Ethnography of Pragmatism & Politics in South Korea


A review of The Hope and Crisis of Pragmatic Transition: Politics, Law, Anthropology and South Korea, by Amy Beth Levine.

Anthropologists don’t always talk about method, but when they do, “pragmatism” often names its character. At the same time, in recent decades “pragmatism” has been a transnationally-resonant political commitment, or at least claim. Its mantle has been assumed by everyone from Blair-Clinton era “Third Way” centrists to South Korean progressives seeking the grounds of possibility in a “post-ideological” and then post-IMF neoliberal moment. The latter, more specifically progressive pragmatists of the Roh Moo-hyun era (2003-2008), is the topic of Amy Levine’s dissertation. “What is remarkable about pragmatism at this theoretical moment,” Levine writes, “is how foundational it has become despite its anti-foundationalist claims in a postfoundational world” (p. 26). Her response to this pervasive condition of post-ideology is to seek a “lateral ethnography of pragmatism,” one that pays it heed in recognizing that “many of the distinctions between academics and activists have become difficult to sustain,” and yet one that does not simply replicate or track activist practice but rather takes more indirect inspiration in activist attempts to “rescale agency” (pp. 7, 34). In the Introduction, Levine situates the main period of her ethnography in the wake of a late crisis in activist circles. The 2002 conjunction of South Korea’s World Cup victories and the success of the candidacy of Roh (himself a former labor activist) produced a sense of hopeful possibility for advocates of political change. They responded aggressively with campaigns for public transparency, the main focus of Levine’s initial research. However, after transparency rebounded and came to be used also as a weapon against activists by their opponents, the sense of its potential as a substantive ideological end of progressive politics largely collapsed. Levine perceives crisis as the steady state temporality of the pragmatic reconstitution that followed — with the possibility of transcendence (an end that is also an ending) largely abandoned, emergency loses any exceptional character. Activists become akin to paramedics.

The first body chapter explores the construction of ideology in South Korean activism since the 1980s in terms of the theorization of double binds first put forward by Gregory Bateson. Levine conceives of these centrally as tensions between “commitment to ideas (ideology) and to people (solidarity),” as well as between the “inherited and imagined realities” of democracy and authoritarianism (pp. 47-48). Over the course of this section, she reviews anthropologies of activism, activist writings, and a significant number of works that cross between. If one much-told tale is of a shift of ideology from a focus of movement actors to a decried relic denigrated in favor of a more pragmatic orientation — or even itself seen as continuous with militarism — the chapter is at its most interesting in looking at how double binds bind together histories and constitutive memories of activism in more complex ways. Ideology continues to propel activists who relate to it as generational experience even as they turn away from its leading role in praxis.

The examination of double binds rooted in dialogue with the past continues in Chapter 2, where Levine considers the ethic and practice of sacrifice by activists. “Many NGO and NPO workers who struggled against the human and social sacrifices of the Park regime” of the 1960s and 1970s, she writes, “constituted a movement that necessitated” — and on her evidence continues to validate — “many of the same sacrifices” (p. 136). The irony of this becomes especially poignant in Levine’s recounting of a film made by one environmental organization that encouraged viewers to spend more time in nature and seek a healthy balance with work life, even as it worked its own staff to the point of physical ailment (pp. 130-132). On a simple ethnographic level, this chapter provides as strong a portrait of the everyday aspect of NGO work in South Korea as exists anywhere, and fulfills the author’s promise to background crisis as simply a recurrent, mundane aspect of this world.

Chapter 3 is engaged on two levels with the discourse of NGO activists. Throughout the section, Levine tracks distinctions and contestations of terminology that trace activists’ own claims about the proper character of activism and the desirable focus of social or environmental action. The negotiations of “activists” and “coordinators” within organizations reveal both different priorities and issues of age and gender hierarchy. NGO members define one another’s “sincerity” and devotion, or insincere careerism, based on shifting criteria. Yet the chapter is also about the discourse on “discourse” in NGO circles — following the widespread appropriation of Michel Foucault’s writings in 1990s South Korea, some activists turned to “discourse” as a distinctively scaled level of potential social intervention, which one leader described to Levine as “less than theory, smaller than ideology” (p. 140). In this chapter, the condition of laterality noted in the introduction comes through clearly: Levine is studying activists who are theorizing (as well as performing) activism, and her scaling efforts and theirs are very much in dialogue.

The final body chapter focuses on a figure, Lawyer Park, who has played a leading role in transformations of activism in the 1990s and 2000s. Levine reads Park’s pragmatism, shifting tactics, and morphing political subjectivities over this span in parallel with the career and transitions of pragmatic STS scholar Bruno Latour, and considers both in light of the problematic of the “aesthetic of emergence” in contemporary anthropology as discussed by Hirokazu Miyazaki (p. 195). Roughly put, Miyazaki (The Method of Hope: Anthropology, Philosophy, and Fijian Knowledge, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) asks whether an anthropology that increasing seeks to track emergent social-political-technical assemblages condemns itself to belatedness; what room is there for generating the futural openness of hope when analysis simply trails behind?  In this chapter and in the short Conclusion, Levine examines the possibilities of “social design” (pp. 216, 232, and passim) as a shared space between analysts and activists like Park and as a way out of this conundrum.

Activism has been a recurrent topic for the anthropology of South Korea; Levine’s dissertation helps bring this story up to date, while offering fresh insights in its figure-ground reversal of the usual focus on crises versus the everyday. Yet her simultaneous concern — one she shares with Annelise Riles — for the overlap, resonance, and recursion between “pragmatic” politics and the ostensible degree zero of anthropological and STS method is a reason why her work also deserves a wide audience far beyond Korean studies.

Robert Oppenheim
Department of Asian Studies
University of Texas at Austin

Primary Sources

Ethnography of South Korean activist organizations
Interviews with political figures
Theory and methodology of pragmatism
Actor-network theory

Dissertation Information

Cornell University. 2011. 265+xii pp. Primary Advisor: Annelise Riles.


Image: Photo by Amy Levine.

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