The Music Industry Is Indeed Doomed

•June 11, 2010 • 4 Comments

As Thom Yorke said in a recent interview for a British civics textbook (how great would that textbook be, by the way?  I don’t remember reading any interviews with Brian Wilson when I was in school).  The timing of this news is fortuitous, because I have been spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about the music industry these days, for two reasons.

The first is that I just finished a group project about GrooveShark for my Electronic Commerce course at Yonsei GSIS.  The company streams music, largely illegally, from a huge library built from user uploads.  The group’s original assumption was that the company, which had already been sued by EMI, was doomed.  Further research revealed why EMI was the only record label to sue GrooveShark, and why the record giant decided to settle and now licenses its music to GrooveShark: record labels are not doing so well, and they are now forced to seek out revenue streams wherever they exist.  Streaming music is an underdeveloped industry, in that there is money to be made there that nobody has really figured out exactly how to make yet.  The hurting record industry is giving a pass to companies like GrooveShark in the hopes that they will figure out how to turn streaming music into money.  The old model, where radios and videos serve as advertising for CD and concert sales is giving out.

And then there’s the personal reason.  I’ve been working on my music a lot.  I’ve set September 1 for myself as the deadline to finish my current project, and I’ve been teaching myself home recording. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in collaborating, let me know).  Seeing how the tools of production are falling in the hands of literally anyone with a couple hundred dollars and the inclination leads one to realize startling things about the relationship between technology and art.  For example, I was listening to the Portishead album Dummy, and I suddenly realized that someone much more talented than me using modern-day software and hardware only slightly better than mine could very easily produce an album pretty close to Dummy in quality, upload it to the internet themselves and cut out the music industry entirely.  I was out at the disappointing Georgia Wing in Gangnam the other night, and I realized that most of the pop songs playing on the satellite radio were all digital, with the occasional guitar, but that I, with my absolute bottom-of-the-line equipment, have access to the same basic utilities that the producers of these top 40 hits do.  Look at someone like Don Glover aka Childish Gambino, who raps about how he produces professional quality music in his bedroom and distributes it for free.  There is really no longer any need for aspiring musicians to appeal to the big record labels for record deals and studio time when the cost of producing and distributing music on your own is so low.

This is a bad time to be in the music industry.  The money’s drying up.  I think my daughter’s generation will look back and marvel at how much money had once pooled up there in the first place.  It’s like the ice industry.  Before the invention of refrigeration, supplying ice was a big complex endeavor, but people loved ice enough to pay for it.  They would probably still pay the same for it now if refrigeration suddenly disappeared, but it’s here to stay.  People love to make music.  People love to listen to music.  The music industry developed when making and accessing music were both expensive endeavors.  They no longer are.  As long as people can make music and be reasonably compensated for it they will continue to do so. 

For some, just being listened to is compensation enough.  This is what garage bands represent.  Because garage bands did it for the love, the poor sound quality that doing it on their own resulted in became proof of independence.  Eventually, lo-fi became fetishized as some sort of bona fide of authenticity.  With the technology we have now it’s neither hard nor expensive to sound good.  That’s why my ancillary prediction is that the lo-fi aesthetic will be decoupled from the concept of authenticity.  I’m sure people will still make lo-fi music, and I have no idea what type of cultural signifier it will serve as. But I do know that, with the price of sounding good constantly falling, sounding bad will be an ever more conscious choice (see the Mountain Goats’).

Metropolitician Gets It

•May 27, 2010 • 3 Comments

Michael Hurt wrote a great piece on something that I’ve been up on these days.  Here’s a quote:

In the end, it’s quite arrogant to assume, as a foreigner and a newbie, that after 2 weeks of thinking about the subject, all social problems would be solved if people just thought like you. It’s also arrogant to keep stubborn and unwavering opinions without having done much thinking about the subject, nor any background reading, anything. You just sit there at the bar with your beer and have the answer.

In the end, what is more arrogant than a spot diagnosis by a naif?  This attitude, I suspect, is something we are hard wired for.  That’s how we’ve managed to adapt to so many modes of life in so many different places, we form assumptions about how the world works, which often turn out to be correct enough.  Not correct, but correct enough to get by.  We are the product of a million systems that work just well enough.  You get a bunch of educated westerners to come to Korea, an urbanized, industrial society that superficially resembles their own.  This limits the scope of differences and calls them into starker relief.  Then they apply their own perspectives to the problems they perceive in Korea.  The answers pretty much write themselves, which is why the solutions that these armchair sociologists come up with are so uniform.  No creativity required, and practically none brought to these questions.  Everyone’s simplistic, uninformed prescriptions conform to a facile approach to the world they think they know. 

