(Thanks, American Rhetoric!)
The final frontier
These are the voyages of the Starship, Enterprise
Its 5 year mission
To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life and new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before
(The Star Trek Lyrics You Probably Never Knew Existed)
(You can sing along!)
The rim of the star-light
Is wand'ring in star-flight
He'll find in star-clustered reaches
Strange love a star woman teaches.
His journey ends never
His star trek
Will go on forever.
But tell him
While he wanders his starry sea
Remember, remember me."
Captain's Log, Stardate April 15, 2006.
Welcome to a special episode of Metropoliticking in Seoul. For my regular listeners, I'm sorry I've been out of things for so long, but between my back going out, the Yellow Sandstorm from China that's been burning my eyes and nose, and trying to shake a cold that's been destroying my voice, it's been pretty tough to get a podcast down lately.
For my listeners at LapPOP, who are listening to this as part of a show with bloggers and other performers, I'd like to say thanks for coming out and listening to me, a true geek living and working in Seoul. This is a podcast I do on life and people in Seoul, and a place for me to vent and express while I work on my doctoral dissertation on Korean nationalism out of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. I'm also a photographer, and more recently, a blogger and podcaster. And the more I can try to put these things together, the happier I get – so being included in this show is a really cool chance for me to motivate, integrate, and presentate(?).
The Show Begins
So let the show begin! I thought this piece would be a good one to read and make an interesting audio segment out of; so I reworked it a bit and am "representating" it here; the piece is also old, so for those of you who've come into the blog recently and haven't dug back to all my early posts, I wanted to offer this up as one of my favorite little random pieces of Korea commentary. I don't often get a chance to talk about the various major forces in my life in one fell swoop: race, history, Korea, and Star Trek. So indulge me here. And please forgive me my geekiness.
Now, I love me some Star Trek and always have. I have always thought that people who claim not to like it either have only a superficial impression of it or erroneously think that anyone who watches the show must automatically be the geeks rebuffed by William Shatner in that infamous Saturday Night Live skit: "Get a life."
And yes, there are geeky aspects to the Trek. The show takes place in outer space, there are aliens, blinking gadgets, and oodles of pseudo-tech-talk. But that's the flippin'-through-the-channels view of the show. If you look under the surface, you'll see some of the best writing on television (the various series have won more than their fair share of Emmy awards), extremely well-fleshed out characters, long-running, consistent, and soap operatic plot lines – elements that mesh together to make for a pretty darn good show.
You add on top of that some of the best elements of real science fiction – through futurist plotlines, technology, or other themes that allow a critique of society – and you get some really smart television that asks a lot of questions that are pertinent to us today.
Good science fiction is interesting, fun, and most importantly – challenging. Tellingly, it was the only television show Martin Luther King, Jr. would allow his children to watch. And when Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) was considering leaving the show, he made a personal request that she remain, as Star Trek was the only show that portrayed a vision of a true equality of the races. It may seem a bit outdated by our standards, but it was downright revolutionary at the time.
That's why the original Star Trek 1966-69 series was banned from most stations in the South, because they were too feminist, Communist, and suggestive of race-mixing for the time. I mean, there was a Russian deck officer, along with a Japanese navigator, a Black female main character who talked, and an ostensible Scotsman on the bridge. The 1960's viewer was reassured that the cocksure captain was a white man who didn't take shit off no aliens and always bagged the babes, but his first officer was a decidedly Asiatic-looking alien-human half-breed with devil ears. Here was the walking, talking embodiment of mixed-race – umm, scratch that – mixed-species lust, and he was a main character!
It should come as no surprise, for those of you not up on your Trek trivia, that Star Trek was the first show on television to show an interracial kiss, which got most Southern stations up in arms. Of course, science fiction was the only possible cover under which to get it through the censors even in the liberal, pinko North as well: the ostensible reason the kiss happened was because Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura had been under the control of an alien force using them for his own demented amusement.
Neither character is kissing each other by choice, so the possibility of an expressed desire for interracial humping is eliminated by this neat plot device. This all, despite the fact that Uhura was undeniably hot, and old Bill Shatner, back in the day was pretty mackin' himself.
At this point, dear reader, you must be asking the question – so what the hell does this have to do with Korea?
Well, the fact is, for some inexplicable reason, Koreans don't like Star Trek. And I mean DO NOT LIKE AT ALL. So what, ask you? But think about it. For a country that is so relatively culturally colonized by America, in which almost every major genre of any art form is reproduced here, and most anything that enjoys some degree of popularity in the US holds a proportionally similar degree of popularity here, Star Trek is noticably, glaringly absent from the pop culture scene. No DVD's of the TV series exist here, and the movies get almost no play. I saw a poster for Star Trek: Nemesis a few years ago in a subway staircase, and it got only a single night of play in a tiny theater in Kangnam, w well-to-do area of southern Seoul. The only other people there was a couple on the other side of the room, and the woman was obviously not there by choice. It was sad, very sad.
