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