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  1. 1. Looking back at the Politics of Youth Culture, Space andEveryday Life in South Korea since the early 1990sKeehyeung LeeAbstractPopular sites are not simply material or lived spaces. They are also spaces of representation,imagination, memory, lived experiences and moving bodies which have been shaped throughdifferent elements of social practices and actors. Inspired by the "Birmingham School" andpostsubcultural studies, my paper explores the popular cultural scenes, especially including "theHongik University Area" and Apgujungdong in metropolitan Seoul by both critically andselectively utilizing cultural geography and cultural studies analysis. In doing so, first, the paperaims to provide series of nuanced cultural analysis and snapshots of Seouls youth culturalscenes and popular hangouts. Secondly, it also discusses the possibilities and limits of site-specific analytic frameworks in illuminating the politics of style, youth, and urban tales. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 96
  2. 2. Popular culture is one of the sites where this struggle for and against a culture of the powerful isengaged: it is also the stake to be won or lost in that struggle. Stuart Hall.[popular culture] is neither an authentic working-class culture nor a culture imposed by the cultureindustries, but what Gramsci would call a ‘compromise equilibrium… between the two; acontradictory mix of forces from both ‘below’ and ‘above’; both ‘commercial’ and ‘authentic,’ markedby both ‘resistance’ and ‘incorporation,’ ‘structure’ and ‘agency.’ John Story. Culture is never a fixed set of objects, and the meaning of ‘the popular’ as a qualifier is alwaysshifting… the popular [is] the complex and contradictory terrain, the multi-dimensional context,within which people live out their daily lives. Lawrence Grossberg The CCCS itself provided a sustained attempt at applying Gramscian Marxist analysis and,particularly in Hebdige’s (1979) work, exemplified an important attempt to synthesize theseapproaches with structuralism and post-structuralism. Post-subcultural debates have, in their variousways, taken seriously contemporary critiques of ‘essentialism’ and the concomitant emphasis onfragmented and contradictory practices and identities… Underlying the move towards post-subculturalanalysis is an argument that sucultural divisions have broken down as the relationship between style,musical taste and identity has become progressively weaker and articulated more fluidly. Andy Bennettand Keith Kahn-HarrisCultural Studies in Korea embraced the youth culture: through the rearview mirror This paper explores the implications of urban space, popular culture, and changing everydaynessin South Korea through a “space-conscious” cultural studies analysis. I wish to provide a nuancedanalysis of cultural transformations and detraditionalizing trends underway in the local arena since theearly 1990s. Admittedly the landscape of popular and youth culture is notoriously slippery and complexto map out. In charting the shaping of popular culture in everyday life this paper presents series of“snapshots” on Seoul’s popular cultural spaces and locations, especially their historical emergence andchanging lived realities, through in large part the so-called “Birmingham style” popular cultural analysis. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 97
  3. 3. This paper will go back to the 1990s, the decade through which popular culture has firmly been on themap and agenda of cultural studies.A Snapshot of Youth Culture(s): the Pastoral and Pedagogy of the Streets In the late 1980s Korean society entered a highly consumption-oriented phase where people have aconsuming passion for foreign travel, a better quality of life, fast cars, and clean bodies (Kendall 2002; H.Kim 1999). No wonder that there were rising concerns and debates on practices of consumption, lifestyles, popular culture, identities, and more importantly cultural politics - the lived and complex effectsof culture in the local arena. Among other things, the dissemination and localization of what Stuart Hall(1996) calls “global postmodern popular culture,” including the emergence of a shared global culturalimagery and shared dispositions in the local, undoubtedly provided the main resources and impetus forstudying the popular practices and politics of style in the early 1990s. The expansion of popular cultureand consumption provided the condition of possibility for the emergence of various cultural discoursesand cultural studies at large. In the following, let me introduce the local debates on the emerging youthculture which was initially mediated by what was locally known as “Apgujung culture.” Since the late 1980s at the socio-economic level, Korea had achieved a high performing economy.As a result, its standard of living had been drastically improved. Rapid and profound cultural, spatial, andtechnological changes and mutations occurred in local daily life and popular practices. Perhaps noexample was more vivid and pertinent than the spatial landscape of the capital city of Seoul. In the glitzyand bustling urban scenes and especially in the pleasure-sites and cultural bohemias in Seoul - inparticular, Apgujungdong in river south region, college streets, and Hongdai streets - one could not fail tomiss the fascination with multicultural and Euro-American cultural products, styles, as well asconsumption-oriented practices among youth and young urban professionals. For instance, anyone whowould stroll bustling and neon-drenched streets in the Apgujungdong (district) in south central Seoul ormore youth-oriented sites – Shinchon, Hongdaeaup, Donseungdong - would almost always encounter thesheer lure and power of consumer culture, the unrestrained commodification, a pandemonium of urbanity,as well as a vibrancy of the youth-dominant street culture. Walking along these streets - one of the main streets in Apgujungdong is called “Rodeo drive” bylocals - one could encounter the typical landscape of power: glass and steel office towers and high riseapartments, well-lit store fronts, glass-fronted sophisticated boutique shops, trendy multishops andshopping malls, and 24 hour convenience stores, along with numerous glamorous cafes, karaoke bars,game rooms, cyber cafes, taverns, techno bars, and the manicured American style franchise restaurants Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 98
  4. 4. where young adults eat, drink, shop, and hang out. Here it would be easier to find English words ratherthan Korean words on neon signs and shop windows. In terms of the architectural styles, Apgujungdongdisplayed a bizarre and chaotic mixture of “international style,” “the vernacular,” “neo-classical’”“multicultural,” and “postmodern” forms. Here architectural forms undoubtedly follows finance. Nowonder that some of these urban forms, more decorative and fictive than pragmatic, were built for themaximum aesthetic effect, giving material imprints to these already image and consumption-conscioussites (B. Choi and D. Koo 1995; D. Im 1999). These built forms were carefully crafted and targeted toappeal to youth and urban professional who desire trendy, carefree, and sophisticated lifestyles. This way,in Apgujungdong, market would meet popular cultural experiences on the ground. When one would enterthe famous entertainment stripes in Apgujungdong, one would enter not only real spaces, but alsoimagined ones shaped by media representations and images created by the culture industries. Perhaps what was distinctive about the space of Apgujungdong in terms of the “users” or streetwalkers was the endless flow of the crowd - mostly the young, fashionable, and perhaps restless - whoseemed to anticipate a sense of “freedom” or chance encounters with strangers (N. Kang 1997; Shields1997). What intrigued local cultural critics was that this highly commercialized hotspot of youth culturein Korea also provided a kind of liminal space or “stage” where often the rigid, normalizing, and boringregulative cultural norms and ideals were temporarily suspended and upset while more diverse, playful,and tolerant kinds of cosmopolitan, individualistic, and non-traditional conduct, styles, repertoires, anddemeanors were displayed, performed, and mimicked (CCS 1992; 1993; 1994; M. Cho 1997; S. Im2005). For instance, in the streets of Apgujungdong and its many hangouts and pleasure-routes for theyouth, one could encounter the young and trendy street walkers, some of whom dyed their hair in variouscolors and showed often a sense of outrageous, eclectic, and inventive fashion. Perhaps such anappearance management could be compared with the technique of collage. It would be also not difficultto encounter joyriders and moving crowds who didn’t seem to have a particular direction. They would beconstantly exchanging gazes, initiating unscripted interactions while creating spectacles of their own.These “pleasure zones” in Apgujungdong and other well-known streets in Seoul were composed of clubs,pubs, karaoke bars, restaurants, and coffee shops where the boundaries between leisure, consumption,and hanging out were blurred. Among other things, emerging “club culture” became one of the mostvisible forms of Apgujung-led youth culture. Western style clubs came to emerge in the early 1990swhere various genres of music - mostly “Koreanized” hip-hop, techno, rock, reggae, and locallyproduced pop music [a.k.a. K-pop] - were played live or DJs were playing and sampling a diverse array Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 99
  5. 5. of music. And in the clubs, bars, rock cafes and other cultural sties, youth and young urban dwellersdisplayed and performed generation-specific culture. If the music culture of the parent generation iscentered on personalized enjoyment, the consumption of music in rock cafés for youth is morecollectivistic. In rock cafes, each individual’s look, dancing, their grotesque sound and bodily actsbecome constitutive elements of rock café culture as a festival” (S. Kuk and S. Moon 1994:188) Anumber of local cultural critics observed that these clubs provided a new playground of pleasure and “thedelight of being deviant” by local standard - headbanging, moshing, clapping, booking between strangers,raving, losing oneself in the flow and rhythm of music, etc. In particular, increasingly live and rave clubsprovided vibrant dance scenes and the crowd who would get “lost in” music through dancing, bodilycontacts, “socialized pleasures and individualized desires” (D. Lee 2003). No wonder that the first time “Apgujung culture” appeared in the early 1990s, the peculiargeographical and cultural site of Apgujungdong was immediately associated with cultural diversity,foreignness, multiculturalism, eventfulness, (temporary) liberation from the normative ideals and oftensuffocating restraints in Korea, as well as the imagined good life by young adults. Several bestsellernovels and collection of poetry that portrayed and mocked Apgujung residents and “wannabes” whoconverged onto this new “capitalist oasis” appeared. In addition, the emergent culture of Apgujungdongand its display of wealth and cutting edge consumerism became frequent journalistic subjects and oftensensational reportage. For local conservatives and the intellectuals in the mainstream, the space ofApgujungdong and its peculiar culture was unfailingly class-specific - that of the exclusive upper classes– and their lifestyles were obviously morally repugnant, pretentious, and depoliticizing. To them,Apgujungdong embodied the very “pathology” of the nouveau rich whose life world was far apart fromeveryday lives of working men and women. According to Myungkoo Kang (1999:25), the mainconsumers and performers of emerging urban culture in Korea locally known as the so-called “Apgujungtribes” entailed the following characteristics: Those who consume and practice Apgujung culture come mainly from the ruling bourgeois class.They enjoy extravagant materialistic life-styles, foreign travel and participating in expensive sports likeskiing and scuba diving, etc. The presence of this Apgujung culture is integral to postmodern discourse inKorea which advertising agencies appropriate in order to promote consumer culture. 1 Kang’s1 Some of the notorious features of Apgujung lifestyle, according to local media, often entailed the following things: shopping infancy boutiques that sell foreign designer goods, hanging out in membership only clubs and spending thousands of dollars a night,having cosmetic surgery to enhance one’s looks. The nouveau rich and upper classes indulged in such sumptuous consumption andleisure activities, the “overconsumtion [Kwasobi]” became a highly politicized signifier in the 1990s. Media institutions and Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 100
