Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Koreans USE Arirang... but OWN It?: Part Two: Identify, Use... but Own?

The Korean, of Ask A Korean! (with a festive exclamation mark) has responded to my post "Nobody Owns Arirang,with his own explanation of why Arirang belongs to Korea, period. This is my (several part) response.
Jang Sa-ik. He's not the most famous Arirang Singer (that's probably Kim Yeong-im), but his version of the classic (most popular version of) Arirang is my favorite.

Second Point: How does One Own a Culture?

While explaining his reasons for saying Korea owns Arirang, period, The Korean, who has clearly read Plato and his critics, has a little fun poking at my assertion that the idea of a culture is too slippery to wrap it in a box and own it. He takes the example of a door, which can be many shapes and vary on many details, but is still a door, and says a culture is unmistakable, particularly in view of how cultural practices are reinforced over time.

First, I'd suggest that discussing something as abstract as a culture as if it were analogous to something as concrete as a door is not very useful. Anybody can walk up to a door, and slap it with their hand, and agree, "This is a door between the hallway and the dining room." How do you slap a culture with your hand? You could slap a cultural icon with your hand, and yes, Simon Cowell's been asking for it, but you can't slap a culture. It's quite a rare door that I'd look at and call a door, while someone else would look at it, and say "I can't see how you think that's a door"... but exactly that happens with culture, when grandpa thinks K-pop isn't real Korean culture, but his granddaughter thinks it is.

See, a culture isn't so much like a door, or a cat (either it's a cat, or at least a type of cat, or it isn't).  A culture is more like an ecosystem: huge, complex, and made up of so many elements interacting with each other, and exhibiting different features in different spots, and, for the most part, fading gradually from one into the other, without sharp demarkations.

So what is a culture? 

A culture is a huge collection of texts (and we'll use texts in the anthropological sense, where a 'text' can be anything - any object, ritual, process, ceremony, method or behavior, that has/can have meaning for people), out of the entire set of which, each participant in the culture assigns differing levels of importance and value on different aspects, according to their life experiences, preferences, etc.. A culture is not genetic: it must be taught (or Kyopos and adoptees would be born able to speak Korean and cook dwenjang). One has to choose for oneself how deeply, and how exactly, one participates in, and identifies with a culture (not all Kyopos or adoptees or born-and-raised Koreans do), and the choices one makes might be controversial to others who identify with the same culture, because they've assigned meanings and levels of importance differently. A culture is also exclusive: it is defined at times by what it isn't, as well as by what it is. The "I Am Canadian" rant/beer commercial is a good example of defining a culture negatively, by outlining the ways Canada isn't like the USA.

There is another useful point to be drawn from The Korean's door thing: there's no way to answer the question "Is the most 'door' of doors - Plato's ideal door, red, white, or brown?" However, we will be closer to a useful definition of a door if we focus not on its exact dimensions, but on the purpose it serves: to keep some things in, and to keep some things out.

This is also true of defining a culture: defining a culture by identifying exactly the set of practices and rituals that unmistakably identify it heads straight into a whole bunch of grey areas where everybody will draw the lines in different places, and (as I said earlier) the surest indicator of what people consider authentic is more often based on what their parents/grandparents remember things being like (while their grandparents tut-tutted that the younguns were losing the old ways)* than the result of study and research. I think it is more useful to define Korean culture by the purpose it serves for those who identify themselves as Korean.

*That being said, The Korean is right that many Koreans choosing to use and identify with one part of culture, over a very long time, does make something more Korean than it would be with a very short history, or having been historically embraced only by a small fringe.

So what is the purpose of Korean (or any) culture?

To create a sense of identification, a sense of community, a sense of shared history and experience, with others who identify themselves as Korean (or any other culture). The idea (from Benedict Anderson) of 'imagined communities' is a useful starting point here, with a few adjustments because we're talking about a culture, not a political nation-state, but the ideas of imagined community, co-identification, and exclusion, are important aspects of defining a culture, as well as a nation, (which was Anderson's project).

