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Theses Doctoral

Anthropological Fictions: "Humanism" and its Doubles in 1930s-1960s Korea

Kief, I Jonathan

This dissertation explores a series of debates about “humanism” (hyumŏnijŭm, indojuŭi) in late colonial Korea, postcolonial North Korea, and postcolonial South Korea. The majority of the existing scholarship on Korean cultural and intellectual history divides the twentieth century along dual fault lines of colonial and postcolonial, North and South, telling a story structured by its seemingly irreconcilable fractures and oppositions. In contrast, my research challenges this vision, showing not only how writers on both sides of the thirty-eighth parallel continued to engage in both direct and indirect dialogue with their colleagues on the other side of the peninsula but also how they did so by returning to a set of discussions from the colonial 1930s: a set of discussions, framed in relation to contemporary ones in France, Japan, and the Soviet Union, about the value of “humanism” as a means of rethinking binaries of political Right and Left and the relationship between the disciplines. One of the first studies to bring literature and thought from both sides of the peninsula together in a joint narrative, this dissertation offers an alternative account both of what national division meant in Korea during this period and of how Korean writers contested and re-imagined it by drawing upon transnational flows of texts and ideas.
In chapter one, I describe the emergence of “humanism” (hyumŏnijŭm) as a keyword in the mid 1930s literary criticism of the writer Kim Osŏng. Although Kim took up the term in response to its contemporary usage in the French and Japanese literary domains, his definition of it was drawn equally from a dialectical anthropology first formulated within the publishing sphere of the Korean new religion, Ch'ŏndogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), where Kim began his career. Describing how this dialectical anthropology internalized an analytic of contradictions inside the human, I show how Kim's visions of “humanism” not only defined the human in terms of its divisions but also called for a form of disciplinary practice capable of mediating between them. Connecting these visions to contemporary debates about socialist realism and the specificity of literary practice, I show how they laid the groundwork for a self-reflexive turn in fiction writing in the years following the breakup of the Korean proletarian literature movement.
In chapter two, I offer a revisionist history of “humanism” in early Cold War South Korea. In particular, I show how critics attempting to re-suture literature to political engagement in support of the ongoing war effort looked back to the past for precedents. Reclaiming the term “active humanism” from the 1930s, these writers found their model in the antifascist “actionism” of André Malraux and they contrasted it, in turn, with the dual forms of “mechanism” found in capitalism and communism. Even as wartime hostilities continued, then, “humanism” came to be linked not only to political mobilization but also – and quite counterintuitively – to a rejection of the “two worlds” system altogether. Finally, I explore how wartime depictions of “friendly fire” and the wartime advent of a UN-sponsored book import program set the stage for postwar discussions of existentialism, Marx as philosopher, and the problem of a “third way” beyond the Cold War binary.
In chapter three, I explore a roughly contemporaneous period in North Korea, tracing the emergence of an alternative formulation of the “humanist” imaginary in 1950s literature and criticism. Replacing the earlier term hyumŏnijŭm with that of indojuŭi, North Korean writers of this period used the trope of “humanism” to tie together two interrelated lines of discourse and argumentation: the first concerned itself with the ethics of community and responsibility, often recurring to the ethical demand to be, become, or act like a “human being”; the second concerned itself with literary method and called for the replacement of “mechanical” depictions of processes of production with a reemphasis on human “personality.” Compatible as they were, the concatenation of these two lines of discourse, I argue, nevertheless produced an unexpected outcome: a proliferation of texts, increasingly inward-looking, self-reflexive, and self-critical, focused on the “becoming human” of writers themselves. The effect, then, was not the extinction or erasure of the self but rather its seemingly endless discursive expansion. The road to the “communist new human” here circled back through the individual.
In chapter four, I bring the narratives from the previous two chapters together to show how writers in North and South Korea both moved to reclaim aspects of Korean tradition in the late 1950s. First, I show how the critic Ŏm Hosŏk used the Gorky-influenced imaginary of “proletarian humanism” in order to reshape the bounds of the “progressive” past in colonial-era Korean literature. Then I show how this reshaping worked in tandem with a parallel process of excavating the deeper, classical past. Next, I turn to South Korea, taking the early history of PEN-Korea as a point of departure for exploring how writers and critics debated the meaning of nation, nature, and tradition in relation to contemporary imaginations of “world literature” and historical “resistance.” Finally, I conclude with poetry of the April Revolution in the South, showing how the above discussions set the groundwork for a specific way of figuring these events.
In chapter five, I turn to the early 1960s in order to tell a connected history of literary production in North and South Korea. Moving beyond the comparative framework of earlier chapters, I here show how the events of the April Revolution of 1960 in South Korea opened up a space for exchange across the thirty-eighth parallel. Although it is often assumed that the physical rigidity of national division has also prevented texts and other media from cross the thirty-eighth parallel, I show that this is not quite true. I begin by describing North Korean reactions to the April Revolution and then show their influence on two interrelated phenomena: the production of texts directed at colleagues in the South; and the reading and interpretation of South Korean texts in the North. I then turn to the South in order to explore the opposite trajectory. In particular, I focus on how discussions of literary purges in the North opened up a new space for discussion of the other side of the peninsula, and I suggest the importance of this development for a new literary and critical imagination in the mid 1960s.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Hughes, Theodore Q.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 14, 2016