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  • Kyŏngju Things: Assembling Place
  • Eleana Kim
Kyŏngju Things: Assembling Place by Robert Oppenheim. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008. 296 pp. Photos, line drawings. $75.00 (cloth), $25.00 (paper)

The city of Kyŏngju is perhaps best known as the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom and as the site of the Sokkuram Grotto and Pulguksa Temple, which together have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a "religious architectural complex of exceptional significance." The Japanese colonial government recognized the archaeological value of these Buddhist wonders, and the South Korean state endowed the city and its environs with special historic status in the 1970s. Ever since, the grotto and temple, as well as the burial mounds and gold crowns excavated from them, have been required viewing for Korean school-age children as well as for historically inclined international tourists. As Robert Oppenheim describes in Kyŏngju Things, Park Chung Hee's Yusin Constitution not only ushered in a period of rapid economic development and repressive authoritarianism, it also made possible the identification of the city and its relics as crucial elements in the official teleology of Korea's glorious past and its developmentalist present and future. In large part because of this official designation, the modern city of Kyŏngju emerged out of a tension between "development" and "preservation." As the city's economy became increasingly tied to tourism dollars brought in by the ancient relics and historical sites, its own development required close attention to preservation in a country more often identified with the "creative destruction" of hypercapitalism.

One of the virtues of Oppenheim's book is his close attention to the local, or localization (chibanghwa). Indeed, his field research (1997-1998) came on the heels of the local political autonomy (chibang chach'i) reforms of 1995 that granted South Korean citizens the power to elect their own town, city, and provincial leaders for the first time since 1961. In these changed circumstances, notions [End Page 131] of civic participation, belonging, and citizenship were no doubt also under revision. On this most basic level, then, the book tells us how Kyŏngju, as a place, emerged in the 1990s out of situated interactions of people—including members of citizens' groups, religious organizations, and individual scholars—with the objects of "history," against a backdrop of "democratization."

As ethnography, Kyŏngju Things stakes out new and unusual territory. It might seem, at first glance, to be a conventional work of anthropology—the study of "local culture"—but it departs in significant ways from this classic model, and not just in the fact that this study is situated in a city instead of a village. Indeed, the book suggests new directions for studies of South Korea, moving into territory less concerned with the analytic mainstays of social anthropology, i.e., "culture," "society," "ritual," "religion," "kinship," or even "governmentality," and "citizenship," even as it touches upon almost all of these. Recent historical ruptures and periodizing events like the 1980 Kwangju Massacre, the 1987 democratic transition, and the 1997-98 IMF financial crisis also seem quite remote. Rather than drawing connections across social categories and different temporal and spatial scales, Oppenheim suspends these contextualizing tendencies in order to provide a microanalysis of the processes and conjunctures out of which "Kyŏngju" as a place is made. The context in Oppenheim's book is narrowly drawn, specifically around the controversy over the proposed construction of a high-speed railway and station in the city, the future Korea Train Express (KTX). What might seem to be a clear ethnographic instance of social actors negotiating "tradition" and "modernity" within a shifting terrain of the national and global, in Oppenheim's hands, becomes a close reading of encounters among people and objects that, gathered together, "assemble place."

As Oppenheim describes in his introduction, place is "a nexus of actual and potential stabilizing relations that makes and distributes possibilities for agency" (p. 14). In the subsequent chapters, drawing upon participant observation with members of the Kyŏngju "cultural world," interviews with activists, academics, and everyday people, as well as historical and media sources, the author weaves together the nexus of...


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