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일기: 전상인, <공간으로 세상 읽기>

나는 나 자신을 주로 도시에 대한 관심이 많은 사람으로 묘사한다. 그 것은 백 퍼센트 사실이긴 하지만 내가 관심 있는 것은 도시 뿐만 아니라 건축물과 길거리를 포함한 동네를 비롯하여 지하철과 같은 도시를 형성하는 여러 가지 시설물이다. 엄밀히 말하자면 나는 도시보다 도시를 구성하는 공간에 관심이 더 간다. 전상인 교수님의 <공간으로 세상 읽기>를 읽고 나서 나의 그러한 관심을 더 증폭시키기 시작했다. 이 책은 집과 터 그리고 길로 나눠져있고 각각 부분에 해당하는 종류의 공간의 역사나 현재를 조망하는 중요점을 다룬다.

이 책은 저자가 이야기하는 모든 종류의 공간을 도시와 연결하고 도시를 이루는 개별요소를 설명한다. 또한 나처럼 도시에 대한 책들을 많이 읽은 사람이 잘 아는 가장 유명한 도시 이론가인 루이스 멈포드와 이에 버금가는 제인 제이콥스와 이론가임과 동시에 건축가인 르 코르뷔지에와 같은 도시 이론가들의 작업을 자주 언급한다. 솔직히 말하면 내가 이러한 주제에 이미 친숙해져 있어서 이 책은 내가 읽는 다른 한글로 된 책들보다 훨씬 더 읽기 쉽다고 느끼게 된다. 그러나 이 책은 단순히 다른 사람들이 쓴 도시와 여러 가지의 공간들에 대한 것들을 요약하는 것뿐만 아니라 더 나아가서 사회학 교수님인 저자는 그의 관점을 모국인 한국의 도시와 공간으로 돌려 이 책을 통해 비판가의 역할도 맡는다.

공간빈국과 공간 후진국은 저자가 한국에 붙인 두가지 라벨이다. 그의 말에 따르면 오늘 날의 한국은 공간에 대한 본격적인 연구가 부족하기 때문에 공간들이 아무 계획없이 마구잡이로 설계되어서 그 공간들로 구성되어 있는 한국 도시들은 더 공들여 개발했던 다른 나라의 도시들에 비해서 매우 바람직하지 않다고 한다. 저자의 관점에서 보면 한국은 터를 어떻게 사용하고 그 위에 집과 길을 어떻게 놓을지를 완전히 새롭게 재고할 필요가 있다. 나는 이 책을 읽기 전부터이러한 서울에 대한 비판을 들은 적이 몇 번 있고 그 것의 이면에 담긴 생각을 이해하지만 전적으로 동의하기는 어렵다. 왜냐하면 저자와 나를 비교하여 누가 더 많은 도시를 방문했는지는 모르지만 나는 세계의 적지 않은 도시들에 가봤고 그중 제일 좋아하는 곳들 중에 하나가 바로 서울이기 때문이다.

저자가 말했듯이 서울을 제일 위대한 유럽 도시들과 비교하면 서울이 매력이 없는 곳처럼 보일 수도 있다. 하지만 내가 한국에 이사오기 전에 살았던 고속도로로 덥혀 있고 뒤죽박죽으로 건축된 로스앤젤레스도 마찬가지의 상황에 처해 있다. 어떻게 보면 가장 흥미로운 질문은 서울이나 로스앤젤레스와 같은 도시가 무엇이 문제인가가 아니라 서울이나 로스앤젤레스와 같은 도시를 왜 사람들이 즐기는가이다. 내 생각에 지난 백 년의 서양 도시 이론은 서울을 어떻게 개선할 수 있는지를 보여 줄 수는 있어도 새로운 21 세기에는 있는 그대로의 서울이 위대하다고 할 수 있는 유럽 도시들에게도 당연히 가르쳐 줄 것이 있을 거라는 것을 많은 사람들이 느낄 것이다.

