Constructed Places / Contested Spaces: Critical Geographies in Korea

Principal Investigators: Timothy R. Tangherlini, UCLA
Sallie Yea, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

Project Description

Understanding how people use space—and invest space with meaning—has become a topic of great importance in the fields of cultural studies, geography, ethnography, anthropology, history and literature, not to mention fields such as economics and political science. Exploring how people negotiate their identities and interests in and through space/ place is also an issue of increasing import. This is particularly true in Asia where the geographies of transnationalism and globalization are being played out with profound spatial and cultural consequences. One such consequence is the marked increase in the movement of people throughout the region, bringing people from disparate cultures into closer proximity, either in the real world or in the virtual world. Globalization has also brought to the fore concerns of both cultural homogenization and neocolonialism in East Asia. Many of the responses to these changes are being expressed variously through social movements and democratic struggles, ethnic/national and cultural revivals, and the forging of new, hybrid cultures. These changes all occur in space and many are fundamentally about space itself. New uses and meanings are attached to places both physically (as they are occupied and reconstructed) and figuratively (as they are reimagined, reinterpreted and articulated). These "critical geographies" emerge to challenge, subvert and resist other, dominant meanings in profound and significant ways. Consequently, the way that people interpret the space around them is a critical issue in our understanding of the current changes in Asia. Although these processes inform the interaction of peoples throughout the region, we propose an intensive study of these processes in Korea, both from a synchronic and a diachronic perspective. These perspectives will be augmented with several examples from other East Asian countries not as an exhaustive description of these phenomena but rather as a means to open a comparative dialogue while maintaining a critical focus on Korea.

The contestation over space and place is quite intense in all of Asia. Developments in  Korea allow us to focus explicitly on some of these areas of contestation. As communities experience rapid change with the influx of populations from other regions or countries, the potential interpretations of newly shared spaces multiply and, in some cases, become charged with conflict. Events, such as the unrest that jolted Los Angeles in 1992, in which large parts of Koreatown and South Central Los Angeles  that had been reconfigured by a well-established immigrant populations were forcibly erased from the landscape, is one of the most dramatic recent examples of the close relationship between uses of space and the emergence of at times opposing interpretations and uses of that space. The Korean diaspora has become in recent years a topic subjected to greater and greater scrutiny, yet few scholars of the diaspora have focused explicitly on the question of space/place. The outward movement of Koreans of the diaspora may also be echoed in the ever increasing numbers of non Koreans living in Korea, resulting in a refiguration of urban Korean neighborhoods, just as Korean diasporic populations have refigured neighborhoods, urban and rural landscapes, in their countries of residence.

In some cases, the appropriation and subversion of sites is much more sustained and seemingly passive, and does not derive from transnational movements of people. Rather the movements of ideas across boundaries, often through newly emergent media such as those enabled by ubiquitous and inexpensive access to the internet, also have the potential to profoundly refigure the landscape(s). Punks in Seoul, for example, take over an underground café, converting the space into their own "nation," despite the intended uses of that same space by the building's owners. Similarly, dozens of young Japanese men and women converge on Harajuku, turning an area where shops and cafes compete for space with the Meji-Jingu shrine into a seemingly endless rock party. In another example, the Japanese authorities reconfigure a subway station to discourage homeless squatters only to be confronted with an artistic explosion of creatively painted shelters, forging a new alliance between artists and the disenfranchised. Despite the seeming quiescence of these activities, the gatherings are a forceful, public expression of an otherwise hidden culture.

Even when places seem clearly defined, and their uses without question, one often finds moments when the space is redefined, such as the Tiananmen uprising in China, in which a square dedicated to the symbolic representation of state authority suddenly became the site for a direct challenge to that state. Korea is no stranger to such confrontation and challenges to authoritarian definitions of space—for example, the well-known massacre in Kwangju mapped onto the city the state apparatus of control, while the opponents of brutal state oppression briefly refigured the landscape of authority in their usurpation of key buildings in the city. Other challenges to state authority that were intimately linked to a geography of resistance took place in Korea throughout the 1980s. Myongdong Cathedral located in central Seoul near to one of the most fashionable shopping districts in the city became a center and refuge for anti-government protesters, so that violent clashes with police with the cathedral as backdrop frequently spilled into the upscale pedestrian streets of the area. Indeed, the division of the Korea itself inscribes onto the peninsula a cartography of control that violently alters historic patterns of circulation, land-use and notions of region.

