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
My book, tentatively entitled Against the Chains of Utility, deals with the problem of sacrifice in order to rethink the relationship between literature and politics by examining 1970s and 80s South Korean literature. South Korea underwent rapid industrialization and urbanization during this period. The state propaganda machine constantly invoked the rhetoric of sacrifice for the common good to mobilize the people for state-led economic development and an ideological campaign against North Korea. Instead of demanding unconditional sacrifice from the people, however, the South Korean developmental state reminded its citizens that it was in their best interest to build an economically robust and politically stable society through their sacrifice for the national community, because the private interests of an individual can be protected only in such society. If that is the case, the sacrifice of an individual for the nation eventually pays off by ensuring one’s own private interests. Strictly speaking, this sacrifice upheld by the developmental state is not a genuinely sacrificial act of the self’s surrender to the other, but a wager motivated by cunning calculation for the maximization of utility. What I term utilitarian ideology is such instrumental rationality sanctified by the developmental state. It naturalizes and legitimizes the ceaseless pursuit of utility for constant growth in national economy as well as personal wealth. In the schema of utilitarian ideology, anything deemed impediment to economic growth is regarded as sacrificable. Sacrifice in this context euphemizes the ruthless subordination of a means to an end.

Against the backdrop of the predominance of utilitarian ideology, this book discusses a wide variety of 1970s and 80s 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 its examination of these texts, this book highlights occasions of the literary imagination which captures moments of anti-utilitarian sacrifice. These anti-utilitarian visions of sacrifice that radiate from 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. In exploring these anti-utilitarian visions, this book does not merely criticize the South Korean state ideology in the period, but problematizes the idea of utilitarian sacrifice, which not only lays at the heart of this ideology but continues to pervade today’s society. Any act of sacrifice for a higher cause is utilitarian no matter whether it is morally impeccable or nefarious. Utilitarian sacrifice establishes a circuit of exchange through which an act of sacrifice is assigned a value in proportion to its utility for the realization of its end. To defy this circuit of exchange, genuinely anti-utilitarian sacrifice must have no end for which it is made. This sacrifice for nothing may sound nihilistic. This book locates a new possibility of literature’s relevance to society in this seemingly nihilistic sacrifice by engaging in dialogue with Georges Bataille's ideas of sacrifice and literature. It argues that its recognition of the defiant moments against the tyranny of utility sparkling within the literary works extends their relevance 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 defiant to containment and domestication for the dominance of utility that reigns over 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.
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