Everyone’s simplistic, uninformed prescriptions conform to a facile approach to the world they think they know.

Of course the less you know about something the more simple it often looks.  And then you learn a little bit and you think you know a substantial amount, because you know a substantial amount more than you did before.  But you actually know an insignificant fraction of what there is to know.

At a certain point, if you’re smart, you come to the realization that you will never really know.  You never really stop trying to understand, though.  You just stop trying to convince yourself and those around you that you do understand.

I Wrote A Song For You Expats

•May 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

Dear expats,

These days I don’t write much on the blog.  I’ve been very engrossed in a musical project that I didn’t think you all would be much interested in.  It’s called Hunts Whales.  If you follow me on Twitter @duckbokey you may have heard some of my recordings.

Anyway, I wrote a song for you, actually.  Several years ago I wrote a song for all my Korean pals called Living In Korea.  It was about all the things that I think are good about Korea.  My new song is called Living Abroad.  You can hear it by clicking on it in the sidebar (sorry RSS feed readers, you’ll have to click through for it).

Continue reading ‘I Wrote A Song For You Expats’

What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Five

•April 30, 2010 • 16 Comments

In Part Four I developed the idea that women in Korean society practice aegyo in order to demonstrate their ‘incapability of useful effort’.  This incapacity for useful effort is in turn used to demonstrate the ability of someone (whether parents, husband or potential husband or they themselves) to practice conspicuous waste.  Aegyo and productive work are mutually exclusive to a degree that cuteness is not.  Again, one can weave cuteness into the fabric of their productive life, but to do so with aegyo will have the chilling effect of undermining the individual’s professional standing.

Here is another quote from Thorstein Veblen:

[T]he high heel, the skirt, the impracticable bonnet, the corset, and the general disregard of the wearer’s comfort which is an obvious feature of all civilized women’s apparel, are so many items of evidence to the effect that in the modern civilized scheme of life the woman is still, in theory, the economic dependent of the man–that, perhaps in a highly idealized sense, she still is the man’s chattel. The homely reason for all this conspicuous leisure and attire on the part of women lies in the fact that they are servants to whom, in the differentiation of economic functions, has been delegated the office of putting in evidence their master’s ability to pay.

Here’s a quote from rapper T.I.

Any time you want to pick up the telephone, you know it ain’t nothing to drop a couple stacks on you.

I can’t emphasize enough here the role the power dynamic between men and women in Korea plays in the prevalence of aegyo.  Korea does have the highest gender wage gap among OECD countries.  Workplaces are typically structured with the assumption that most of the women will not stay in the company long past maternity leave, and this assumption shapes a range of conditions, from wages to the types of opportunities available to women.  Thus if we return to our semi-rational Korean woman from Part Three we see her faced with circumstances in which landing a man and becoming his primary delegate in reputably wasting his surplus resources makes sense.

It’s very important to keep in mind that this system has two halves to it.  For every man looking for a woman to become what Thorstein Veblen calls his ‘chief menial’ there is a woman looking for a man who will allow her to engage in a socially acceptable amount of conspicuous waste.  Korean men and women are teammates in this process, in the sense that they as individuals all want to waste in the best way possible, and that by delegating resource acquisition to one partner and the process of converting resources into waste to another they are able to most effectively do that.

Thus aegyo is a natural outgrowth of Korean gender inequality and the modes of conspicuous waste that hold sway in modern Korea, i.e. conspicuous leisure of a form that demonstrates the incapacity for useful effort, which has not only a physical dimension (evidenced by the predominance of short skirts and high heels), but also a social dimension (evidenced by unproductive, unprofessional behavior).

How can we kill aegyo?  The answer, at this point, should be abundantly clear.  In order to kill aegyo we would have to take society-changing steps to close the gender gap in Korea.  Laws would need to be passed, attitudes would need adjustment, the wages, options and social mobility of men and women would need to be equalized, and an entire social infrastructure would need to be constructed. 

But would the costs outweigh the benefits?

Keep in mind Veblen’s key conceit, that the human desire to accumulate more than one needs and then conspicuously waste it cannot be stopped, it can only be channeled in one direction or the other.  Veblen envisions this as a sort of environmental constraint on human aspirations.  To deprive people of one means of wasting requires the appearance of a substitute status symbol (e.g. Jay-Z’s simultaneoud rejection of throwback jerseys and adoption of cashmere sweatpants as a new object of conspicuous consumption).  If we deprive Korea of its gender inequality and the attendant vicarious consumption that it brings, we may not like what comes to supplant it.

