Yongusil 32: Korean Jamboree at the AAS Annual Conference

By | April 30, 2014 | No Comments

As regular as clock-work, with the coming of spring, the academic and analytic jamboree that is the Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference rolls around. While the Yongusil has already reviewed the intriguing source-focused panel presented in Philadelphia (“Utilizing the Captured Documents: New Perspectives on Society, Institutions, and Foreign Relations in Revolutionary and Wartime North Korea, 1945-1953”) Messrs. Kim, Kraus, Cumings and Cathcart were by no means the only Koreanists holding forth in the home of the Liberty Bell that wet, wet weekend in March.

Matters Korean (or Northeast Asian) at the AAS are usually represented by a heady mix of academic excellence and intrigue, sometimes with a dash of controversy. Within the Sino-NK community, we often discuss and are keen to track the ins and outs of ideological rigor and the occasional fall of the impure, the heretical or the plain unlucky, so this author was fascinated by the prospect of a whole panel on “Tenko” or ideological conversion in pre-Pacific War and pre-Republic Japan.

Among the intriguing narratives of philosophical capitulation, the extraordinary Mark Driscoll of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s vivid recounting of what he turned “political inversion” at the Osaka Incident of 1885 caught our ear, the author of the magnificent Absolute Erotic Absolute Grotesque: The Living, Dead, and Undead in Japan’s Imperialism, 1895-1945 laying the groundwork for more interesting subaltern directions.

Sino-NK contributor Benoit Berthelier formed part of a fascinating panel entitled “Socialist Cultural Modernities in Korean and Beyond: A Transnational Examination.” Aside from Berthelier’s now familiar analytical and scholarly depth applied to the poetry of post-Liberation North Korea and its ideological diaspora, Sunyoung Park of  the University of Southern California examined a now hard to find left wing culture in South Korea, a Proletarian Wave.

Equally interesting, though less focused on cultural production and more on academic productions of national cultures, was Holly Stephens of the University of Pennsylvania who re-imagined Korean reformist state and nationhood over a span of some 150 years in her paper “The Road to a Reintegrated Order: Three Reforming Regimes, 1800-1945.”

Cultural claims and the space in which such claiming takes place were again examined by Olga Fedorenko’ of New York University. In a panel bridging both Koreas, Fedorenko explored a capitalistic mode of communication and its usage during times of autocracy in “Advertising for Public Good: Authoritarian Expropriation of Advertising and its Lingering Consequences in South Korea.” Cheehyung Kim of Duke University followed with an exploration of aesthetic elements in North Korean cultural-political production. Culture was intertextualised in a key panel from Saturday’s programme, this process weaving gendered narratives across the Korean divide.

Suzy Kim, author of Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution, 1945-1950 delivered a beguiling visual exegesis of mythos and practicality in her paper “Socialist Feminisms Compared: The Flower Girl and the White Haired Girl,” which was then accompanied by AeRan Jeong of the University of Vincennes-Saint-Denis Paris 8, and her exploration of North Korean vocal theatrics and navigation of nationalisms in the case of Kumgangsan Kaguktan, a North Korean theatre group based in Japan. Young Mi Lee of Kyung Hee University’s construction of a revolutionary female literary geneaology and Hee Sun Choi of Seoul National University’s intriguing analysis of the place of the female within North Korean propaganda images were also absolutely worthy of a mention.

For this author, however, the tour de force of the entire conference was what was described by discussant Timothy Tangherlini (UCLA) as a “French brain trust.” Truly a gathering of the finest in Francophone “geographie,” the panel entitled “Shadow Capital Cities in the Korean World” was a vital demonstration of academic re-ordering and re-visioning in which the apparent stable body politique of the post-War status quo on the peninsula was reconfigured into a less monolithic, febrile set of competitive loci.

Thereafter, Alain Delissen of the Ecole des Haute Etudes des Science Sociales (EHESS) placed Seoul and Pyongyang in dramatic and comprehensive tension with potential and past other Koreas, nascent Koreas, emergent Koreas and ghost Koreas. Equally Valerie Gelezeau (also of EHESS), examined the emerging spaces of South Korea’s self-fantasy, in particular the dream space of Songdo, an area seemingly emerging fully formed yet half-baked from the mud next to Incheon, a place of possibility and globality but immediately a place of edges and uncomfortable locality.

Finally, on this absorbing panel, Eunsil Yim of Universite Paris Diderot – Paris 7 ventured further afield examining the place and spaces of elite Koreans in another, diasporic Korean capital, a place of extensive Korean dreams and dreaming, Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The next AAS will be in Chicago in late March, 2015, and Sino-NK is already looking forward to further gusts of Koreanologie on the windy shores of Lake Michigan.


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