  6. 6. observation was in line with the dominant sentiments of the mainstream cultural critics toward theemergence of “non-local” - supposedly “western style” - consumer culture that was popularized andmediated by Apgujung dong. Left scholars viewed Apgujung culture as the very crystallization of the“triumph” of Korean capitalism and its twisted structure of distribution and social polarization. Somewell-known left cultural critics put their critical lens on Apgujung culture and its peculiar lifestyle. Tothem, above all, Apgujung culture symbolized both a “symptom” and a seductive “window” ofspectacular, nonetheless distorted capitalism that produced “the peculiar structure of desire” (H. Um1992:159). Apgujungdong symbolized “the cesspool of capitalist desire where the repression [in Koreansociety] can be handsomely rewarded.” They also pointed out that the youth who roamed through thesenew spaces of consumption and “liberated desires” didn’t seem to carry any memories of turbulent socialstruggles of the 1980s: The youth don’t seem to have any agony regarding [the painful social] “history”[of the1980s]…They only enjoy their youth just as they follow the slogan on a coca cola bottle - enjoy it. Theircultural sensibility is centered on secularism, self-defeating nihilism, and self-satisfying cynicism. Wedon’t find any hope in them (CCS 1994:20) To these critics, Apgujungdong’s image as the “exhibitionary window of limitless desire andcorruption,” “avenue of vanity,” “carnivaliesque site,” and “capitalist heaven” had its own subtle andovert forms of semiotic rules of distinction that only allowed particular groups of people - say, thenouveau rich, urban professionals and people with the “right looks” (H. Cho: 1992:51; J. Doh 1992:99-101). Unlike left and mainstream cultural critics, local cultural analysts approached the space ofApgujungdong more cautiously. Rather than resorting to a framework centered on commodity fetishismor social alienation, they set out to interpret Apgujungdong as a complex “text” made of various culturalas well as material practices in which both reactionary and progressive elements coexisted. Above all,they viewed Apgujungdong as a new kind of “polysemic” cultural site and “event-space” in which youthand young urban professionals performed “strong self-expressions” through styles and non-traditionalsocial behavior. They sought to explore these event sites around the theme of the “transgression” ofsocial grammars and the desire of younger generation to escape from the constraint of Korean daily lifeconservatives called for auditing and cracking down on people who demonstrated such an “irresponsible” social behavior. For moredetailed and gendered study of overconsumption in 1990s Korea, see Laura Nelson (2001). In a similar vein, Naehi Kang (1992-28-29) suggested, “Apgujungdong demonstrates that [now] Korean society has a mature capitalism and that it can even create a‘liberating zone of desire’ and symbolic system [pposang chegye] that is highly desired.” Hence local practitioners in culturalstudies found vibrant and progressive elements in Apgujung culture. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 101
  7. 7. (H. Cho 1992:48). In this way, local cultural analysts perceived Apgujungdong as a transitional andinteractive site rather than an isolated commodified oasis in which people utilized - in de Certeau’s termsan art of “making do” - diverse sets of verbal and non-verbal semiotic and dramaturgical keys/cues forforging new and perhaps “forbidden” identities:Apgujungdong is teeming with hitherto-unknown new language and sensibilities of the youth. Theemergence of these new realities signify more than periodic changes. It means the disintegration of thestatus quo… What this new cultural politics of sensibility signifies is that youth culture is a form ofexistential revolt against the status quo and, even though we cannot clearly explain this phenomenon, thisnew cultural sensibility should be regarded as a form of progressive activity (H. Um 1992:161) Although it was partially true that Apgujung culture contained “post-ideological, depoliticizing, andjuvenile elements,” the practitioners in popular cultural studies cautiously assessed the potential ofAugujung culture as a new form of emerging youth culture that seemed to challenge and “resist” the rigidsocial grammar of Korean society in subtle ways (H. Cho 1992).We are facing a grand kitsch culture [Apgujung culture] and seem to be disillusioned. What worries meis that in the dominant cultural discourses on Apgujungdong, there is rarely any talk on how to renew andresituate this particular site for progressive cause. In coming to grips with the Apgujung culture, whereshould we begin? If there is something we can do, it is not to make quick judgment on [Apgujungculture] but to cautiously and symptomatically read off the social symptoms [mediated byApgujungdong] (H. Cho 1992:56). To Haejoang Cho, what was often repressed or not tackled with in the prevailing discourses onApgujung culture was more active discourses on “consumption,” “play,” “fun” and new identity politicsthat became key resources for “cultural negotiation” staged by youth against mainstream and parentculture. They argued that though at one level Apgujung culture was clearly (re)produced and regulatedby the capitalist enterprise culture and its profit motive, it also contained new cultural currents andspecific generational “feel.” Cho and other cultural studies scholars took the destabilizing presence ofyouth culture as a moment of refusal and disruptive force against the dominant culture and its culturalhegemony. They launched a series of site-specific studies of youth culture to capture the formative roleof signifying processes, imagination, and desires in social life. In doing so, they attempted to salvage theutility and creativity of youth and consumer culture that was becoming a new battlefield in the post-authoritarian era. By putting fun, enjoyment, celebration, play, and empowerment into the emerging fieldof cultural politics, local cultural studies practitioners introduced alternative viewpoints and angles thatattempted to break the mould of stern and serious left culturalism. In the following, let me briefly Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 102
  8. 8. introduce a landmark cultural studies work in Korea that dealt with the emergence of youth andconsumer culture mediated by a specific local site: Apgujungdong. .Apgujungdong Utopia/Dystopia: the Making of a Landmark Cultural Studies Book It is fair to argue that in the early 1990s Apgu-jung culture and space was deployed as a symbolicshorthand for large-scale socio-cultural transformations in the making of Korea - including neweffervescent, flexible, and non-traditional sociality as well as emergent cultural formations. It inspired awide variety of cultural critics, writers, journalists, and cultural workers. More to the point, in the early1990s the emergence of new urban popular culture and sensibilities manifested in places like Apgu-jungdong and other popular/pleasure sites in Seoul presented the very catalyst, - and a welcome, yet perhapsalso seductive - test case to practitioners in cultural studies who were ushering in and grappling with suchnew problematics as the politics of consumption, place, identity formation, the body and pleasure whichwere mostly non-existent in the intellectual/cultural discourses of the 1980s. In fact, Apgujungdong in the early 1990s Korea became so synonymous with emergent structuresof feeling and cultural sensibilities that one of the seminal works on cultural studies in Korea was entitledApgu-jung Dong: Utopia/Dystopia (CCS 1992). In this much heralded, publicized, and yet criticizedwork, local cultural studies practitioners interpreted the social space of Apgu-jung dong and its landscapeas a kind of multi-layered or palimpsestic text on which the spectacular power of Korean capitalism andconsumer modernity are unevenly inscribed. This collaborative work was considered as one of theloosely defined cross-disciplinary projects in Korea by compiling many genre-bending cultural analysesat the street level. It used eclectic methods drawn from art, literature, cultural geography, and culturalcriticism. Such cross-disciplinarity or methodological eclecticism was, for better or worse, readilyidentified with emerging cultural studies by some practitioners in the popular cultural field and the media. Apgujungdong: Utopia/Dystopia provided refined semiotic and impressionistic readings of highlyvisible cultural forms, sensibilities, and styles that vividly convey the “shock of the new” as well as therapidly changing cultural currents in Korea. Nonetheless, I think, to be categorized as a solid culturalstudies work, the book/project lacks more contextualized and historicized approaches. In theApgujungdong book, the map of (sub)cultural meanings were suggested, yet no serious attempt torearticulate the liberating and disruptive elements in popular practices were found. Rarely launching“thick” ethnographic location-work or detailed geographical studies that tackled the structural questions,their analysis was often unable to come to grips with more elusive and yet sensuous/corporeal politicaleconomy of bodies and youth who took a multiplicity of subjective positions between home, event- Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 103