At the moment Korea channels most of its waste in two main directions: conspicuous consumption and vicarious leisure.  Conspicuous consumption here typically takes the form of cars, homes, clothing and accessories, electronic goods, etc.  Nothing special in terms of form, but distinguished nonetheless by its prevalence.  Many an American in Korea has commented on how well dressed the average Korean on the street typically is, and that is not surprising, for we typically dress relatively casually (read: sloppily), as Americans are much geared towards conspicuous leisure than conspicuous consumption.  That said, conspicuous consumption in Korea is an action that the whole family can enjoy.  I say that Korea stresses vicarious leisure over conspicuous leisure because in Korea there is an interesting tendency for an income earner’s incredible amount of time spent at work to serve as a sort of status symbol.  Thus the situation here closely mirrors what Veblen saw in his time: a full delegation of conspicuous leisure to the non-income earning elements of the family, i.e. the wife and kids.

So we are talking about aegyo as a type of conspicuous leisure that a woman can engage in to provide evidence of the earning power (actually wasting power) of the man that supports her financially.  In fact what we’re seeing is only one side of the story of this waste.  A recent survey found that Korean families with young children spend 12.9% of family income on childcare, close to what has been found in the past overall.  It is well known that the Korean education system, like the rest of Korean society, is highly competitive.  Veblen’s framework implies that this is because Koreans have achieved an incredible degree of standardization in terms of the status symbols that they hold dear.  In modern Korea, as in earlier periods in the country’s history, education is the primary status symbol in its capacity as a signifier of conspicuous waste of both time and money.  It is the lingua franca of Korean status symbols, and while the object of study may change, becoming more or less practical on our eyes, it remains the go-to means of demonstrating value for Koreans.

My fear is that if we are to remove women as canvases for the expression of conspicuous waste, Korean children will bear the full burden of signifying their parent’s vicarious leisure.  Korean children already appear to be trapped in a downward spiral of signification in which they are forced to vicariously endure ever increasing amounts of leisure (here, grueling education qualifies as leisure in that, though it has an ostensible purpose of preparing children for future work, its dominant feature is its symbolism as conspicuous expenditure).  We have a paradoxical situation where the father, who is working late nights to put his child through school, is actually not working as hard as the child is in providing evidence of the father’s income.

With women out of the equation as servants in conspicuous waste and fully integrated into the workforce as equals, Korean children will crumble under the pressure of single-handedly performing all the vicarious leisure for both parents on a dual income.  For this reason, it is clearly in the best interest of Korea for the gender imbalance to continue unabated, with all that that implies, including aegyo.

 

 

Return to Part One

What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Four

•April 29, 2010 • 1 Comment

Part Three

Yesterday I walked you through a world of choices made by a semi-rational individual Korean woman in order to explain why she might display aegyo in her day to day interactions.  Today I want to examine a much bigger question. What are the conditions in Korean society and human psychology that make aegyo such an attractive tactic in Korea?  As I mentioned in Part Two, it would appear that the enthusiastic and unabashed practice of aegyo is somewhat restricted to the Korean context.

Before we proceed I think it would be prudent for me to give a basic background in the works of Thorstein Veblen.  Veblen presents a theory of social evolution in which human drives are constants.  He begins with pure savagery: The strongest rules all and treats all around him as his property, including women and slaves.  The accumulation of property is the primary means of displaying one’s social status, which means that one is never satisfied.  It also means that people will necessary strive to possess a surplus above that which they need.  One of the primary means of displaying one’s status then becomes the accumulation and ‘wasting’ of this surplus.  We are most familiar with this impulse to waste through the term ‘conspicuous consumption’, which Veblen coined, but consumption is only one dimension of Veblen’s theory of waste.  He also describes conspicuous leisure, from whence we get the concept of the leisure class.  Conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure are two sides of the same coin: they both serve primarily as evidence of the propensity to waste.  Clothing serves as a signifier of the ability to spend, but more importantly clothing is often designed to be either impractical, uncomfortable, or unsuitable for physical labor.  These traits all contribute to clothing’s role in demonstrating that one is exempt from manual labor.  While in the past things like etiquette would have been the primary evidence of conspicuous leisure, the main forms of conspicuous leisure today are being entertained, actual leisure such as sports (especially expensive sports) and vacations, and most importantly education.  This is one of the primary reasons for the existence of so-called ‘grammar nazis’ in the US.  As I’ve discussed before, being able to quibble about grammar functions for many as a way to evidence one’s education and distinguish oneself from one’s ‘intellectual inferiors’.  At the root of this urge is the human desire to prove that one has had the money and free time necessary to learn these grammar rules.