Korea Blog: Luc Besson’s “Léon: The Professional,” a Cultural Phenomenon Going Strong in Korea for 25 Years

Léon: The Professional, the film that launched director Luc Besson into an international renown, came out a quarter-century ago this year. And in this case, “international renown” means he became known outside his native France not just in America but all over the world, and especially here in South Korea. Or rather, Besson the filmmaker has become less a household name in this country than Léonthe film has, and its name now seems known to more Korean households than ever. Most cellphone accessory shops stock Léon-themed cases, and as soon as I snapped one on my phone, everyone I encountered stopped commenting on its age — few Koreans today would be caught dead with an iPhone 5S — and started commenting on how much they love the movie the image on its back came from.

All this over a 25-year-old French hitman picture. The range of Léon merchandise available on the streets of Seoul — none officially licensed, naturally — hardly stops at cellphone cases: shirts emblazoned with drawings of Jean Reno’s rough-edged but ascetic assassin-for-hire and Natalie Portman’s smokingly, swearingly precocious orphan spill out of every other university-proximate clothing store. At the city’s frequent craft fairs young artists have applied their images to an ever-widening array of objects, often accompanied by the words “love or death” from the ultimatum so memorably laid down by Portman’s Mathilda to Reno’s Léon. Unlike London Review of Books tote bags, which last year enjoyed a moment in Korea as aesthetic objects more or less disconnected from their referent, Léon often gets referenced in its content as well, in text as well as on screen.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: Reading Tocqueville in Korea (Part Two)

Alexis de Tocqueville made his transatlantic journey in 1831 in order to discover what made America different from other countries, especially his native France and the rest of “Old World” Europe. “On my arrival in the United States, it was the religious atmosphere which first struck me,” he writes in the first volume of Democracy in America, published in 1835. “Americans so completely identify the spirit of Christianity with freedom in their minds that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive the one without the other.” He saw “Americans coming together to dispatch priests to the new states in the West in order to found schools and churches” and met “wealthy New Englanders who left their native land in order to establish the fundamentals of Christianity and freedom on the banks of the Missouri or in the prairies of Illinois. In this way, in the United States, religious zeal constantly gains vitality from the fires of patriotism.”

When I first started taking notice of Korea, gleaning what I could from the occasional visit to Korean restaurants and Korean-American classmates’ houses, I sensed how different a culture it really seemed to possess from that of, say, Japan and China, the countries with which Westerners tended to conflated it. Certain differences in sensibilities and aesthetics quickly make themselves felt (even someone completely ignorant of east Asian languages can usually identify Korean script, “the one that has circles”), but nothing stands out quite as much as the prevalence in Korea of Christianity. A Westerner visiting Korea for the first time might expect some kind of theocracy, extrapolating from the enthusiasm so many Koreans profess for the church back in the West, but in reality Protestants and Catholics (a distinction insisted upon much more fiercely than in America today) account for about 30 percent of the South Korean population combined.

By the standards of this part of the world, 30 percent is an impressive figure, but it might nevertheless strike our Westerner in Korea as a serious underestimate, especially if he arrives by night to see all the neon crosses that burn red along the Seoul skyline. There aren’t as many neon crosses as there used to be, but culturally, Christianity in Korea still punches well above its weight, stop just short though it may of Tocqueville’s observation, made in the second volume of Democracy in America, of the its being “intimately linked to all national habits and all the emotions which one’s native country arouses” and ruling “not only like a philosophy taken up after evaluation but like a religion believed without discussion.” But since America towered as an example of national success — and in a way, an object of worship itself — all throughout Korea’s development in the second half of the 20th century, its trifecta of Christianity, democracy, and capitalism must have looked like a magic formula to banish privation and humiliation to the past.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books (and part one here).

Talk at San Diego State University: “The Urban Future on Film” (2/14/19)

“Los Angeles is the city of the future,” the old joke goes, “and it always will be.” Certainly that holds true on film, where the southern Californian metropolis has been put to every possible cinematic end. Filmmakers have used Los Angeles to recreate the past, to portray the present, and most memorably to envision the future. The Japan-infused 2019 Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, first released in 1982, has ever since shaped the way we imagine urban dystopia; more recently, Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 intensified and diversified the look and feel of the original to suit our present moment. What makes Los Angeles, even in more utopian futuristic movies like Spike Jonze’s Her, such a rich collection of materials for urban futures — and why has the presence of Asia, as well as the characteristics of Asian cities, nearly always been essential to those futures?

