Editors’ note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. The following is a new introduction written by Kang Shin-pyo. Both selected excerpts and the full seminar transcript with appendices are also available.

This book is the record of a remarkable conversation between Claude Lévi-Strauss, the leading proponent of structural anthropology in the twentieth century, and a group of South Korean scholars invited as leaders in their respective disciplines. It took place in Seongnam, in the context of a seminar that was conceived as an encounter not only between scholarly generations but also between East and West and North and South. The conversation filled five days in October 1981, interrupted for eleven days while Lévi-Strauss traveled in the South Korean countryside to explore aspects of the country’s cultural traditions.

The seminar was initiated by Kang Shin-pyo, then Chairman of the Department of Socio-Cultural Research at the Academy of Korean Studies. Kang had begun to apply a structuralist approach to the analysis of East Asian cultures in the course of his doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii and became acquainted with Lévi-Strauss’s work during academic sojourns in London and Paris. In this respect he was typical of a generation of South Korean humanities scholars who by the mid-1970s were internationally mobile and alert to developments in European and American theory and methodology. The 1981 seminar provided an opportunity for them to engage with Western scholars on their home ground; although Lévi-Strauss and his ideas were the focus of the seminar, other North American and European anthropologists took part by invitation: David Eyde, David Wu, Bob Scholte and Henry Lewis.

The institutional context in which these scholars came together was the work of the Academy of Korean Studies, which was sponsoring a project on the theme of Symbol and Society in Traditional Korea. The Academy had been created in 1978 by the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology under the government of President Park Chung-hee. Park had established a military dictatorship in 1963 and sealed its authoritarian character with the Yushin constitution in 1972. Under his leadership the country underwent a process of rapid forced modernization sustained by a combination of police repression and the mobilization of popular consent. The creation of the Academy was part of a strategy of “balancing” the effects of technological and economic change through the promotion of cultural or spiritual values; its name was literally Research Institute of Korean Spiritual Culture. Under the dictatorship its function was to legitimate the regime at the level of culture as well as to provide materials for the construction and dissemination of a nationalist historical narrative. Accordingly, the “Korean Studies” that it looked to develop was not an area studies of the kind that were developing in the West at the same time (although, like the Western version, it was multi-disciplinary), but rather a program of research and development directed inwards with national consciousness as its object. 

Appendix 2, Figure 3: Seminar Participants at Academy of Korean Studies.

The 1981 seminar thus took place at the heart of a significant moment in South Korea’s political economy, but the character of that moment and the paradoxes it implied for the mission of a humanities project with “traditional culture” at its center are largely absent from the conversation. When Lévi-Strauss, at his own insistence, went in search of tradition in the provinces, his attention was directed to the restored manor houses of the provincial service (양반 yangban) elite and the folk villages (민속마을 minsokmaeul) maintained as showpieces by local and regional governments. These preserved the traces of a historical way of life whose disappearance was being accelerated by forced development in the countryside; the icon of rural modernization under the banner of the New Village (새마을 saemaeul) Movement launched in 1970 was the replacement of wood and thatch roofs with corrugated iron. The author of Tristes tropiques recognized this tension when, in his concluding remarks, he expressed the “hope that Asia comes up with a solution to the problem of how to live with the free market and industrialization without the destruction of interpersonal relationships and the destruction of meaning.” And the problem of reconciling “industrialization” and tradition—the Academy’s underlying agenda—was certainly part of the conversation here, acknowledged and embraced in particular by David Eyde.