Veblen’s theory has many interesting implications for aegyo.  For example, as mentioned briefly above, Veblen’s core theory is that the desire to distinguish oneself through waste begins in a state of the strong ruling the weak and accumulating property but continues to be the underlying motivation for human action regardless of the social system.  Veblen discusses the development of feudal states and symbolic waste.  Rather than owning slaves, one may have enfoeffed servants symbolize one’s wealth and power.  When the sheer number of servants is no longer enough, then their functions must become more and more specialized.  This is the premise behind the butler: a butler’s education for that role must be exhaustive, thereby further demonstrating the power of the master in all the time and effort spent in mastery of butlery.  One needs only to look at antiquity to see that the best slaves of all are former kings.  The next stage in this evolution is particularly intriguing: that of vicarious leisure.  When the master is maxed out in terms of conspicuous leisure and consumption, he (usually a ‘he’ still at this point) can hire servants to engage in leisure for him.  This is Versaille territory.  This is also where most western societies were at when Veblen wrote his book, in the sense that at the time most men worked primarily and delegated the work of conspicuous consumption to their wives, whose job it was to ensure that the money being made was spent in a ‘reputable’ way*.  I have elsewhere argued that in a modern society like the US with its two-income families, children become the servants primarily tasked with conspicuous consumption, leading many of them to be indulged to the point where they effectively ruin their lives.

*(Yes, I did just apply the master-servant dynamic to the husband-wife context.  In Veblen’s view, marriage is an outgrowth of this dynamic in which the wife becomes the ‘chief domestic’ servant, whose job has evolved to become overseeing the conspicuous waste of the husband-cum-master’s estate.  I will thank you to not ask me to caveat that or explain the existence of dual-income families, because you’ll see in Part Five why it’s not relevant to this discussion of aegyo.)

OK, feels like a bait and switch, I’m sure, since we’re here ostensibly to talk about aegyo.  But what is aegyo?  It is indeed childish, in that it involves behaving in a way which is not ‘adult’, but why?  I mentioned the worn-out old truism that people like cartoon characters because they resemble babies, but people don’t marry babies, do they?  I mean, Korean men display a pretty consistent preference for women who exhibit aegyo (I’m going Veblen/commando style and not quoting a source on that, but trust me, I saw it on 세바퀴)

Here’s a quote from Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class:

Apart from this general control exercised by the norm of conspicuous waste over the ideal of feminine beauty, there are one or two details which merit specific mention as showing how it may exercise an extreme constraint in detail over men’s sense of beauty in women. It has already been noticed that at the stages of economic evolution at which conspicuous leisure is much regarded as a means of good repute, the ideal requires delicate features and diminutive hands and feet ad a slender waist.  These features, together with the other, related faults of structure that commonly go with them, go to show that the person so affected is incapable of useful effort and must therefore be supported in idleness by her owner.  She is useless and expensive, and she is consequently valuable as evidence of pecuniary strength.

But we live in a knowledge society.  For a large part of the Korean populace exemption from physical labor is a given.  Thus the question becomes this: if men are driven in their ideal of beauty to women who can evince the man’s capacity to waste through their own ‘incapability of useful effort’, and we live in a society in which useful effort entails manipulating symbols and information and commanding the respect and attention of people rather than plowing fields or assembling cars, then what features would such men seek in women?  How could a woman display her uselessness in as clear a way possible?

By acting like a moron.

Let me rephrase that.  By acting in a way which clearly demonstrates her ‘idleness’, i.e. by acting in a way that is socially unacceptable in the business world or one which is clearly unproductive economically.  There is no clearer socially acceptable way of demonstrating that one is not to be taken seriously than aegyo*.  I’ve said before that aegyo is not exclusive to women, and that a good proportion of young Korean men engage in aegyo displays as well.  Be that as it may, nobody has ever done anything directly productive through the use of aegyo.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap it up, with more Veblen and my prescription for aegyo-cide.