  9. 9. spaces, school or work.17 Lacking rich empirical data and depending too much on imported theories, theApgujungdong project was perhaps to be doomed from the beginning. The major shortcoming of the Apgu-jung project is that it largely fails to capture the complexarticulations among particular social and regulatory forces as well as cultural and material flows thatconverge on the very space of Apgujungdong as the most visible cultural spot of the times. For instance,these regulating forces and flows include political, developmental, and institutional practices – inparticular state-led urban development and planning as well as rampantly speculative activities staged bylocal capital [for more details, see the next chapter]. Together they have created the historically specificsocio-spatial characteristics of Apgujungdong since the late 1970s. In addition, the book was devoid ofinformed and multi-sited ethnographic and (auto)biographical approaches to the people who actually liveor those who were evicted in Apgujungdong. Such approached could have included the following:ethnographies/field work of various cultural sites in Apgujungdong; the use of historical and narrativeanalyses into the life histories of the heterogeneous groups of Apgujung residents in the past and present;archival investigations of the development and transformation of Apgujungdong, and so forth. In coming to terms with emergent youth culture mediated by cultural sites such as Apgujungdong,under the influence of metropolitan cultural theories - that of Fiske, Hebdige, Jameson, de Certeau,Barthes, and others - local cultural critics adopted semiotic, interpretive, and ideological analysis. Hence,their analysis was in large part centered on the circulating cultural signs, icons, images, and forms -including their fluidity and volatility - in youth culture and its particular symbolic politics. In doing so,they tracked down various sites of intersubjective negotiation of social identities. Yet, the infrastructurallevel of youth and consumer culture was only minimally engaged. Collectively, their work took apredominantly textualist position that assumed a relatively simple one-to-one correspondence amongsocial position, new kinds of social experiences, and styles. In doing so, they used the styles and othercultural activities of the younger generation as a mediating term between the social and cultural realm. Atthe same time, though interruption, avoidance, and resistance of dominant cultural and intersubjectivegrammar were traced down in the minute subtleties of subcultural participation, these cultural analystslocated youth and consumer culture as a system of meaning within the bipolar moral economy betweenresistance and co-optation. They operated within a linear and flat communicational model. Throughout the 1990s, not only in the space of Apgu-jung dong, but in a number of urban sites andcultural bohemias, locals could find both vibrancy and new alternative forms of cultural experiences,rhythms, styles, and encounters. In these cultural zones of not only cultural/visual consumption, but Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 104
  10. 10. cultural performances and hybridization, one could feel the pervasive presence of the cultural politics ofstyle and pastiche, and something like the “cultural liminality betwixt and between East and West”(Shields 1997:9). As Shields and local cultural critics point out, it is perhaps misleading to label theseurban sites as predominantly “globalized” local sites or “thoroughly commodified” zones of capitalistdesire and cultural excess.2 In a way these sites can be placed somewhere in between “individualintrospection and the products of commercialized collective fantasy” (Zukin 1992). It is mandatory thatcultural studies practitioners who “read” these cultural zones should be cautious not to make sweepingstatements with regard to the character and mediating role of these spaces as either commodified [orDisneyfied] or liberating. In a related vein, I think, the layered authenticity and contingency of thecultural identities and styles emerging out of, negotiated and mediated through these sites should becarefully and contextually approached. Less rigorous forms of “culturalist” readings of these spacesthrough the usual detached “aestheticizing semiotic gaze” can be flawed by readily identifying newcultural sensibilities and structures of feeling with populistic or celebratory (postmodern) cultural politicsof the “new” and youth. At the same time, it seems that any meta-readings of the urban sites - say, largelysedentary models of political economy or the conceptual grid of urban planning often imposed fromabove - have obvious limitations in grasping the multiple realities and complex urban rhythms of theyoung and urban professionals who come to these sites, incorporating and performing their owninterpersonal cultural repertoires and antics. To sum up, the politics of identity, style, and new cultural sensibilities that came with theemergence of Apgujug culture in the 1990s were highly visible and concrete enough that they ushered ina series of heated public discourses on consumption, social manners, and the politics of difference. Intothe middle of the 1990s a number of cultural discourses on Apgu-jung culture have gradually evolvedand diffused into the formation of emerging youth-centered popular culture of the “new generation[shinsedae].” At the same time intellectual discourses on shinsedae were increasingly incorporated intolarger debates on the shifting nature and potential of cultural politics and politics of everyday life in1990s Korea.The Emergence of the “New Generation Culture” as a Catalyst for Popular Cultural Studies2 Nonetheless, some local cultural theorists undervalued the emerging culture of new generation: “the cultural praxis and thepolitics of style adopted by the new generation appear to escape the reach of disciplinary power… yet most of their cultural praxisand style are more like imported mimicry of their western counterpart…It seems not promising that the emergent subculture and itsstyle can be articulated with progressive political pragmatics (CCS 1997:41).” Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 105
  11. 11. The younger generation [shinsedae] borne after Korea was industrialized must have a totally different setof sensibilities, likings, and habitus. Naehee Kang[Korean] newspapers are filled with stories about the New Generation – those borne after 1970 –whosevalues and customs seem alien and irresponsible to their elders. These are youth who cut holes in newjeans, prefer pizza to rice, and don’t believe that the old are necessarily wise. (B. Kim, cited in Morelli2002:250)Subcultures, and youth cultures in general, have gradually separated out their particular imagery from theworld of daily labor and immediate social contexts. Allowed to float free of immediate referents has beena kaleidoscope of styles, and an increasingly sophisticated semiology of goods, that, drawn into anendless shopping list and an ever more rapid stylistic turnover, has spun right out of the orbit of a precisesubcultural history. Iain Chambers Heightened consumerism and the rapid growth of the culture industries had created fundamentallynew realities and opportunities for youth and younger generation Koreans who in a sense activelyresponded to such contextual changes. Thus, with the phenomenal expansion of consumer and popularculture in the early 1990s, the long held belief in popular culture’s vulgarity and left critic’s dismissiveattitude toward popular culture which was in large part steeped in reflectionist view on culture wasquestioned. Local cultural critics and workers shifted their concern from what might be called the“massification” of popular culture to the potential, built-in ambiguity, and complexity of popular culturewhose realm was rapidly expanding. A number of local scholars agreed that the emerging”cosmopolitan” and “mateiralistic” cultural values spread into the daily forms of sociability, socialization,and sexual mores. The highly sedimented and interlocking relationships and yet irreducible tensionsbetween the emergent culture spearheaded by the “New Generation [shinsadae]” and the dominant“parent culture” - collectively formed the much diversified and fundamentally unstable nature of thenational-popular culture in 1990s Korea. At this point, it is necessary to introduce the social and generational characteristics of the NewGeneration. Above all, the new generation was raised on the relative affluence and mass media-drivenconsumer culture that was a byproduct of highly compressed and yet impressively successful Koreancapitalism. The New Generation was born in the late 1960s through early 1970s which were the time-space wherein state-led social modernization was already firmly in place (D. Hwang 1994). They grewup in an environment in which Korean society already escaped from absolute poverty. At the same time,they were too young to remember the democratic struggles and deeply-ingrained social wounds of the1980s. At the same time, they were the generation that was familiar with American popular culture and Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 106
  12. 12. media culture, and consumption as a way of life. They were out of high school or entered college in thelate 1980s through the early 1990s in which militant and well-organized leftism centered on “achievingdemocracy and national liberation” no longer appealed to students in general (CCS 1994). Unlike theirparent generation who grew up in mostly extended family setting, the new generation grew up mostly ina nuclear family setting where once dominant collectivistic - Confucian and nationalistic - values wereunder pressure in the face of more individualistic and capitalistic cultures. If the parent generation in theearly 1990s - people over forty - still kept the memories of extended family in rural setting beforeurbanization was in full gear, the Korean War and rampant poverty, and the personalized memories ofthe state-led modernization project, the new generation only remotely could connect such memories oftheir parents, uncles, and aunts. The parent generation [kisung saedae] spent their formative yearsthrough the maelstrom brought about by the forced launching of modernization in the early 1960s. Theywere taught that “saving rather than consuming is a virtue” and the devotion to their extended family,region, firm, and nation state was an absolute moral and patriotic imperative. They were hard workersand their key sites of social disciplinziation were the school, the armed forces, and firms where theamalgam of Confucian and state-led official nationalism, and militarism as a dominant value system stillcoexisted and were vividly felt (Cumings 1999). As Haejoang Cho (1998:316) pointed out, the highvelocity of Korean capitalism created an “unbridgeable gap” between the parent generation who “workedlike ants as the foot soldiers of modernization and their affluent offspring who were floating andagonizing over their boredom.”3Also according to Enwoo Joo (1994:75-77), “the younger generation[shinsaedae] defend their “newness” actively… They are different from their parent generation who workfeverishly, restrain their opinions rather than express, and who are constrained by Confucian ethics.” The New Generation that appeared in the 1990s displayed significantly different sets of socio-cultural conducts and interpersonal repertoire. Above all, the new generation was characterized by theirradically new, “outrageous,” “free-wheeling,” and “deviant” - from the viewpoint of dominant parentculture - social conducts and attitudes. The following observation was made by a progressive daily paperon the general characteristic of the New Generation: The New Generation is emerging in the 1990s. It seems that though not radically expressive as the[American] Hippies [of the 1960s], the youth is moving from the cultural margins onto the mainstream inthe midst of the disintegration of the cold war order, the transition to “post-industrial” society, and theconfusion and conflicts in moral values. They are differentiated from their parent generation who had to3 Cho aptly poses a question regarding the radical difference of the two generation (1998:316): “Is there a form of play orentertainment that the parents who grew up on the rural soil and their offspring who enjoys in-lining skating on the concrete?” Theanswer seems highly unlikely. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 107