So if we say that Koreans identify with Arirang, I would say absolutely. Here are a whole bunch of statements I wholeheartedly agree with:
1. Koreans invented Arirang.
2. Koreans use Arirang.
3. Arirang is overwhelmingly, almost to the point of exclusively, practiced by Koreans.
4. Koreans identify with Arirang as a piece of Korean culture.
5. Arirang is associated with Koreans and Korean culture.
6. Koreans use Arirang, and think of it, as a symbol of Korean culture.
7. Arirang is overwhelmingly, and probably exclusively, identified with Korean culture.
8. These statements are true now, and these statements have also been continuously true for probably the entire history of Arirang, or at least for the entire history of the concept of something called "Korean culture"

"use" "practice" and "identify with" and "associate with" are useful verbs/verb phrases to attach to "culture."

But owning something... and by owning something, I mean making a claim of exclusive use of something - having the right to send a cease and desist letter... I don't think owning is a verb that can be attached to the noun culture, any more than the owner of land on which a forest grows can say that he owns the ecosystem living in the forest - he can tell himself he does, but the bear doesn't hunt on his command, the tree doesn't grow, and the river doesn't flow, according to his wish. At best, he can interact with that ecosystem, at worst he can raze it, and while he might reserve the right to hunt the deer on his land, they don't obey his orders.

And an individual can own a song (that they wrote)... but an entire genre of folk-song? No.

Take "Waltzing Matilda," a folk song that, I'm told (please correct me if I'm wrong*), many Australians identify with at least as strongly as they identify with their national anthem, "Advance Australia Fair" - I'd say it probably holds a similar place in Australian culture as the most popular Arirang (listen to the clip at the top of the post) holds in Korean culture.

An Australian has the right to sing their own version of Waltzing Matilda, and say "this is one of my country's national songs" but an Australian doesn't have the right to tell the Pogues (who did a version) to stop singing Waltzing Matilda, and to me, when it comes to cultural products, that's what ownership means. Aussies are free to hate the Pogues' version, and scream as loudly as they want that they're doing it wrong, throw tomatoes during stage performances, or head to the studio and demonstrate how to do it right, or chant "Screw you guys" between verses whenever they hear the song on the radio... but they don't have the right to send a cease and desist letter.

An email exchange with an Aussie leads me to add the qualifier that Waltzing Matilda probably isn't as deeply or intrinsically tied to Australian national/cultural identity as Arirang. The ties are probably not as strong, not as old, and not for as many people.
If some people in China want to sing Arirang, South Korea's minister of Culture doesn't have the right to tell them to stop. Even if some people in China want to change the words and reinterpret Arirang with a Chinese angle, South Korea doesn't have the right to tell them to stop, and a better response than shouting "You can't sing OUR song!" is to support the Korean artists who are reinterpreting and developing Arirang as a cultural heritage that can still have relevance to Korea's Starcraft, Smartphone generation. 

I'd argue the same about Korean Kimchi and Japanese kimuchi. Would Koreans rather Korea's cultural products were being ignored and dismissed? Nope. Important cultures get their shit stolen... Is India telling Korea and Japan to cut it out with that imitation curry crap? Nope. Is China demanding royalty payments from Italian restaurants for using the noodles China invented? Nope. Is the US Foreign Minister trying to shut down Kraze Burger and Lotteria for getting hamburgers wrong? Nope. Are New Orleans musicians kicking over the music stands of non-Louisianan musicians who have tinges of dixieland in their music? Nope.

And nor should they.

Because people can identify with culture, they can interact with it, engage with it, adapt it, play with it, use it (for all kinds of purposes), teach it, build their identity around it, argue over what is authentic of it, interpret it, judge it, and even study, curate, and archive it. But they can't own it, if owning means having the right to tell others to stop doing any of those things with it. China can't, Korea can't, and I can't.


T.K. (Ask a Korean!) said...

If some people in China want to sing Arirang, South Korea's minister of Culture doesn't have the right to tell them to stop.

But you and I agree that is not what is happening. Koreans are not upset over the fact that some Chinese people want to sing Arirang.
Koreans are upset over the fact that China is, through governmental action (i.e. as opposed to a voluntary and organic process like certain Chinese people naturally wanting to sing the song,) formally designating Arirang as "Chinese" with a transparently political motive. Do Koreans not have a right to tell China to stop in this case also? My answer, as I gave on my post, is YES. That is the real question, not the one you posed above.

refresh_daemon said...

Agreed. I've had many discussions about culture, especially around cultural appropriation and I always end up thinking that while we can have debate the authenticity of a particular act of cross-identity cultural adoption as well as the power dynamics involved, we really can't say that some group (which itself a rather amorphic entity of insiders and outliers and difficult to define) is exclusively entitled to the use and production of a particular cultural expression.

