By Tiffany Chang
Art by YaYing Yu
This spring, I decided to spend my leave term on campus doing research to prepare for my senior thesis. To be honest, my real motivations for staying on campus were to spend more time with my graduating friends and continue living at Chanty (our senior apartment). Embarking on a new passion project while preparing to say goodbye to seeing my friends every day has been such a bittersweet experience. At the same time, not taking classes this term has given me a lot of time to reflect on how grateful I am to have met friends who have become like family here.
We’ve all been through a lot these past few years, and reflecting on what to make of everything I’ve ever wondered or been worried about, the next direction for my work has organically coalesced around the theme of survival. Pursuing survival means something different to everyone, and that’s what makes it so beautiful: a shared need that we can build into shared communities. No matter where this life takes us, I only wish the best for everyone in the class of 2023. I hope that someday, we’ll all discover our personal visions of survival which lead us towards living and loving well.
In what ways does Jong Yak-Yong’s legacy enact a teleiopoesis of its own?
(Teleiopoesis being the process by which literature creates new worlds across the gaps of vast spatial and temporal distances).
Could he have anticipated my study of him, or that my study of him would be displaced onto reviving the voice of a enslaved woman 비녀 in his household, and Catholicism’s connections to women like Franny Choi (with a detour via the work of Alexis Pauline Gumbs) or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha? That his legacy would be housed where the archives of Theresa’s work are housed? What would my own genealogical record reveal, or would it be erased in its entirety?
Today, I read the second chapter of Spivak’s Death of a Discipline. The distinction that she draws between copying and cutting/pasting ideas from one context to another applies well to the spread of Catholicism in Korea, in which Matteo Ricci’s ideas, translated into Chinese, were “copied” into Korean Neo-Confucian political debates. I also think that the idea of literature being “what escapes the system; you cannot speed read it” takes on a literal significance given penalties for importing Western literature and religious persecution. Spivak’s most convincing application of her methodology was pointing out the indefiniteness of Virginia Woolf’s acts of creating meaning in A Room of One’s Own. I also liked how she pointed out modernity and traditions co-existing (with traditions outlasting dead technology) in one of the novels she used as a case study.
This brings me back to Park Dae Sung’s statement that he found the modern in the ancient. The deconstructive strategy that Cawley applies to both Ricci and Tasan’s work is very compelling to me. Both of them sought to evade the polarization of political discourse around Catholicism by searching for origins, histories that seemed beyond critique because they were already part of the canon. The double meanings in Tasan’s work and the need for secrecy as a condition of his creation makes me think more broadly about what secrets the past keeps from us.
The idea of a distinction between a moral God and a creator God is fascinating. I wonder how this connects to the role of ritual in both Neo-Confucianism and Catholicism. The burning of ancestor tablets is the most obvious, but Yagyong also cared about music as a practical tool to cultivate moral behavior. Creation is morality, creation is godly. If Literature is what escapes the system, to quote Spivak, then how does this idea of a creator God and the absent signifier of Jesus as the practical bridge between God as a metaphysical concept and God as embodied in human actions interact? More importantly to me, how does that create the space for art of people who did not have access to Catholic texts, who keep Catholicism alive in other ways? Might we then read ritual as text if the creator God draws no distinctions between mediums?
I know I’m supposed to narrow down my research questions. I guess my research question is, if literature is what escapes, then what escaped Jong Yagyong and can we see it in the work of lapsed Catholics like Franny Choi, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and others? What escapes the text, and how does it get transubstantiated back into literature when the household registers have been burned, both for the nobi (for whom it never existed) and for the yangban? How did Yagyong create the conditions for that slippage, as the sole survivor of the purges from his family? The sole escapee? Is it really fugitive, if he’s a yangban?
If Spivak were to frame this in terms of Woolf, it would be asking what of Woolf’s writing creates the conditions by which teleiopoesis of her work can occur, how is that different from other writings in the strictly Neo-Confucian tradition, or from other traditions, if it is, really? Remember my initial proposal on how so many of the signatories to the Korean Declaration of Independence were secret Korean Catholics.
All this is making me curious about my own family genealogy.
I looked through the Ricci Institute’s library catalogue today and continue to feel overwhelmed with everything that exists out there about the topic of Korean Catholicism. I feel an urgency to narrow down my research topic to feel like I’m making progress, and the only thing that’s sticking in my head is Professor Jung’s research on the 비녀. People like her are so hard to research from a literary perspective because they rarely author literature that’s preserved. I’ve been wracking my brain to think of what it means for comparative literature to no longer solely concern itself with literature, as the 1993 Bernhard (?) report by the ACLA concluded. Today, reading Graphs, Trees, & Maps, I was struck by the structure of an evolutionary tree to discuss shifts in literature. The process of infinite differentiation becomes consolidated through varying rates of survival. I wonder, in the context of martyrdom and martyrs’ literature, if this process applies to the survivors, too. In a very literal sense, much of the Jung family was martyred. Jung Yakyong, who wasn’t, wrote the majority of his works in exile (like Ovid). What does his survivorship reveal? Can a model of martyrdom be applied to the preservation of works from people with marginalized identities, and how would that be represented in the literature, its very survival planted in infertile soil? What does literary martyrdom look like for the voiceless?