I’ll address these and other questions about Los Angeles’ urban future on film, both utopian and dystopian, at San Diego State University on Thursday, February 14 at 5:00 p.m. in Hepner Hall, Room 214. My talk comes as part of Futures Past & Present, at art show at SDSU’s Downtown Gallery considering “not only how the future has been forecast in the past, but also how our present reality will inform what is yet to come.”

Korea Blog: Reading Tocqueville in Korea (Part One)

“Culture is not necessarily our destiny,” wrote the high-profile Korean activist and later president of South Korea Kim Dae-jung in a 1994 Foreign Affairs piece. “Democracy is.” Kim made that claim as part of an argument against Lee Kuan Yew, three-decade prime minister of Singapore, who took a dim view of transplanting Western political institutions into Asian soil. Like many pronouncements heard in Korean public life, Kim’s framing of democracy as destiny possesses in forcefulness what it lacks in understandability: not that I’ve read all or even most of Kim’s voluminous writings, but try as I  might I’ve never been able to understand quite how he arrived at so unambiguous a conclusion. I keep thinking of the student protesters P.J. O’Rourke interviewed in the 1980s: “What’s this election all about?” “Democracy.” “But what is democracy?” “Good.” “Yes, of course, but why exactly?” “Is more democratic that way!”

But democracy has been compelling as a subject of discussion since the invention of the thing itself, and before the world began to watch in fascination as democratic (or at least quasi-democratic) institutions spread across Asia, it watched in fascination as they took shape in that grand experiment known as the United States of America. Of all the copious observations made on democracy in America, none have proven more enduring than Democracy in America, the French diplomat, political scientist, and historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s first-person study of that new country, its laws, and its customs first published in two parts in 1835 and 1840. “Everyone can see that a widespread revolution toward democracy is in full swing amongst us,” Tocqueville writes early in the first volume. “Some look upon it as something new and, taking it as an accident, are still hoping to be able to check its progress, whereas others” — the Kim Dae-jungs of the world — “consider it irresistible because they see it as the most sustained, longstanding, and permanent development ever found in history.”

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: The Making of a Korean Monster in Kim Sagwa’s Bloody High-School Novel “Mina”

I often wonder why Korean kids almost never kill their parents. Not, of course, that I think Korean kids should kill their parents, but given all the stories one hears of the psychologically debilitating pressures faced by the youth in this country, and then how much of the time the agents of that pressure are the mother and father, one would think fatal lashings-out — deliberate or accidental — would be inevitable. The attempted explanations that come back when I wonder aloud about this are always flimsy: “Asians are socialized not to do things like that,” many have said, as if the children of other races were raised with explicit permission to to kill their parents. “They direct the violence inward,” others have said, which at least aligns with South Korea’s chilling youth suicide rate. And when they’re not killing themselves, Korean kids have, on occasion, been known to kill each other.

Youth-on-youth violence provides a subject for Kim Sagwa’s Mina (미나), a novel newly out in English translation by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. (Those respected translators also brought into English Yoon Tae-ho’s comic series Mosspreviously featured here on the Korea Blog.) Now in her mid-thirties, Kim still counts as a more or less a young novelist, but she was even younger when the book, her first full-length novel, first came out in Korea a decade ago. Both Mina and the shorter-form work that preceded it won Kim accolades as a something of a voice of a generation in Korea, or at least the voice of a particularly disaffected generation in Korea, ineffectively educated and at best barely employed, given to enervated bouts of cursing and fulmination against society, often while drinking and smoking under legal age. Even in the hands of translators as long-established as the Fultons, the youth of the novel’s voice come through; imagine a twentysomething, female Thomas Bernhard directing her frustration and rage not against her small European country for its role in the Second World War, but against her small east Asian country for the rigidity and irrationality of its educational and economic class structure.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2018: Malcolm Gladwell in cafés, Éric Rohmer in Paris, David Lynch at Bob’s Big Boy, and more

For nearly seven years now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 1800 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2018:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 20122013201420152016, and 2017.

