Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Culturalism - You Keep Using That Word 1: What is Actual Culturalism?

Last summer, when The Korean from Ask a Korean! wrote his bit about Malcolm Gladwell, the Asiana crash, and culturalism -- a tour de force piece that managed to get Malcolm Gladwell himself over to The Korean's site to answer criticisms, one of my friends who's in Anthropology got very frustrated with the whole thing.

Because before The Korean started using the word "culturalism" with the meaning he gave it (in this post)... it was kind of already an actual thing.

It happens from time to time that academic terms get co-opted, or re-"coined" or re-conceptualized by someone who isn't part of the conversation where it first came up (for example, Soft Power has suffered a lot of meaning creep since being co-opted by China's "Peaceful Rise" narrative, and now it can mean anything from all non-military nation-to-nation bullying, to nation branding) or a word gets so much baggage piled onto it in the public imagination, that it's hard to use it academically anymore. (For an example, look at The Metropolitician's attempt to re-explain racism in such a way that it's possible to discuss it again without knee-jerk defensiveness.)

And here's a definition of culturalism, as per Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt, who are the two names that come up a lot when you search it on Google Scholar and stuff: 
Culturalism is the idea that individuals are determined by their culture, that these cultures form closed, organic wholes, and that the individual is unable to leave his or her own culture but rather can only realise him or herself within it. [One type of] Culturalism also maintains that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections – even if at the same time they violate individual rights.
Basically, to develop public policy, or understand social structures, as a bureaucrat or anthropologist might want to do, one must decide how to group together the subjects of your study, and class, income, age, region, education -- these can all be useful. But if you decide culture is more important than all these other groupings, that, in its broadest definition, is culturalism.

Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt back away from the definition above by separating culturalism into two kinds: hard and soft. (explanation in this summary)

Hard culturalism is the one above -- where culture is constructed as the be-all and end-all, and cultural lines are imagined to be rigid and impassable. I can't define myself outside of the culture I was raised in. Taken far enough, Hard Culturalism is the basis of arguments that cultural groups should be allowed to put their community's laws above the laws of the land they live in, or that anybody unwilling to assimilate into their host country should be sent "back where they came from." This is where Eriksen and Stjernfelt's critique lies. Hard culturalism becomes politicized, and they describe it in places as an ideology, arguing that individual and human rights should always come before cultural rights.

And where exactly to draw those lines between respecting a cultural or religious group, and ensuring the human rights of members of that group? Does a doctor violate one's religious rights by saying, "I respect your religion, but I'm still giving your child a blood transfusion!" What if it's not the child, but the parent?

Soft culturalism, according to Eriksen and Stjernfelt, aren't incompatible with a modern cosmopolitan society. In soft culturalism, we can find our identity or self-expression in a culture, but the standards and norms of a culture don't supersede the values of a modern secular society -- human rights, rule of law, etc..

To over-simplify, Eriksen and Stjernfelt would probably say that you should be allowed to wear a cross or a hijab in school as a symbol of your identity (soft culturalism), but would reject a domestic abuse defense that "where I'm from, it's normal for parents to hit their kids," and oppose Muslim communities in Europe following Sharia law.

If you take Eriksen and Stjernfelt's definition of culturalism above: "that individuals are determined by their culture, that they have no free will to influence the course of their lives," I don't think The Korean would take issue with it. The difference is how each applies it: E&S explain how putting people into overly rigid groups leads to problematic policies and "culture wars," and The Korean explains how that same conception of culture causes problems in cross-cultural personal experiences and judgments, where it results in "Racism of the 21st Century."

It's just too bad they're giving different meanings to the same word, as they discuss two different, but interesting and important ideas.

If you're interested in Eriksen and Stjernfelt's concept of culturalism, here's more reading material:
This excellent article by Milan Vukomanovic hits most of the important points.
This is another good summary be Eriksen and Stjernfelt themselves.
This article, and the six recorded interviews below it expand on the key issues.
This article about the Anders Breivik verdict (that Norwegian mass-murderer) also talks about the tension between culture and human rights.
And if anyone wants to send me a gift copy of Eriksen and Stjernfelt's book, "The Democratic Contradictions of Multiculturalism" I'd be thrilled.

Culturalism's place in the history of ideas is kind of mixed: one of the earlier cases of culture being used as a level of analysis was among colonizing countries, which used academic rhetoric to justify colonizing civilizations they had deemed "primitive," in order to "civilize" them. (cf: The White Man's Burden). Culturalism is usually not used in quite such a patronizing way these days. Arguably.

