The Postmodern City and Its Discontents

  • onOctober 22, 2014
  • Vol.1 Autumn 2008
  • byKim Junghyuk

Every city has two faces: that of an angel and that of a devil. These double aspects of a city result from the fact that the city is a child of modernity: simultaneously an angel and a devil. As Cho Myung-Rae clearly demonstrates in his book The Modern Society and City-theory and Reality (2002), the “city is not only a mold with which modernity is formed, but also an obvious medium that can represent modernity.” In short, the two faces of a city are those of modernity. Since urbanization and modernization in Korea have been achieved so rapidly, the mark of these two faces was carved very sharply in history. Koreans have experienced modernities of both efficiency and cruelty. What the authors have kept their eyes on was, of course, the latter. The efforts to overthrow the dangerous modernity of cruelty have advanced through the 70s and 80s and ignited the fire of revolution.

During the 1980s, which can be recalled as a time of revolution, Korea had achieved democratization but failed to further the revolution. Korean literature had to accept the new frame of the so-called confusion of postmodernism. In When Adam Becomes Awake by Jang Jeong-il (once considered enfant terrible of the day), the main character Adam wakes up in a fake paradise named Seoul and sheds tears while watching the neon-lit cross of a church. In this novel, the passion and prospect, apparently the signs of the modern project of liberation, can hardly be found. This work is an apocalypse of postmodern consumer society.

1 The Library of Musical Instruments Kim Junghyuk, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2008, 312p ISBN 978-89-546*0567-0 03810
2 Heading for a Breeding Farm Pyun Hye-Young, Munhak Dongne Publishing Corp., 2007, 255p ISBN 978-89-546-0359-1 03810
3 Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? Kim Kyung-uk, Moonji Publishing 2005, 304p, ISBN 978-89-320-1603-8
4 My Sweet Seoul Jeong Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing, 2008 442p, ISBN 978-89-320-1715-8 03810

As the literature of the 90s turns its interest from revolution to authenticity, this trend was accelerated. Cities were revived as spaces without authenticity, and Adam’s descendants started wandering around the unreal city in search of a real self. The novels of Yun Dae-nyeong described this world in a most refined way. Probably in those days, Seoul might have shifted from a modern city to a postmodern city. Then, how is the city represented by the authors of the 21st century? The following explores the literary background and thoughts of young authors in accordance with two different themes.

My Precarious City
The first theme is the sense of insecurity with which Korean city dwellers are held captive. It is well-known that Ulrich Beck once called modern society a “risk society” and tried to find an alternative from this “reflexive modernity.” After experiencing a number of disasters during the mid 1990s, Korea had to face the reality of being a high-risk society. In 1994, Seongsoo Bridge, a former symbol for the so-called miracle of the Han River, collapsed. In 1995, a gas pipe exploded in a Daegu subway construction site. Two months later, the Sampoong Department Store, regarded as a symbol of wealth in Seoul’s Gangnam district, collapsed.

Some sociologists described these chain of disasters as accidents that betray the contradiction and cracks of a city obsessed with development. These accidents left deep scars in the hidden recesses of city dwellers.

After having lived near the now-destroyed Sampoong Department Store through her mid 20s, Jeong Yi Hyun published a short story, “Sampoong Department Store,” on the 10th commemorative anniversary of its collapse. It cannot be known whether this short story was written for the purpose of critical reflection of a “risk society” or “developmentism,” since her trauma is not dealt with socially, but privately. However, that is why this short story allows candid and natural reflections, not unfamiliar criticism. Those reflections were probably possible because of Jeong’s sense of balance. In general, two aspects of the city are equally treated in her novels, but in any case, she never maintains a negative view towards life in the Gangnam district where she was born and spent her youth. She says: “I’m an urbanite by nature.” Or it can be said that though the metropolis of Seoul sometimes breeds solitude and sorrow, it is for her a “lovely place.”

“Cities were revived as spaces without authenticity, and Adam's descendants started wandering around the unreal city in search of a real self.”

