Theses Doctoral

Picturing Everyday Life: Politics and Aesthetics of Saenghwal in Postwar South Korea, 1953-1959

Chung, Jae Won Edward

Following the collapse of the Japanese Empire (1945) and the devastation of the Korean War (1950-1953), the question of how to represent and imagine “everyday life” or “way of life” (saenghwal, 生活) became a focal point of post-colonial and Cold War contestations. For example, President Syngman Rhee’s administration attempted to control the discourse of “New Life” (shinsaenghwal) by linking the spatio-temporality of the everyday to reconstruction and modernization. “Everyday life” was also a concept of strategic interest to the United States, whose postwar hegemonic ambitions in East Asia meant spreading “the truth” about an idealized vision of American way of life through government agencies such as the United States Information Service (USIS). These ideas and representations were designed to interpellate the South Korean people into a particular kind of regulatory relationship with their bodies and minds, their conduct of their day-to-day lives, their vision of themselves within the nation and the “Free World.” “Everyday life” became, in other words, part-and-parcel of Cold War governmentality’s mechanism of subjectification.
Overly privileging these top-down discourses and techniques, however, can foreclose a nuanced understanding of a rich and complex set of negotiations over the meaning of saenghwal underway in both elite intellectual and popular imagination. Through my examination of literature, criticism, reportage, human-interest stories, government bulletins, philosophical essays, photography (artistic, popular, journalistic, archival, exhibition), cartoons, and educational and feature films, I characterize this period broadly in terms of “postwar crisis of modernity.” If “colonial modernity” in Korea had consisted of tensions and collaborations between colonialism, enlightenment, and modernization, then the emergent neocolonial order of the Cold War would give rise to a reconfiguration of this problematic: national division, South Korea’s semi-sovereignty vis-à-vis the U.S. and the denial of decolonization accompanied by the false promise of democratic freedom and American-style prosperity. Negotiations of this crisis can be found across urban and rural space, contesting the representation and dissemination of universalist and developmentalist “everyday life,” which was linked to the postwar restoration of the enlightenment subject. The stakes of these contestations through the framework of saenghwal could be ontological, aesthetic, economic, affective or universalist, and were articulated across popular and intellectual registers.
While works of recent English-language scholarship in modern Korean history have productively explored the question of everyday life during the colonial period and in DPRK after liberation, no work thus far has examined the significance of the relationship between intermediality and saenghwal in the cultural field of ROK in the postwar 1950s. In addition to building on the current trend of scholarship that emphasizes the continuity between colonial and post-colonial cultural formations, my analysis of literature opens up future avenues of research for those interested in understanding literature’s intersection with modes of reportage, photography, and mass visuality. The chapter on the countryside draws from a diverse array of cultural productions to analyze a space that has traditionally been discussed within the limited geopolitical context of U.S. aid and development; no scholar to my knowledge has undertaken medium-specific inquiry to think through ontological and aesthetic negotiations unfolding in the countryside. My chapter on film culture reads the postwar debates around plagiarism/imitation, melodrama/sinp’a, and realism/neorealism through the gendering discourse of “everyday feelings” (saenghwal kamjŏng), and analyzes understudied films of the era with particular attention paid to their exploration of postwar sentiment. Finally, the last chapter intervenes on the wealth of existing scholarship on The Family of Man in visual studies by situating it within a broader formation of the postwar enlightenment subject as a democratic modernizing ideal. By focusing on the affective premise of this ideal, I contribute to the existing scholarship on theories of everyday life, sovereignty, and Cold War culture, which have tended to neglect the role of intermediation and affective interpellation in the governmentality of everyday life.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Hughes, Theodore
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 12, 2017