Culturalism is also a required prerequisite to multiculturalism: you can't construct a policy of respecting cultural differences, if you don't first imagine that cultural groupings exist, and are important enough to warrant specific policies and programs.

So while I have to take issue with The Korean using the term "Culturalism" because that's already a thing, the thing that he wishes to describe with his term is something very much worthy of discussion, and I'll talk about that in an upcoming post.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Psy's Hangover Hite Ad, or The Problem With Trying Too Hard

Psy. Yes, that Psy, has a new video out.
And Gangnam Style just passed 2 billion views. Good lord.

I like Psy, don't get me wrong, but I'm not so hot on his new video, Hangover, which you can watch here.

A few weird things happened with the utterly unexpected success of Gangnam Style. We must begin with the fact that Gangnam Style isn't prototypical K-pop. It's not the model the studios tried to promote, or thought would be successful overseas, and that's obvious if you look at which artists got overseas promotion (Wonder Girls, SNSD, Big Bang, Rain) and which didn't (Psy). When Gangnam Style hit the big time, suddenly, the videos of other artists trying to break into the US market also became more brightly colored videos and chock-full of silly non-sequiturs: non-sequiturs that somehow felt like they'd been developed by a marketing team trying to be sure they were random enough. And if there's one thing Katy t3h PeNgU1N oF d00m teaches us, it's that forced randomness is a cringeworthy as a skateboard injury video.

In my opinion, the worst of these "the next Gangnam Style" (there will never be another exactly like it) was Crayon Pop's utterly unnecessary "Global Version" of their catchy song "Bar Bar Bar" (see here) - which I mentioned in a previous blog about Kpop trying to go international (Kim sisters). It's the same as their original, which was great in its own right, except they raised the bass in the mix and added ham-handed references to Gangnam Style in the video: abandoned amusement park, playground, subway station, handheld fans, people doing yoga outdoors, someone lying between another person's feet in an elevator, and ending with a big lineup of people in different uniforms plus, just to make sure everybody knows we're from Korea... a traditional-style pagoda.

The original Crayon Pop video, which I still love:

Psy's video doesn't quite suffer from the same problem of trying too hard to match Gangnam Style - the song's too slow-paced for that, to begin with. This video just seems... lost. You know when you're standing in a supermarket, and take half a step toward the produce department, then half a step towards breads, and half a step towards cereals, before deciding you need to re-check your shopping list, and end up expending a lot of energy to turn in a clumsy, pointless circle? That's what this video is doing for me.

The video looks to be a night on the town with Psy and Snoop Dogg. They tour some common locations for a night of Korean drinking (which is a bit odd when the song's named "Hangover" but whatever). For the record, I think it would have been very fun to go out and drink with Psy and Snoop Dogg for a night, and a night on the town with Psy might be the awesomest introduction to drinking culture in Korea that it is possible to have. Yet I feel really "meh" about the video.

Here are my gut reactions to the video as I watch, augmented by an after-the-fact edit.

0.11 - Snoop's entrance is pretty funny.
I don't like autotune. Never have.

0:30 Taepyongso? Seriously? (This is what a taepyongso sounds like) - it is also the aural equivalent of Hanbok or Kimchi -- the go-to indicator that This Is Uniquely Korean. The reek of Korean cultural promotion is officially on this video. Let's see if it wrecks the thing.

0:38 - Memo to all K-pop choreographers: there are other ways to make female dancers look sexy than making them twerk, or do the Bend and Snap. Learn at least two more each.

Waveya needs to hire a choreographer, and if you're a Kpop choreographer and every single dance move you've put into the routine is in this video, you need to get better at your job.

Oh... and he's holding a saxophone, but that is absolutely a taepyongso. It's like they're embarrassed that they took culture ministry money to make this video. (If they did. I bet they did.)

0:40 - by the way... the Taepyongso (태평소) might be the absolute last sound I want to hear when I'm hung over.

0:43 - Beer shots. A lot of them. An impressive setup, in fact. Product placement perhaps? Eat Your Kimchi says yes. And they're right.

0:59 - Drinking the hangover remedies and eating drunk food. It's fun watching Snopp Dogg eat Korean drunk food, I admit.

1:18 - Soaking in the jimjilbang (or Korean sauna) - also a venerable Korean hangover ritual. I've done it myself, and like that it was included... even though 1. Psy already did the sauna thing in Gangnam Style and 2. The stuff people do for a hangover and for a night of drinking are getting awfully mixed up here.

