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  • KAPF Literature in Modern Korean Literary History
  • Yoon-shik Kim (bio)
    Translated by Yoon Sun Yang (bio)

The Modern as Both Universality and Particularity

In this essay, I will introduce a model that I have developed for explaining modern Korean literature. The phrase modern Korean literature has three components: modern, Korean, and literature, and I would like first to address the significance of the term modern in my discussion.

Provided that the modern, as a historical phase, can be characterized in political terms as the development of nation-states and in socioeconomic terms as the capitalist mode of production, and assuming further that it is just a matter of time before all peoples pass through this phase, we may refer to the modern, in this sense, as universality. More often than not, however, the modern as it emerges in the peripheries emerges as a distortion of, or out of sync with, the assumed universality. These events in the peripheries I refer to as particularities. Thus, only after asking ourselves what the [End Page 405] modern means, can we examine what the modern is for Korea. The modern as it is in Korea must be examined not only in its universality but also in its particularities. Particularities become associated with what interrupts the realization of universality (i.e., capitalism and nation-states) or delays its fulfillment (i.e., anti-imperialist struggles and anti-feudalist struggles). In Korea, these particularities are often pronounced and compelling enough to overshadow the universality. It is precisely the extreme nature of the experience of modern Korea that brings the importance of its particularities to the forefront.

Now to discuss the third component of modern Korean literature: literature. What is modern Korean literature? The Korean literary critic, Im Hwa, who made the first attempt to write a history of modern Korean literature, saw it as "literature of Korea that has the modern as its content and western literary genres as its form." He clearly starts from the modern as his basis for his reflections on Korean literature. In other words, his account was inflected from the beginning with a concern for universality and was not limited solely to the particularity of Korea. Thus following Im Hwa we can see that in our attempt to write a history of modern Korean literature, both universality and particularities must be considered simultaneously within a common epistemological field, no matter how urgent and pressing the particularities may seem. Each and every event in modern Korean literature must be apprehended as both universality and particularity, at times stressing the importance of particularity and at times the importance of universality, but never failing to be attentive to the interplay of the two. Similarly, when thinking through the dynamics of the field of particularities, the relative emphasis given to, for instance, anti-Japanese struggles as opposed to anti-feudalist struggles must vary according to the circumstances. There may be moments therefore when we accord more value to anti-imperialist struggles than to anti-feudalist struggles. Likewise, there will be times when we may decide to give more weight to the latter than the former. What I call an awareness of the history of literature is the ability on the part of the historian to discern when universality deserves more emphasis than particularities and vice versa; when anti-imperialist struggles should be stressed more than anti-feudalist struggles and vice versa. The above model, along with the awareness of the history of literature as I have described it, is productive [End Page 406] when applied to the situation of Korean literature in the mid-1920s, which had KAPF (Korea Artista Proletaria Federacio) literature as its center.1

The Idea of Class as Alien God

As is well known, modern Korean literature began with Yi Kwang-su's Heartless (Mujŏng).2 Considering that Yi Kwang-su was the drafter of the February Eighth Declaration of Independence, a minister of the Provisional Government of the Korean Republic in Shanghai, and president and chief editor of the bulletin of that government, The Independent Gazette (Tongnip sinmun), it is safe to say that the horizons of his authorial consciousness were bounded by nationalist ideas. Insofar as his literature...


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