Cultural Memory, Cultural Archetype and Communication

Bak Sang Hwan • Professor, School of Confucian and Oriental Studies, Sungkyunkwan University.

Gesture of memory and communication of usual culture

Kimsooja, the female artist now in her fifties, first drew attention from her performance in 1977 where she traveled around Korea on her truck loaded with hundreds of bottaries (bundles), soon rising to international fame by taking performances with themes of bottari and needles to Italy, the Seine River and the Liberation Square in France. Her main subject-matter, the bottari and the needle, reminiscent of the life of the modern people, their joys and sorrows, is apt to express issues such as the refugees, starvation, and cultural conflicts. Through the mediation of her body, Kimsooja’s performances are intended to show by reconstructing and actualizing our memories of cultural difference and the dogma of religion rising from troubling factors in any region in the world. Here, the body is functioning not as disconnection from the past but as a form of observation that connects herself to a group. The process of reconstruction of the past is proceeded in an unique frame of world interpretation not applied an individual – though one is the agent of the process – but to a group to which one belongs. Herein lies the reason why her performances become the content of communication.
Memory is generally produced in the process of socialization. In this sense, Kimsooja's work is fundamentally to invent a new model for 'social memory'. Social memory, or group memory, consistently influences society in the context of tradition, but it is forgotten or eradicated when the group is dissolved through political or social upheaval. Substituting this phenomena which happen when existing social conditions changes for 'cultural memory (kulturelles Gedaechtnis)’, Kimsooja also alters the process that recalls the cultural archetype universal to mankind into the process of thinking of 'timeness.' These are expressed in her works such as <Needle Woman>, a performance in which she both stays in and moves through crowds of people, and <Bottari Woman> in which she is wandering to search for her archetype which has been thrown into the world. ‘Cultural memory' expressed by Kimsooja, though, is quite at a distance from memory that is concocted by political power.
When a social group remembers a recent past they experienced, they actualize it through daily communication, acquiring a concrete identity. However the time span and social effectiveness of this 'vivid memory' is inevitably limited. A group that secures political hegemony in a give society tries to conceal the exclusiveness of their limited memory by means of casting back its origin to a far and remote past, subsequently attempting to acquire universal validity of its group that owns that memory. However, because 'origin' is separate from actual experiences and thus inevitably mythical, it is necessary to mobilize media such as, documents, texts, architecture, icon, gravestones, temples, monuments, rituals, festivals, and so on.
Like this, 'cultural memory' means a social memory which institutionalizes and systematically transmits the significance of culture, constituting group identity. In the sense that it is closely connected to group identity, cultural memory is differentiated from history which seeks abstract and universal knowledge. Here, culture is communication via material basis or medium where cultural memory is takes root, and the development and changes of the medium plays a role in changing the mode of culture and cultural memory. The role of text as a leading medium for memory is replaced by that of photographs, video images, and computers as a consequence of the revolutionary development of multimedia in the twentieth century.
The cultural memory which Kimsooja wanted to recognize, can be understood as a reinterpretation of the act of memorializing the deceased (returning to the cultural archetype). As Aleida Assmann noted, “the most essential and pervasive form of memory that connects the live and the deceased, is the respect towards the deceased”1, also mentioning that while this tradition was maintained until the eighteenth century, it perished on the threshold of the modern period. Because the idea that the deceased occupies a legal and social status in the memory of the living has come to an end, the relation among cultural archetype, tradition and custom calls for an even closer examination.
Here Assmann distinguishes two forms of memory: one is 'functional memory (Funktionsgedaechtnis)', structured to function directly according to immediate needs, and the other is ‘storing memory(Speichergedaechtnis)', where experiences of the past and knowledges are stored via media and accessed as necessary. History corresponds to the latter. If storing memory plays a role of basis on which functional memory is verified and corrected, then functional memory is the steerman of storing memory. With regard to this, Kimsooja's work can be defined as a kind of 'meta-memory' which performs 'the working of memory.' If history ― constructed in the form of universal or abstract discourse, which is nation-centered and elite-centered ― is an ideology which speaks for the power of authority in current society, Kimsooja interprets the working of memory in the aspect of dissolving oppressed and forgotten truth. Instead of reflecting the experience of the past as it were, she reorganizes it in a way to appeal to the cultural identity; that is, she artificially organizes it to have the marks of the minority be understood more vividly in ordinary life. By freeing herself from the grand discourse of social or political issues and looking back on herself, she pursues diversity instead of unity and attempts a shift in the perceiving of conflict.
Kimsooja refuses a voluntary submission to authoritarianism and exclusivism ― self-rationalizing within collectivism ― and attempts at a social consent that takes its form in an act of rational distancing from the group to which one belongs. This is an effort to understand that the cause of contradiction and conflict as analysed in history, or remembered culture coexist within and without herself. This is not an attempt to avoid social conflicts and contradictions, but a way to resolve the problems while constantly and actively confronting(Umgang) them. This way, Kimsooja pursues the return to the 'cultural archetype.' That is, works which remind us of the archetype of mythology, primitive or universal, or works which replaces contents ― harmonized through our body-as-nature ― with sound (in Weaving factory) or with natural scenary (in Earth, Water, Fire, Air), are manifestations of her effort to approach cultural archetype in an attempt to fill the gap of social, and historical differences. For proper understanding, the keyword, 'cultural archetype' calls for a detailed examination through the process of reflecting on history.

