Serk-Bae Suh

picture of Serk-Bae  Suh

Associate Professor, East Asian Studies
School of Humanities


Fax: (949) 824-3248

University of California, Irvine
472 Humanities Instructional Bldg.
Irvine, CA 92697
Research Interests
Modern Korean Literature
Research Abstract
Should the relevance of literature to society be derived from its usefulness? This is the question that underlies my current book project. Entitled Against the Chains of Utility: Sacrifice and Literature in 1970s and 80s South Korea, this book examines the South Korean literature of the period with a focus on the problem of sacrifice. The South Korean state, an exemplary case of the “developmental state,” as it is known in the field of political economy, constantly invoked the rhetoric of sacrifice to justify its demand on the people and society for devotion and commitment to the state-led-economic development during this era. The exploitation of workers and countless violations of civil rights were rationalized as unavoidable sacrifices for economic growth and national security. Consumption was vilified and thrift praised in the name of sacrifice for a better future for the nation. The rhetoric of sacrifice, in this context, indicates a mode of instrumental reasoning that ruthlessly subordinates a means to an end. This idea of sacrifice lies at the heart of what I term the “utilitarian ideology.” The utilitarian ideology refers to the set of premises on which the developmental state sanctified the maximization of utility in pursuit of constant growth in national economy as well as personal wealth. The rhetoric of sacrifice casts a moral hue over this ideology’s privileging of production over consumption, work over leisure, accumulation over expenditure, and the future over the present. In short, it moralizes the obsession with constant growth in economy. Although the propagation of the utilitarian ideology in the developmental period certainly contained elements of coercion, that was not the reason why it was effective. The masses embraced this message because of its promise that an individual’s sacrifice, through hard work for the nation, would be rewarded with their own prosperity in the future. The promise resonated with the desire of the masses for economic success. My book Against the Chains of Utility highlights occasions of the literary imagination in 1970s and 80s South Korean literature that captures moments of anti-utilitarian sacrifice, discussing a wide variety of literary works including Kim Hyon's critical essays, Pak Sangnyung's monumental work of fiction A Study of Death (1975), and Chang Chongil's poetry of transgression. In doing so, this book does not merely criticize the South Korean state ideology in the period, but problematizes utilitarian sacrifice, which not only lay at the core of this ideology but continues to pervade today’s society. The anti-utilitarian visions of sacrifice that radiate from the South Korean literature of the developmental period range from the idea of sacrifice as one's exit from subjectivity toward a communion with the other to the view of literature as the art of suspending the practical utility of language. While this book highlights the moments of anti-utilitarian sacrifice in these literary works, it nonetheless points out that they hint at the limitations of literature as a means of social change despite the widespread belief in the political utility of literature upheld by practitioners of engaged literature in 1970s and 80s South Korea. These literary instances of anti-utilitarian sacrifice can hardly bear fruit in the real world and thus testify to their lack of utility. Ironically, therefore, they shine as a poignant outcry against the chains of utility. This revelation, in turn, invites us to rethink the relevance of literature to society as the art of imagination in language, not as a substitute for politics. This book argues that its recognition of the defiant moments against the tyranny of utility sparkling within the literary works extends the relevance of these works to our contemporary world well beyond 1970s and 80s South Korea. It, in the end, suggests that these moments of anti-utilitarian sacrifice can be construed as literary instances of absolute negativity; the subversive excess resistant to containment and domestication for the dominance of utility that reigns over our life.
Treacherous Translation: Culture, Nationalism, and Colonialism in Korea and Japan from the 1910s to the 1960s (Berkeley: Global, Area, and International Archive/University of California Press, 2013)
"Gender and Class Dynamics in the Utilitarian Discourse of the Developmental State and Literature in 1970s and 1980s South Korea." In Heekyoung Cho (Eds.), The Routledge Companion to Korean Literature. (Routledge, 2022)
"A False Martyr's Wager: Yi Kwangsu and Colonial Collaboration." In Charles R. Kim, Jungwon Kim, Hwasook Nam, and Serk-Bae Suh (Eds.), Beyond Death: The Politics of Suicide and Martyrdom in Korea. (University of Washington Press, 2019)
““Oh Jesus, Now Here with Us”: Literary Christology in 1970s and 1980s South Korea.” In Youngju Ryu ed. Cultures of Yusin (University of Michigan Press, 2018)
"Colonialism, Translation, Literature: Takahama Kyoshi’s Passage to Korea." In H. Shirane, D. Lurie, T. Suzuki (Eds.), Cambridge History of Japanese Literature. (Cambridge University Press, 2016)
“The Location of “Korean” Culture: Ch’oe Chaes? and Korean Literature in a Time of Transition,” Journal of Asian Studies, 70.1 (Spring 2011): 53-75.
“Treacherous Translation: the 1938 Japanese-Language Theatrical Version of the Korean Tale Ch’unhyangj?n,” positions: east asia cultures critique, 18. 1 (Spring 2010): 171-197.
Last updated