  13. 13. live with war, developmental dictatorship, and industrialization. They are also different from the thirtysomething generation who live through the turbulent 1980s and formed similar socio-political sentiments.The characteristics of these twenty something “new” generation are: they are the generation that pursuespost-authoritarian, liberal, and open values. They pursue more individualistic self-realization overcollective forms of values and self-realization (Hangyoreh Daily January 1st, 1993) The emergence of qualitatively different structures of feeling of youth, their distinctive andspectacular politics of style, and everyday geographies animated new intellectual interests. Local culturalcritics and workers came to launch a series of subcultural work and in doing so they broke withtraditional views on the “youth question” which had been concerened predominantly with questions of“the policing and education of youth” through established social grammars and disciplinization. Inexemplifying the faultline between the parent culture and New Generation Culture, no example was moretelling than emerging local hip-hop culture and the cultural phenomenon called “Seo Taji and the Boys”to which I now turn.Seo Taiji Phenomenon: Youth Culture Explosion and the Making of the FandomFor youth inhabited a place in the social order which demands that they live daily life according tosomeone else’s maps, someone else’s dreams, someone else’s trajectories. Youth was subordinated to itsalready defined place within a social narrative that was told before it arrived. … youth could construct itsown places in the space of transition between these institutions: in the street, around the juke box, at thehop (and later, at the mall). Phil Cohen His [Seo Taiji’s] hip-hop music concretely embodied the transformation of “ghetto culture” [inKorea] beyond the curious experimentation. The transformation of hip hop culture [in Korea] may be the“obsession” that tries to find a new form. It can be an example of the resistance and deviance of youthculture against the dominant culture. Dongyeon LeeBy foregrounding the question of subculture, Suh Taeji threw a new issue to the terrain of popular culturein the 1990s. Hyunsup Kim Music cultures were significant elements of popular and youth cultures. For a broad spectrum ofKorean youth and college students, listening to music stations on radio and the Internet, buying theirfavorite albums and [of late] downloading their favorite songs as MP 3 format from the internet became akey feature of growing up and coping with anxieties and boredom in life. Listening to music is one of themost common leisure activities to youth. In the preceding section, I briefly sketched emerging clubcultures and the cultures of youth dominant pleasure zones in Apgujungdong. The dominant genres of Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 108
  14. 14. music played and favored by youth in these sites were localized hip-hop, rock, techno, and dance music.In the early 1990s, Korean music and popular cultural field faced the new breed of musicians who were“cultural producers” of special kind. Up until early 1990s, local popular music field was dominated bythree types of genres: gayo [popular music] that were consumed by adults; foreign pop music importedand circulated by local music industry that had more wider appeal; and mellow ballad music - “lovesongs” - that were popular to young urban professionals. In the summer of 1992, there occurred a significant popular cultural event that left an indeliblemark in local cultural history. Seo Taiji, who once played for an underground hard rock band in thesecond half of the 1980s, came literally out of nowhere with what was agreed as the first and mostinfluential localized hip-hop album of the decade. The album and music video were a huge hit - morethan 1.5 million albums were sold within a month from the release date -, and the band took all the musicawards at the end of their debut year (H. Kim 2001). Critics who were initially skeptical of the potentialof rap music and other “hybrid” generes – such as the mixing and sampling between rap, rock, andtechno music - were shocked by the immediate acceptance and the ensuing enormous popular support ofSeo Taiji’s music. Before long, many local music critics came to accept that Seo Taiji’s albums with twosupporting members - hence the name of the group was “Seo Taiji and the Boys” - were not only“aesthetically” groundbreaking, but also highly transgressive of the received rule of local musicproduction in a number of ways. In a moment, I will return to this point. Above all, by experimenting with, sampling, and popularizing different styles of music that weremarginal in the local popular music scene - from dance to trash metal to rock to punk to hip-hop - SeoTaiji placed new style of music firmly onto the local music map and shook the established musicalhierarchy. As Dongyeon Lee (1999:65) pointed out, to mix rap and rock was a “dangerous [and gutsy]adventure,” and technically it was also a daunting task. No wonder that the local music critics wereskeptical that such a new music form could obtain popularity or find a “niche.” Against such a skepticism,Seo Taiji was the first artist who attempted to “koreanize” rap music and articulated it with dance musicwhich was accompanied by break dancing and group dancing. Though he mainly experimented with rapmusic, Seo Taiji was also keenly aware of the popularity of dance music and its potential value: hisalbums had both slow shouted rhymes and power-chord punctuation of rap that was still tuneful enoughto dance (D. Lee 1999:113). The signature characteristics of rap and hip hop - its use of boasting,bragging, and preaching, style that embodied the Afro-diasporic oral tradition (Rose 1994) - was freshand highly appealing to young people who would listen to ballad music and locally produced adult musicfor years. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 109
  15. 15. At a different level, according to Keith Howard (2000:9), Seo Taiji’s music appeared to beinfluenced by “the eclectic mix of music which characterized the youth of Tokyo as well as the streets ofLos Angeles, places where there were substantial Korean populations. These influences reflect increasingaccess [to transnational culture].” In a way, Seo Taiji’s music and style were an embodied form of“ethnoscapes” in the local setting and a new form of cultural appropriation (see Appadurai 1997). SeoTaiji innovatively put together hip-hop imagery in which rap signified a series of “authentic” Afro-American street culture and its pronounced cultural derivatives - breakdancing, tough masculinity, ghettoimagery, graffiti, etc. Though some cultural critics viewed that imported “rap” music was an exemplarycase of cultural imperialism and a mere reflection of worrisome “trash” music culture in the local zonethat preferred “inauthentic foreign sound,” youth embraced rap as not only their favorite genre of music,but also their favorite cultural style. Seo Taiji successfully tapped into such a structure of feeling of youthand their taste culture in the making. Youth accepted rap and hip-hop as a distinctive marker ofgenerational difference. Local media reported that: The majority of people over thirty said that they could not sing, follow, or listen this new style ofmusic [rap] youth enjoy. It is not an overstatement that the popular songs of the 1990s can not createshared emotional structure between generations. Rather it reflects a gap between generations. SegyeDaily January 14th, 1993 (cited in K. Jeon 1994:96) Against the critics in the mainstream and left camp who despised hip-hop music, cultural studiespractitioners drew attention to its localized production and complex history of mediation on blackimagery. According to Kyuchan Jeon (1997:67): Rap should not be considered simply transplanted culture or the trash that symbolizes cultural imperialism. The ‘black culture’ in Korean society is more like a field of struggles in which the commercializing strategies of capital, regulation strategies of the established generation, and the emerging cultural sensibilities and consumption strategies of youth generation collide and at the same time create a series of alliance. At the same time, in terms of fashion style, Seo Taji was one of the leading musicians whoinventively adopted and mixed different fashion codes. He knew how to appeal to youth’s craving fornew “multicultural” fashion and was quite successful. He popularized a series of distinctive fashion –including what was locally called the “snowboard look,” wearing ski hats or baseball cats backward, skiparkers, and dark sunglasses, “Rastafarian hairdo” and dreadlocks as well as oversized baggie pants and Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 110