If you say Korea owns X element of culture, who is this Korea? Does that mean the nation owns it? The citizens of that nation? And then does that include minority citizens of that nation? Or does it pertain to an ethnic group? And then what composes that ethnic group? What about adoptees to that ethnic group?

One funny example for people to think about regarding ownership and authenticity:

There was an episode of "Seinfeld" where Jerry Seinfeld's dentist converts to Judaism. He reveals his conversion to Judaism to Jerry (himself a Jew) and proceeds to make jokes about the Jewish people, using the inclusive "we" language, much to Jerry's consternation.

What does that scene convey about cultural ownership (if any) and how would you interpret it?


Roboseyo said...

@the Korean - wait for part four.

Honestly, I lay this problem at the feet of UNESCO, who seem not to realize how their heritage project is being misused in cases like this.

refresh_daemon - I wish you had a clip of that scene from Seinfeld, but that's exactly the same problem - because Jew is an ethnic group AND a religion, identification and membership get sticky, and not every born-and-raised ethnic Jew will feel like that Aryan dude really belongs just because he got circumcised and did a few rituals

(but what if he speaks Hebrew? - then we're looking at the same question about South Asians, Nigerians, and North American expats who speak Korean)

Anonymous said...

"and by owning something, I mean making a claim of exclusive use of something"

This is a weak definition of "owning," and it's not how cultures work.

If a Korean American in LA or an ethnic Korean in China listens to "Arirang," Koreans in Korea don't get angry that the song is being "mis-used" or "appropriated."

As mentioned above, there are politics at play here that are pretty obvious.

If a Korean band wants to play American blues music, awesome. If they claimed they invented it well, I'd call bullshit.

It seems to me you're over-complicating things, but that's the effect grad. school can have on a person.

Roboseyo said...


You say:
"and by owning something, I mean making a claim of exclusive use of something"

This is a weak definition of "owning," and it's not how cultures work.

I say:
You're totally correct. Using "own" this way is a bit of a straw man to get talk going... but if we loosen the meaning of "own" up a little, I'd suggest we're better served using some of the other words I suggest - identify with, associate with, perform, use, practice, rather than own.

Stay tuned for the next two parts.

Turner said...

Here's that Seinfeld clip:


Roboseyo said...

I agree with you totally. If chinese people want to sing arirang, most korean people would not mind at all, but if they say it is theirs then korean people have a right to tell China to stop what they are doing.

Roboseyo said...

I agree with you totally. If chinese people want to sing arirang, most korean people won't mind at all, but if they say it is theirs then korean people have a right to tell China to stop what they are doing.

Roboseyo said...

but there are many Koreans living in China... what if THEY want to sing Arirang?

Roboseyo said...

I think you're confused, the Koreans OR non-Koreans living in CHina or where-ever else CAN SING arirang if they want to. The problem is that the Chinese government has assigned arirang under Chinese Culture through the UNESCO. Read what The Korean posted again and maybe you can see where you're mixed up :)

Roboseyo said...

you're a little late to the party here, cookie.

what if the manchurian Koreans asked the chinese government to register their particular version of arirang, because UNESCO protocol is to communicate with national government representatives, not regional ones?

Roboseyo said...

lollll so according to your logic...if Canadian Koreans asked the UNESCO to put their version (assuming they have one) of arirang under Canadian Culture, the UNESCO should just gladly put it under Canadian culture? heck I should just create a new version of Stars-Spangled Banner and spread it among Koreans so that the song will be under Korean Culture in the future. LOLL Sure manchurian Koreans have a long history..blahblah but their roots lie with Korea and their version has its roots from Korea. The main problem as The Korean noted above (I advise you to read his comment several times) is that Arirang as a whole (this is important rob, take a note) is now under "Chinese" culture.

Roboseyo said...

please choose a username that does not insult the host of this conversation.

it's my blog. I can call you a dick-muncher if I want, but you should be polite to your host. 

And if a group of Koreans living in Canada had a similar situation to Koreans in Northeast China -- let's say that by the year 2120, Vancouver's Koreatown has developed some unique cultural characteristics, and there's a version of Arirang that's deeply meaningful to their community, and they asked Canada to register their Arirang as a cultural heritage... well, it would be disrespectful of Canada to ignore their request, wouldn't it?