In one of the climactic scenes of the 1917 serial novel Heartless, protagonist Yi Hyŏngsik exhorts his fellow travelers to go abroad, study, and return to strengthen the incipient Korean nation with their knowledge.
“Science! Science!” Hyŏngsik exclaimed to himself when he returned to the inn and sat down. The three young women looked at Hyŏngsik.
“We must first of all give the Korean people science. We must give them knowledge.” He stood up clenching his fists, and walked about the room.1
Commonly referred to as the first modern novel in Korean literary history, Yi Kwangsu’s Heartless culminates—in terms of plot trajectory, character development, and message—in a declaration of the importance of science to the modernization of Korea. As Jongyon Hwang points out in this issue, Yi’s championing of science “earned sympathy from the majority of reformers and educators captured by the Western notion of civilization.” While the novel does not make clear what exactly Hyŏngsik meant by science, it seems to have stood as a general category encompassing multiple disciplines that, as part of the enlightenment education advocated by Korea’s early twentieth-century elite, would reform and modernize Korea.
As Yi made clear, however, science was only part of the curriculum necessary to awaken what he considered to be Korea’s sleeping multitudes. Arguably as important was the central role literature would play in the development of the modern nation. In his critical essay “The Value of Literature,” Yi articulated the connections between science and literature. While he declared science to be the successor to the premodern category of “knowledge” (hangmun), he elevated literature to the position of science’s equal because of its unique ability to express the emotion of the emerging modern subject. “Just as science, the fruit of human intelligence, is indispensable to our life, so is literature,” Yi wrote in 1910, the year of Korea’s annexation by Japan. He continued, “It is destined to live so long as our feelings and emotions remain intact.”2
At the same time, Yi viewed literature as a way not only to express emotion but also to stimulate it as a means of cultivating modern national subject-identities. “In science,” Yi wrote in 1916, “we objectively examine the material aspect of things, but literature evokes feelings of beauty, ugliness, happiness and sadness, all of which make us feel that we are reading the depths of our own minds. . . . In literature, we do not study things; rather, we feel them.”3 Here, Yi demonstrated a shared investment among early twentieth-century Korean writers in the exploration of the private, interior spaces of the heart as sites where social interactions and their authentic responses reveal themselves. “Science addresses our intellects, whereas literature fulfills our emotion,”4 he wrote in a statement that both affirmed the Cartesian split of body and mind and hinted at the nationalizing potential of emotion.
This is not to suggest that either science or literature began with the inception of the colonial modern; nor was Yi’s articulation of the relationship between science and literature necessarily definitive. What is significant is how literature—in its function as that which both reveals and constitutes the modern national subject—enters into a dialectical relationship with science as an objective exercise of knowledge about the material world. Yi’s insight captured in the above quote (“In science we objectively examine . . . but literature evokes feelings . . . ”) signals an important moment in the development of literary politics on the peninsula, when “modern” literature and science staked competing claims over which of the two could best provide access to experience and knowledge of the world.
The term science (kwahak), as Kim Sŏnggŭn points out, comes from the phrase, “kwagŏ chi hak”—to study for the civil service examinations in premodern East Asia.5 The neologism was first coined in Meiji Japan, when it meant something closer to the nineteenth-century sense of Wissenschaft as “all academic knowledge (the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities).”6 As Kim observes, at the turn of the century, science and philosophy were still viewed as a single discipline, and in the Korean language, this discipline was referred to very broadly as hangmun. Kim points out that in James Scott’s English-Corean Dictionary of 1891, for instance, science and philosophy are treated interchangeably, defined as “the study of things and nature”; and in James Scarth Gale’s Korean-English Dictionary of 1897, philosophy was to “inquire into the nature of things; to understand natural science.”7 The division between ch’ŏrhak (philosophy) and ihak (physics) took place early in the twentieth century, but it was not until the dictionaries of the 1910s that the term kwahak (science) was separated from hangmun (general knowledge). Terms such as scientific (kwahaksŏng) or scientist (kwahakcha) also appear around this time.8
It was during the first two decades of the twentieth century—the period coinciding with the publication of Heartless—that the term science was uncoupled from literature, each becoming a category that reflected a specialization of fields and the attachment of value as both Western and normative. The present issue of the Journal of Korean Studies aims in part to investigate how the relationship between the terms science and literature has developed and shifted over time, linked to the formation of the modern, the rise of the nation-state, colonial relations (between Japan and Korea and between Korea and the West), and global narratives about the material world and the function of literature. The collected essays show how science and literature are terms that can be applied in specific national contexts while simultaneously deriving authority from their supposed universality.9 Science and literature may stake out separate territories, yet both are sites where power is defined, reproduced, and contested. As Hiromi Mizuno writes, “what counted as scientific differed, depending on who spoke of it and for what political purpose. Labeling something ‘scientific’ is not a mere definitional practice but also political and ideological.”10 This issue points to ways that discourses of science both shape and are dependent on the political and ideological structures that promote and are promoted by them.