  16. 16. shoes, which were the markers of hip-hop fashion.4 Such fashion codes readily became a dominant styleamong teenagers and young adults. Seo Taiji created a series of “hybrid” cultural looks through hisdistinctive fashion sense and outlandish hairstyle. Seo Taiji’s fashion and hair style hugely appealed to,and fit into the emerging particular taste culture of the New Generation who had been already familiarwith multicultural fashion styles through media and foreign travel. In reality, they were active consumerswho, with significant discretionary income, had developed distinctive sense of taste and consumptionculture. In other words, the New Generation Culture exhibited distinctive “stylization of life” by activelyresponding to media images and cultural styles - for lack of a better term the “Benetton-style”multicultural fashion - by local and global fashion industries churned out. Their sources of informationwere local, Japanese, and American magazines – such as Nonno and Cosmopolitan – and youth-orientedand highly image-conscious “trendy dramas” in which fashion codes were crucial elements of its misen-en-scene. As a number of local cultural critics pointed out, the New Generation was the first one whoactively used the print and electronic media to keep up with the latest fashion trends and yet couldreappropriate mass-market styles for individual diversity (H. Kim 2001; see Willis 1990). As KyuchanJeon (1998:156) pointed out: Whereas their parent generation tend to expect neat and acceptable fashion codes, youth challengethat with their outlandish fashion style - hip-hop fashion, mini skirt, and teared jeans… between twogroups, there goes on a game of border-making. To a certain degree, the New Generation was inventive and self-conscious “bricoleurs” whocreated culturally dominant and spectacular styles in the realm of fashion, cultural images, and music. Itcan be argued that such a “rebellion in style” had a particular subversive function in the local arenawhere the dress codes of performers on television and films were often policed by the state agencies andtelevision stations. Youth used hip-hop and dance music as a rallying cry, symbol, and cultural vehiclearound which they expressed socially shared meanings and awareness of their own social plight. Moreover, what made Seo Taiji as a widely popular idol and “the” spokesperson of the newgeneration went beyond the paticular style of music he played and composed was use of highlypoliticized lyrics. He covered a number of hithero-undealt “political” issues that ranged from educationto teen angst to social issues to unification. Schooling in Korea at a high school level has been geared4 In particular, hairstyle in Korea has a long history of one of the most visible markers for generational conflict and a sign of“freedom.” Under the repressive Park Chung Hee regime (1961-1979), long hair was considered as “morally repugnant” and “anti-social.” Hence the policemen carrying a measure stick literally checked the length of young people’s hair in the street corners. Oncethey were found to have longer hair, punishment was swift. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 111
  17. 17. toward training the students to enter into top universities. It is commonplace that an average highschooler in the local tend to study more than ten hours a day, and take a number of private lessens[kwawe]. Considering the fact that out of almost half a million college applicants only less than twentythousand students are admitted into these top universities, the anxiety level of youth in high school runshigh. Those who do not get into the desired schools are stigmatized in a social context up until lately thediploma from prestigious universities meant getting a coveted job in the extremely competitive jobmarket and gaining almost automatic upward mobility. Hence, literally high school is “hell.” In thiscontext, “good” parenting entails saving the significant portion of household income and spend it for theexpenses for college entrance exams. In his one of the most well-known songs, “Classroom Idea,” SeoTaiji vividly captured the pressure cooker situation most of local high school students were in:Stop it! Stop it! No more such lessons! No more.It’s enough now; it’s more than enough!Every morning, by seven thirty early in the morning[They] push us into a small classroom, andPut exactly the same things in every headOf nine million kids all over the nationIn the dark classroom, walled, tightly walled, and gulping down us all,My youth deserves better than being consumed here. (cited in H. Kim 2001:210) From a related angle, the post-authoritarian 1990s were the decade of political conservatism andcynicism. Political parties in the arena of institutional politics were mired in a series of in-fightings and anumber of scandals broke out, furthering people’s cynicism in politics. At the same time, politicians andadministrators who implement educational and cultural policies still viewed youth through a normalizinglens. In his another well-known song “Sidaeyugam [“Feeling Sorry about the Age”], Seo Taiji criticizedthe pervasive political corruption and the disbelief of youth in the norms of the adult world:The era of the honest is goneToday you can hear screams and cries in all the pretense.How much do you think you can fly with your broken wingsI hope we can uproot everything for the new world.You burnt your conscience and hid your sharp claws. (cited in Morelli 2002:252) The mainstream media and conservatives regarded youth’s passionate following of rap music as atwisted form of “low culture” copied from American culture which was at the same time “abnormal” and“deviant.” They argued that Seo Taiji’s rap music and styles - its “black imagery” that came with it - Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 112
  18. 18. contained the “threatening” elements that were against the development of “healthy” culturaldevelopment (K. Jeon 1994). In the dominant discourses that centered on and essentialized the“normalcy,” “authentic Koreanness,” and “social integration,” there was little room for embracingcultural multiculturalism embraced by youth. Reflecting such an alarmist view, the state acted swiftlywhen Seo Taiji appeared on local television music show with “black hairdo and ghetto-style clothes.” Hisband was barred and upon facing such a pressure, Seo Taiji and his band crews succumbed to thepressure and finally appeared with a “normal” look: wearing short hair with less outrageous clothes. Itwas no wonder that the Korean censorship board banned part of the song and the group first released thesong as an instrumental. Later different versions of the song appeared in their albums, and one versionreplaced the outlawed lyrics with bleeps so that the listeners could aware that the song was censored. SeoTaiji’s fans acted quickly and staged a letter writing campaign to the government. When the mediacovered this censorship issue, civic groups launched a series of public debate on the artistic freedom ofexpression and problematized the state intervention in the field of arts and culture. As Morelli (2002) notes, Seo Taiji’s performed a multifaceted role – his ability to interweavedifferent genres of music from rock to dance music to hip hop; his business-savvy sense of self-promotion and control of his music, and his “political” stance that brought to the fore the often neglectedissues surrounding youth and their highly stressful life. In doing so, the specific effects of his musicacross the popular terrain were far-reaching. Almost immediately, youth and young adults started toendorse Seo Taiji’s music and idolized him. Fan clubs, magazines, fanzines, and webzines devoted toSeo Taiji emerged.5 Before long he became a cultural icon that symbolized the spirit of the NewGeneration Culture (H. Kim 2001; D. Lee 1999). The chain of meaning and style which emerged fromSeo Taiji’s music as a powerful signifying and affective tool interacted with other emerging modes ofnew generation’s structure of feeling and alternative value system (D. Lee 1995; 1997). UsingGrossberg’s expression (1992), Seo Taji successfully tapped into the “mattering maps” of youth. In thisrespect, Seo was nothing short of one of the most inventive and controversial cultural producers who lefta legacy in the local popular cultural field. For youth, Seo Taiji’s music gave a transitory moment toavoid the dominant structures of everyday life by empowering themselves. As local media suggested: To the established who wants to maintain the status quo, he [Seo Taiji] is a dangerous figure sincehis songs continuously challenge it and at the same time attempt to replace it with a new order [ChosunDaily, November 18th, 1995, cited in H. Kim]5 Seo Taiji’s loyal followers were the adolescent youth and young urban professionals who were media-savvy and highly dedicated. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 113
  19. 19. Perhaps such a view was exaggerated. Nonetheless, as a number of local cultural critics suggested,Seo Taiji’s role and artistic work in the popular cultural field animated a series of subcultural work towhich now I turn.Learning from the “Birmingham School” and the Emergence of (Sub)cultural Analysis in theLocal Arena In the historical making of cultural studies in Korea, initially “the youth question” had been arelatively minor matter. Though in the early 1990s highly visible youth cultures - embodied through theaforementioned Apgujung culture - emerged, the detailed subcultural studies of new cultural forms andsubjects were rarely launched, the local cultural studies field has been still dominated by theoreticism –represented by postmodern cultural theories and semiotics - rather than concrete and detailed “locationwork” or “scene studies.” Various culturalist, interpretive, and semiotic approaches to the emergence of “subcultures” and thelived trajectories of particular groups of youth who would navigate specific urban sites and locationsslowly emerged. Into the mid-1990s popular and “subcultural” studies slowly became a legitimate sub-field in local cultural studies. Junior scholars and cultural critics drew attention to the culture of youth asa distinctive way of life that were expressed through their particular styles, habits, customs, culturalsymbols, and meanings. In particular, the creation of new subjective meanings and more open andmulticultural styles were interpreted as a collective cultural statement by youth. The aforementioneddrastic difference between the parent and youth culture spurred on this cultural transformation. In various cultural studies circles, the New Generation Culture became a protean metaphor toconveying the various interpretations of post-authoritarian transformations in the area of everyday lifeand culture - in particular, the emergence of relative affluence and civic freedom as well as thequalitative shift in popular consumption. The result was that local cultural critics engaged exclusivelywith the consumption, leisure activities, and the adopted styles of the middle class youth and youngurban professionals. Here, emerging culture was conceived as sets of socially-organized and patternedresponses to the new material and social conditions. Moreover, they readily identified such a middleclassoriented research with subcultural analysis. Thus, studies of working class subcultures and intra-generational dynamics/conflicts between the aforementioned parent culture and youth were put aside ordisregarded. Unlike in the “Birmingham/CCCS tradition” where the distinctive cultural activities andhabits of a range of relatively bounded groups of working class youth - Teds, Mods, Rockers, Punks, andSkinheads, etc – and their “revolting styles” and “class solidarity” were explored through detailed casestudies and “literary ethnography,” youth and popular cultural research in Korea has been predominantly Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 114
