A month in Seoul: politics and aesthetics

My near-constant computer problems have prevented me from blogging more regularly but saved you, gentle reader, from long rants about my struggles with Linux. Swings and roundabouts.

I’ve been here a month to the day, and the time has gone by quickly. I try to keep conscious tabs on my progress here but that’s hampered by the challenges of living in a new city – getting lost, finding vegetarian food, etc. I accept that everything takes longer – that’s just the way it is when you’re a stranger. But it also means that I best appreciate new experiences in hindsight, not while I’m trying to function.


So, what can I provisionally conclude about life in Seoul? It has potential. The city is incredible: every neighbourhood has distinct identities, yet it’s all intensely Korean. That definition itself is in flux, as the country is still undergoing rapid development. I can’t get over how fast things happen here. New towns full of high-rises are built in a few years. In the late 2000s Seoul decided it liked gourmet coffee; now there are thousands of cafes. The one I’m in today – Paul and Lina – has its own line of home furnishings. When Koreans do something, they don’t do it in half-measures. To illustrate, here are some pictures of cafes in Hongdae, the student-artist neighbourhood near three universities. To be precise, one end of a street – I moved 5 meters to take these pictures:





A few meters away on a cross street, one of the best cafes in the neighbourhood:


That segues nicely into Seoul design. My iphone is full of cute, well-designed details of the city – I’ll put that in another post. But for now, here’s a picture of a pizzeria:


You could be forgiven for thinking I’d wandered into a Laura Ashley photoshoot. It’s not my preferred aesthetic, but I’m impressed at how thoroughly it was planned.

Cafe Toronto:


With thousands of cafes, every possible theme is explored for decor. In Apgujeong, south of the river, there’s a Hell Pizza.

For Koreans, L and R sound the same. So this isn’t a typo; there’s really no difference for them:


What these few pictures suggest is that Seoul is an appearance-obsessed city. I suspect that’s generational. Older people were desperately poor peasants before they were drafted into factories in the 1970s, to provide the primitive capital accumulation the Korean state needed to become a manufacturer and processor of raw materials. Those who came of age in the 1980s and 90s fought for democracy (or, I suppose if they were in the police, against democracy.) Young people today have embraced a particular style of neoliberal capitalism, celebrating both the cultural exchange of globalization and internalizing the work ethic of precarity.

How do I know all this? I don’t; I can only infer from what I see. Minimum wage in Korea is $4 an hour; yet the young people working in cafes are uniformly friendly and polite. There’s no social safety net or public health care. The gap between rich and poor is obvious to see, particularly in the neighbourhoods I frequent, and moreso outside of Seoul – while the countryside I’ve seen has far more infrastructure than Russia or even Canada, it’s not the same kind of intensive capital development as the city. The culture of work still dominates: men are at the office 10 hours a day and drink and smoke with their colleagues every night. It explains why so many men appear to have aged so quickly.

My theory, open to revision as always, is that neoliberal globalization has created a hybrid capitalism in Korea, grafting genuine cultural exchange onto pre-existing intense exploitation and rigid Confucian hierarchy. Older people are the product of the latter, and middle-aged people are the product of the first rebellion against it. Younger people are trying to figure out how to enjoy the fruits of that openness without much in the way of job security or personal prosperity.

(I hate intergenerational analyses because they obscure class relations. So for the sake of argument, I’m talking about children of the working class and petty bourgeoisie. The ruling class, sequestered in Gangnam, the wealthy neighbourhood that encompasses Apgujeong, is thoroughly globalized like all contemporary ruling classes.)

In practice, I think this goes some way to explaining Koreans’ obsession with appearance. They have the means to dress well, they certainly have the knowledge, they’re exposed to the outside world… and their jobs depend on it.

Women’s cosmetic shops are on every block, but these exist too:


Those cosmetics get used – the constantly-manufactured pop bands are used to advertise products:



In case that’s too small, it reads “I’m on a diet. Look at me! LOOK”. It’s for a yoghurt drink by Yakult. It’s certainly not too small to read on the subway, that ad is 5 feet high. It’s problematic, as my grad school colleagues would say (since when did that become an adjective?) – I’m not celebrating body fascism or the absurdity of Korean women, who tend to be small already, internalizing the need to get thinner. A subway ad is hardly an expression of popular culture anyway. My point is that it suggests how Koreans are adapting to change, and how they’re supposed to adapt, according to marketers. Appearance matters.

Two weeks ago I went to Times Square, one of the giant malls that the far-right mayor built. Inside the underground parking lot, a young woman in a turquoise skirt and blazer, wearing spotless white gloves, was handing out parking passes at the turnstile. It was humid, well over 30 degrees and the air was full of exhaust fumes. Still she bowed and said thank you to every driver. Her make-up was impeccable. Barring Requiem For A Dream, that’s one of the worst jobs I’ve ever seen – she wasn’t just suffering discomfort, she had to pretend to enjoy it.

Here are two of the luckier ones:


Note the uniforms and smiles. Behind them was another section of the mall – which itself was three multi-floored towers – that opened up into the following corridor:







Seriously, that’s one level of one corridor:


It would be naive for me to separate out my admiration for Korean aesthetics from the hyper-capitalist obsession with brand names and personal appearance. They’re on a continuum. But I’d like to think that there are more-commodified and less-commodified versions, and I’m in love with the latter – how Seoul gleefully appropriates all aspects of global pop culture and comes up with its own unique interpretation:


Peppered tofu steak at an Asian fusion restaurant:




A book-vending machine:


God’s book-vending machine!


Provisional conclusion: I like good coffee and expensive whisky, and I find tthe spectacle enervating in small doses. There’s plenty of all three in Seoul. Yes, this city is built on exploitation (unlike where?…), but it’s also built on struggle, something I’ll detail in a post about the Seoul Museum of Art. Why shouldn’t life be filled with beautiful things? Why shouldn’t the struggle be aesthetic too? (I know, as opposed to aestheticizing politics – I hear all the Benjaminites sputtering into their absinthe.) I’ll leave you with this banner, strung up in the middle of Myeongdong:


If the Marxists of Seoul thought those of us who proceed budgie-like through the world, being drawn to bright lights and primary colours, were irredeemably bourgeois, they wouldn’t have strung that in one of the prime shopping neighbourhoods of central Seoul. I was shoe-shopping, but I went to the conference as well. I rest my case.


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