Descendants of the bear-woman

It has been 12 days since I last stepped out of the flat. I am not “whipping coffee 400 times” yet, but my mind does go to random places. More often than usual at least. Among many other things, I have been thinking a lot about South Korea’s founding mythology, which is taught in school and is also celebrated as a public holiday.

Legends about Tangun [mythological first king of the Koreans] differ in detail. According to one account, Hwanung left heaven to rule Earth from atop Mt. T’aebaek (Daebaik). When a bear and a tiger expressed a wish to become human beings, he ordered the beasts into a cave for 100 days and gave orders that they were to eat only mugwort and garlic and avoid the sunlight. The tiger soon grew impatient and left the cave, but the bear remained and after three weeks was transformed into a beautiful woman. It was she who became the mother of Tangun. (Britannica, 2020)

What I find most amusing about this musing is that so many fellow Koreans, in their respective ‘caves’ in different parts of the world, are making the same reference to this mythological DNA 🐻 on Twitter. That’s right. Eat your heart out, Tiger King.


L’enfer, c’est parmi nous. [2]

“I suppose hell is not a place. People may think it is because of reading Dante, but I think of it as a state.” (Jorge Luis Borges, 1982)

The warp and weft of politics in the digital age

Just came across the above article, right after reading about the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak at today’s briefing. This is truly a surreal time to live in and I am barely processing.

As I already confessed on this blog a few years ago, I don’t like all my writings equally. The 2015 Eonsoju paper is among the ones closer to my heart, and I have been thinking a lot about the following passage this evening.

[…] Moreover, [Friedmann (2011: 127)] poses a further question as follows: on the one hand, civil society may rise up in protest against the state and its agents while, conversely, the state’s helping hand is needed, for example, for improving life in local communities. How is this contradiction resolved in both theory and practice?

A possible resolution of this contradiction can be found in Maffesoli’s (1996) work, where he identifies two different aspects of social order and labelled them as ‘the social (le social)’ and ‘sociality (la socialité)’. As an aspect of modernity, the social is based upon a mechanical structure of political and economic organisation. Consequently, it is constructed by social leaders and ‘imposed from above’. Individuals, therefore, need not play any particular part in this vertical structure. Sociality, on the other hand, is the order of post-modernity and is inherent in the social interactions of everyday life. Sociality requires individuals to perform social roles and cooperate with others in a horizontal flow.

An example of the social would be accessing educational institutions as the principal source of knowledge. If people exchange knowledge among themselves in preference to formal education, they are inclined to sociality. Likewise, if citizens expect their state to compensate each individual for a natural disaster, they are dependent on the social, whereas those who choose to rely on helping hands within their immediate communities are depending on sociality.

The tension between the social and sociality is ‘not new but has always existed with each one being more or less prominent depending on the character of the epoch’ (Kidd, 1999). […]


Not only does Maffesoli highlight the competing yet coexisting dynamics between the vertical threads of institutional structures and the horizontal threads of networks of individual citizens and groups, he also points to how people now seem to turn their backs on the former and instead look for meaning and the ability to survive in the latter (Kidd, 1999). […]

In other words [2]

Been thinking a lot about the “untranslatables” lately. A few months ago I came across a mini discussion on Twitter criticising the popular belief that certain Korean concepts, typically han, jeong, and nunchi, are so Korean that they cannot be explained to outsiders. That discussion led me to realise such beliefs often have a nationalistic, ‘self-othering’ undertone, wittingly or unwittingly.

Having said that, as someone who needs to switch back and forth between English and her native language continually throughout everyday life, I do occasionally feel what Anil Dash describes as “a linguistic equivalent of phantom limb pain” when my best English translation of an idea that I first have in Korean is still “a muffled approximation of [that] idea”.

One of such expressions that I seem unable to precisely convey is “사람을 갈아넣다”. Its word-to-word translation, “grinding humans in” [to keep the system running], would pretty much do the job. My “phantom pain” has more to do with the fact that in English it might strike as an overdramatic metaphor while Korean speakers would all know it is as literal as it can get.

I am witnessing on social media waves of awe about the Korean government’s response to the corona outbreak: e.g. demonstrating the unparalleled testing capability, mapping every citizen’s movement trajectories, offering the convenience of drive-through tests (taking about 10 minutes each), ensuring the tests are free to everyone including undocumented workers, and sharing the progress transparently with the rest of the world.

I am glad that the government seems to stay on top of the matter. It’s just that I can’t get the news out of my head that a Jeonju city official died last Friday of overwork while being on emergency duty in response to the outbreak and pulling consecutive overnighters. I can’t even begin to imagine the physical and mental strains that the KCDC and health officials must be under over the last two months.