I am using one of my favorite shows as a foil to get right at the heart of what is an oft-overlooked cultural pattern in a progress-obssessed society that is so deeply and uncritically steeped in a balls-to-the-walls hyper-modernity, the cracks through which one might look to see the under-layer of a deeper, pre-modern web of thinking that lurks beneath everything in the layer above.
Wait - one more time? In other words, what I'm saying is that there just might be a reason that this very American cultural product doesn't translate well into the Korean market – because the show, its assumptions, concerns, and core concepts, for some reason, seem unable to mesh with anything within the Korean cultural framework of the familiar – no matter how much or how little Korea can arguably be called a cultural colony of America.
In fact, the reason shows such as Friends or Sex in the City are hits all over the world lies in those shows' universality, as opposed to the specific and peculiar fit of that foreign culture to the American one. The real reason shows such as Star Trek find such little popularity in certain countries (such as Korea) versus others (such as Germany) is because of the fit – or lack thereof – with the mode within which those countries operate.
If one were to take the standard cultural imperialism analysis, one would expect that the structural power of the core would simply replicate itself onto the culture of the periphery. In other words, the cultural colonialism of America would leave an impression on the foreign cultures it influenced with roughly the same proportion of popularity as in the home culture that manifest themselves in the culture on the recieving end – but that doesn't happen in the case of Star Trek..
Take the fact that the two most famous public figures of Korean descent in America – whom I call the two Chos (Margaret and John) – have never been able to make the rounds of Korean TV, because then they'd have to explain why they got famous in the first place (standup routines about gay sex and "warrrrshing" one's vagina, the concept of the "MILF," or getting high on a blunt before riding a cheetah to White Castle – these wouldn't fly on Korean Sunday night primetime).
I am willing to bet that if either John or Margaret Cho had gotten as famous as they are as bubble gum pop singers, serious authors, or Super Bowl MVP, they'd have made the rounds to Korea as Korean Long Lost Son or Daughter #1 a long time ago.
But beyond all that, there's the fact that every single Korean national with whom I have watched the show, of various backgrounds and levels of education, invariably have the same reaction to watching aliens and humans interacting on the screen: "Eewww. They're so gross." Or alternatively – "It's so unrealistic! How can something like that even talk?"
The comments are generally variations on this theme. What fazes the Korean viewers is the fact of the aliens' difference and the fact that they look so animalistic and...alien. Most Koreans can't seem to get past the "alien" part – that they look so "무서워" (scary) or "징그러워" (disgusting) – before we even get to the facts of the plot being in the far-flung future, or the existence of transporter beams, phasers, and the possibility of galavanting throughout space at "warp speed."
Although watching a bug-eyed "Hobbit" and his shriveled little friend climb a lava mountain with a magic Ring of Power that grants the wearer invisibility and an unnaturally long life, as he's chased by hybrid Elven-Orcs controlled by an evil wizard with a white beard – oh, that's believable. And Koreans loved them some 반지의 재왕 (Lord of the Rings). Wait – which is more unrealistic again? I'd bet on humankind coming across a slimy alien or inventing a faster-than-light drive before I'd ever bet on us seeing a 20-foot tall killer troll or a Magical Ring of Power.
So - am I being nitpicky, or is there something more under the surface here? When I consider that question, I think about the fact that Star Trek, judged as an American cultural product, is so very...American. It is steeped in the discourses of multiculturalism, collective Western guilt over colonialism, and in the larger progressive discourses of equality and democracy, as expressed in more obvious aspects of its backstory, which nurses a Utopian vision of equality between the races (and species), complete gender equality and the elimination of poverty, along with constant explorations of contemporary social issues (for example, the Bajoran "comfort women" or the unmistakably Israel-Palestine-oriented critique of the Cardassian "settlers" who encroach on Bajoran lands). Star Trek is unabashedly steeped in very "real" things – the stories, no matter the presence of starships and intergalactic federations and alliances, are still set up in ways we can easily recognize and understand in terms of the pressures and politics of actual human life in the present.
Star Trek is simply more "American" in regard to the way one might define this as a set of ideals that were the basis for every form of progressive "advance" in America – and around most of the world, actually. For better or for worse, whether one thinks of them having come too late or too early, the ideals of equal qualifications for citizenship, racial and gender equality, rights for gay or disabled people, and every other "movement" one might think of involving a group in a disadvantaged position in relation to the white, male, Protestant majority in power – owes its existence to particularly American founding ideals.