At least they're introducing an aspect of Korean culture that is actually practiced by many ordinary Koreans. I doubt they'd have gotten Snoop Dogg to wear a hanbok or try playing a janggu, though.

Then again, the video isn't finished yet. There may still be a K-food party in store.

1:24 - motorbike and flying paper. Reference to Gangnam style?

(after what I said earlier, better google "Snoop Dogg in Hanbok" just to be sure...)

Oh shit.

source - from a 2013 store opening - Getty Images. Kill me now.
Better google "Snoop Dogg playing janggu", too, just in case...

Phew! Nothing.

1:29 - Bend and snap.

1:40 - Rolling across the face shot. I am jealous of Snoop Dogg for getting to have Psy as his guide and gateway to Korean drinking culture.

1:48 - Ladies joined their table. The kinds of ladies you might bump into at your average purveyor of soju bombs. Fun-looking, not supermodel-y. This "portraying an actual night of drinking in Korea" thing might be going somewhere...

2:05 - but of course there are some supermodel-y dancers there too. Doing the same four dance moves as before. After this video, which is the logical conclusion and apex of Kpop 섹시댄스 choreography, where the world got to watch 400 boys become men at the same time, more of the same just seems so hollow and unnecessary. Bring something new to the table!

2:30 - Drunkovision is making the not-supermodel-looing women look sexy. A beer goggles joke? Shit, I don't think I can like this video anymore. I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up when those women joined the table. How cool would it have been for those two women to become characters in the video, and not just props for a throwaway joke?

2:55 aaaand they're trying to hump them.

Also 2:55 - G-Dragon's random appearance is the best thing about the video so far. I like what he does with the microphone.

3:25 - the spinny-ride, while drunk OR hung over, seems like a really terrible idea.

3:30 - I think it would have been really fun to hang out with Psy. I'm not convinced it's a great topic for a music video though.

3:35 - Pool hall. Complete with washed out, ugly flourescent lights and jajangmyeon.

4:00 - I bet that woman behind Psy in a Bruce Lee outfit (sigh) is famous. Too bad she's so obscured by fur (welcome to 1988) and movie star sunglasses I'm not sure who she is.

4:18 - hite D and chamiseul. Make sure the labels face the camera, boys!

4:20 - they blanked out an "f" word. A song about drinking is worried about an f-bomb. I don't think the moral police are going to give this one a pass, anyway. He didn't even get away with kicking a traffic cone in the last one. Unless the traditional instrument distracts the censors.

4:30 - End. I like the bar fight and mayhem.

For science, or whatever, here is my favorite "street fight mayhem" scene in Korean pop culture so far. If you know a better one, please link it in the comments.

To sum up, then:

Good points: G-Dragon - far and away the high point. The impressive table of soju bombs, the fact this is probably what Psy actually does when he goes out drinking for a night, and if not, what many office workers definitely do.

Bad points: Just not a very good song. Heavy handed traditional instrument that didn't add much to the song... and adds that awkwardness of referencing traditional culture in a song and video about drinking too much, which probably isn't the image of Korea those cultural promotion folks have in mind. Bad bad bad, boring boring boring choreography. The beer goggles thing really bugged me. And, you know, the pervasive Hite and Chamiseul product placements. (Will Psy be passing off ad jingles as singles next?)

All in all, it seems to me like Psy is now trying to please people (cultural export-y people, ad sponsors) in this video, in the songwriting, in the arrangement, and it's hurting him. He isn't a representative K-pop artist, and never will be, and asking him to represent Korea or Kpop to the world will give you a Psy with his hands tied behind his back, which is not Psy at all. The greatest thing about Psy is that he was always fun, mostly because he never took himself too seriously. But now, there are people who do take him seriously, and as long as he's encumbered by that burden, I don't think we're going to see the Psy we love, or the one that both wowed and cracked us up in Gangnam Style, or wore a goofy muscle shirt for most of the "Right Now" video, which might be my favorite Psy moment.

Maybe the Psy we have now can get more famous people into his videos, but those videos lack the manic energy, the self-deprecation, and the fun that make everybody love Gangnam Style in the first place.

Come back, silly Psy!

Eat Your Kimchi do a good job of explaining how accurately Psy portrays Korean drinking culture (on the nose). And Korea's drinking culture is, depending on who you ask and how bad their last hangover/drunken mistake was, either the greatest thing about living in Korea, or a national embarrassment. I've wavered between those two assessments myself.