Private Possession of Cultural Archetype and Reflection on History

Cultural archetype is a more confusing concept than that of culture, which itself is no less difficult to define. However we can gain some form of consensus at least in the area of art in that we are conscious of cultural propagation, cultural transmission and cultural change. Although there is conceptual vagueness, tradition, in a cultural memory that reconstructs the past, still holds an important position with regard to communicating with the past. When we cast back limited memory to a remote past, it is estranged from reality, then requiring a mythical symbol, and when the cultural archetype aspires towards traditional culture as a subject-matter of creation, it is frequently connected to mythical imagination.
Of course, the concept of time used in cultural memory occupies a rather peculiar position. Time contemporaneously used within a specific group is their own time, but the timeness of cultural memory as transmitted memory is operating in a 'distended situation (die zerdehnte Situation)', a situation where it is disconnected and then reconnected. Cultural memory has a cultural meaning, in which the past and present are arranged and transmitted along the same line. Myth is the memory of origins, a memory which "is directed and experienced through the monumental field of communication, such as symbols, rituals or festivals. It is thus a memory which refers to what stands in contrast with the quotidian, or rather, to the root of being(dasein) that is excluded from the quotidian; it creates the meaning of the quotidian by making known the order towards which the quotidian should aim. It is a memory that, according to Assman, cures the lack in the quotidian.”2
We seek a kind of psychological comfort in the parallels of time. The discourse of memory vascillates between two contrasting axes of criticizing and enjoying the past. On the one hand, it dissolves the myth of the past, and on the other hand, it remythicizes it. Culture and cultural archetypes, and ‘root-searching,' or re-mythicizing connected with tradition can eventually be reduced to the problem of modernization contained in culture. For a better understanding, here I quote a passage from the preface of The Invention of Tradition, written by Eric Hobsbawm.

“However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of 'invented' traditions is that the continuity with it is largely factitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by quasi-obligatory repetition. It is the contrast between the constant change and innovation of the modern world and the attempt to structure at least some parts of social life within it as unchanging and invariant, that makes the 'invention of tradition' so interesting for historians of the past two centuries.”3

If custom is the living past, tradition is a mental image that is 'invented' to hide the fact that it is actually disconnected from the past. In world history, it was in the nineteenth century that nationalism suddenly surfaced and European countries advocated their own culture by setting up the virtual other; now, Korea follows in their footsteps. From the late the twentieth century, Korea has been searching from within the virtual others which was invented in Europe. It is the so-called Re-Orientalism phenomenon. Paradoxically, when we remember our culture, we are either consciously or unconsciously approaching it from the viewpoint of Orientalism, a perspective invented in the West. Culture has basically been developed in the process of searching for identity, but as is the process of modernization in Korea, the identity of science is always the object of question, and the ordinary people’s pursuit of self-identity has distortedly developed under the influence of the West, Japan and U. S. A.

