The contentious relationship between modernism and realism has arguably defined Korean literary history throughout the twentieth century and into the present. In this paper I argue that the literary modernism that rose to prominence in 1930s colonial Korea was neither an escapist aesthetic practice severed from the socio-political context of its production nor a derivative and partial alternative to a purportedly original European modernism. Instead, I advance the thesis that Korean modernism, particularly in its linguistic relationship with the real, engaged in complex ways with the colonial context and that it also took part in a more generalized “crisis of representation,” a modern loss of faith in the capacity of language to represent reality as such. Focusing on the creative and critical works of prominent writers of the 1930s, the paper addresses both the specificity of Korean modernism under Japanese empire and at the same time raises questions about cultural production in relation to its political context.
Christopher P. Hanscom is an assistant professor in the department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Author of The Real Modern: Literary Modernism and the Crisis of Representation in Colonial Korea (Harvard, 2013), a study of theories of language and modernist fiction in colonial Korea, and co-editor of Imperatives of Culture: Selected Essays on Korean History, Literature, and Society from the Japanese Colonial Era (Hawai’I, 2013), his research interests include the relationship between political and aesthetic forms, comparative colonialism, concepts of race and culture under Japanese empire, and representations of post-national sociality.
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