  20. 20. centered on urban middle class youth and young urban professionals who were considered the keymembers of the emerging New Generation Culture. Studies of working class youth and differentsubgroups - especially economically disposed and socially marginalized ones - only minimallyappeared.6 At the same time, locally launched popular cultural and subcultural analysis drew attention tothe expressive means - different cultural and fashion styles, attitudes and group behavior, youthfollowing of stars and fandom, etc. - deployed by the subordinate groups to negotiate with and(temporarily) subvert the dominant culture by creating and expressing their own cultural meanings andexpressions. In doing so, local cultural studies practitioners attempted to provide hitherto unavailable“maps of meaning” which looked closely into the life styles, emerging and alternative cultural habits andnorms, consumption and leisure patterns of youth and young urban professionals. They were the firstgeneration that entered the seductive world of commodities and their desire to own consumer items andcreate specific leisure activities were perceived as richly textured “cultural activities.” Yet Gramscian theories of hegemony that are exemplified by Paul Willis’s and Dick Hebdige’swork rarely appeared in subcultural analysis in Korea. Willis’s pursuit of “lads” and their “counter-school culture” was imported and debated. Yet local subcultual analysis never seriously pursued overtlypolitical analysis of the subculture and its many acts of “insurrection” beyond the domain of style andsignification. Hence, local cultural analysts did not consider subculture as a “crisis within the dominantculture.” It was more like a “noise” in the socio-cultural relations rather than a full-blown revolt againstconformity and dominant social relations. Local scholars took the symbolic forms of negotiation andresistance at the cultural level as their starting point. “Style,” “subcultural choice,” “identity,” and“attitude” became operative words. For one thing, style was interpreted to express and reflect sets ofsocial and interpersonal conflicts and contradictions. Local cultural analysts attempted to examine thevarious ways youth culture disturbed and negotiated with the settled socio-cultural assumptions. Theyfocused on the ways youth culture broke out of the given social boundaries and norms through whichthey were defined. Collectively, the Birmingham subcultural studies can be characterized by its use ofdetailed ethnographic methods. In Korea, though ethnography at the theoretical level was discussed,actual research based on detailed and principled ethnographic analysis was almost non-existent. Instead,local cultural analysts tended to deploy textual analysis – informed by Barthesian semiotics and Levy-Strauss’s concept of “bricolage” – and some naturalistic methods – participant observation techniquesand interviews. Their approach to popular and subculture was that of “thin” culturalism. On a differentlevel, what was notable about local subcultural studies was that “generation [saedae]” rather than classemerged as a distinctive marker and formative category in cultural and intellectual analysis. Such a trend6 In South Korea this would have included groups of high school dropouts, runaway kids, and the kids who usually work in the“informal sector” or service industry. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 115
  21. 21. reflected the widespread intellectual structure of feeling in post-authoritarian 1990s: intellectuals bothwillfully and unconsciously avoided class-centered analysis. Especially, in the area of cultural studies,generation became a privileged social agent that symbolized a rapid shift in socio-cultural life underbooming Korean consumer capitalism (K. Jeon 1997; M. Kang 1993). Taken together, class as ananalytic category became almost invisible in the vocabulary of local cultural studies and “generation”and “youth” became new units of analysis. Though being limited by these shortcomings, local cultural studies in the latter half of the 1990slaunched a series studies of subcultural styles, fandom, and various sites of youth interaction. Whereasthe mainstream “law and order” society persistently looked into youth culture through its framework of“deviance” and “social problems,” cultural critics regarded them as an emerging social force and culturalphenomena that warranted serious research. In launching more culturally refined analysis, local culturalcritics took issue with both econocentric and moralizing criticism of the New Generation. As JeonKyuchan (1998:55-58) suggested: Even if we agree that the New Generation Culture was created for the reproduction of capital at anadvanced stage, we cannot reduce all the positive responses toward the New Generation Culture to suchan econocentric perspective… the intention to regulate the New Generation and its desire to create newrealities in the realm of popular culture often collide…The parent generation tries to place all the thingsabout the New Generation within its power of surveillance. Whereas the youth cunningly avoid theestablished moral order and at the same time develop various subcultures…When we perceive style as anintended form of social communication, we can not underestimate the symbolic charge made by youthwhich is mediated by their deviance from norms. (Italics mine) In coming to terms with the New Generation Culture and its place and function in the overall socialfield, Jeon and other cultural studies practitioners took a cautious “middle path” between culturalskepticism of the left and the elitist moralism: both scholars on the left and mainstream critics consideredthe new cultural sensibilities and styles of the New Generation as radically new, but problematic habitsthat merely mimicked and were dependent on imported foreign cultures (K. Jeon 1998). Mainstreammedia and conservative cultural critics argued that however vibrant and iconoclastic the New GenerationCulture was, it would be destined to be reappopriated into commercial and consumer culture. Thoughlocal cultural studies practitioners generally did not disagree with the latter view, they nonethelesscriticized the left position that emphasized the regulation and co-optation of popular culture by externalforces – such as culture industries and state power rather than looking into the complexity, creativity, andephemerality of youth culture. They argued that the left was still immersed in its problematic “rearviewmirrorism” which privileged the “authentic and grassroots culture of the people” and did not pay any Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 116
  22. 22. significant attention to youth culture and its symbolic practices (See Bennett 1986). Against such a view,local cultural studies practitioners drew attention to the multiple ways the New Generation Culturenegotiated or “won” over the intermediary domain from dominant ideologies and parent culture. At thispoint, Jim McGuigan’s following view is highly suggestive (1992): The importance of spectacular subcultures… is not that they represent the whole of “youth” insome homogeneous “youth culture” but, in their practices of “winning space” within and against thehegemonic order, they constitute fragile, transient and minority forms, issuing symbolic challenges to thedominant culture and its definitions. Influenced in large part by the pioneering work of the Birmingham School - especially the work ofCohen (1980), Hall and Jefferson (1976), and Hebdige (1979) on British sub- and counter-cultures -throughout the 1990s Korean cultural critics came to explore the phenomenal form of the NewGeneration. They focused on the role of the New Generation Culture in pioneering and experimentingwith new popular forms and intersubjective norms by interpreting the system of style, dress, music,gestures, slang, postures, and other rituals of youth. In doing so, they perceived the New GenerationCulture as an “imaginary” or “magical” attempt to resolve collectively experienced problems resultingfrom contradictions in the social structure. As Hebdige (1979:17-18) suggested, subcultures “carry secretmeanings: meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees theirsubordination.” Such an approach became a widely shared methodological premise in local culturalstudies work. By using participant observation, interviews, combined with semiotic and interpretive analysis,local cultural practitioners tracked down the ways the New Generation Culture disrupted, dislocated, anddenied the dominant culture in subtle, self-conscious, and yet highly visible ways (H. Kim 1999; D. Lee2002). In doing so, they gave a much needed legitimacy to the sub-cultural groups as newly ordainedsocial agents who embodied “forbidden” identities and who exercised significant symbolic power andcreate new cultural currents through their subcultural styles and use of “subcultural capital” – a specificcultural capital which youth could not obtain at school (see Thornton 1999). As Kilsup Koh (1999:158-68) pointed out, young people in the 1990s demonstrated distinctively “creative productivity” throughtheir involvement in the extended cultural sphere and their distinctive politics of style and fun. To asignificant degree, they generated highly visible and concretecultural effects that were dispersed across the social domain. Youth successfully created their owncultural territories, thereby empowering themselves. They popularized “indie” [independent], techno,hip-hop, and dance music culture. As was exemplified in Seo Taiji phenomenon, cultural “fandom”became one of the emergent keywords - sometimes perhaps over-hyped - that could vividly illustrate theactive involvement of youth as “cultural producers” and owner of keen cultural knowledge in Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 117
  23. 23. popularizing particular genres of music and dominating the music market by emerging as the dominantbuyers of music albums. And it was young people who appropriated dyed hairstyles and much loose and“loud” fashion codes into universities, homes, and streets. In addition, in the middle of impressive informationalization of society [for more details, seechapter 5], youth even took new technology as their new ground of interaction: they were the main usersof news and chat groups on the Internet that have been devoted to their “stars” and favorite populargenres on the Internet. Their colloquial and jargon-inflected “net-talk” became more than generation-specific language that has gained a wider acceptance among their elder users. In this way, young peopletook over the emerging web culture. By blending and appropriating a wide range of dissonantcommodities, styles, and cultural objects, and placing them in a distinctive symbolic ensemble, youthalso became trend-setters, consumers with significant purchasing power that local culture industriescould not fail to ignore. No where was the power of youth more visible than the popular entertainmentsector, especially popular music and advertising. To them cultural consumption was a form of“production” and an expression of their identities. They injected elements of “transgression” of thereceived socio-cultural norms through their excitement. This was a culture that was fickle and literallyplayed at life. Through their richly textured cultural activities and consumption, youth created their ownnorm: right to be different and demonstrate different cultural tastes. In other words, “cultural diversity”became new “indicator of their culture [munhwaui jipyo]” (K. Koh 1998 :159). I believe that the majorityof local cultural critics who explored the rise of youth culture seem to share the following view of DickHebdige, whose ground-breaking book, “Subculture: the Meaning of Style,” was a source of inspirationand a frequent reference point in the local cultural studies scene: I have tried to avoid the temptation to portray subculture (as some writers influenced by Marcusewere prone to do) as the repository of ‘Truth’, to locate in its forms some obscure revolutionary potential.Rather I have sought, in Sartre’s work, to acknowledge the right of the subordinate class… to ‘makesomething of what is made of (them)’ – to embellish, decorate, parody and whenever possible torecognize and rise above a subordinate position which was never of their choosing. Local practitioners in cultural studies shared the methodological premise offered by Hebdige(1979:133): “subculture [can be regarded] as a form of resistance in which experienced contradictionsand objections to the ruling ideology are obliquely represented in style.”7 They argued that the emerging7 To use another useful definition of subculture, youth cultures refer to “meaning systems, modes of expression or life stylesdeveloped by groups in subordinate structural positions in response to dominant meaning systems, and which reflect their attempt tosolve structural contradictions rising from the wider societal context” (Blake 1985:8). Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 118
