Might I have stumbled onto an answer to several burning questions, both personal and profesional? I've been writing a lot for the dissertation these days and grinding a lot of new things through the noggin -- which thanksfully, is intact after my right-brain stroke last year and which didn't leave me with debilitating aphasia or loss off all the Korean I've learned.But I've been strugling with the question of Korean identity and the essential, existential question posed by creeping modernity at the crucial tipping point when it became apparent that KOrean society had finally become more modern than it wasn't. And that's a tough place to be. It's one thing to actually shift into a different mode of being, from pre-modern to postmodern, but quite anotheer to realize it. And that's what was happening in the early 1990's, with the then-recent ciulminating moment of "global desire" that the 1988 Olympics had been, and the many conversations going on about what it all meant and what Koreans had "forgotten" and how to redefine, regain, and reify it all into something easy to define, digest, teach, market, and export to other countries as Korea became even more "global" than it coucld have ever imagined just a few years prior.
Hyunjung Kim, in her sdissertation entitled "Global Fetishism: Dynamics of Transnational Performances in Contemporary South Korea", talks about other acts of d performative "global desire" in the productions of Nanta and the play The Last Empress, along with the "performing" of nationalism that went along with the 2002 World Cup. Along the way, roundabout 1992, the transition into a truly "global" mode of thinking from a time of just talking about it was marked by an acute and specific existential angst vis a vis what it means to be Korean in the modern era, and what to make of all the changes that came with it. Indeed, What hath modernity wrought? and What's left of us? were the questions. And therein lay the rub.
But as the big payoff -- the success of the national economy, the ultimate proof-in-the-pudding of development identity's raison de etre, -- as the economy had the spit knocked out it in late 1997, South Korea was no more ready to change the fundamental assumptions underpinning the national project to develop, develop, develop than North Korea was ready to fold up its tent and scrap its national ideology just because its economy had stumbled.
But for South Korea, the party was over. The so-called "IMF era" had killed the mood, much like the police coming to turn off the music at a frat party -- it could and would continue, but in a much different mode and in need of a new way to be a party.
So much of the discourse of Korean identity had quietly rested on the national economy, and as that economy shifted into consumer economy overdrive at the turn of the century, so did questions of national identity also get quietly answered. By the time the "IMF period" had ended and a new millennium began, Korean "traditional culture" had already been subjected to multiple processes and instances of being discussed, defined, and distilled into concrete, saleable objects for both domestic consumption as traidtional beverages shik-hye and sujeonggwa being sold as "nostalgia drinks" in cans much like American Coca-Cola, while more abstsract conceptions of tradition and Koreanness had found expression in shows such as Nanta, The Last Empress, or even as a whole genre such as that defined by the term hallyu, and even in the chants, dances, and t-shirts that developed in recent outburstd of sports nationalism.
Korean culture is no longer an internal feeling, an abstract fact in need of help to express; in having been defined and distilled into specific forms, reified into objects and totems, it had become something to buy and sell. That was the whole point.Koreans are, in fact nothing more than modern people who dress up and playact tradition.The only difference is now they have credit cards.
Consumer capitalism has answered the question for the time being. But much like the junk food that sometimes sates even the most ravenous hunger, it feels good for the moment, but is ultimately unsatisfying. And in using a food metaphor in the Korean context, one should consider the ery Korean habit of following up a modern meal of beef or pork meat with the only thing that truly sates the Korean appetite: a full bowl of hearty and familiar bap.As is true in any cycle of revivals, the yearning, if deep and true enough, never really finds a satisfying salve. The cycles of yearning and revival movements continue to resonate, albeit with greater periods between them.
"Tradition" is no longer part of one's spirit or being; it's a punchline.