Yet, Pyun Hye-Young, another young author of Jeong’s age, rarely shows us the lovely face of a city. Instead, Pyun reaches into the dark side of the city, which makes us feel gloomy, frightened, and disgusted when reading her novels. This obstinacy in dealing with the hidden side of the city draws attention from many critics. Whereas the city was presented as a grotesque space in her first collection, Aoi Garden (2005), it is created through a more realistic atmosphere and vivid description in her second collection, Heading for a Breeding Farm (2007). The title of Pyun’s second collection describes one night at a suburban house in an uncanny way; the house, the symbol of middle-class daydreams, turns into a place of nightmares when invaded by a pack of dogs. Through this work, Pyun gained fame as one of the most important young contemporary authors in Korea. I would regard this novel as a fascinating allegory of the risk society spreading from Seoul to other cities around Seoul.

Postmodern Resistance?
The next theme is a symptom of the new resistance that contemporary cities are demonstrating. Slavoj Zizek, with a positive reaction to the statements of Jacques Ranciere, comments that utopian strategies surely exist nowadays in an aesthetic sphere. Zizek points out that postmodern politics of resistance are influenced by aesthetic phenomena, as is demonstrated by the evidence from body piercings to spectacular incidents in public spaces. He also diagnoses the uncommon phenomenon dubbed 'flash mob' as evidence of the most pure aesthetic-political resistance revived into a minimalist structure. However, it is unclear how much he relies on the actual efficiency of this aesthetic resistance. When he calls these incidents “urban poems without any essential purpose” or “political reaction against 'the black rectangular' by Kazimir S. Malevich,” there is delicate irony in his tone. Can those things be real postmodern resistance? Can those things be called resistance?

Since Kim Kyung-uk has always kept his eye on what ails contemporary society, it is hardly surprising that he is the first to attempt writing about the unique form of resistance called 'flash mob.' The main character in Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? (2005), which was awarded a Hankook Ilbo Literary Prize, is a divorced credit defaulter. As he believes that nature is a mere “alibi of urban sin,” he stands for the typical loser in a modern city. In the novel’s last scene, when this man participates in a flash mob activity to commemorate the first anniversary of Leslie Cheung’s death and experiences a mysterious excitement, the author intentionally inserts an unknown song into the narrative. It is difficult to discern whether the song is a hymn or an elegy. Due to this ambiguity, this ending acquires an impressive pathos. This novel tells us that the flash mob might be an urban poem freely writing into the wild postmodern city of Seoul.

By presenting a small community composed of one or two persons sharing the same taste, dubbed “analog fetishism,” Kim Junghyuk expresses the freedom of a mature individualism and the composure of those individuals. In his short story “Shield out of Glass” (2008), Kim tells a story of two job seekers who conduct artistic performances in the subway, reflecting a Korean malaise in the age of neoliberalism. Kim uses these characters as mouthpieces to ridicule both economic efficiency and artistic rigor: “We only think that we tell the common truth to save the world.” “What exactly is the common truth?" and "It’s to entertain ourselves.” Kim's strategy must be entertaining himself between this efficiency and rigor, but his strategy appears to be as safe as a shield out of glass. Probably because of this risky narrative strategy, Kim concludes his novel by making these two performers feel that they have to leave each other.

The lives of people living in neo-liberal cities in Korea are unstable. They are not sure when a department store will collapse or when a suburban house will turn into a breeding farm. Under these circumstances, characters write urban poems by doing things like participating in a flash mob or putting on performances. In the meantime, Korean society experienced aesthetic-political resistance of a new kind in 2008: the candlelight rally that drew an enormous amount of attention from the world press. This “festival” took place in the heart of Seoul, and upset the metropolitan control system and authorities in a rather pleasant way. The demonstrators who turned a ten-lane boulevard into an open square for the rally for over two months acted beyond everyone’s expectation. I would say this was a rediscovery of the city. Reality always surpasses literature. It is worth paying attention to the upcoming efforts of these four young Korean authors, who, concerned about urban cultural politics more than anyone else, surpass reality. 


Jeong Yi Hyun
was born in 1972 in Seoul. She published her first short story collection Romantic Love and Society in 2003, a novel My Sweet Seoul in 2006, and a short story collection Today’s Lie in 2007.



Pyun Hye-Young
was born in Seoul. She published her first short story collection Aoi Garden in 2005, then her next collection Heading for a Breeding Farm in 2007.



Kim Kyung-uk
was born in 1971 in Gwangju. He has written numerous books, including his first short story collection There’s No Coffee at the Baghdad Cafe, and the novel The Kingdom of Youth.



Kim Junghyuk
was born in 1971. In 2006, his first short story collection Penguin News was published, and in 2008 he published his next collection, The Library of Musical Instruments.