The same may be said of literary discourse, and the recently published three-volume series Literature and Science (Munhak kwa kwahak), edited by Jongyon Hwang, has provided a compelling intervention in the knotted association of literature and science on the peninsula. The series shows that Korea’s twentieth-century modern transformation was shaped as much by discourses of the sciences (natural, human, and social) as by political ideologies. Yet while science has often been linked to the rise of modernity and colonialism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century East Asia,11 less attention has been called to the way in which science—as field(s) of inquiry, as method, as authoritative discourse—was evoked, incorporated, embraced, rejected, negotiated, and even transformed by new concepts of literature that would, within newly formed theories of the organization of language and knowledge that took science as their foundation, yield its modern form.
Literature—which, as Raymond Williams notes, has its own social history12—is, as Gillian Beer writes, “produced within the conditions of expectation marked out by current scientific understanding of the physical world.”13 This would seem to indicate that literature is subject to, or circumscribed by, the scientific disciplines. Literature, according to this logic, is comprehensible because it refers to recognizable (physical and psychological) characters that operate in conceivable (spatially and temporally logical) settings and timescapes. But elsewhere, Beer argues that, despite their sworn allegiance to objectivity and their commitment to communicate information with limited linguistic excess, the scientific disciplines cannot but be structured by limitations imposed by language. She rejects the idea that science is merely presented “as though literature acted as a mediator for a topic (science) that precedes it and that remains intact after its re-presentation.”14 Science is transformed through the medium of language and narrative, and its language can therefore be subjected, like literature, to interpretive analysis.
Gunderson observes that, as social beings whose perceptions are shaped at least partially by social structures, we cannot claim to have independent access to the real, biophysical environment. Recognizing that nature is socially mediated, as the Frankfurt school critics did, helps disrupt the assumptions that human-nature relations are static and predetermined.15 Beyond the shared linguistic medium and narrative form of scientific and literary enterprises, then, many of the essays in this thematic issue concern the limits of perception and expression that face science and literature.
Many of the essays collected here point out the link between literature and science as modes of knowing the world as well as the capacity of literature and science to structure perceptions. Science applies a certain rationality to the world, systematizing reality in making it legible. But literature performs a similar framing. “As we have known since Aristotle,” Jacques Rancière writes, “fiction is not the invention of imaginary worlds. It is first a structure of rationality: a mode of presentation that renders things, situations or events perceptive and intelligible; a mode of liaison that constructs forms of coexistence, succession and causal linkages between events, and gives to these forms the characters of the possible, the real or the necessary.”16 Not only does literature share with science the role of making the world “perceptive and intelligible,” but fiction encodes that reality in a form that creates a foundation for the historical and social sciences. “For fiction is not fantasy as opposed to the rigour of science,” Rancière continues. “Instead, it is what supplied the latter with a model of rationality”—more specifically, “the principle that declares the construction of a verisimilar causal sequence more rational than the description of facts ‘as they occur.’”17 Here we again see the logic of a language that delivers not only “facts” but also, through language’s organization in narrative, the causal relations that make those facts intelligible to the reader or observer.
The essays in this thematic issue address the status of science and literature as discourses, as ways of talking about the world that perform a logic of verisimilitude. They do not find that one discourse has absolute authority or unilateral influence over the other. It is not only science—with its accompanying forms of rational thinking and its technologies of knowledge and organization—that permeates literature in transforming the relationship of humans to the natural world. It is also language—in its susceptibility to power, its resistance to fixed meaning, and its narrative organization—that works on science. Together, science and literature reflect a larger sensibility, as Hwang notes in his introduction to this issue: one that emerges from the modern dislocation of belief and knowledge, is shaped by history and culture, and contains both the particular and the universal. The authors thus address the discursive nature of literature and science, their relationship to each other and to power, and the ways in which literature and science make the modern world intelligible. Each essay addresses a locality viewed across a particular stretch of time (colonial, postwar, North, South, contemporary, future) and engages with the attendant local politics of representation that ties a way of knowing the world to a mode of expression.
In his introduction, Hwang takes just such a historical view of the relationship between literature and science in modern Korea. In explaining the circumstances under which science came to justify social development in Korea in the form of social Darwinism, he contextualizes the cult of science among prominent Korean writers as well as their growing skepticism. He paints in broad strokes writers’ engagement with scientific discourse through literary trends (such as naturalism, realism, Marxism, and modernism) and their attendant politics, recalling how science functioned as an imperialist discourse from which colonial Koreans could not be free. Hwang’s introduction opens the conversation about the persistent connection between literature and science in modern Korea, and points to its reverberation and formulations in the works of Korea’s great poets and writers.
