In 1936, amidst the Japanese occupation of Korea, a Japanese kaibatsu corporation called Maruboshi started to build residential areas and stables near the Daegu train station, within which there was a collective village named Maruboshi, near Chilseung-dong. From colonial liberation in 1945 to the end of Korean War, Maruboshi filled with refugees fleeing to South Korea, transforming into a vibrant topos of commoners’ life. After the rapid introduction of modernity and industrialization during Park Chung-Hee’s military regime (1961–1979), traces of Maruboshi’s colonial past, from its facades to collective wells, started to disappear and be replaced by western-style apartment complexes. Instead of refugees or colonial subjects, these apartments were designed for and marketed towards laborers who dreamt of a bourgeoisie middle-class family life for themselves. As a metonym for a compressed modern history of Korea, in 2016 this multi-layered urban palimpsest was completely demolished to reveal its bare and wild face, waiting for another space of residence to be built on top again.
The gaemangcho (Erigeron Aannuus), a biennial North American plant species with white daisy flowers, was first brought into Korea when the Japanese empire built railways as part of colonial modernization. Apart from its humble appearance, the plant soon came to represent the loss of national sovereignty among Koreans, and was often referred to in a derogatory way such as MangGukCho (nation-ruining plant) or Oepul (Japanese plant). The seeds of gaemangcho, first buried deep below the colonial Maruboshi eighty years ago, flourish today. The ephemeral forest that has come to cover the barren sites of Maruboshi germinates according to the concealed structure of a disjointed modernity. Recall Gramsci’s remark on the interregnum, on the disjunction of time and space as a symptom of contemporaneity: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” This ghostly return of the “have-lived things” permeates into life as an uncanny cartography of modernity.
There is a primitiveness to a foreign plant species’ profuse sprouting. The gaemangcho in Maruboshi presents us with self-reflexive questions about Korean modernity through the materialization of aboriginality and non-human diaspora. This essay is a reflection on postcolonial Korean modernity that interrogates the articulation of speciesism as a racist metaphor, the discourse of animality and the pervasion, representation and sovereignty of non-human species both during and after the colonial period in Korea. It attempts to allow for cultural translation across and beyond issues of anthropocentrism and postcolonial modernity, not only at the level of narrative or convention, but also on the level of a specifically non-human, postcolonial, modern condition.
The return of the primordial encompasses a narrative of time’s bifurcation, of the past and the present, and as such has been deeply rooted in the space where we once stood. The modern self, having been enamored with the apparatuses and tropes of modernity (read: uniformity and hybridity), is now reeling from the uncanny symptoms summoned by the return of the have-lived.
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