*(Let me just extend that thought a bit and apply it to the US.  The concept of acting in a way which is clearly unproductive economically is also strongly at play in that context as well, but it’s a little more of a two way street.  Keep in mind that hipsters, just the most prominent of many modern day manifestations of conspicuous waste through acting unproductive that I could name check, typically behave that way in a form of vicarious leisure for other conspicuous wastes of human life.  It’s a sort of conspicuous waste network effect, where the more wasteful one’s friends are, the more repute devolves upon you and the whole hive of which you are a part gains in hipster repute.  I hereby coin the phrase ‘conspicuous waste hive’ to describe this effect, which I will probably have to return to.)

Part Five

What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Three

•April 28, 2010 • 1 Comment

See Part Two

OK, so you’re a Korean girl.  You’ve got your fair share of problems: school, pressure at home, a disturbing amount of attention from certain corners of the Foreigners-in-Korea-blogosphere, and so on.  You’re adrift in a sea of people and institutions, each with their own interest in you and each with their own self-serving motives.  You have your own fair share of self-serving motives as well, but how are you to navigate–no, how are you to dominate– in this world of constant pressure?

You do what everybody else does.  You work your strengths, downplay your weaknesses, seek alliances, destroy rivals, etc.  You are a being of (bounded) rationality in a sea of others like you.

You live in a superficial society driven by image and personal connections.  It is as important to be liked and well regarded as it is to be competent.  Like the people around you, you feel the need to be acceptable to the majority of people, in particular because it is these people and their feelings towards you which form the basis on which you will be treated.  There is an emphasis placed on age which means that you will spend your life developing two personas.

The first is your persona vis-a-vis older people.  In this persona you have a bounded range of options.  You can be a surrogate daughter to those older than you.  You can try to make them feel young.  You can show them extreme deference and demonstrate your faithfulness and obedience.  All of these options are predicated on the age dynamic between you and these older people.  As a Korean interacting with older Koreans, you have it in your power to exploit the image of youth in any way you see fit.  As a Korean girl, you have an advantage (but by no means a monopoly) in cannily exploiting the trappings of youth to endear yourself to those older than you.

We recognize this as aegyo (애교).  As stated, it is not exclusive to girls.  Many a Korean man emphasizes the hyung (형, ‘older brother’) in their relationships with older men in order to bring out the protective older brother in their superiors.

This brings us to the second persona, you vis-a-vis younger people.  Again as a Korean you are free to embody the idea of an older person in any way you please.  You can be magnanimous, imperious, nurturing, threatening, protective, or any combination thereof.  You have the ability to use this dynamic to whatever end you see fit, whether it be exploitation, group building, the creation of a surrogate family, self-aggrandizement, etc.  You are, however, bounded again by certain preconditions.  One of those is your simple biological predilection for the weak.  We all love cartoon characters because they share features with human babies.  They’re fairly irresistible.  So when someone younger than us confronts us with something irrefutably babyish and endearing, our natural impulse to despotism is stopped in its tracks.  We may not even realize that we allow ourselves to be swayed by something as primal as a little fleshy bump or a lilt in the voice, but we are, imperceptibly and irresistibly.

So you’re a Korean girl, in a world where people older than you wield primary power over most things in your life.  How would your interaction with them not include at least some element of aegyo?

The decision to put on the aegyo is a rational choice made by somewhat rational actors.  Tomorrow I’ll tell you why it’s also a sign of a diseased society.  Same time!  Same URL! Don’t touch that mouse! I mean, except to click refresh.

Part Four

What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part Two

•April 27, 2010 • 3 Comments

In Part One I defined aegyo (애교) as ‘affected sweetness’.  Today I plan to take a look at some of the means by which one can affect sweetness, both behavioral and physical.

One of the most immediately recognizable manifestations of aegyo is in the vocal style, which can be described without reservation as childish.  In the following video, Sooyoung, of Girls’ Generation (소녀시대), is called upon to demonstrate the aegyo that all of Korea’s male entertainment journalists love her for.  What follows is such an extreme form of babytalk-meets-Tweety Bird that you don’t need to understand Korean to get the message:

The conversation goes on to discuss the application of this uber-aegyo to manipulate men.  In this respect, aegyo can be viewed as an effective means of empowering women within finite contexts.  It is also pointed out in the video above that such babytalk doesn’t work on older men, prompting Sooyoung to demonstrate her much more practical, much tougher voice for handling such unflappable ajosshi.

The following video is very illustrative of the affected nature of aegyo.  For those of you who, like me, don’t like watching embedded videos, I will describe the action: Tiffany and Jessica, two more members of the group Girls’ Generation.  I don’t know where Tiffany is from, but Jessica is from San Francisco.  The girls are being interviewed by someone they know, and there’s a heady mix of super-conscious posing aegyo versus more natural looking aegyo among friends.  The video ends with the girls ‘saying goodbye to all of their fans’ in English, and although they affect their cutesy poses, Tiffany can’t go through with the cutesy sign-off.