Several of the authors in the issue focus on the homology between literature and science as modes of framing reality, working toward an understanding of the relationship between empirical and aesthetic modes of truth telling. In his rereading of the works of poet, essayist, and fiction writer Yi Sang (1910–37), John H. Kim places a “radically obscure” modernist poetics side by side with the supposed mechanical objectivity of photography. Kim finds that it was aerial photography in particular that shaped the way that Yi engaged with and manipulated the space of the page—an “aerial view” that functioned to transcend the social and political realities of colonial Korea—while also examining “the confrontation between the epistemic regime of scientific knowledge and the personal truths of subjective experience.” On one hand, we have the positivist optimism of the modern, the supposition that the photograph yielded “the surface of things as they really were”; on the other, a persistent questioning of visual perception and the possibility of meaning, a “fear over the inadequacy of human language and subjectivity as arbiters of truth,” and the alienation of the subject removed from an anthropocentric point of view. These two contrasting aspects in the article come together in the phrase “blind sight”—on one hand, the abstract, dehumanized mechanical objectivity of the aerial photograph, and on the other, the “opacity and illegibility” of Yi’s poetry that “actively works against any all-encompassing cartography” of either inner or outer landscapes. Kim’s examination of scientific technique and poetic practice conceptualizes the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity in a period of assimilatory colonization, drawing new lines of influence between literature and the political.
Dafna Zur’s essay continues in this vein, showing that science, no matter its apparent objectivity or universality, never comes to us unmediated. Zur examines the dissemination of science through fiction and nonfiction during North Korea’s recovery from the devastation of the Korean War. She notes that even as science and technology played central roles in the economic and sociopolitical development of the nation, they also inflected understandings of the relationship between humans and nature and between individuals. As a technology and a way of knowing, science required rhetorical intervention—an attempt to exercise control over both the interpretation of and the sense of purpose around scientific developments. In Zur’s argument, while science is the object of ideological and moral machinations, it was the moral vision expressed in narrative that was most crucial in promoting science’s full potency and the “right” sort of progress. As with J. Kim’s work, Zur’s essay exposes a structural homology between science and narrative that asks us to consider how the two are mutually implicated in the emergence of a moral stance and an accompanying subject—of the state, of science, and of language.
Haerin Shin’s essay also develops the connection between science and literary works, examining the relationship between the social, the individual, science, and morality in aesthetic expression. According to Shin it is the social that suffers from pathological ailments here, and in her analysis of Young-ha Kim’s 2013 The Mnemonics of a Murderer she finds that the collective symptoms of the failed vision of the organic nation are expressed metaphorically in psychopathy and dementia. In one sense, the novel’s depiction of pathological conditions reflects “a deep-seated discontent with the growing chasm of socioeconomic inequalities that betray the triumphant reclamation of prosperity in the posteconomic-crisis era of the new millennium,” and Shin reveals a historically specific etiology stemming from a systemic failure to remember properly—a delusional ignorance at the core of fantasies of modernization and progress. Yet the literary work does not simply borrow the viewpoint of medical science in figuring contemporary social disillusionment and disorientation of post-IMF and postmillennial South Korea. Literature is also a “critical reflection on and an inspiration for reality,” a discursive framing of the world that can either promote or dispel an illusion of health and wholeness of the (social) body. Both literature and science are technologies of understanding, and Shin’s close reading of Kim’s fiction traces the figural connections between the two.
Other essays focus less on the overlap between science and literature as methods of appropriating reality and look to literature, in its very adoption of scientific themes or motifs, as a repository of resistance against that reality. Namkyung Yeon’s piece is one example of this approach, focused on the increasingly prevalent appearance of posthuman forms in South Korean fiction. As she notes, such science-fictional themes do not simply reflect contemporary reality but—echoing Shin’s treatment of Kim’s fiction—operate as a kind of critique of discourses of modernity. At the same time, these “posthuman” works compel a rethinking of the reader’s all-too-humanist present, characterized by boundaries of gender, age, and class, and Yeon adopts a discourse of future-oriented critical posthumanism in her approach to the critical potential of short fiction by Pae Myŏnghun and Yun Ihyŏng. From a literary historical perspective, Yeon’s work aims to shift science fiction from the confines of genre fiction and into the Korean literary tradition of resistant and so-called properly political literature, which has most often been literature deemed realistic.