To the extent that the Star Trek world's "prime directive" of non-interference with developing civilizations expresses guilt over the West's many excesses (e.g. American westward expansion, the eugenics movement, or the resulting Holocaust), Korea is itself still very much caught up in this paradigm of "progress" and "development" that has already gotten the West in so much trouble. In a very fundamental way, Star Trek is a post-modern set of discourses, whereas Korea is still caught up in a mix between the pre- and presently modern.
That's one reason I think Star Trek might not gel in a Korea moving out of pre-modernity into a confident modernity that promises a new car for everyone, clean and luxurious housing, shiny appliances and gadgets, and more leisure time, all of which boost national pride while also partially explaining the nation's eventual triumph over evil Communism. To many Koreans, this is a dream come true; to Americans, that's all just so...50's.
But I digress; here's the important point here, I think: A postmodern, Star Trekkian hesitation about the direction of modernity seems to run up against a Korean modern urge to move forward, ahead Warp Factor 9, by any and all means necessary. Even if a Korean viewer might be able to identify with some of these post-modern messages, I think that it is hard for Korean viewers to ever get past a very pre-modern, pre-contact view of the outside world, a paranoid and suspicious view of Otherness. This simple fear of the "alien" – terrestrial or not – prevents any real (re)consideration of a modern multiculturalism or post-modern multiplicity.
Just take a look at Korea's blood-based notion of racial purity, history of discrimination against mixed-race people, as well as the fact that Korean folks, in the aggregate, just seem to not like Black people but seem to love them some white folks.
In this way, Korea's is a worldview unmarked by the West's trepidation to trek, in which the notion of inevitable and desirable progress is the lifeblood of this civilization's existence – note the lack of attention or even dismissal of ethical concern over the then-questionable triumph of having successfully cloned a human being.
I originally wrote this piece well before the Hwang Woo Seok scandal, and all my concerns about the possible ethical problems posed by human cloning were dismissed by many Koreans as "attacks" against Korea and were taken as signs of American "jealousy."
But, a thought experiment: if it had been a Western nation – say, for example France, the United States, or Germany – that had led the charge to duplicate human beings from scratch in a petri dish, surely there would have been more trepidation, if only because of the history of the grotesque acts committed in the name of "science" and "progress" in these very states. In Korea, you heard nary a peep of criticism about the claim of having cloned a human being; in fact, even well after it became clear that the research was faked, the original MBC producers who delivered the scoop on national television were still receiving death threats.
And don't even get me started about the many people who just don't get why having Hitler and Nazi-themed bars here in Korea is just so...1940's – people here know about the Nazis and the Holocaust, but I think that so many just don't get why and how those things were a real moment of shame to the West's project; it was "enlightenment" and modernity gone mad, and a shockingly horrid moment of failure for Western culture.
"Sieg, Heil!" in Shinchon
Dear reader Sungwon sends an old picture of his local Hitler place in Daejeon.
Springtime for Hitler – in Pusan, 2002. Thanks, Matty!
Hitler as a part of a bingo game for kids. If get bingo, call out "Sieg, Heil!"
(Thanks, "Hater Depot!")
And this is one of my points – why a Star Trek worldview might actually have a lot to offer to a consumption and commodity-obssessed Korean popular culture; Star Trek has asked myriad questions about what it means to be human, a clone, a slave, a sentient robot, and about the ethics of absolute power, the pitfalls of "progress," and the follies of ideology, racism, and nationalism.
But still, it would be ridiculous to say that Star Trek itself needs to be watched by all Koreans, or that doing so will magically make people on the peninsula more moral, further enlightened, or somehow better people. That's just plain arrogant.
But – to add to the words of a friend who once said that Koreans were, more than most other place in the world, in serious need of some good-ass weed, I'll say that sitting back and watching some Trek along with that might do wonders to mellow Korean folks out. Shit – it can't hurt – and surely it's better than importing The Jerry Springer Show or Freddy Vs. Jason.
And after the human cloning debacle, am I really so wrong to think this?
So, since I'm not holding my breath for the legalization of blunt in Korea, Star Trek DVD's with Korean subtitles it will have to be. So when we starting the petition to Paramount Korea?
THANKS FOR LISTENING!
I hope this show was cool with ya'll and that you have fun listening to the artists who will hopefully be far less boring and pedantic than me. I can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org as well as through the email link through my blog site, which is www.metropolitician.com. I hope to hear from some of you through my blog and podcasts, and I also sincerely hope that this reading worked for you. From Seoul, South Korea, this is Michael Hurt, signing off.
Thanks for listening!