[KS] Only Correct: Margaret Drabble licks her Red Queen wounds in the TLS

J.Scott Burgeson jsburgeson at yahoo.com
Sun Jul 31 01:46:00 EDT 2005

I am not an expert on the usage of "The Hermit
Kingdom" as an official term in the past (I would
argue it was more of a popular nickname used mostly by
Westerners than anything else), but anyone who has
read early travel literature by foreign visitors to
Korea (Choson) like Hendrik Hamel and others knows
that it was official policy to detain permanently
foreign (mainly non-Chinese and non-Japanese) sailors
who were shipwrecked on Korean shores so that they
could not return to their native lands and disseminate
information about Korea (and thus attract more
unwanted visitors). Many of Hamel's shipmates died as
a result of long captivity and Hamel was only able to
write and publish his book by bribing and buying a
boat from a local Korean and escaping to Japan. In
such an inhospitable and unwelcoming context, calling
Korea a "hermit" nation is in fact a rather benign
term, given its largely religious and peaceful
   I am writing to call into question the calavier
usage of the extremely overused term "Orientalism." It
has been a long time since Said theorized and
introduced the term, and it seems to me that it has
become both reified through overusage and, ironically,
become rather vague and hence drained of meaning in
many of its polemical deployments. Even Drabble
misuses the term in her essay, describing Untold
Scandal as an "Orientalization of French material,"
when in fact the film is more accurately described as
an Occidentalist fantasy localized in the Korean
context (absurdly, in my opinion). In 2002, I lectured
at Seoul National University on the subject of
contemporary Korea's "hybrid identity" and in a
rebuttle a Korean Studies professor on the faculty
there attacked me as an "Orientalist" without
addressing any of the actual points I had raised
directly. The ironic fact is that I had been invited
to Seoul Nat'l because of a book I had just published
locally (in Korean) in which I discussed Orientalism
and Said in great detail in the book's first long
essay and did not dispute Said's main argument. In
fact, his charge of Orientalism was simply a disguised
defensive nationalism, a politically correct fig leaf,
if you will, and so his usage of the term was more of
an instrumentalization to suit his purposes than
theoretically rigorous. But like charges of racism, it
is hard to answer such attacks when one is a
(supposed) member of the "oppressor" group (actually,
I'm a minority in Korea with few rights, but that's
another story entirely).
   South Korea is now a developed country and desires
greatly to be treated on equal footing with other
developed nations, mainly of the West. Treating Korea
as a victim and defending every criticism of it in a
nonrigorous, kneejerk way as racist, imperialist,
Orientalist, etc. is actually a denial and rejection
of Korea's basic desire to be treated as an equal of
other nations of the West (and the world). It is time
to drop both the post-colonial defensive nationalism
(since South Korea is now a post-post-colonial nation)
and to be much more judicious in bandying about such
loaded and overused terms as Orientalism. Indeed, I
would argue that the term itself belongs to history
and newer terms are needed for this much more complex
time--what Negri and Hardt call the smooth, borderless
Age of Empire--that we now all live in.
   --Scott Bug, recovering Orientalist     

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