Korean Studies Internet Discussion List KOREAN STUDIES REVIEW
Measured Excess: Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea, by Laura Nelson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. 224 pages. ISBN: 0-2311-1617-9.; $18.50 (paper).
reviewed by Mikyeong Bae
[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 6.1 (2003): 31-34. _Acta Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.] The author of Measured Excess, Laura C. Nelson, argues that South Korea's identity has been as much tied to notions of the future as it is rooted in a recollection of the past. She offers an insightful analysis of the ways in which South Korean economic development strategies have reshaped the country's national identity. Especially, she indicates that South Korean's consumption is mainly rooted in a concept of national unity. Nelson also asserts that the government casts women as a group whose 'excessive desires' for material goods endangers this national unity.
In the introduction and chapter 1, the author examines how South Korean's sense of national identity motivated much of the hard work of development beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the early 1990s and how intersections between international economic processes, the flow of time, and the mundane experience of life shape and strain the sense of national mission. In this chapter, the author asserts that South Korea's industrial concentration was mainly caused by the dominance of the 'chaebôl'. She describes South Korea's dramatic economic development as being related to the existence of 'chaebôl' and an emphasis on national identity for the past 30 years. From the 1960s until the early 1980s, the government fostered a particular kind of economic development, namely, export-oriented industrialization dominated by a few enormous corporations. The success of this strategy was remarkable, and the trick was to make the industrialization process appear to be a national project with benefits that would accrue not just to the 'chaebôl' and wealthy individuals, but to the nation as a whole. The people were asked to make sacrifices, to work long hours for poor pay for un-elected governments that offered rewards to the rich, and to expect little for themselves. In fact, Nelson insists that the accomplishments of this period were motivated by a potent elixir of nationalism and hope that was widely held throughout the population. This nationalism always has an effect on consumption and the consumer in South Korea. As South Korean consumers encountered an increasingly complex market, they relied on their sense of identification with the nation. Consumers set themselves the larger task of making consumer choices that were in the best interests of the nation. In addition, the emphasis on an imagined future reunification of both Korea as the site of the real nation was also fuel for South Korean nationalism.
In chapter 2, Nelson focuses on the city life of Seoul as a factor in the formation of national, class, and gendered identities. She shows that people's experience of Seoul as a place to live and the effects of the real estate market on people's lives are important points for consumer practices. That is, Seoul's physical changes mapped and mirrored South Korea's economic and social transformation. People constantly sought points of orientation in Seoul's ever changing space. The new shape of the city altered the terms of social interaction and created new foundations for the experience of class, gender, and nation.
In chapter 3, the author looks in more detail at the interaction between local consumer patterns, drawing out the particularities of how consumers have been formed and how certain forms of consumption itself make the nation. She observed that the elaboration of the market and the culture of consumption in South Korea were rapid and pervasive. The material environment and the consumer culture demonstrated to South Koreans that the nation had been developed. Mass marketing generated an image of mass culture, mass consumption, and consumer equality. The author, however, indicated that consumer opportunities and choices were divergent in various ways, and through their experiences South Korean generated new views of the emergent consumer culture.
In chapter 4, Nelson examines the discursive reaction, 'kwasobi ch'ubang', to social and material changes, looking at how popular themes and government slogans intersect. The author asserts that appropriate consumption was a moral issue with a long history in South Korea. Especially, the author explores the discursive field of frugality and over-consumption, and examines the forms and sources of this discourse. While normal constructions of appropriate and patriotic consumption can be traced back to the pre-colonial period, in recent decades frugality has been represented as a strategy for national economic development, a moral practice of cultural preservation from the corruption of luxury and modernization, and a means of defending the nation from international shame and economic ruin. The author concludes that 'kwasobi' discourse in South Korea has explicitly tied individual lifestyles to the national destiny.
In chapter 5, the author focuses on the ways in which gender and patriotism have become intertwined in the South Korean focus on consumer practices and choices, especially the 'kwasobi ch'ubang'. The author points to the variety of threats consumption poses to the sense of South Korean national unity and analyses South Korean women's social roles, consumption practices, and patriotism. Women in South Korea are actively engaged in the maintenance as well as the transformation of cultural ideas and practices. Women charged with enacting the ideals of proper consumer patriotism, found themselves on the front lines, facing the incongruities between the present and the past.
In the final chapter, the author revisits these issues in the light of the Asian Crisis that began in 1997. The consumer nationalism in South Korea incurs the complexity of interrelations between state, nation, and community; between identities and ideologies; between localities and the globalized world. It is useful to bear in mind in how many different ways people in one locality can engage a discursive field, even one as pervasive as 'kwasobi'. The author concludes that in South Korea, political projects have been tied to the mobilization of a nationalistic material desire and the advocating of frugality. Ongoing contradictions between these positions were negotiated through a particularly gendered patriotism, where women were charged with making choices about how to carry out this program.
Bae, Mikyeong 2004
Measured Excess: Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea, by Laura Nelson (2000)
Korean Studies Review 2004, no. 18
Electronic file: http://koreanstudies.com/ks/ksr/ksr04-18.htm
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