[KS] KSR 2004-18: _Measured Excess: Status, Gender and Consumer Nationalism in South Korea_, by Laura Nelson
Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Wed Oct 20 07:27:05 EDT 2004
_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
baemik at kmu.ac.kr
[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 6.1 (2003): 31-34.
_Acta Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung
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
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
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://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr04-18.htm
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