Korea Blog: High School Student, New Bride, Working Girl: The Social Uniforms Project Gazes Straight at Modern Korean Femininity

I’ve got a trip to America planned next month, and even though I’ve only lived in Korea for three years, I now know more or less where to expect the moments of reverse culture shock. They begin with the uniforms, the contrast in which makes itself felt right away at the airport where I land. I’ve never had to fly an American airline out of Korea — knock on wood — but one look at the uniforms on their attendants, especially by comparison to the Korean-airline uniforms I’ve been seeing for the past dozen or so hours in flight, always underscores that I’ve left one society and entered another. Few American institutions not related to defense or law enforcement now seem to hold their uniforms in high regard, or even to demand much effort in the wearing of them. Sometimes their uniforms scarcely read as uniforms at all; I think, for example, of the Hawaiian shirts at Trader Joe’s, a beloved American institution unknown in Korea.

Only recently has it occurred to me that the difference between Korean and American uniforms reflects a difference in the value each culture places on androgyny. Emphasis on, let alone exaggeration of, classically male or female traits seems to have fallen into relative disrepute in America, regarded as unprofessional in some milieux and — ironically — insufficiently rebellious in others. If 21st-century American uniforms tend not just to be near-aggressively casual but sexless as well, so does 21st-century American dress in general. The same could certainly not be said of 21st-century Korean uniforms, nor of 21st-century Korean dress in general, nor of the many areas of Korean life and society where dress and uniform converge. Those areas provide the material for The Social Uniforms Project, an Instagram account on which a model and photographer collaborate to vividly depict the many uniforms, both official and unofficial, worn by modern Korean women, as well as the contexts in which they appear.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

일기: 김종현의 <한번 까불어 보겠습니다>

내가 서울에 처음 왔을 때 인상적인 것들 중 하나는 어느 동네에서도 경험할 수 있는 풍부한 독립 책방 문화였다. 미국 도시들에는 뉴욕의 더 스트랜드나 포틀랜드의 파월즈처럼 아주 좋은 서점들이 있긴 하지만 그 것들은 엄밀히 말하자면 책방이 아니라 대규모 가게들이다. 내가 다니는 서울 책방들의 기능은 책을 파는 것 뿐만 아니라 문화적인 공간을 열기도 한다. 집에서 가장 가까운 그러한 문화적인 공간을 대표하는 책방은 퇴근길 책 한잔이고 그 책방의 주인인 김종현은 최근에 자기 책방을 열고 운영한 지난 몇년의 경험을 토대로 <한번 까불어 보겠습니다>라는 책을 썼다.

나는 김종현의 책을 읽기 전까지는 까불다라는 단어를 들은 적이 없었다. 지금 그 단어가 무엇을 의미하는지를 대충 알고 있긴 하지만 어감이 얼마나 긍정적인지 얼마나 부정적인지 명확히 느끼지 못 한다. 어떻게 보면 까분다는 것은 규칙을 지키지 않고 마음대로 하는 것을 의미하고 김종현의 견해에서 보면 퇴사하고 책방을 시작한 것이 까부는 것이라고 할 수 있다. 적어도 성공에 강박 관념을 가지는 한국 사회의 기준으로 본다면 그러한 방식은 까부는 것이라고 볼 수도 있다. 그러나 한국보다 훨씬 자유롭고 여유로운 나라로 잘 알려져 있는 미국에서도 직장을 그만두고 자기 책방을 열 의지가 있는 사람은 그리 찾기 쉽지 않다.

몇 년 전부터 살아 온 동네에 어느 조용한 골목길에서 퇴근길 책 한잔을 우연히 처음 만난 이후 나는 자주 그 책방을 방문해 왔다. 원래 나를 유혹한 것은 책방의 문에 붙혀진 내가 제일 좋아하는 한국 영화 감독인 홍상수의 <지금은 맞고 그때는 틀리다>라는 영화의 포스터였다. 나는 김종현도 홍상수의 광팬인 것을 곧 알게 되었고 그때 이후 홍상수 뿐만 아니라 주인이 선택해서 상영하는 여러 다른 영화들을 보러 책방에 간 적이 많았다. 나는 원래 영화 자체에 대한 관심이 엄청 많지만 진짜 즐기는 것은 퇴근길 책 한잔에서 보는 영화보다 상영한 후에 다른 단골들과 대화를 나누는 것이다.

