Friday, February 15, 2008

Butting in

[update: Do read the comments for the reply to this post.]

In the comments to my last post, an anonymous commenter left the nastiest reply I’ve ever received, but it’s not without its merits, considering what I posted. Lesson to relearn - don't post quickly when you're tired and try to finish quickly so you can go to bed, especially when you're trying to be funny (and when your typical humor is too dark to be considered funny by most... or is simply not very funny at all).

I actually had a different title and beginning which would have worked better, but didn’t think it was complete and was too tired to finish it and so removed it and changed the title at the last moment and just posted it. The title as posted came from the fact that I noticed it was then Valentines Day, and associated it with the “Easter-style chocolates” I conjured up at the end of the post (which were meant to make fun of my own culture’s weirdness in celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ by telling children a giant bunny left chocolate eggs in the night). I've reinstated the (what I still feel is incomplete) original beginning at the top of the post (and have made clear how I changed it).

Reading what I wrote again made me see that there was a rather large gap between what I was thinking about and how the post turned out. I meant to criticize the media coverage and look at the phenomenon of people crying in front of media cameras in Korea, much as I did in this post. I think that if you read that post, you’ll see that while I might have poked a bit of fun, it was aimed at the media and how people react in the presence of cameras. I should make clear that I didn’t intend to criticize the people themselves who were going to Namdaemun, but the way in which it was turning into a media event. Of course, with the title and the caption under the photo of the children, it would be difficult not to think I was making fun of these people. That's not what I intended, and as strange as putting a photo of a building on an mourning altar might seem, I do realize that they are mourning the death of a symbol, much as the people in Pyeongchang months ago were mourning the death of their dreams of Olympic glory (and of their hope for a rise in land prices in the area).

I do think that the media's presence near, and coverage of, large groups of people influences their behavior and that the dissemination of the images of these groups' behavior in the media influences the behavior of those who observe it as spectators, and that this is a fascinating phenomenon. One only needs to see how media coverage of crowds near city hall during the 2002 world cup drew more people to city hall to be not only a part of that crowd, but also to be subject to that coverage. I just didn't do a very good job of conveying any of this in that last post. Sorry about that.

Now to reply to some of the complaints posted by my anonymous commenter.
these people are revering the past, they are revering something that lasted the test of time, at least within their imaginations, and they are bowing down to that image. and what they are bowing down to isn't profit... it isn't superficial beauty.... it isn't faddish or cutesy or trite. it's truly something noble. something gorgeous. something that has been there "forever" and was supposed to be there till the end of time. they mourn its passing... and that's a bad thing?
'Faddish' isn't the right word, of course, as that would refer more to something like this:

half price!

But it might be worth noting that the number of people visiting Namdaemun has increased markedly since in burned down. As for the popular imagination, allow me to say this:

The burning of and near-total destruction of Namdaemun is best thing that has happened to it since the dawn of the media era - as far as its place in the public imagination is concerned.

Suddenly, a landmark to which most people rarely given a passing thought has been destroyed, and its name (its proper name, at that) is on the lips of everyone. This is, of course, only human nature. While what Mr. Chae did to the actual, physical Namdaemun was terrible, what he has done to make people aware of Namdaemun's place in their shared history ensures that his name will soon be forgotten and drowned out by a million TV news reports, newspaper articles and websites shouting the name in unison "Sungnyemun."
let them mourn in peace without your holier-than-thou "we need a good sense o[f] proportion" thinking. it's their loss not yours, so butt the fuck out why don't cha?
As far as sense of proportion goes, allow me to restate the point of this post a little more succinctly: Nobody died. It's a building. Not only that, it's a building made out of wood, and made in style which the craftsmen currently rebuilding Gyeongbokgung and Gwanghwamun are very familiar with. Another thing worth pointing out is illustrated by this photo:

From here

It hasn't been entirely destroyed. It's even possible that some of these pieces of wood date back to the original structure and that some of them will be incorporated into the newly rebuilt Namdaemun. Of course, that doesn't take away from the fact that it burned and collapsed unexpectedly on live television, something I didn't realize until I read this comment. I can understand that this must have been shocking to see live, and would have had a markedly different effect than looking at photos of its collapse on naver, which is what I did. When I watched a video of it collapsing the next day, I have to say, it was an entirely different experience, and not a very pleasant one. But this all goes to reinforce just what a media event this was, which was what I was (clumsily) discussing in my last post. It's also interesting to note that it's precisely Namdaemun's central location that helped make it so easily accessible (to the general public, the arsonist, and the media covering the fire and the mourners) and which helped cement it in the nation's imagination (as well as the fact that it's more aesthetically pleasing than Dongdaemun).

