Vibrant Voices of Public Address–Volume 1, No. 2

February 2012

A Conversation with Jiyeon Kang

In this issue, Public Address Division member Jiyeon Kang discusses her study of South Korea’s candlelight vigils, which began as an Internet-born protest against the deaths of two thirteen-year-old South Korean girls accidentally struck by a U.S. military vehicle in 2002. Initiated by South Korean youths born after the 1980s, who were also the demonstrations’ primary participants, the candlelight vigils became a repertoire for protest, as seen in the recurring vigils of 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010.

What do you find especially compelling about this artifact?

The 2002 vigils revealed the conjunction of seemingly incommensurable factors: national dissemination of the vigils without a leader, coexistence of tropes from the 1980s democratization movement (i.e., anti-Americanism) and the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament (i.e., mass gathering and festivity), the significant political impact of a depoliticized younger generation, and the temporary upsurge but fast downturn of anti-American sentiment. These characteristics raised the research question of how the Internet can function as a locus for civic discourse. Impassioned Internet discussion (combined with parodies, memes, and images), fast-paced circulation, and affirmation of shared emotion fashioned a collective agency unique to online politics. Although these features defy the model of deliberation among informed citizens derived from the work of Jürgen Habermas, we can nonetheless see a public sphere that is anti-elitist and vibrant, wherein citizens engage in conversation through what rhetorical scholars call vernacular discourse.

Another point of theoretical interest lies in the role of corporeal memory in reshaping the social movement repertoire and subjectivity of participants. In South Korea, memories from the Cold War era (violent clashes with the police, and anti-communism) function as palpable barriers to protest or criticism of the United States, South Korea’s ally against communism. In 2002, the corporeal and affective memories from the recent World Cup street celebrations made “taking it to the street” a natural event, and so allayed the fears associated with public protest in the 2002 vigils and those of subsequent years.

What do you believe are the most important contexts for understanding the rhetorical functions of this artifact?

The uneven ending of the Cold War and changing social imaginaries in South Korea are particularly relevant to understanding the vigils. Because of the ongoing war with North Korea, the U.S. military presence, and compulsory military service, the Cold War mindset persisted in South Korea nearly two decades after the fall of the communist bloc. The youth participants of the vigils—born after 1980—were South Korea’s first generation to be exempt from direct contestation between authoritarianism (coupled with anti-communism) and radical social movement (inspired by anti-Americanism). The weakening of ideology-driven politics is related to the emergence of collective action based on shared grievances, identification, and emotion.

How would you characterize your critical approach to this artifact? Why have you chosen this approach?

Critical textual analysis is a fundamental and useful tool for analyzing online discourse. In undertaking such an analysis, I am informed by Actor-Network Theory. ANT explicitly distances the actor from a human intentional individual, and considers that an actant can be anything, provided it is the source of an action. The internal and external structures of a website directly shape discourse and can therefore function as an actant. For example, word limits for a posting induce expressive messages over deliberative ones, and an open (accessible to anyone) online community invites dissenters and gives rise to clashes of opinions.

In my research I also conduct focus-group interviews. Through the retrospective narratives of vigil participants, I can understand how their experiences at the vigils shape their identities as citizens and political actors. Even though many of my interviewees did not attend the protests with well-defined motivations and a vision for change, they nonetheless often speak about having become different people as a result of their corporeal experiences. Interviewing helps me to investigate the question of how corporeal and collective memories shape the subjectivity of individual participants.

How would you incorporate this artifact into a class?

For a class on social movement, the vigils offer a compelling case study of “vernacular rhetoric/discourses,” as discussed notably in the scholarship of Gerard Hauser, Kent Ono and John Sloop, and Robert Glenn Howard. Such discourse creates a space for collective identity and alternative politics. The vigils also offer a discursive approach that links well with the scholarship of sociologist Charles Tilly on “social-movement repertoire.”

For a class on social media or the public sphere, online discourse from the vigils can accompany the Habermasian model of deliberation or community, in order to examine new forms of older democratic practices.

In a graduate seminar on rhetorical theory, my research can be used to pose questions about rhetorical agency, specifically about individual agent/collective agency, intentional agent/nonhuman agency, and corporeal agency.

Where can interested readers find additional information?

The local constitution of vernacular discourse on the Internet and South Korea’s changing views of the United States are examined in depth in Jiyeon Kang, “Coming to Terms with ‘Unreasonable’ Global Power: The 2002 South Korean Candlelight Vigils,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 6, no. 2 (2009): 171–92. An upcoming ethnography-based article examines corporeal memory in repertoire change and in the participants’ subjectivity: Jiyeon Kang, “Corporeal Memory, Ephemeral Agency, and the Making of a Post–Cold War Generation: Remembering the 2002 Candlelight Vigils,” Journal of Korean Studies (forthcoming in 2012). Further, the Korea Journal special issue, “Contemporary Korean Society Viewed Through the Lens of the Candlelight Vigils of 2008” (2010) presents research on the 2008 candlelight vigils against the proposed Free Trade Agreement between South Korea and the United States.

Contributor: Jiyeon Kang is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. Her research interests include social movements, civic use of social media, South Korean politics, youth culture, and globalization. She is currently working on a book manuscript, entitled Volatile Netizenship, Cautious Citizens: Youth, the Internet, and PostCold War South Korea. Her scholarship has also appeared in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs, the Journal of Korean Studies, and the Quarterly Journal of Speech.

Editor: Angela G. Ray, Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, is chair of NCA’s Public Address Division for 2012.

Vibrant Voices, Volume 1, No. 2