And here is "Right Now" - all that is good about Psy, portrayed in the most fun light possible... or put another way, the exact opposite of this video:

Sunday, June 01, 2014

The Amazing George Takei in Seoul, and the Pride Parade Is a Go

[UPDATE]: You can now listen to Mr. Takei's interview on TBS Radio's program "Inside Out," here on their program podcast. Here is the link.

Here is the embed.

[End Update]

Last week Thursday, I was going into the TBS Radio studio for a weekly segment, and as I came out of the elevator, an entourage poured out of an adjoining recording studio. A somewhat older Asian man walked past me, and then I did a double take, and may have murmured "oh myyyy" under my breath.

I had just accidentally nearly bumped into the one and only George Takei, known for playing Sulu in the original Star Trek television series, and more recently for balancing humor with social consciousness better than anyone else on social media.

That's right. THIS guy.

You should follow him on Facebook. Even if you don't, you probably actually do without realizing it, because that hilarious image or video your friend put on their facebook wall has about a 20% chance of having been re-posted from his FB page.

Mr. Takei came to Seoul to promote the play "Allegiance" - a Broadway show about the Japanese Internment Camps that USA ran during World War II, and where Mr. Takei was imprisoned when he was young. He is also holding talks and meetings around Korea and Japan about LGTB issues, in a tour organized by the US State Department organized the tour. You can learn more at the Korea Times.

Walter Foreman had just finished interviewing him when I bumped into him, and was kind enough to introduce me to Mr. Takei and snap this picture.
Probably my favorite "Rob With A Celebrity" picture.
Our encounter was quite brief - he was on his way to the elevator, but he was very nice, and I almost didn't say anything dumb.

However, I am sorry to say that in the three days since both shaking Mr. Takei's hand and squeezing his shoulder, I have not developed any magic powers, my jokes are not intrinsically funnier, my phrases have not started turning more beautifully, and my voice has not deepened in the slightest. Maybe I should have done a selfie.

Whether coincidental or not, the timing of Mr. Takei visit is actually great, though perhaps coincidental, because the weekend of June 7th is the 15th annual Seoul Gay Pride Parade, and this year the question of whether the parade would actually happen has been a bit in the air: a lot of events and festivals have been cancelled since the Sewol Ferry Disaster in mid-April. The parade had been approved, but then approval was withdrawn "because of the ferry disaster" - but event organizers told Korea Realtime, the Wall Street Journal's Korea blog, that "that the authorities appear to have bowed to pressure from some Christian groups that oppose the event and giving civil rights for sexual minorities. The district-office spokesman denied the protests played a part in the cancelation." (see full write-up here)

The WSJ blog mentions Christian lobby groups who have a bit of history: Here is Human Rights Watch's write-up about the re-wording of the anti-discrimination bill, putting the finger squarely on Christian lobbyists. Christian lobbyists also got a 2012 Lady Gaga concert slapped with an 18+ age restriction (protesters in Indonesia got her concert there cancelled entirely).

Personally, I feel that every time Christians take the side that is against loving a group of people that's marginalized, they're missing the point of their faith, and showing an ignorance of how Christ actually lived his life. If you disagree with me that the main purpose of faith is about learning how to love people, and to improve ourselves and become more human through the love we practice, well we're probably not going to see eye to eye.

The state of Queer Korea is still very much a work in progress, unfortunately. Things have come a long way since the early 2000s, when even open-minded sophisticates would sometimes tell you there were no gays in Korea... but the disappointing 2007 anti-discrimination bill, and the fact it seems people can still get their ears bent by the anti-gay lobby, is disappointing. You can read more about changing public opinion on gays here, also at Korea Real Time. If Mr. Takei takes some time to talk about this, well, that'd be swell.

Perhaps even with a brilliant Youtube video like this:

I wrote about the "It Gets Better" project - a beautiful movement against anti-gay bullying - in 2010.

Queer Korea is slowly slowly getting more "out," and I certainly hope that society here in general, as is happening in other places (at dreadfully uneven speeds), eventually comes around to the position that people can love whomever they want, dress however they want, and perform whichever gender role they want, as proudly or discreetly as they choose, and those around them should pretty much mind their own damn business and respect their choices. We're not there yet, but we're slowly getting closer.

So head out to the pride parade on the 7th. Here's the info. Show support and solidarity, no matter which way you personally swing, dress, present, and so forth.