As for me "butting the fuck out", please let me know what credentials I need to post about this topic. Do I need to have lived here for a certain amount of time? Do I need to have Korean ancestry? It might also help if you let me know what other topics I should not be commenting on. Is it okay to criticize the response of the police, fire department, Cultural Heritage Administration or president to the fire as long as I don't comment on the media's coverage of the public response? As for the "theirs" and "yours" distinction you make, you might want to direct your anger at this uppity foreigner who poked his nose into Korea's business and had the gall to point out that a house in Insa-dong that once belonged to a former prince had been turned into a parking lot (without a peep from the media).
they mourn something twice as old (if even in their imagination) as your own fucking country.... have a bit of feeling whydoncha?
As my country is 140 years old, Namdaemun would actually be about four times as old as my own fucking country, which would make Namdaemun about 10 times older than the Republic of Korea. As long as we're keeping count, I mean.

The burning of Namdaemun has certainly been the first big 'gust' of the year...


Anonymous said...

On "butting in..."

First of all, an apology for being rather intemperate (And a bit drunk... and sleepy. That was wrong of me) in my first comment. I was worked up because of the nature and target of your criticism - namely, what seemed to be a rather arrogant and condescending attack on mourners.

Relatively speaking, mourning is such a noble thing, as there really isn't any tangible thing to be gained from doing it. Considering the rat race for cash and prestige that is modern South Korea, a public expression of this variety should be celebrated, not mocked.

That said, there is certainly room for critique in such a spectacle, especially if the media does their ridiculous thing and/or politicians use the mourning site as a means of extracting gain. Looking back, I see that it was the media you were trying to skewer, but with out the proper precision, it sure did look like you were taking potshots at common folk who had the temerity to feel deeply for something that you had judged was not worthy of deep feeling. That's mean... and coming from someone who is otherwise so intelligent and humane, it came off as very elitist. So, I guess I was both angry and disappointed.

Finally, as to the questions of "butting out." I think you grasped too tightly to that point and tried to turn a specific admonishment into a general one, because it allowed you to avoid the real critique of being elitist and lacking in "fellow feeling."

I meant for you to butt out of their mourning. You were sticking your nose in between their bows and Sungnyemun, into that sacred, charged space, and basically laughing and blowing raspberries. It was the butting into their intimate space that I took issue with... not the foreign/korean thing - basic human rudeness, not foreign rudeness. I raised the foreign issue only to try and press upon you the fact of maintaining some sense of common politeness in understanding where the mourners where coming from, since yours was obviously a different context than theirs. This isn't to negate your right to criticize in total.

Anyways, sorry to be the nastiest comment ever, but your post was the nastiest post I've ever seen on an otherwise fantastic and caring blog. The care you've shown to catalogue and document the destruction of Korea's past is proof that you have a sensitivity towards space and place. The sudden lack thereof was shocking, and in my drunken righteousness, I felt the need to lash out, touched as I had been by the sincerity of the mourners.

Thanks as always for your blogging and for replying with such gusto to my original nasty-gram.

p.s. if this is really the "best thing" to have happened to SN-mun, by that logic, would random arson of ancient works be the best course of action for someone who cares about inspiring greater recognition/appreciation of korea's traditional art/architecture? or was this a one-off, and the next act of destruction will indeed be a "bad thing" for the edifice in question?

matt said...

Thanks for replying.

I realize I was also a bit snarky in my reply, and went a little too far regarding 'butting out'. As I said you were right to criticize the post, and it stands as a reminder to not just put a post together when it's late and I'm tired. It's too bad, as it could have been worthwhile, but I thought it was so strange when I saw them using an actual funeral ritual (for people) to mourn the loss of a building. The better question would have been to ask if there have been other occasions when funeral rituals have been used for something other than a person. And there's certainly something that could be written about how Namdaemun has perhaps come to 'personify' Korean history.

Relatively speaking, mourning is such a noble thing, as there really isn't any tangible thing to be gained from doing it. Considering the rat race for cash and prestige that is modern South Korea, a public expression of this variety should be celebrated, not mocked.

That is a really good point. I guess the same could be said for the street cheering during the World Cup (in that there's no tangible gain), but they really are coming from very different sources (perhaps nationalism (in part) for the world cup and patriotism for Namdaemun). It would be interesting to compare the two (I have a lengthy post about the world cup cheering that has been sitting unfinished for a year and a half).

As for your questioning of my "best thing to happen to Namdaemun" comment, good points. I need to be more precise. How about this:

The burning of and near-total destruction of Namdaemun is best thing that has happened to [a prominent ancient Korean building] since the dawn of the media era - as far as its place in the public imagination is concerned[, and in its potential to precipitate measures that will prevent such a thing from happening again.]

Maybe that's better? Obviously, I don't want to see anymore monuments go up in flames.

Thanks for posting and creating a dialogue - it's certainly helped me clarify my thoughts. And thanks for the compliments - this is one of the most encouraging comments I've received.