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.