It’s almost as if the hyper-affected aegyo only works in Korean-language context, and when it’s three Korean-American girls the whole thing breaks down.  That’s my reading of the scene, anyway.  The shamelessness required to really slather on the aegyo seems to thrive in the Korean cultural context and wither outside of it.  My gut reading of it is that the arch-self awareness of the westerner makes it hard to pull off a maneuver like this without hanging a lampshade on it, winking all along as if to say ‘yes, I know this behavior is ridiculous.’

The physical characteristic most associated with aegyo is certainly the aegyo-sal (애교살, literally aegyo-flesh), The little protuberance of flesh under the eyes that gives a clear shadow effect:

My favorite practitioner of aegyo-sal is the Kellogg’s Special K girl, who was also in a drama I didn’t care for:

Aegyo-sal straddles the line between facial expression and facial feature.  It can occur naturally or it can be learned.  I have learned to tighten the muscles under my eyes and give a haunting, aegyo-sal tinged smile which I, recognizing its power, reserve only for situations of dire necessity.  And naturally, this being Korea, aegyo-sal can be injected into your face by your friendly neighborhood plastic surgeon.

Any general overview of aegyo would be incomplete without mentioning the plethora of poses associated with the term.  Here are just a few samples:

Anyway, what distinguishes these poses and facial expressions from things we feel we have a clearer grasp on, such as ‘cuteness’?  For one, they’re not all cute.  Being ‘cute’ usually implies doing things that are esthetically pleasing.  The dominant element of cuteness, as I see it, is looking good.  The dominant element of aegyo, it seems, is looking weak.  Not weak in the sense of physical weakness, but in the sense of general helplessness.  There’s no such thing as an big aegyo-havin’ girl’s rugby player.  You can be a fierce girl’s rugby player and occasionally  pick up the aegyo mantle, setting aside your kick-ass-ness to partake in a little affected sweetness, but you can’t be fierce and have aegyo at the same time.  In contrast, you can be cute and fierce at the same time.

I would be remiss in discussing aegyo and its manufacture without mentioning comedienne/MC Hyun Young (현영).

Most famous for popularizing the term ‘S-line’, Hyun Young’s comedic shtick has always been a knowing parody of what aegyo is all about by doing exactly what I’ve just described.  On comedy programs Hyun Young’s Marilyn Monroe-esque voice and cutesy smiles give way to the mercenary dark side of what aegyo is really a front for.  One of her trademarks is to say something light and cute and then mumble something sinister and contradictory in her squeaky voice, effectively putting on the aegyo and then dropping the veil to show it up for the mask of empowerment that it can potentially be.

Tomorrow I’ll try to wrap our heads around aegyo-as-empowerment, and then on Thursday I’ll do the opposite.  Finally on Friday we’ll prescribe the lethal cocktail that’ll kill the old girl off once and for all.

Part Three

What Is Aegyo And How Can We Kill It? Part One

•April 26, 2010 • 14 Comments

One could reasonably ask the question ‘Why do I want to kill every distinctly Korean concept?’  Fair question.

Anyway, I got to thinking about aegyo (애교) after reading the definition given by James Turnbull:

[a] collection of childish speaking styles, gestures, and mannerisms

James’ intention here is clearly not to give a rigorous definition, but the very act of trying to break down what it means set my gears in motion.

Childish?  I hadn’t thought to apply the word ‘childish’ to the aegyo phenomenon, but obviously that’s my bad.  But rather than pick apart someone else’s off-the-cuff definition of aegyo, it’s only fair that I attempt my own ill-fated definition, so here goes:

Aegyo (애교): affected sweetness

I’ll unpack it a bit for you.  Aegyo is affected, in that it describes conscious performance on the part of the person displaying aegyo.  One does not normally use the term to describe innate features.  A voice does not contain aegyo simply because it sounds like that of a child.  It’s all about what one does with the voice that defines the presence or absence of aegyo.  I choose the word ‘sweetness’ because all of the other choices lack some thing or another.  ‘Charm’ is an obvious possibility, but it is too general.  ‘Affected charm’ would define a very broad category of which aegyo is but a small subset.  Korean-English dictionaries often use the word ‘winsome’, but frankly I doubt many of us have a really clear mental image of what winsomeness entails.  Other words used in dictionaries (lovely, alluring, courtesy, etc.) all fail to capture what aegyo is all about.  ‘Coquettishness’ probably comes closest in sense, but carries a connotation of flirting which is absent from aegyo. The concept of aegyo is independent from the concept of flirting, although the two can and do overlap on occasion.  I also considered and rejected ‘affected weakness’, as although I think this is more accurate than ‘affected sweetness’, the popular understanding of the word ‘weakness’ would overshadow what I’m getting at.

