Icons of Nature

June 5, 2012

I took another vacation through the National Parks. Arches was not intended to be on the itinerary, but I got to Utah early and fit it in. I was there in the late afternoon and decided to go all the way to Delicate Arch instead of using the distant viewpoint.

When I reached it I found the photographers already starting to gather. Apparently, if you call yourself a photographer there are now some scenes that are mandatory, one of which is a sunset photograph of Delicate Arch. As soon as some motorcycle clowns got out of the way, I took some pictures and cleared out, but on my way back down I got to observe something more interesting. A steady succession of people was coming up the steep path, speaking French, German, Italian, Spanish, various Slavic languages, Japanese and Chinese. They were all on their way to experience Delicate Arch at sunset. Many were hauling photographic equipment such as tripods. The Japanese instead of tripods had big telephoto lenses. Not they it would do them any good. On the typical digital camera 50mm is about the limit of what you want on a lens. If you go much beyond that you can’t get the whole arch in the frame.

But besides the photographers there were many others on what appeared to be a nature pilgrimage. Old people were heaving they way up the slick rock with their canes, giving each other boosts. They were determined not to miss this experience.

So evidently there are now internationally recognized nature icons that people will cross the world to experience. In spite of the masses of Germans at the Grand Canyon, you don’t get the same sense there, as the Canyon is so big, and people can experience it from many locations.

Delicate Arch, on the other hand, is a very locally restricted experience. First one must go up the steep trail, then on a narrow ledge around a rock formation that blocks the view of the arch from below. Then there is a small area from which to view the Arch, and where everyone was trying to stake out a position for the sunset experience.

The existence of global nature icons presupposes a global cultural media that publicizes and canonizes, as it were, these locations. This suggests that an interesting project would be to catalogue these locations and come up with the criteria that account for their selection. These then are a category in a larger group of objects: painting that the whole world recognizes, movie scenes that everyone has seen at least stills of, and so on. Notice that we don’t list novels everyone has read. This is not just because many people don’t read much, but because the novel is extended in time as the Grand Canyon is extended in space and does not reduce to a single scene or image. The closest we get is poetry where a single line or couplet can contain a concentrated impact or can stand for the whole poem.

But notice the cinema is different. It is extended in time like a novel, but still what everyone recognizes are certain specific shots. In this way we see that movies consist of moments in a way that verbal narrative does not.

Korea takes the lead

June 5, 2012

Lately I have been watching a lot of Korean TV dramas. For some reasons it would be interesting to understand better, Korea has been moving up as a leader and provider of pop culture. Certainly the technical reasons are obvious. Korean dramas are made with style while preserving a contemporary edginess. There are good production values with the ability to provide sets, locations, good photography skilled script writers–enough to turn out the video at a rate the exceeds the ability of any one viewer to keep up with it. In short it is rather like the situation that prevailed in the Holywood studies during their so-called Golden Age. Why this happened in Korea with so much of the rest of the world still grinding out cheap trash it to me the most interesting question.

Besides this, one can observe in these dramas a sort of convergence of world culture with at lot of Euro-American cultural values now taken as common places. At the same time there seems to be an emerging Asian style that suggests a self-confidence and self-direction rather than imitation of foreign popular forms. Along side of this convergence there is still a lot of Koreanness to these dramas, which adds greatly to their interest to someone like me who is drawn to understanding the dynamics of different cultures. Dramas of this sort rely on a lot of clichés and caricatures, to set up the situations. This might seem a shortcoming to the more sophisticated members of the home audience, but is precisely what is fascinating to the outside viewer, because they are things that would not work to motivate and move things along in a foreign drama, but show the unique aspects of Korean attitudes. 

There seems also to be present in Korean drama some of the same antagonism toward traditional culture and values that the European and American media have long exhibited. There are frequent efforts to insert homosexual themes and other taboos, to condition people to their acceptance. This shows the hand of a certain self-regarding elite in effective control of Korean organs of popular culture. 

There also seems to be a preoccupation with identity. Drama after drama involves some switched at birth scenario where eventually DNA testing comes into play to resolve people’s true identity. But then, if circumstances turned their lives upside down until then, how real its this “natural” identity that is finally revealed? Similarly, class differences are constantly played off: the arrogant, corrupt, spoiled families of the corporate elite, vs. the downtrodden, but also vice-ridden (drunks and gambling addicts) poor who never get a fair chance at escaping their situations. Yet, as vile as the rich are portrayed to be, there is always a sense that that is what everyone wants to be. 

Religions are taken in rotation. Buddhist, animist, Protestant and Roman Catholic identities seems to be assigned by quota. Religion is seldom a determining factor in behavior, however, and often comes across as a bit silly. The drama consensus is that it is not really important. So class and family membership especially as it relates to wealth and power are important to identity, but not religion. 

Returning to the question of Why Korea now? it appears that the Koreans have some idea of a dualism in their identity. They are still an ethnic nation-state yet the Korean diaspora has also made them a world-people with a constant coming and going from abroad. Unlike a third-world country, the homeland side of this dualism is strong enough to maintain this polarity. Korea draws people back not just as a place for nostalgia, but as a center that is powerful, dynamic and with prospects to offer. It appears that this dynamic has affected the production of popular culture. And now it also affects its export, as Korean drama has become popular world-wide.