At other times challenges to state authority are more protracted and less violent. The "folklore village" in South Korea, for example, is open to widely divergent readings by the Korean government on the one hand and a disaffected populace on the other—the park simultaneously represents an ideal vision of the nation's past and a history of oppression and inequality. This historical cartography is repeated throughout Asia in similar manners and is not specific to Korea; yet, each example is embedded not only in the historical and political exigencies of its national context. Tourist sites and festivals geared toward a presentation of a master narrative of “Korea and Korean culture” to outsiders also enable these competing claims to space and at times contradictory understandings of place. The World Cup in summer 2002 promises to reenact many of the contested landscapes that emerged in the shadow of the 1988 Olympics, for example. Other sites of in Seoul, such as the grossly over-determined Insadong area, are excellent loci for examinations of the type we propose.

Regionalism, economic development and politics are also frequently inscribed onto the landscape—a critical reading of the landscape opens the possibility for an understanding of the contours of geographies of resistance which are part of our larger critical project. Land use issues are intimately linked to notions of identity, so when farmers confront developers over contentious issues that pit continued agricultural output against housing development, it is not simply a matter of competing economic interests. These struggles are highly emotive precisely because the meaning of the land differs enormously between groups, and because the land is, in each case, bound up in the dialectic tension between projected notions of “progress,” cultural identity and the abilities of the poor to stave off the pressures of the wealthy. These are but examples of the types of tensions and diverse loci in which “critical geographies” move into the foreground. As our project develops, we hope to expand our understanding of contested sites in Korea in specific and in East Asia in general.

Significance of Proposed Project in the Context of Korean and East Asian Research

The current project has a primary focus on Korea set within a comparative East Asian perspective. While there exists an increasing body of work that focuses on "geographies of resistance," as well as the tactical use (or interpretation) of space as a means for disenfranchised populations to counteract the goals of a dominant group, the majority of these studies focus on issues or events in Europe and Africa (Pile 1997). As scholars of East Asia in general—and Korea in particular—it is our responsibility to interrogate the critical endeavor that proposes an easy mapping of analytic methods and theoretical conjectures derived from a study of European or American phenomena onto East Asia. We believe that in an era of globalization, failing to pay attention to the specific contours of these phenomena might lull us into a sense that there truly has been a leveling of cultural processes, essentially making us as scholars complicit in a postcolonial theoretical gesture that effectively erases the local  Even those studies that do include articles on the Pacific Rim generally only include a single case study or two from East Asia and rarely include mention of Korea. This approach necessarily obscures the fact that, given the high degree of circulation of populations throughout Asia and the intimate economic and historical ties between the countries of the area, considerations of space and the interpretation of place are closely linked throughout the region. Other studies that focus on the rapid economic and political changes within Asia tend to be constrained by adherence to a political economy perspective, muting questions of culture and space (Dirlik 1993). With our initial mini-conferences, and our final main conference, we hope to be the first to systematically address the complex issues surrounding space, its use and interpretation, within this clearly defined geographic and political region. While both the conference and subsequent volume will build on the growing body of scholarship that addresses these issues, we expect to broaden the perspectives that have generally informed prior studies.

We envisage each participant will contribute to the discussions of our group, focusing their work along the lines of at least one of the three following project research questions: (a) How do people negotiate interests and identities in and through place/ space? (b) How do people contest established meanings of place and assert new meanings? (c) How do notions of transition (flux) or permanence (fix) affect the nature of space/ place?

The alliance between Prof. Yea, a geographer, and Prof. Tangherlini, a folklorist, is deliberately intended to provide an interdisciplinary thrust to the project. In addition, we expect to include in the conference scholars from the fields of history, anthropology, music, art history, cultural studies and literature. This broad interdisciplinary approach has several clear advantages:

· The conference(s) will bring together scholars—including local UCLA graduate students—from several institutions throughout the United States, Asia and Europe, and begin a dialog among these scholars concerning the pressing issues of the use of space and the interpretation of space throughout the region.
· The conference will initiate a dialogue between scholars in fields that often have little contact.
· Through these contacts, our collaborators will develop new approaches sensitive to critical methods in numerous fields and will accordingly lead to a deeper understanding of the phenomena surrounding the uses of space and construction of places in Asia.
· Given the interdisciplinary nature of the project, the conference and ensuing volume will have broad appeal to both academic and non-academic communities, and will reveal the some of the profound connections that exist in the region.