This trend once began to be replaced with independent viewpoints triggered by the Gwangju democratization movement in 1980, but now, thirty years later, it is being reversed again. The main slogan of this period is now back to the logic of the powerful, emphasizing only warped ends rather than the reasonability of means and processes. Here we need to understand the meaning of history which is molded through the process of modernization. Starting from the late nineteenth century, modernization in the Korean peninsula intersected with westernization, and at the same time awareness of our cultural identity began to emerge in earnest. This was, however, not a situation particular to East-Asian countries such as Korea or China, but a shared historical experience among late capitalism societies.

Let us take Germany as an example, a late capitalist country in Europe. "The contrast between civilization and culture which was suggested by the German bourgeoisie may be considered pre-historical to the discourses of 'Chinese Substance and Western Function(中體西用, Zhongti Xiyong)' or 'Eastern Ways and Western Machines(東道西器, Tongtosoki)', both propagated by East-Asian countries when western European countries came in with imperialistic spoliation.”4 As is generally known, early modern Germany was under the influence of the spirit of the times(Zeitgeist) of the bourgeoisie, which justified their desire to compensate for their political-economical inferiority to western Europe (i.e. England and France) with spiritualism, that is, the belief that their values have intrinsic intellectual and artistic superiority.5 'Culture' and 'civilization' can be used interchangeably in English, but this was not possible in Germany. Kant's statement ― "We are cultivated(kultiviert) on a very high level by art and science...The ideology of morality belongs to culture(Kultur), but if we search for it only in something like the desire for fame, manners, or superficial courtesy, it would result in civilization(Zivilisierung).6> ― is speaking for the superiority of German culture which emphasizes inner morality in contrast to material and ostentatious civilization of Western Europe. German intellectuals since Kant in the eighteenth century understood culture in two different concepts: spiritual culture(Kultur) and material civilization(Zivilisation). Based on this understanding of the relationship between culture and civilization, Germany comprehended the First World War as bursting out from an intensified conflict between nations, as a cultural struggle of Germany, Central Europe, against the material civilization of Western Europe.
Originating from the Latin word 'cultura(cultivation, education)', which is derived from the verb 'colere(to take care, to enlighten)', the concept of culture accentuates human intervention and has an especially close relation to education. The usage of 'culture' in modern Germany reflects the process of self-education of the individual and society. The dichotomous reasoning which divides higher spiritual culture and lower material culture and the concept of culture related to the concept of education are usually discovered in late modern society. The ancient concept of culture in the East has also been developed in the context of education and cultivation; 文化(culture) is derived from 以文敎化(education with literature), and this stems from a Confucian spirit of the humanities along with 文治敎化(educating people without punishment) and 德治敎化(educating people with virtue). In other words, it was a device invented to inspire active human intervention in the period of social change. The reason that late developing countries, taking top-down reformation strategies, seek for people's motivation ― urgently required in the process of economic development ― particularly in spiritual or moral aspects is that it is easy to obtain social consent from in those areas to the extent that they have deep affinity with cultural memory of pre-modern society. In this context, we can say that the concept of culture is directly connected to the problem of modernization still effective today.
High culture formed in the German conception of culture is certainly different from folk culture, and its influence reached to Adorno, who criticized the culture industry in the middle of the twentieth century. Though Contemporary Korean society does show capitalist traits that are distinguishable from those of Western societies at that time, it is also possible to analyze Korean society in another way, according to which Korean society is relatively less classified than Western societies where culture is consumed discriminatively according to class. Instead of discriminatively accommodating or practicing culture according to class or hierarchical identity, contemporary Korean society shows a mixture of aspects that makes it difficult to discriminate cultural classes. However, when social change is analyzed in a broader perspective, considering the tendency to pursue dominant culture without forming resistant culture in the mixed state, we can find similar contrasts within the cultural traditions of East Asia, between the higher and the lower, and it has been influential until now on the process of modernization. A spirit-centered dichotomy and retrospective ways of thinking ― which are revealed in the logic of modernization, such as Chinese Substance and Western Function(中體西用, Zhongti Xiyong), Japanese Spirit and Western Techniques(和魂洋才, Wakon Yosai), Eastern Ways and Western Machines(東道西器, Tongtosoki) ― are still dominant, and in this continuous trend, the worries of returning to the spirit of the literary in this pursuit of the spirit of humanities sounds persuasive. In this tradition it is not easy for cultural memory to be free. It is necessary to examine this trend to find the root of culture. Theories of modernization in China or the later period of Chosun ― accepting social and economic modernization but refusing cultural modernization, that is, the coexistence with others ― approached contrasting relation between the old and new, the East and West from a compromising perspective. The cultural conservatism that is intrinsic in this compromise, such as Chinese Substance and Western Function, is not a phenomenon particular to the late nineteenth century. Nowadays, we heavily rely on Huntingtonian cultural essentialism when it comes to the interpretation of culture. Refusing the modern in the name of tradition on the one hand, criticizing tradition in the name of the modern on the other, the contrasting dichotomous discourse of modernism ― an all-out rejection and an all-out affirmation at the same time ― reveals our very reality.