I’ll leave you with that definition of aegyo taking root in your mind and return tomorrow with a discussion of the manifestations of aegyo.  After that I’ll take a look at two different ways of conceptualizing what aegyo is, and finally I’ll explain why we may want to kill aegyo and how to go about doing so.

Part Two

Complete Failure Of The Imagination, College Edition

•April 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

People are to varying degrees limited by their horizons.  This is why you have had otherwise ordinary people from countries like Ireland and the Philippines who at one time or another flooded throughout the world filling out the working classes of any number of nations.  These were people who saw ordinary people like them travelling the globe, searching far and wide for opportunities.  They weren’t brave explorers by any stretch of the imagination.  They just had a vision of what an ordinary person could do which happened to include ‘diaspora’ in it.

People are limited by their horizons.  There are few people in the modern world who have the potential to have their horizons limited more than suburban children.  The net effect of moving one’s family to the suburbs is to raise one’s children in an environment devoid of anything not deemed essential to the living of a good life.  That means that you leave the burb, make your money elsewhere, bring it back and spend it on the good life.

The unfortunate side-effect of eliminating from one’s environment everything not deemed essential to the living of a good life (including work) is that the children who grow up in this environment end up exposed to the trophy without ever seeing the race.  In the suburbs, the money required to maintain the lifestyle comes from an unseen outside world.  The only exposure that the typical child has with gainful employment is in their interactions with those who sell goods and services and, most frequently, their teachers.

In my home town, where my parents continue to live, the school system is one of the biggest employers around.  When we were young, my classmates and I were told by our teachers that we were set to come of age at a time when most public school teachers would be graying out of the industry, a time ripe with opportunities for enterprising young go-getters like ourselves.  A large percentage of the smartest people I went to school with then are teachers now.  I would without hesitation send my daughter to be educated by all of them, knowing that they are good at their jobs and pure in their intentions.

In fact, when I entered college my initial intention was to become a linguistics professor.  This was, so to speak, my default setting.  After all, since I was a child I was taught that my ‘job’ was to get good grades.  That was what I was good at.  That was the industry that I came up in, so to speak, the education industry, and it only made sense for me to take it to the highest level that I was capable of achieving.

More importantly, I didn’t see any options other than becoming a professor.  I had never really considered it.  Money having never been an issue of primary concern to me (remember my parents were bringing it in from somewhere beyond my horizon) and at that point I have to say I honestly didn’t know the value of the stuff.  I got my linguistics degree, but at some point along the way I realized that, while I enjoy teaching people, I didn’t want to be primarily a teacher.  Ironically, I spent the next several years teaching, but I viewed what I was doing more as assembling a general toolkit of abilities.  I may have been teaching, but what I conceived of myself as doing was basically learning to deal with people.  I still have a long way to go, but I would say that it was time well spent.

The reason I bring this up is because of a conversation that I had with someone yesterday.  I asked her what she was planning to do [with her life] and she told me ‘get a PhD’.  I know what she meant: to get a PhD and then do something academic with it, like teaching or writing, but at that moment it struck me as odd: the PhD was originally conceived of as a credential indicating a certain degree of academic attainment, meant to distinguish those with a certain body of knowledge and expertise from those without.  For the degree to be the goal and the subsequent work to be a post-script is nothing short of a perversion.  It all goes back to my post on vicarious leisure.  The purpose of the degree boiled down to one thing: to prove that the degree could be attained.

Then I thought there might be something else to it.  I remembered that I had started out on the road to advanced graduate studies too, but I had learned that it wasn’t for me relatively early in the game.  A few early wins and I might have managed to hold on to the dream longer, perhaps long enough to get into a graduate linguistics program.  If I had continued to nurse the poorly-laid plan to become a linguistics professor up to that stage, I believe it would have been much more likely that I would have fallen victim to sunk costs bias: I’ve come this far, it would be a shame to quit now!

And then I would have ended up becoming a linguistics professor, and trying to justify that decision to myself forever after.

I’m not saying that all the people who pursue post-graduate studies are putting off the inevitable reckoning with a series of decisions that they put off making when they were self-satisfied high achieving high school students.  What I’m saying is that education, because of its chronological head start, is the one industry most likely to permanently trap those who don’t really belong in it.