  24. 24. New Generation Culture contained progressive and “transformative desires and impulses [sangsungjeokyokmang kwa him]” in that they challenge the normative world in hitherto unimagined ways (CCS 1992;1994; D. Lee 2002). What the New Generation Culture ushered in was an awareness of a new kind of“political economy of desire and imagination” - though this phrase was more like a slogan than aconcretely defined problematic - that was displayed through young adults’ street-savvy and corporealculture (CCS 1994). Above all, the youth-centered politics of style enabled their peers and others,especially the adolescent and young urban professionals, to reevaluate and “counter-identify[bandongilsi]“ with the deeply-entrenched ideologies, cultural icons, moral and belief systems of theirparent generation.Looking Into the Current Popular Cultural Scene: a Snapshot of Hongdae culture Up until this point, this paper has attempted to deal with the emergence of, and heightenedinterests in popular and youth culture in Korea since the early 1990s, illuminated by the spatial shapingof urban consumption and pleasure sites, as well as by the explosion of popular music, spearheaded bySeo Taji and the localization of hip hop. Now let me briefly provide a snapshot of current popular cultural scene around Hongdae culture[hongdaemunhwa]. To begin, Hongdae, Hongik University traditionally has a strong fine arts program.No wonder that near Hongik University Area there are a number of arts institutions, cafes, and bars.Beginning in the mid 1990s, around Hongik University area, there emerged clubs, in particular punk andmodern rock clubs where youth could listen and dance to new types of music while interacting with oneanother (D. Lee 2002). Influenced by alternative or grunge music and performed at such clubs as Drugand Jammers, new breeds of musicians, Deli Spice, Crying Nut, and My Aunt Mary, etc., gathered andcreated what has collectively called “indie music scene” around Hongdae. Indie as distinctive expressive musical form and particular cultural practice here refers to rock-centered experimental music that are produced and performed outside of mainstream popular musicalcircuit dominated by television and big business. Production-wise musicians and bands who performedand created indie music have often operated outside or, on the fringe of commercial musical circuits andmanagements. Also unlike their predecessors in the local rock tradition or by extension undergroundculture who usually played and copied canonic AngloAmerican rock music, indie music bands producedtheir own work, often creatively mixing, poaching, and sampling several subgenres and styles of music.It can be argued that indie music of the mid 1990s as such has actively attempted to appropriate andexperiment with foreign musical style and influences through innovative bricolage and at times mimicry. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 119
  25. 25. Before long, several live clubs around Hongdae as performative stage for indie music and scenehave emerged and begun to draw youth and young adults, creating what is often referred as “the Hongdaescene” to outsiders and the media. Here, the scene seems to be a fitting label in that a diverse range ofmusicians and audiences have gathered who seemed to share a specific common frame: taste for indiemusic and desire for alternative space of interaction and having fun from ordinariness and boredom (M.Lee 2005). Youth and Young adults have flocked to Hondae clubs where perhaps cultural freedom,hybridity, and musical diversity have been the name of the game. Put differently, Hongdae club sceneincludes relatively new and heterogeneous forms of “taste communities” centered on alternative, punk,modern rock, heavy metal, R&B, hip-hop, acid, techno and other kinds of music (I. Cho 2005). K, musiccritic in an interview recently told that: I believe in Hongdaeap there exists something like widely shared sentiment of what I might call“cultural liberalism [munhwajeok jayujjui].” I mean a diverse range of musical styles and conducts areallowed here without being bothered, and people like that… These clubs have increasingly become a magnate and playground for young adults who crave forfree wheeling individualism and freedom as shared interpersonal grammar. It seems that at Hongdae themajority of them tend to demonstrate or own what Sarah Thornton calls “subcultural capital” and identitythrough which their distinctive musical and stylistic preferences are shaped, expressed, and lived out.What is distinctive about the club scene is that unlike other forms of youth or popular culture which arenormally not associated with particular location, Hongdae has become the location-specific (imagined)site for alternative musical scene of production, performance, and gathering where a diverse range ofaudiences who are between young teens to urban professionals would come and help to create distinctiveform of culture. It is often assumed and revealed that in the tradition of Birmingham-style subcultural analysis,particular social groups, especially class-centered ones, form distinctive forms of subculture which revoltagainst both parent and dominant consumer culture (Muggleton 2000). And traditionally criticalsubcultural analysis would focus on subculture’s resistance “through rituals” [a. k. a. “magic solutions”]and transgression of dominant culture through semiotic and signifying practices (Hall and Jefferson1986; Willis 1978). In Hongdae case, indie culture is formed mainly in and around the particular localityand site where youth with heterogeneous social backgrounds and status would come. Indie music aroundHongdae, utilizing Paul Willis’s familiar phrase, has been symbolically creative, and yet it has not beendominated by any particular form of class-based cultural sensibility or imperative. It is separated fromovert forms of resistant subculture and class-based subculture which was popularized by the Birminghamschool. To a degree, Hondae indie scene seems to resemble “neo-tribal cultural scene,” suggested by Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 120
  26. 26. Maffesoli in that rather than class or working class subcultural solidarity (of mods, punks, teddybears,rockers, etc.), generation, belongingness, freewheeling and pluralistic subcultural styles play constitutiverole in shaping its culture and musical textures. I wouldn’t argue that Hondae culture can be defined as asome type of “postmodern hyperindividualism” here. Neither do I argue that Hongdae culture is merely alifeystyle enclave of specific kind. Rather, Hongdae culture has signaled that something like a “post-subcultural” community emerged, and that such an emergent microcultural formation requires rethinkingof dominant Birmingham approach. This is a culture based on loose networks of membership, subculturalattitude, and a certain cultural/musical insiderism which at the same time does not express overt forms ofpolitical resistance. Nevertheless, indie music scene at Hongdae has shown certain features and particular aspects ofnon-compromising subcultural sensibility and practices of its own: it is in large part performed, craved,consumed, and shared outside of commercial music circuit and drive to commodification. Not as politicalas its romanticized counterparts of the heroic subcultural days in AngloAmerican settings, nonetheless,Hongdae culture has often pursued semi-autonomous cultural and musical autonomy and artistic freedomwhile it is relatively free from the influences of corporate music culture. Those who have become themembers of the (imagined and real) Hongdae scene have attempted to maintain cultural and musicalautonomy from such commercialzing pressures (D. Lee 2005). What is memorable about the Hongdaescene is that even in contemporary Korea the dominant Birmingham subcultural framework needsextensive rethinking and recontextualization.Critique of “Popular Subculturalism” and the Emergence of Post-Subcultural Work Looking back, through imported “Birmingham” frameworks on youth culture and subculture,local practitoners in cultural studies have continuously provided new sets of methodological tools,languages as well as research agendas. Considerable attention is paid to “decoding” the meanings ofdifferent – new and cosmopolitan – modes of subcultural signs and activities of youth at the surface level.Local researchers give attention to the “semantic disorder” of (sub)cultural activities and theirmomentary subversion or disruption of the established grammars. Perhaps what local cultural studiespractitioners pursued and found is resistance and transgression on a micro level - in the minute subtletiesof “illicit” activities, poaching and appropriation of signs and styles, stylistic non-conformity, pursuing ofbodily, emotional, and tactile pleasures. Having said this, it should be pointed out that the local adoptions of the Birmingham approachhave been severely limited. Above all, their research collectively focused on the “transgression” and Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 121
