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  • Inverse Modernity:Literary Representations of the Contradictory Flow of Technology and Ideas in Colonial Korea
  • John M. Frankl (bio)


Any monolithic definition of modernity has long since been problematized, if not wholly discredited. Perhaps modernity is best viewed as an ideological claim. Even if one concentrates solely on the concept as it has been deployed in the West, as Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar points out, “Western discourse on modernity is a shifting, hybrid configuration consisting of different, often conflicting, theories, norms, historical experiences, utopic fantasies, and ideological commitments. Such contradictions within claims and projections, rather than being challenged, only grow in significance and salience when the question is extended beyond the West. In 1997, four years prior to the publication of Gaonkar’s edited volume on alternative modernities, Tani E. Barlow had taken up the more specific question of colonial modernity in East Asia. Though the work, as its title implies, covers enormous geographical and disciplinary ground, it is immediately relevant here for its clearly expressed [End Page 335] “desire to experiment with ways of stepping around some well-rehearsed impediments to critical scholarship.”2

Arriving between the above two works was a volume devoted exclusively to colonial modernity in Korea, co-edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson. This work also sought to avoid existing impediments—specifically, narratives that simultaneously totalize and privilege the nation—in order to shed light on, among many other things, “alternative collective identities such as class, gender, region, and status.”3 But this was never meant to be the final word. Rather, the introduction ends with the very modest aspiration that “the recovery of silenced voices and subjects of history held hostage by master nationalist narratives will provide the material for the construction of a more complex and nuanced picture of colonial society.”4 The Korean academic community responded, but not as a unified national body. Some agreed, others countered.5 Most recently, in 2013, an English-language edited volume gathered “the perspective of Korean scholars from Korea” in order to remedy its “glaring absence in U.S. and European scholarly debates about the Japanese colonial legacy.”6 This essay that opens this volume is unequivocally titled “Introduction: A Critique of ‘Colonial Modernity.’” And while the Korean scholarship provided by the volume is salutary, the reductionism of its introduction is worrisome. Not only does it imply a singular perspective for Korean scholars, it also goes on to make totalizing and untenable blanket statements such as “Koreans view Japanese [End Page 336] colonialism as a humiliating experience that had little benefit for Korea,”7 thereby ironically bolstering certain of the criticisms raised in the Shin and Robinson volume it seeks to rebut.

Regardless of their individual positionality, what the above collections have in common are the interventions of scholars from several different countries and disciplines in conscious attempts to provide us with a much more nuanced understanding of the complex interrelationships among colonialism, development, technology, capitalism, and modernity. Compelling arguments have been put forth to display that colonialism and development, once considered antithetical to one another, often proceeded in unison. But simultaneity does not equal unity. Looking at India, in a study also quite relevant to Korea, Partha Chatterjee explores the disconnect between the material and the spiritual domains of modernization, and how the colonized may internally seek to protect and preserve their “cultural identity” even as they externally accept and participate in the modernization of fields such as economics, politics, and science.8 In the case of Korea, Andre Schmid convincingly argues in a similar vein regarding the “national soul (kukhon) or the national essence (kuksu),” noting that “(t)his spiritually defined nation offered a form of resistance rooted not in civilizing reform but in the cultivation of language, religion, and especially history.”9 What appears to have been overlooked, however, are the representations in modern Korean fiction of the relationship between this tangible modernity based on technology, systems, and institutions and a corresponding intangible modernity based on thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. Or, more accurately, even when the relationship has been examined scholars have largely focused on the correspondence between changes in the physical environment and the seemingly predestined mental adjustments [End...


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pp. 335-364
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