The second most likely is entertainment.  The third most likely is sports.

Now I Can Stop Thinking About Korean History, Because I’ve Got It All Figured Out

•April 8, 2010 • 5 Comments

Because I have come up with a metaphor that’s so simplistic and attractive to me that it is guaranteed to color my views of everything I learn from here on out about the Choson period.

Here’s the  story:  I’m a regular guy, insofar as I like to come up with simplistic ways of understanding huge, complex issues about which I know little.  In fact, this urge to fool myself into believing I understand that which I do not is so strong that when I manage to find a metaphor, slogan or glib phrase that sums up an understanding of something that’s catchy enough and makes enough sense on the surface, I find myself unable to think outside this box.

(I would say, as a sidebar, that the most commonly heard glib slogan thrown around when talking about Korea is ‘Neo-Confucianism’.  Whenever you hear anybody talking about the effects or influences of ‘Neo-Confucianism’ on modern Korea it is safe to assume that they don’t know what they are talking about.)

I’ve been reading several books on Korean history for the Seminar in Korean History course I’m taking at Yonsei.  Although I am familiar with the broad outline of the history of Korea, my knowledge is relatively shallow.  Thus the stage is set for an overly simplistic metaphor to sweep in and impose itself on my view of Korean history.

One of the central questions of Korean history is ‘Was the Choson state stagnant?’  This question is important because the first modern historians who looked at Korea, who were Japanese, claimed that Choson was stagnant and that that fact justified their annexation of Korea in the early 20th century.  How does one answer the question of whether Choson was stagnant without much actual knowledge about the period or even a clear idea of what is meant by the word ‘stagnant’ in this context?  The only answer is to use the perfect metaphor.

My classmates suggested several good metaphors that seemed to cover almost everything.  I suggested a spinning top, a lotto machine, one of those cheese graters with the four faces that have different grating surfaces on each face, and a game of volleyball.  I think the best one suggested overall was that of ‘percolation’ rather than progress.  That one explained the bounded social mobility of the Choson period handily, but it failed to explain who Choson failed to modernize with the speed with which Japan did so.

Japan, of course, underwent a series of destabilizing structural changes and a series of different state structures, and various competing parties welcomed a certain degree of modernization in their own interests while Choson appears to most historians to be relatively resistant to change.  I struck upon the idea that perhaps Choson’s ultimate failure actually lies in its striking on a stable, ‘good enough’ structure relatively early.  And then the greatest metaphor ever occurred to me.

The Choson dynasty is ActiveX.

Think about it: Choson established a stable government and social system relatively early on which, regardless of its flaws and merits, did such an adequate job of satisfying most people’s needs that the costs of replacing, overthrowing or improving upon it outweighed the perceived benefits.  People simply worked inside the system, which was good enough not to make any one group both angry enough and powerful enough to pose a threat to its continuing existence.

The Korean government imposed ActiveX as the standard.  It works alright with Internet Explorer.  It’s not secure, but it seems secure enough.  It resists change because it works alright, and more importantly it suits the Financial Supervisory Service and politicians more than it harms online retailers and internet users, who are doing alright despite it.

And that’s the lesson here.  When things are alright, they’re not great.  When things are good enough, there is little incentive to make them better.  Dissatisfaction, the harder to satisfy the better, is what pushes things forward. 

(Watch me pull it all back around now.)

The great flaw of Neo-Confucian statecraft is that it works.  When every meaningful element of society is either satisfied or weakened to the point where its satisfaction is irrelevant, there is no motivating drive on the whole.  The Choson period was full of people striving to improve their own lot in life, and the net effect of it was a whole lot of nothing, not because of a lack of talent, skill or will, but because of a surplus of means of satisfying ambitions which were in the end pretty pointless.  My professor quotes Korean historian Ed Wagner as saying that one thing that never ceases to amaze is the propensity of Koreans to develop means of displaying status, whether it be education, scholarship (not the same thing), luxury goods, real estate, plastic surgery, and on and on.  The problem, as I see it, is that the surfeit of means of satisfying ambitions which were, in the end, essentially worthless leaves a society with nothing but a bunch of accomplished failures.

It also occurs to me that modern Korea may be alright, because a lot of the things that have become modern status symbols, (industry and technology, for example) have a much stronger element of progress than past status symbols like Confucian scholarship, which appears to have been a 500 year dead end and a drain of the best minds on the peninsula.