  27. 27. “revolt” in the styles and symbolic rituals of subcultural groups which were constructed as having aninternal homogeniety and unity. Heavily shaped by semiotics and “thin” descriptions of the leisureactivities and consumption patterns of youth as well as their appropriation of cultural items tocommunicate new and alternative meanings, some versions of popular and subcultural studies haveclosely interpreted expressive cultural styles and stylistic codes as their key objects of study. In doing so,often they fail to track down a complex chain of socio-cultural relations that involved the livedcontradictions of youth at a socio-economic level. Without producing richly textured empirical studies -especially “thick” [or literary] ethnography and (auto)biographical studies - of various subculure and fangroups, local studies have been, in large part, theory-led and often put the political wish of researchersinto their studies. In other words, local cultural studies practitioners have worked on the broad theme ofthe “politics of style” and signs and attempted to capture “imaginary” and “magical” solutions and“tactics” of youth in their battle against the dominant and parent culture. In doing so, they have focusedon the ways youth “resisted” or “subverted” the established norms in society. Yet resistance waspredominantly derived from the symbolic level. This certainly allowed the dominant mode of subculturalstudies or cultural studies of popular culture in the local arena open to the charge of “populism” and“theoreticism.” Second, by mostly focusing on the middle class youth, local cultural studies practitioners have atendency to conflate youth culture, subculture, and the New Generation Culture and did not provideclass-specific and group-specific readings of a range of heterogeneous subcultural formations in themaking. Certainly, youth is not a unitary category. As Osgerby aptly pointed outs (1998:201-203),“rather than being perfectly formed entities, subcultures have always been fluid and fragmented ‘hybrids’in which cultural allegiances have been mutable and transient. Instead of making a firm set of stylisticscommitments most youngsters have instead cruised across a range of affiliations, constantly forming andreforming their identities according to social context.” Local cultural studies scholars would rightly givedue attention to the young adults as the bearers of specific symbolic powers in particular sites andbricoleurs at the street level, which has been a long neglected subject in local cultural criticism.Nonetheless, they rarely explore internal differences and the subcultural mobility through which groupsof youth could adopt different subculural positions. Another problem that was not often debated was: theabsence of gender and the role of female youth in subcultures. Third, youth and subculture can also be manifestation of self-expressions that are closelyassociated with one’s own “mattering maps” and “feeling of life.” Youth as fans construct the particularforms of affects, intensities, moods, empowerments, fun, and desires through their investment in and useof various popular cultural forms - music in particular - and sites - clubs and streets - they navigate.Affect cannot be easily read off from the texts. According to Larry Grossberg (1992:81), “affect is what Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 122
  28. 28. gives ‘color,’ ‘tone,’ or ‘texture’ to our experience… it operates within and, at the same time, producesmaps which direct our investments in and into the world. ” Local subcultural work has utilizedpredominantly semiotic and interpretive methods to explore the political significance of new culturalstyles youth appropriate and “poach” from the dominant culture. In doing so, it was relatively insensitiveto explore the ways youth put such high energy and investments in popular cultural forms and care aboutparticular forms of subculture so passionately. To take an example, the aforementioned gap and tensionbetween the parent culture and New Generation Culture could not be approached through a relatively“static” and “cold” ideological or semiotic analysis. Obviously, it mattered tremendously to youth to ownand pursue particular forms of popular texts or practices, and in so doing, they were empowered bygenerating new forms of cultural participation as well as emotional and affective investments in popularculture. Affective play and alliances formed by youth in their everyday cultural life provided keybiographical and social resources for alternative forms of identities. What is often missing in thedominant form of “interpretive” subcultural work was properly articulated analysis of the articulationsamong youth’s passion for particular favored objects, icons, and texts that formed their personal -potentially political - significance, as well as their different “affective economies” which created sociallyconstructed differences. Fourth, what is also rarely raised in subcultural work in the local arena is the different socio-symbolic position and the analytic distance between the intellectuals who performed subcultural analysisand their “subjects” who are often “othered” and “frozen” through various semiotic, dramaturgical, orinterpretive grids which the intellectuals utilized. Dongyeon Lee, one of the leading practitioners in thepopular cultural studies field who has launched a series of pioneering research on the New GenerationCulture and fandom, confessed that his predominantly theoretical work on local subculture is literallyshattered when he would meet the “objects” - or the imagined other - of his research in the streets andspecific social locations: rock and roll manias, underground band members, runaway kids, teenageprostitutes, elderly people, the homeless, etc. He provides a telling tale and candid response to his ownresearch practice in the following way (1999:72): It seems that my previous use of subcultural concepts don’t seem to either effective or proper. Arethese people subcultural subjects? Who are they after all? Runaway kids? The kid who did headbaning[in a club]? The homeless guy? … They didn’t think they are subcultural subjects. Nor did they knowwhat subculture means. A kid told me that I should not judge them with such a concept. I have realizedthe gap between my theorization on the subcultural space, style, identity and its generational specificity,and my encounter with them in specific sites. [in my research] I did not seriously consider such a gap, andmy work became an incomplete report. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 123
  29. 29. Though he did not elaborate further on his encounter with subcultural others, nonetheless, I thinkLee touched upon the crucial institutional questions – to be more exact the “imagined subjectivity” andinstitutional privilege of the academics as “scholar-fans” who perform subcultural studies that wererarely tackled in local studies of subculture (see Hills 2002). Certainly, Lee and others put the youthquestion and its often undervalued symbolic politics on the cultural studies map. As a result, youth,consumer, and fan culture are no longer considered as either “scandalous categories” or “inauthenticcultural formation” created and co-opted by culture industries. Subcultures, fandom, and the social sitesof youth interaction became “legitimate” academic topics. Having said this, local cultural analysts onlyoccasionally put a “reflexive lens” on their own use of cultural and symbolic capital as well as their often“detached” work. Without being equipped with such due reflexivity and any kind of collaborative workbetween the researchers and subcultural others, locally produced studies of subcultures or popular formsrarely confronted the deeply-seated moral dualisms in their research.In Lieu of a Conclusion: going beyond subculturalism and popular tribalism Looking back, a number of texts produced in the name of cultural studies since the mid1990s havepaid scant attention to grounded ethnographic methods that can substantiate the larger theoretical claimsand outlooks. The overly textualistic trend and theoreticism in some cultural studies works in Korea isoften accompanied by another trend - what might be called “subculturalism.” Subculturalism hasincluded various studies of emergent forms of urban subcultures and the rearticulation of transnational orglobal popular culture by local producers or users who are viewed as bricoleurs or cultural poachers.Accordingly, practitioners in cultural studies in Korea has found new interests in variouspopular/subcultural sites, the cultural underground, material cultures, and new cultural tribes whonavigate urban space and surf on the net. They are seen as displaying new energy, alternative culturalsensibilities, and a potentially transgressive or non-conforming politics of style (CCS 1993; D. Lee 1997;1999). For instance, since the mid 1990s loosely qualitative and marginally participatory studies on avariety of topics have appeared in academic and newly formed popular journals, magazines, and books:on the shopping malls and streets, on the different spatial grammars of the urban, on club cultures andfandom, as well as on cultural/gendered identities. However, not many studies of popular cultural studiesin Korea would employ reflexive and multi-sited ethnographic approaches. Instead, these works arelargely and perhaps unevenly influenced by Williams’ model of “dominant, residual, and emergent”culture(s), Hebdige’s “politics of style,” and the Geertzian method of “thick description.” For this heavyreliance on “experience-based” models, on dazzling authorial semiotic skills and proficiency in popular Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 124
  30. 30. culture, some versions of popular cultural studies in Korea can be criticized for being too literary,superstructural, or populist. On the latter, some cultural studies practitioners have implicitly shied awayfrom making informed and situated political judgements, evaluations, and interventions for progressivechange. As Mike Featherstone (1992:ix) argues, “there is nothing wrong with high level speculativetheory, except if it becomes presented and legitimated as having surpassed or succeeded in discreditingthe need for, empirical research.” The main problem with local subcultural analysis has been that due toits lack of rich, detailed, and principled ethnographic investigation of its key subjects under analysis - thelife styles and symbolic repertoire of adolescent kids, young adults, and middle class consumers - it couldnot convincingly legitimize its research results. Rather it was often the case that the “political wish” andparticular version of “subcultural ideologies” of cultural critics who search for “decipherable signs ofcultural transgression and resistance” are imposed on the exploratory or pilot research. Without forming alocal tradition in sustained ethnographic and qualitative analysis of everyday culture, popular culturalstudies in the local arena could not shake off the charge that it is often “populist.” By largely holdingonto theoretical analysis of popular and subcultures a la the Birmingham approach rather than engagingwith “out-there subcultures” at the empirical level or collaborating with various subcultural others,popular and subcultural analysis have been theory-led and methodologically underdeveloped. Thecommitment of local cultural critics to the ethnographic studies of lived cultures is perhaps still relativelyweak to launch a more comprehensive ethnographic research. Their methodological baseline thatsubculture is resisting or transgressive – seems to be still formulated and grounded at a level ofabstraction which is somewhat removed from the everyday context where people move through a rangeof different subcultures and adopt various forms of subcultural styles as is illustrated in Hongdae culture.I believe what is required at current juncture is more self-reflexive, location-specific, and collaborativepopular cultural case studies and will to take more genuinely ethnographic work. Cultural Space and Public Sphere in Asia 2006, Seoul, Korea / 125
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