For the record, I’m not Christian. But my grandparents are very devout Christians from one of the southernmost parts of Korea (Mokpo), in the countryside. I wonder if curiosity about their faith has drawn me towards all this.
I’m realizing that I have a very specific vision of literature that doesn’t necessarily include the legalistic analysis of yangban commentaries on Confucius. I think literature is special because of its relationship to poetics: the will to remake the world through one’s imagination. Maybe I should begin to look at Yakyong’s poetry and letters as well as his formal political statements. Did such a statement exist for him? Ricci seems to be the one enacting his teleiopoesis, but Yakyong is the one who is creating something new entirely that I think Korean literature is still grappling with in terms of its relationship to English. I am still stuck on what my research topic even is or how to narrow it down without identifying core primary sources. Maybe this is my next task.
I wrote in my reflection on The Vegetarian that I appreciate its use of the domestic family as its unit of analysis of Korean politics. Maybe I should do the same with the founders of the Catholic Church. I can make a map of their works and compare that with representations of vernacular and women’s literature. I can see which works I can trace a legacy of into the modern day and unsettle the tree diagram with modern literature. So much of early Catholics’ lives were concerned with their survival. Survival was built into the conditions of their literary production. For some subjectivities, I’ll argue that they performed their stories long before they were preserved. So much of literary is a preservation issue. Think of this scenario: someone performing a story and someone else writes it down. Who is the author of the story?
Other things in my mind: the idea of the God as a Creator God (birth of poetics from analytics), how is the act of smuggling knowledge an act of ritual, contrast trees with family history archival practices and family registers and gendered erasures, see how the linear logic of succession/inheritance falls apart for the people (nobi) who are traded as property between houses (circularity of ownership and its accumulation of capital via exploitation). How strange, that there exists no distinction between family and household, and that preserving the fates of the owned in any record exists alongside the turbulent fortunes of those whose power once must have seemed unimpeachable.
I’m realizing what my next step needs to be — instead of continuing to be so overwhelmed with secondary sources, I need to begin constructing a primary source bibliography that will allow me to begin applying these methods of deconstruction and teleiopoesis in earnest. Start with the family tree provided in Jong Yak-Jong’s first Korean Catechism and make a bibliography of the most notable primary sources each person on the list has created, along with intellectual influences and affiliations. In many ways, what people had in common was the necessity to hide: what they were doing, who they were, their discontent with the system, etc. How do new forms of expression arise to accommodate double meanings and free expression of possibilities unrecognized by the current paradigm? This is where I can explode form, because literature borrows from other art forms such as satire and vernacular works as well to expand the horizons of the possible in writing, as Spivak says, why are reading and writing often considered the only allegories for learning and knowing the world? Closeted expression is still expression. Expression that holds in tension both the desire to remain alive and the desire to create a new world: an ethics of revolution that is far from suicidal, and is rather a cry for a survival more vibrant than we could have ever imagined.
I. On Survival
My project is a passion project about survival strategies: what we can learn from past survival strategies so we can develop better ones.
There is no survival strategy formulated without the looming threat of loss, devastation, and death; there is no death, devastation, or loss that leaves no survivors.
Survival is ever-present even when death looms: sometimes, death is the only survival that truly matters.
Edelman writes about the death drive, but I’m far more interested in the survival drive.
In the face of persecution, colonization, and bodily violation, how can we excavate survival strategies that enable us to find hope and love in our shared existence?
II. On Literature
How can literature help us answer these questions?
Literature is the God that creates from a distance (some would call it teleiopoesis).
Literature is what escapes the system.
What escapes, and what is the system?
We’re escaping, and the system is everywhere.
We’re escaping, and the system is our family, our ancestors, our everything everywhere all at once!
Are you excited?
Yes — I want to meet your god.
III. The Supreme Lord on High
My research on the literature of early Korean Catholics reveals a literature of constant experimentation with the highest stakes of life and death.
My consumption of Korean American diaspora literature reveals a literature of constant experimentation with the highest stakes of life and death.
My creation will reveal new building blocks for transmitting the survival strategies of the past, present, and future in the words we write.
For survival is timeless —
a generative process that never ends as long as we keep learning, together.