Confronted by a fate that restricts their lives

I know nothing of Korea, other than having a general sense of the roles its politically divided geographies play vis-a-vis US and global security, two subjects that I follow closely.  Occasionally a blockbluster headline will focus the mind. The past few weeks have produced two: a very public and messy political assassination, tracked in near-real time; and revelations of a (formerly) sub-rosa cyber war the US has been waging on North Korea’s nuclear missile program.

Of Korean culture north or south I know even less. I do, however, have a good unstanding of the interplay between language, identity, geography and politics. So a crisp, pithy and intriguing (sorry) TLS piece on  “The Korean Sense of Place“, coming as it does fast on the heels of recent events, leapt off the page. Han Yujoo, the award winning author of The Impossible Fairy Tale, writing on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Mujong (“Heartless”) – “known as the first modern Korean novel”:

I’ve read it many times, and it’s always made me wonder about the linguistic confusion that Korean writers active at the beginning of the twentieth century must have felt. During the Japanese colonial period, from a young age Koreans had to absorb Japanese as the official language, and Korean as their mother tongue, along with Western modern culture; intellectuals, moreover, would have had to study Western languages such as English, French and German. What could their literary language have been like? I’m also interested in the fact that most of the characters who appear in the fiction of the time are unable to find a place for themselves, a destination towards which to direct their energies both physically and psychologically. Such a place fundamentally does not exist.

The senses of place that Han Yujoo teases out of other works of Korean fiction are liminal and interstitial – the invented geographies, countries of the mind and sanctuaries of the soul favored of dissidents, the disaffected and the displaced. “Choe In-hun’s novel The Square (Kwangjang, 1960),” she writes, “also takes the sense of place as its subject. It ends with the protagonist Lee Myeong-jun, feeling unable to go either south or north after the peninsula’s division, choosing a (non-existent) neutral country.” Or: “In more recent Korean fiction, too, movement never appears easy. From the ICF crisis of 1997, the sub-prime disaster of 2007, and the low growth that has continued ever since, to the recent breakdown of national politics, our protagonists are confronted by a fate that restricts their lives.”

“Sense of place” is a term of art among French philosophers, literary theoristspublic historians, critical geographers and architectural design specialists.* It’s a notion that’s part of a larger canon of spatial concepts  (like “territory”, “terrain”, “place”, “space”, “location”, “lieux de memoires” and so on) that have migrated between academic disciplines with varying degrees of sophistication and meaning. Those turns of phrase often find their way into pop culture and public discourse. The opposite is also sometimes true:  academia being the fad-oriented beast that it is, elements of pop culture and public discourse sometimes come first, only to be chased by scholars clinging for dear life to contemporary public relevance.

I usually perk up when spatial concepts worm their way into written and verbal expressions of political life, like Presidential and executive speeches, official policy, congressional testimony, diplomatic dispatches and the like. Political scientists and international relations specialists are notorious among critical spatial thinkers for their narrow brutalization of spatial concepts, which – so the criticism goes – has tended to favor measurable, material (ie. physical) aspects of space and place over the subject’s softer, fluffier social dimensions.

In my view, that sort of criticism has itself varied in sophistication, and it’s now at least a few years out of date. Approaches to political science and international relations are just as varied as any other set of academic disciplines, especially when it comes to problems of political communication and international security. Look closely and you’ll find plenty ways in which cultural content like The Korean Sense of Place, and the corpus of Korean fiction its author surveys, is (or should be) relevant to the study of high politics.

*The volume of work that’s been done on the subject is substantial enough – it’s enormous, really – that the links I’ve provided barely scratch the surface.

A signed statement on the failure of language

I’ve stayed away from commenting publicly on the new US administration. There’s so much fodder, so much grist, that it could easily overwhelm. It does overwhelm. Daily news feeds are prefaced and filled with coverage of Trump, his family, his appointments, his interests. My instinct is to stay completely away from it, for at least three reasons:

  • First, there is paranoia: we have yet to fully understand and appreciate the consequences of speaking ill or in any way that might be construed negatively. Trump is self-admittedly and famously vindictive, so paranoia in this case is more  a matter of healthy circumspection.
  • Second, there is the usual historian’s caution about offering premature commentary: let’s wait and witness the full unfolding of events, and allow the time needed for all the primary source materials about them to be made available, before crafting an account of events that might help make sense of it all.
  • Third, there are other things going on in the world, which is one of the larger points of the current D.C. diorama – in which it should be apparent to anyone with their peripherals fully engaged and calibrated: every spectacularly dissonant media event  obscures or distracts from an equally disturbing series of events elsewhere in the world.

But today’s meme, which focuses on Donald Trump’s handshake, is full of  the sort of communicative content that will delight symbolic interactionists, frame theorists, specialists in broadcast and rhetorical dominance, and anyone else who thinks about such things. Trump’s physical presence and its role in his political theatre has come up before. One prominent example arose during his campaign debates with Hilary Clinton. There have been others, including Trump’s 19 second long handshake with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his awkward handholding with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

It is precisely Trump’s violent handshake style that has caught the media eye over the last 24 hours, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, apparely very well prepared  for the event, visibly countered Trump’s grasp. The ensuing commentary has been full of snapshot hilarity. One of the more literary pieces I’ve seen is Vice’s semi-satirical analysis  of the meaning of Trump’s handshake:

This is a handshake buried under the weight of its own meaninglessness, a black hole of metacommentary in a world where sense sloshes chaotically across a flat surface of signifiers unmoored from any attachment to truth or reason or even an orderly presentation of images. Donald Trump’s handshake is a signed statement on the failure of language here at the end of the world.

The Vice piece is worth reading in full.

A brief foray into distraction’s history

This looks interesting:

A Crisis of Short Attention Spans, 250 Years Ago

By Natalie M. Phillips | January 01, 2017

When most people think of distraction, they think of flooded inboxes, cellphone beeps, Twitter feeds. An ever-present and unavoidable consequence of our fast-paced contemporary world, distraction is cast as a — if not the — mental state of modernity. Whatever came before — childhood, our parents’ generation, the Enlightenment — must have been, it seems, a more attentive age.

Yet even a brief foray into distraction’s history discourages nostalgia about an idyllic past of easy attention, particularly when we consider the history of reading. Rather than a quiet environment in which audiences were always found absorbed, or “lost in a book,” 18th-century poets and artists describe reading as occurring amid high cacophony: chamber pots sloshing and street hubbub. John Gay’s poem “Trivia” offers us this soundscape of London street life: “Now industry awakes her busy sons, / Full charg’d with news the breathless hawker runs: / Shops open, coaches roll, carts shake the ground, / And all the streets with passing cries resound.” If we complain today of media, and social-media, oversaturation, writers then worried about industrial, vocal, and literary tumult.

Many people both presumed and complained of novels’ unusual ability to capture attention, but fiction competed with a flood of essays, poems, sermons, and histories. The expansion of the book trade inspired a further flourishing of reviews, anthologies, and summaries that were meant to manage this literary surplus but only added to it.

But if inattention was a worry for writers, it also became a literary theme.

Read the rest at the Chronicle of Higher Education, here.