We envision a group of twelve to fifteen scholars working on a series of interlocking topics. Among this group, we envision having a small group of non-Koreanist East Asian specialists addressing topics of a comparative nature. For Korea, our main topics will be arranged as follows:

(1) Historic representation and preservation. Likely topics to be discussed include, “Korean Folk Village and the (re)Construction of Past Place,” “Folk Belief and Place—from P'ungsu to the Kumgansan tours,” “Archaeology and Place” and “Constructing Colonial-era Korea.” Scholars working in this area will most likely be Timothy Tangherlini, Je Hun Ryu, Hyung-il Pai and Todd Henry.

(2) Urban Space and Diaspora. Likely topics to be discussed include, “Urban Apartment Complexes and emergent notions of community,” “Alternative Youth Culture in Seoul,” “Spatial Organization of Diasporic Communities,” “Reconfiguring Myongdong: Shopping, Catholicism and Dissent.”  Scholars in this group will most likely be Valerie Gelezeau, Hijoo Son, Stephen Epstein and Donald Baker.

(3) Region and the North Korea. Likely topics to be discussed include aspects of tourism, regional tensions, land-use issues and the geography of division. This topic is the least specific of the three, and may well be reconfigured yet it reflects our current thinking on logical organization. Scholars working in this group will most likely be Sallie Yea, Nancy Abelmann and Clark Sorensen.

(4) Comparative Approaches: “Shinjuku Station,” “Historical Preservation in Taiwan,” “Place and Space in Japanese Fiction.” Scholars in this group will likely be Michael Bourdaghs, Liang-yi Yen and Stefan Tanaka.

These topics are not intended to be an exact representation of how our project will be presented—rather they represent our current thinking concerning primary points of focus. We expect to involve a larger number of graduate students than currently listed here.
Plan for Years One and Two

The project is currently in its infancy. During the first year of the project, we will assemble a group of local graduate students (approximately three to six), identify up to three additional scholars from other universities, and up to three local scholars who will form the core group. We expect to take advantage of the fact that the well-known Korean cultural geographer, Je-Hun Ryu will be in residence at UCLA during AY 2002-2003, and hope that he will be able to return to UCLA for the conference in Sprin 2004.

We hope to be able to enlist several of the following scholars to join us live—or potentially over video-streaming— to make presentations during our mini-workshops and to attend our final conference. Already, we have identified other “leads” for each of the four groups—Tangherlini on historic preservation/representation, Gelezeau, a specialist on urban geography, to lead the second group on urban space and diaspora, Yea leading the group on regionalism and division and Bourdaghs leading the group on comparative East Asian sites. Other potential invitees include, Nancy Abelmann (Univ. of Illinois), Stephen Epstein (Victoria University, Wellington) Clark Sorensen (University of Washington), Stefan Tanaka (UC San Diego) and Donald Baker (University of British Columbia). Of course, the idea is not to work in small little groups—rather we intend to work with each other and see what emerges—these groups are only intended to help organize our thoughts at this formative stage in the project. We will identify and invite non-UC participants to join our group during the summer, 2002.

Year One

During the first year, we will hold one or two mini-conferences at UCLA. During these sessions we will focus on the underlying theoretical premises of the project, refining them and developing a clearer sense of the scope of the conference to be held the following year. We expect to develop a website for conference participant use. On this site, participants and potential participants will be able to share ideas and work on drafts of papers in progress. We expect to leverage UCLA's investment in video-conferencing equipment to invite "virtually" several scholars to present to our UCLA centered group during the course of the first year. The website will act as an on-going "working paper" sessions. Since we plan to use "virtual space" as part of the first year, we expect that  costs associated with the planning phase of the project will be quite low.

