole’s Ch. 4), the resolution of the present crisis was not to refute the East-West binary or resist Japan’s greater imperial efforts, but to fully embrace them. While Choe and So may have both been distinctly concerned with “a way of imagining a future distinct from the present at a time when the past seemed to linger uneasily in so many different ways,” (p. 151) Choe’s resolution was very different from So’s, and from other writers of the time. The contradictions of modernity and the problem, according to Choe, of rampant individualism could be overcome through the state, i.e., fascism. “Placing the state as the guarantor of a culture freed from the logic of capitalism, necessitated the breakdown of internal divisions and the inauguration of a holistic culture that did not subscribe to conflicts of class, of generation, or between the individual and society,” Choe argued. (p. 161)

By reconstructing, in a very readable narrative, the politics of (literary) modernism in a colonial context, Poole also delves into the notion of nostalgia. This cultural ethos of pining for something lost can be used to better understand colonial literature and intellectual thought in Korea. One looks forward by looking back: that’s nostalgia. While not all writers surveyed liked what they saw in the past, they were certainly driven by a sense of something lost. Indeed, nostalgia is at the center of the entire book; it is the glue that unites the intellectuals of varying political dispositions. And it is here where Poole’s nuanced reading of the literature comes through most clearly.

In Chapter 2 Poole centers her focus on the complex character of So Insik. Born in Korea’s so-called “enlightenment period,” Poole suggests that So would have likely agreed with Svetlana Boym’s understanding of “progress” as a modern/modernist concept (p. 54). But rather than long for longing’s sake, So sees in nostalgia the potential to challenge the present. According to Poole, So rejects the acceptance of history as a fait accompli, describing a writer who “refuses to trust the linear time of continuity and progress.” Yet, in the decadence of modern societies (Korea included) was a hope of some kind (p. 57). Embracing the decadence of modernity and the everyday “without falling into the nostalgia trap himself,” So is able to ever-so-subtlety advocate political change—or at least encourage Koreans to think about how things could be different and better. In other words: to hope.