Weaving the gap of difference with the language of the body

Kimsooja, becoming a needle herself, has laboriously made the effort to weave with the weft and warp the gap between the world and people, suggesting the necessity to historically and structurally approach problems such as anti-democracy, authoritarianism, exclusivism and elitism. Now, the viewpoint that defines culture as antagonistic sectors, such as 'Asian value vs. Western value' or 'Confucianism vs. Buddhism, Western Christianity, Hinduism, or Islam' and so on, should be deemed outdated, and now, culture should be understood as that which has concrete forms, as a relation of harmony and communication in which diversity is respected.7 If an interpretation of culture starts from the supposition that each culture has an extremely different world view on a deep spiritual level, this interpretation does not veer far from cultural essentialism.8 Dieter Senghaas put, “If, however, the difference between the value profiles of a highly modernized and a less modernized society within one civilization is far greater than between the value profiles of societies at similar stages of development in different civilizations ― certainly a verifiable, sociologically plausible situation ― then the more recent international cultural debate would appear to be unrealistic.”9 The conflict between different cultural sectors is important, but the conflict between different groups within one cultural sector may be more serious. Consequently, Kimsooja's works are actions that show the activities of accepting the diversity of values into the language of the body, by contrasting actual elements of ritual with the difference of space between different cultures, or difference of time between the pre-modern and the modern coexisting within a given cultural sector. If the awareness of otherness is the product of the modern and the pursuit of cultural archetype a means to resolve present conflicts, what meaning does Kimsooja's work confer today? The cultural archetype plays a role as a medium which properly connects the role of the individual and the role of society. At this juncture, the artist requests that, through further active gestures, society respect diverse opinions and develop otherwise disagreeable ideas into a field of communication where they are no longer mutually exclusive.

1 Aleida Assmann, Erinnerungsräume : Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses, C. H. Beck, 1999, p. 39

2 Hak Ie Kim, "'Cultural Memory' of Jan Assmann", The Journal of Western History, Vol. 33, 2005, p. 241

3 Eric Hobsbawm, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p. 2.

4 Kim Jong Yup, “The Change of the Concept of Culture and a Problem of Cultural Study" The Practice of Cultural Study and Cultural Contents (Inha University College of Humanities Specialized Research Group, Inha University, 2005), p. 72.

5 In this context, Schiller criticized the French Revolution and utopianism in the fourth letter of “On the Aesthetic Education of man in a Series of Letters”. (F. Schiller, Ueber die aesthetische Erziehung des Menschen (Stuttgart, Reclam, 1965). S. 9.)

6 Kant, ‘Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbuergerlicher Absicht', in; Werke Bd.9 (Darmstadt, 1983), S. 44 (A402~403).

7 Bak Sang Hwan "The Study of Communication and Possibility on the Cultural Contents and Humanism", Journal of the humanities, Vol. 41, (Sungkyunkwan University Research Institute for the Humanities, 2008), pp. 228-229.

8 A viewpoint that counts culture as essential in that it determines everything in human society.

9 Dieter Senghaas, Zivilisierung wider Willen: der Konflikt der Kulturen mit sich selbst (English translation, The Clash within Civilisations: Coming to Terms with Cultural Conflicts, p. 6)