Year Two

During the second year, we expect to complete planning for a conference to be held in Spring 2004. Papers will be refined—primarily using the virtual "working paper" forum outlined above—during the fall. In the spring, our three international scholars, our three local / American scholars, and our six graduate students will convene for a two-day conference to present papers. The papers will be collected at the conference, and sent to the publisher(s) during the late spring. We expect to complete the majority of volume editing during the summer of 2004, with publication of the conference volume in early 2005.

Tentative Schedule

Schedule for Year One

· July-September 2002—set up planning Web-site. Identify potential local and international participants and make initial contacts. Develop core bibliography.
· October-December 2002—Convene local group of graduate students and scholars. First virtual conference in December 2002. Develop further core bibliography and outline areas of inquiry.
· January-April 2003—On-line Web-based discussions among conference participants coupled to monthly meetings of local group to discuss areas of inquiry and selected readings.
· May 2003—First mini-conference. Travel by Sallie Yea to participate with group at UCLA.

Schedule for Year Two

By the end of year one, we will have identified all of the conference participants. During this second year we will further refine papers (often based on fieldwork conducted by individual participants during the summer of 2003). We will also continue the on-going web-based discussions.
· Summer 2003 – Fieldwork (individual basis). On-going online "working papers."
· Fall 2003 – Second virtual "mini-conference" bringing together UCLA researchers with our non-local participants
· May 2004 – Two day conference
· Summer 2004 – Volume editing
Primary Investigators

Prof. Tangherlini already has experience in conference planning and the editing of conference papers into subsequent volumes (see CV). His understanding of conference budget planning and his experience with editing volumes based on conference proceedings will help in realizing the goals of the project. He will act as the facilitator for academic contacts in the United States and Canada. As a scholar of Korean folklore, he also has numerous contacts in East Asia as does Prof. Sallie Yea. Yea it should be noted is a specialist in geography, with a particular emphasis on the notion of “critical geography.” As such, she will be able to lead many of the theoretical discussions as we learn collaboratively about this field and about each others fields.

Selected Bibliography

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. London: Verso.
Appadurai, Arjun. 1995. “The Production of Locality” in R. Fardon, ed. Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge. London: Routledge.
Bammer, Angelika, ed. 1994. Displacements: Cultural Identities in Question. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Barcan, Ruth and Ian Buchanan, ed. 1999. Imagining Australian space: cultural studies and spatial inquiry. Nedlands, Western Australia: University of Western Australia Press.
Bhabha, Homi. 1990. Nation and Narration. London: Routledge.
Cresswell, Tim. 1996. In Place / Out of Place: Geography, Ideology and Transgression. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: The University of California Press.
Dirlik, Arif. 1993. What is in a rim? : Critical Perspectives on the Pacific Region Idea. Boulder: Westview Press.
Golledge, Reginald G. 1997. Spatial behavior: A Geographic Perspective. New York: Guilford Press.
Gunn, Simon and Robert J. Morris Aldershot, ed. 2001. Identities in Space: Contested Terrains in the Western City since 1850.  Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.
Gupta, A. and J. Ferguson, ed. 1997. Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jacobs, Jane M. 1996. Edge of Empire: Postcolonialism and the City. London: Routledge.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1974. The Production of Space. Reprinted, 1991. Oxford: Blackwell.
Massey, Doreen, John Allen, and Steve Pile, ed. 1999. City Worlds. New York: Routledge.
Massey, Doreen B. 1994. Space, place, and gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Pile, Steve and Michael Keith, ed. 1997. Geographies of Resistance. London: Routledge.
Pile, Steve and Michael Keith, ed. 1993. Place and the Politics of Resistance. London: Routledge.
Rutherford, Jonathan, ed. 1990. Identity: Communnity, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Routledge, Paul. 1993. Terrains of Resistance. Westport: Praeger.
Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sharp, Joanne P., ed. 2000. Entanglements of Power: Geographies of Domination/Resistance. New York: Routledge.
Shields, Rob. 1994. Places on the margin : alternative geographies of modernity. London & New York: Routledge.
Sibley, David. 1995. Geographies of Exclusion. London: Routledge.
Soja, Edward. 1989. Postmodern Geographies: the Reassertion of Space in Social Critical Theory. London: Verso.
_____. 2000. Postmetropolis: critical studies of cities and regions. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Published: Friday, November 22, 2002