((c) Yonhap News)

Once the red pill is taken [2]

Despite coming from a postcolonial society myself, I didn’t have much awareness of the decolonisation agenda, I must embarrassedly admit. I can in fact pinpoint the moment when the concept first registered in my mind. It was in 2007, in a mall in Kuala Lumpur where I was hanging out with fellow panelists after a conference and impulsively bought a book titled Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Then, to be honest, I didn’t think much about it for another few years. Now I am in an environment where hardly a day goes by without it being brought up, and this has enabled me to realise that it is a far broader battle than including non-Western books in the reading lists.

Let me share my bookmarks on this topic — style. (Remember

Geraldine Moane (1999). Hierarchical systems: Patriarchy and colonialism. In: Gender and Colonialism: Psychological Analysis of Oppression and Liberation.

Elijah Meeks (2011). Digital humanities as thunderdome. Journal of Digital Humanities 1(1).

Mark Surman (2016). “The rise of digital empires is creating a colonial vision of the internet — we have to stop it”. New Statesman, 1st September.

Olivia Solon (2018). Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war. The Guardian, 11 March.

Nick Couldry & Ulises A. Mejias (2018). Data colonialism: Rethinking big data’s relation to the contemporary subject. Television & New Media 20(4): 336-349.

Jeongmin Kim (2020). Former North Korean diplomat vows to improve protection for defectors if elected. NK News, 19 February.

Han Woo Park (2020). [기고] ‘대구’를 ‘도구’로 이용하지 마라. 매일신문, 23 February.

Marius Meinhof (2020). Othering the virus. Discover Society, 21 March.

Thus, what failed in Europe is not liberal democracy but postcolonial arrogance. There was no lack of information, language ability, or time to learn what had happened in China. There was a lack of relating Chinese disasters to ‘us’, due to prevailing notions of orientalism and colonial temporality. Regrettably, Chinese state media have now started, too, to tell the story of the outbreak as a contest between ‘our’ and ‘their’ political systems rather than a natural disaster, and started to spread similar conspiracy theories as new orientalists did before. This may in turn make them underestimate the danger of a return of the virus in the coming year.

Politics of counting [3]

To count or not to count (e.g. Japanese authorities’ decision to exclude cases detected on the Diamond Princess from official statistics; a dispute in Lombardy over how much testing is too much); to count independently or comparatively to other outbreaks; to focus on velocity of spread, fatalities, absolute proportions, or relative proportions; to do the counting in the open or not; …

Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) resources (The American Society for Microbiology, 5 February 2020)

I live in South Korea where coronavirus cases are rising. Not much has changed. (Robert E. Kelly, The National Interest, 22 February 2020)

Coronavirus: A visual guide to the outbreak (BBC, 23 February 2020)


To use log scales or not to.


Those damn denominators: Math used to be a comfort zone for me in times of confusion. Not anymore. (KC Cole, Wired, 23 April 2020)

Déjà vu, déjà entendu [10]

BBC Question Time slammed for platforming anti-immigrant hate (Sam Bright, 21 February 2020)

Every time I witness an instance of “bothsidesism”, I think of this clip. A lot.

(1:01) “[It’s] this kind of notion that everyone’s opinion is equally valid. My arse! A bloke who’s a professor of dentistry for 40 years does not have a debate with some idiot who removes his teeth with a string and a door.”

(4:25) “[After talking to a guy from NASA], for the sake of balance, we must now turn to Barry, who believes the sky is a carpet painted by God.”

Once the red pill is taken

There is an in-joke at my university that we have to mention “decolonisation” at least once a day. But the joke aside, it is true that I have become a lot more conscious of the issues while working here. As the internet saying goes, once the red pill is taken, there is no unlearning.

Why I am saying this is because the following article is a year old but I have only recently stumbled upon it, and I can’t get it out of my head since.

You’ll never see the iconic photo of the ‘Afghan Girl’ the same way again (Ribhu, Wired, 12 March 2019)

See also:

Starving Child and Vulture (photo by Kevin Carter, 1993)

Into the Heart: One Man’s Pursuit of Love and Knowledge among the Yanomami (Kenneth Good, 1991; crossposted 3 January 2017)

Natalie Portman opens up about experiencing “sexual terrorism” after starring in ‘Leon’ at 13 (Luke Morgan Britton, NME, 22 January 2018)

Decolonise science — time to end another imperial era (Rohan Deb Roy, The Conversation, 5 April 2018; crossposted 10 December 2018)

The disturbing story behind the rape scene in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, explained (Anna North, Vox, 26 November 2018)

In-jokes [2]

Parasite edition. 🙂

“All look same” trope.

IKEA extra-large display cabinet.

The International Vaccine Institute chimes in.

Paddle when the tide is high [1]: banjiha Airbnb.

군면제 확정.

Paddle when the tide is high [2]: 짜파구리.

And I assume this 👇 is a joke too?

Has the game changed? [3]

Initially I thought this post was about the emergence of a new genre, but come to think of it, the genealogy goes way back to Denise Calls Up (1995), The Contact (1997), and You’ve Got Mail (1998).

Nevertheless, I have noticed a group of movies and other cultural products where our digital and multimodal ways of being are finely weaved in. Here are some, for my own reference, and I will add more.