Sunyoung Park’s essay discusses the long-term influence of science fiction in South Korea from the 1960s through the 1990s, linking up with Yeon’s rehabilitation of the genre and providing points of comparison with Zur’s theorization of the relation between science and technology and narrative representation in North Korea. Park begins by identifying an early positivist moment in South Korean science fiction in the postcolonial 1960s in which science and technology were regarded in state discourse as holding a “utopian promise of development and modernization for the nation.” Arguing that historical change drove transformations in the literary field, Park finds that in subsequent decades, science fiction shifted from the utopian to the dystopian under political dictatorship and forced industrialization and took on a critical and resistant role with regard to the technoscience of developmental modernity. Park notes the multiple lines of influence among the scientific, the social, and the literary and shows how literature influences and is influenced by the complex historical nexus of the social and the technological. Critical science fiction is, Park notes, as much indebted to countercultural social mores as it is to scientism per se.
Benoît Berthelier in a sense extends Park’s argument, seeing science itself as a set of cultural practices that is historically produced. His consideration of self-identified science fiction works allows him to observe how the genre engaged with alterity not as the postcolonial other but rather “as a multitude of lexical and discursive peculiarities . . . made possible or visible by science.” He thus demonstrates how science fiction worked to foster awe toward a field critical to North Korean postwar development as well as how it was mobilized to excite national pride, alleviate anxieties over diminished human agency, and assimilate themes from Hollywood and Japanese detective fiction. Berthelier suggests that the developments in North Korean science fiction over the last seven decades owe as much to the experimental character of the genre and its embrace of the speculative as they do to its support of North Korean ideology.
Chung-kang Kim illustrates how a mainstream sci-fi flick originally targeting an audience of children constituted the type of top-down ideological propaganda that was part of a South Korean Cold War cult of technology. She argues that while global Cold War ideologies were central to the South Korean political consciousness and drove cultural production at the time, they were met with resistant readings evoking the darker side of science experienced by Korean victims of the atomic bombs, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. While she locates the film The Great Monster Yonggari squarely within the Cold War discourse, her exploration of the process of production (as a Korean-Japanese-American collaboration), coupled with her discovery of divergent versions of the film, points to multiple subject positions that the film tried to address. By doing so, she demonstrates that the triumphant developmentalist narrative of science and technology was undermined in the very genre that was best suited to celebrate it.
Yoon Sun Yang similarly locates a resistance to a regime of scientific thinking in the literary work—here, the collusion between medical science and colonial power. Yang observes a trend in early twentieth-century Korean fiction that depicts young men suffering in isolation who arrive at a cure for, or at least an understanding of, their affliction through a process mediated by medical diagnosis. Rather than read these works as part of the emergence of the universal modern individual empowered by science, she points to the ways in which these narratives reveal the imprint of Japanese imperialism and modernity on the interiority of colonial Korean subjects. She argues not only that medical discourses expanded authors’ toolkits for writing gender and sexuality but that fiction illuminates the complicity of writers and doctors in the medical/colonial gaze. Fiction achieved this by underscoring the embeddedness of language and narrative in social relations.
As Jongyon Hwang writes, the foundational role of the natural and human sciences “was by no means less influential than the role of state ideology or print capitalism in the formation of modern literature.”18 Working together, these essays draw on previous work in science and literature studies to show that the history of modern Korean literature must be considered alongside a history of the reception of Western science.19 Yet while the attempt to more fully understand the role of science in the formation of modern Korean literature has yielded exciting and original Korean-language scholarship of late, this issue suggests an intervention of a different sort. The collected essays as a whole move beyond the influence of science on literature, drawing our attention to the ways literature and science, like politics, claim the authority to represent reality in language, to identify and order the world. The authors reveal that by rethinking the intersection of science and literature, we may find that modern Korean literature has served to question and challenge scientific claims to truth and that our ongoing task is to recognize the power of narrative in bringing an aesthetic and affective intelligibility to the world.
The guest editors wish to thank the anonymous reviewers, who so carefully read over and commented on these essays, and Jooyeon Kim at the Journal of Korean Studies for her support and assistance in producing this thematic issue. The issue originated as a workshop held at Stanford University in November 2016, sponsored by the Korean Literature Association and LTI Korea, the Stanford Humanities Center, the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, the Patrick Suppes Center for History and Philosophy of Science, and the Center for East Asian Studies at Stanford University.
Kim, “‘Kwahak’ iranŭn Ilbonŏ ŏhwi ŭi Chosŏn chŏllae,” 431. For a broader discussion of the translation of conceptual words in dictionaries of the early twentieth century, see Hwang H. and Yi, “Pŏnyŏk kwa chŏnt’ongsŏng.”
See for instance Ch’a, “Sasil, pangbŏp, chilsŏ.”