It is notable, though, that the forces challenging “tradition” appear in these conversations as impersonal and global. Eyde in particular falls easily into the language of Westernization, Americanization and (Western) imperialism. The particular circumstances of South Korea’s modernization, in which Park’s illiberal state in partnership with big corporations controlled the market and enforced low wages and poor working conditions by manipulating and criminalizing the labor movement, are unspoken here. In effect the Korean and Western speakers are talking about different things, and it is not clear how far the visitors are aware of it. Similarly striking is the candor with which Bob Scholte articulates his (generational) challenge to the authority of anthropological knowledge in “neo-Marxist” terms (along with the exchange about Lévi-Strauss’s comparison of South Asian Buddhism to Marxism). In 1981, a new dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, was consolidating his position following the brutal suppression of democracy movements precipitated by Park’s 1979 assassination, and the seminar participants’ presumption of open intellectual exchange contrasts sharply with the repression of the left which was part of everyday life on South Korean campuses at the time.

These contradictions, however, reflect the inherent ambivalence of the Korean Studies project. The developmental dictatorship’s interest in state-building coincided with the intellectual ambitions of a generation of scholars who were equally committed to identifying the elements of a post-colonial national identity “from the bottom up.” The fact that most of them had completed their doctoral studies abroad is itself a marker of that post-colonial moment, and one of their shared concerns was to explore the cultural and intellectual foundations for building strong, independent and locally rooted scholarship and scholarly institutions. In this sense, Korean Studies was a declaration of independence—from Western culture, but also from a well-established East Asian Studies which originated in Europe and in which Korean traditions were overwritten by Japanese and Chinese culture—and a quest in its own terms for a counter-balancing authenticity. Accordingly (as the list of participants indicates), with the notable exception of a number of scholars of French literature, most of the Koreans who attended the seminar were already engaged in the study of Korea’s historical culture from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. And they were facing a complex task: first, to introduce cosmopolitan discourses while negotiating the exit from post-colonial tutelage, and then to position themselves safely (and with intellectual integrity) between the nationalist dictatorship and the people, both generally symbolized by men in uniform.

Appendix 2, Figure 5: (top) Claude Lévi-Strauss commenting on the structuralist elements in Ancient Chinese Philosophy; (bottom) Claude Lévi-Strauss having conversations with Koh Byong-ik (President, Academy of Korean Studies) and other scholars of Korean Studies.

In the light of this wider picture, what we can observe in this seminar is the Academy—in spite of the intentions of its state founders—offering a safe space for intellectual interchange. (The proceedings were published in full in Korean at the time.) The outcomes of these conversations can be seen in the ways in which the seminar participants contributed to the development of public life and the critical academy in South Korea following democratization after 1987. A few examples: Lee Gwang-Gyu and Choi Hyup were among those who contributed to establishing a research base for the institutionalized national project. They laid the foundations for research on the Korean diaspora based on Lévi-Straussian approaches to family structure, and Lee was later appointed as the first president of the Overseas Korean Foundation. Kang Shin-pyo himself became a leading voice in an ongoing debate about whether it would be possible to generate forms of social theory that were distinctly Korean, derived from the characteristic elements of Korean culture. Yu Jung Ho can stand for the literary scholars who would introduce post-structural theory to the debates, through translation and original work; he was also active in movements for civic empowerment and in discussions about the politics and ethics of engaged scholarship. Cho Hae Jung and Cho Ok La, who did their research on women in Korean society, founded the organization Alternative Culture (또 하나의 문화 Tto Hanaui Munhwa), which was the cradle of cultural feminism in the 1990s.

As the present text makes clear, the seminar was carried on mainly in English, with occasional interjections in French. The transcript is presented here in English for the first time. The Korean version was published by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1983 under the title Anthropology of Lévi-Strauss and Korean Studies (레비스트로스의 人類學과 韓國學 Lebiseuteuroseu eui Illyuhak kwa hangukak). That edition included documentation on the planning of the seminar and short reflective essays by Lee Gwang-Gyu, as well as the photographs included here. The 1981 transcription was done by Bernard Olivier, and the present edition was prepared from the original typescripts by Cheong Hee Yun (Sogang University) and Eve Rosenhaft (Sogang and Liverpool Universities).   

Shin-pyo Kang: contributions / husokang@gmail.com