Yongusil 52: Afterlives and Critical Histories at the University of Toronto

By | November 03, 2014 | No Comments

Picture of the front cover to the conference's program. The image is a still from the film Jiseul. | Image: Steven Denney

Picture of the front cover to the symposium’s program. The image is a still from the film Jiseul. | Image: Steven Denney

Nationalism and national histories are forces full of contradictions. On the one hand, they are sources of inspiration for community building, binding people together with a sense of shared history and common purpose. This is, as described by French historian Ernest Renan in his essay “What is a nation? [Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”], the “soul and spiritual principle” of the nation. Renan explains: “[These] two things, which are really one, constitute this… principle. One is in the past, the other, the present. One is the possession in common of a rich trove of memories; the other is actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to value… shared heritage….” These things are that which nationalism and national histories can–and indeed, must–support. But there is another, darker side to the forces that bind us together.

Indeed, these forces can be deliberately used to mask inequalities: social, gender, racial, and otherwise. At their worse, nationalism and national histories are nothing more than a cover for state violence. While these forces may buttress the positive, “soul and spiritual” aspects of the nation, they also blind us to history’s most inconvenient truths. It is these inconvenient truths that those participating in “The Afterlives of the Korean War” conference co-organized by the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Asian Institute’s Centre for the Study of Korea (CSK) sought to underscore.

It would be entirely accurate to describe the theme of the conference as anti-nationalist, in the sense that all presentations were, in their own way, meant to debunk national histories and deconstruct nationalism. This was most clearly the case in the presentation by Dr. John Price, a historian of “Asian Canadian history.” His presentation, “Burying the Past: Canadian War Crimes in Korea,” was delivered as a piercing critique of the positive image people have of Canadians. Dr. Price, drawing from his work on Canadian war crimes in the Korean War, argues that the perception of Canadians as somehow non-imperialist persons capable of holding themselves to a higher moral standard covers the crimes committed by Canadian soldiers in Korea. His re-telling of Shin Hyun-chang’s story is meant to do as I tweeted during Dr. Price’s presentation:

Certainly, as those writing about America’s relationship with its “host” nations (those countries who have agreed via “SOFAs” to hand over parts of their sovereign territory so as to accommodate the needs of the US military and its sprawling archipelago of bases) have argued, the relationship between the host and the United States is dictated by a gendered and racialized power hierarchy, with the US situated in the more powerful position.

Problematizing the institutional narratives supporting the US military was the task take upon by Dr. Christine Hong, a passionate “critical studies” scholar and professor of literature at US Santa Cruz whose critique of the human rights discourse has elicited quite the response. Dr. Hong presented a paper with the aim of “[examining] genocidal violence as the illiberal basis for conditional racial inclusion” in the US military. While the uniform has long been seen as “masking race”—that is: the military as an all-inclusive institution—Dr. Hong seeks to problematize and ultimately explode the notion of “redemptive US narratives” that were used to show the “integrated frontiers of the Korean War.” In short, Dr. Hong shows how the apparatus tasked with carrying out “politics by other means” enfolds race, sexuality, and the Other (e.g., small Korean children dressed as US military mascots) into its illiberal quest. For Dr. Hong, the discourse built up around the US military as a “progressive” institution is, like the whitewashed Canadian national history, nothing but a cover for the violence perpetrated by the state. Or, in other words: the “dark side” of nationalism and national histories.

While the conference included other speakers, who delivered equally thought-provoking presentations as the two highlighted above, as well as cultural events (a performing of Ara Gut and a showing of Jiseul), the presentations delivered by Drs. Price and Hong do well to underscore the importance of critical (revisionist?) history and critical studies of the all-too-neat discourses that sugar coat the more violent tendencies of the state. While those like Dr. Kim Dong-choon, former Standing Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Korea (진실 화해를 위한 과거사 정리 위원회) who gave the keynote lecture, would like to see state power correct the wrongs of state power, because of the highly politicized nature of such an attempt, perhaps the best avenue for success lies in the realm of academia. Indeed, is it not the moral obligation of academics to “speak truth to power,” give voice to the voiceless, and expose the inconvenient truths of history?

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