책방에서 영화를 본 후 술을 마시면서 하는 그러한 대화는 영화 주제로부터 시작되지만 우리가 얘기하면 얘기할수록 자연스럽게 인생에 대한 대화로 전향된다. 나는 그러한 대화에서 주로 할 말도 별로 생각나지 않고 쉽게 표현할 수 있는 말이 많이 없지만 오히려 다른 사람들의 말을 듣는 것을 참 좋아한다. 나는 그러한 대화에서 나오는 되풀이되는 주제들을 <한번 까불어 보겠습니다>를 읽으면서도 다시 한번 인식했다. 표면상으로 책방인 퇴근길 책한잔의 이야기를 하는 그 책은 실제로는 김종현의 인생관을 풀어 놓고 그 인생관은 내가 진심으로 동의하는 것이다.

나와 김종현이 세상을 똑같게 바라보는 예를 하나 들면 김종현이 어떤 장에서 설명하는 51대49의 게임이 있다. 이 게임은 인생에서 어렵고 중요한 모든 선택은 가치가 아주 비슷한 대안들을 제시하는 것이고 어떤 면에서 선택의 연속인 인생 자체를 51대49의 게임으로 여길 수도 있다. 다른 장에서는 김종현이 죽음에 대해 매 순간 생각한다고 쓰고 나 또한 그렇게 생각하려교 노력한다. 특히 죽음에 대한 관심이 있어서 그런 것이 아니라 김종현처럼 삶을 더 강렬하게 집중하며 살기 위해서 그런 것이다. 삶이 끝이 없다고 생각한다면 정말로 살면서 꼭 해야 할 일을 할 수 없을 뿐만 아니라 그것이 무엇인지도 알 수 없다.

다른 사람들은 다를 수도 있지만 나는 죽음을 떠올릴 때 살아 있음을 더 뼈저리게 느낀다. 그러나 내가 일상에서 느끼는 살아 있음에 대한 감정과 죽음의 생각을 포함하여 다른 여러 가지가 있다. 퇴사하고 독립 책방을 시작한 김종현보다도 미국을 떠난 미국인인 내가 까부는 사람이라고 할 수 있을지도 모르지만 김종현에게는 책방을 운영하는 것이 직장 생활하는 것보다 살아 있음을 느끼게 하는 것 같고 이와 더불어 나는 미국보다 한국에서 살아 있음을 그 어느 때보다도 매 순간 느낀다. 한국이라는 커다란 장소 안에 포함된 퇴근길 책 한잔에서 술을 마시면서 인생에 대해 토론하며 살아 있음을 느끼는 것은 내가 예전에 전혀 느껴보지 못한 감동이다. <한번 까불어 보겠습니다>를 읽고 나서 내가 제일 좋아하는 시들 중 하나인 라이너 마리아 릴케의 <고대의 아폴로 토르소>의 유명한 마지막 줄이 문득 떠올랐다: “그대는 그대의 삶을 바꿔야만 한다.”

Korea Blog: Revisiting “301, 302,” Park Chul-soo’s Stylish Film About Food, Sex, and Other Horrors

Different foreigners who move to Korea struggle with different aspects of life here, but it’s safe to say that none warm up immediately to the ways of Korean food-waste disposal. The country’s ban on food waste of any kind from its landfills necessitates that it be disposed of, and thus stored, separately from the rest of the trash. Instead of under-the-sink garbage disposals, a rarity here whose unauthorized installation can bring about enormous fines, most households have cans just for food waste, which over the course of a few days can become an awful visual and olfactory spectacle indeed. If that sounds bad,  imagine taking out your food trash and having a glance inside the container around the back of the apartment building where everyone else has been throwing theirs out for the past few days, especially in the heat of the summertime.

The most disgusting scene of Park Chul-soo’s 301, 302 (삼공일 삼공이) — and perhaps the most disgusting scene in all of Korean cinema, even given its reputation in some quarters for “extremity” — evokes the same feelings as does the sight of a long-filled food-trash bin but even more so, though the film came out a full decade before the passage of the law that put the current disposal system into effect. It comes about halfway into a battle of wills between two thirtysomething women, neighbors across a hallway. The newly divorced Yun-hee, having grown fat from all the elaborate meals she cooked for her ex-husband, moves into unit 302 of the New Hope Bio Apartments with ambitions of slimming down and starting life afresh. She can think of no better way to introduce herself to Song-hee in unit 301 than by delivering her a plate of food, which Song-hee promptly tosses into the garbage after taking a moment to vomit at the very sight of.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.