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Living on Your Own: Single Women, Rental Housing, and Post-Revolutionary Affect in Contemporary South Korea : Jesook Song. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014, 143 pages
University of Leeds, UK|
Journal ID (publisher-id): RIAW
Journal : Asian Women
ISSN: 1225-925X (Print)
ISSN: 2586-5714 (Online)
Publisher: Research Institute of Asian Women Sookmyung Women's University
Print publication date: Day: 30 Month: 06 Year: 2021
Volume: 37 Issue: 2
First Page: 117 Last Page: 120
When the authoritarian military dictatorship ruled South Korea, young intellectuals as university students saw it as their obligation to democratize the nation. They fought hard for political freedom against a military regime that brutally oppressed them. Still, it was not just political freedom but also economic and cultural freedom that were waiting to be released from the tightly controlled authoritarian grip. When Korea achieved democracy in 1987 with the holding of direct presidential elections, the atmosphere of celebrating freedom overflowed in every sphere of the society, leaving the grim past behind. Liberty was the hard-earned value of the new democratized society, and it was celebrated in most fields, but it also brought about complicated situations. The increased economic freedom that was encouraged at the time under the pressure of neo-liberalization has had fatal effects on society—it destroys the social safety net and leaves individuals burdened with hazardous consequences. While individual sovereignty is a modern political ideal, the idea of a free individual is what neoliberalism posits and propagates. Individuals just freed from political oppression and wishing to put their sovereignty into practice could have inclined toward the neoliberalist idea of the free individual in a somewhat unwitting or confused manner. In relation to this tendency, intellectuals worry that political solidarity and struggle are shunned, seemingly in favor of enjoying an individual freedom and well-being which strikingly contrasts with the dominant affect during the dictatorship period. Some critics contemptuously belittle such individuals as though they have been subjugated by the governance of neo-liberalization. Song’s book is about young single women’s state of seemingly apolitical dormancy against this backdrop.
Song’s discussions are based on accounts of interviews with single women in 2005–2007 whose ages ranged from the late 20s to late 30s, most of whom had formerly participated in student movements. According to her, participating in student movements was a generational experience that was widely shared in their age band, and throughout her discussions she implies this should not be neglected when examining young women of the time who were seemingly politically inactive then. After introducing her research, four main chapters follow that cover different independent but interrelated themes. The first main chapter illustrates young single women’s arduous journey to secure their own house to live in. Song suggests the importance of independent living for them is in the context of defying the traditional family-centered control of female sexuality. However, as unstable and low-wage employment is prevalent among young women, housing is paradoxically only viable with the financial assistance of the family. In the second chapter, she discusses the economic structure that marginalizes single women in trying to finance the lump sum required to secure decent housing. Young single women were excluded not only from official financing measures, driven by neoliberal restructuring, but also conventional informal financing. She also illustrates how cultural gender norms are reflected in loan conditions that only cater for heterosexual married couples, making securing housing even harder for single women.
The third chapter focuses on the seemingly contradictory situation whereby women individually indulge in foreign culture by consuming global cultural contents and/or overseas travels with their modest disposable income rather than struggle politically against the economic and cultural structure that actually hinders their sovereignty in their everyday lives. One might suggest that this is the case of living with false consciousness, but she deals with the complexity by describing their ambivalence towards the new reality. While some of her interviewees were critical to the exploitive neoliberal structure, their interest in caring for themselves is not clearly distinguished from the conformity to neoliberal individualism and self-management. Despite that, Song’s belief that young women must have learnt resistance from their experience of student movements leads to Chapter 4. She offers the interpretation that women’s dormancy does not mean they were giving up on resistance, but that they were now in self-suspension, leaning on the concept derived from Laurent Berlant’s discussion on eating in post-Fordist American society. She highlights how young women were critically reflecting on the experience of the male-centered and dogmatic student movement amid their enjoyment of a free lifestyle and concludes that new kinds of social movement will come soon.
In the introduction, Song describes the aim of her research as presenting an insightful case for understanding youth frustration and struggles in global late capitalist societies. As many scholars are concerned that liberal capitalism can no longer project a sustainable future for young people, and they are struggling to find alternative paths, there is an urgency to learn how young people of this era are experiencing and feeling. In this context, her book is definitely a welcome addition, especially in that she covers young women’s experiences in Korea, one of the Asian societies that, it can be argued, is entering the phase of late modernity. However, it might have appealed to more focused readers if she had explicitly elaborated her case within some more specific key debates, such as how global consumer culture affects gender relations at the national and/or regional level. This is because her research would also be an excellent counterargument to the stereotypical conception of young Asian women as ignorant victims or handmaidens of global capitalization and consumerism, which is often associated with the dogmatic and misogynistic male discourses of which they are targets.
In a recently liberated society in which old cultural norms and conventions persist but only precariously, young women perhaps reflect on their lived cultural experiences by surveying global cultural content to make sense of their new situation and to conceive what alternatives to pursue. Hence, it would be wiser to identify the issues in their cultural activities and assess the possibilities and limitations of those activities rather than lamenting for them by disapproving of their inclinations. Also, we should not ignore the fact that blaming the powerless reflects the interests of the powerful. If male intellectuals scorn young women’s indulgence in popular culture as a sign of subordination to consumer culture ideology and the loss of a spirit of resistance, it should be carefully examined whether their prejudice such as misogynic inclination is amalgamated with critical theories and its effects. Probably as an antithesis to this, Song rather hastily assumes that young women’s self-withdrawal into cultural activities will eventually lead to their retrieving a sense of political resistance. She predicts in the conclusion that, having witnessed candlelight rallies in which young women actively and peacefully participated, new kinds of political movement will soon thrive. In the strict sense, how young women’s cultural activities can be connected to political movements is not vigorously interrogated in her discussion. Hence, this would be a question to be addressed in follow-up research. Despite this, by listening to and sympathetically advocating for young women, Song’s book represents pioneering research, focusing on the neglected area of complex female youth emotion and affect in a late-modern, rapidly industrialized, and crisis-ridden Asian region.
Biographical Note: Sel Lee is a PhD candidate at the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. Sel’s research interests are cultural studies, gender, cultural nationalism, subculture, and fashion. She is currently working on a thesis looking into contemporary youth fashion subculture centered around traditional Korean dress. Email: (firstname.lastname@example.org)