Colonized Consciousness and Colonial Melancholia

The pathological conditions of colonized consciousness and colonial melancholia inherited through generations by Korean Americans


The trauma that accompanies the colonized consciousness in many Koreans is something often inherited by the following generations. For those who either migrate at a young age or are born into the Korean diasporas of the U.S., the pathological colonized consciousness often manifests in the form of internalized racial subordination or an inferiority complex formed out of racial marginalization. Looking at the concept of melancholia could be an effective way of assessing the symptoms of colonization, which Korean Americans actively seeking to understand family memories never expressed to us. We seek to remember something of which we have neither the recollection nor the reference for how to talk about it. The language to speak about the history of relatives who precede us is significantly limited or non-existent. Sarita See discusses the self-inflicted wounds or the violent process of self-degradation to be a significant part of colonial melancholia, a term adapted from Sigmund Freud’s concept of melancholia. She states that the traumatic process of being colonized is one of “[N]ot merely losing an object, or losing the right to own that object, but losing the right to own that loss” (See 379). The colonized consciousness in the state of colonial melancholia is often unable to wield the language required to make sense of that which has been stripped away.

Another way trauma can manifest in the consciousness of many Koreans is as the underlying trauma that exists within the inter-generational gaps. These gaps are especially noticeable among those who identify themselves to be a part of the Korean diasporas within the United States. The second-generation Korean Americans have difficulties having dialogue with their own parents (who are first-generation Korean immigrants) about the past 50 to 60 years of Korean history.

Kai Erikson claims that collective trauma can occur by similarly manifesting in the fragmentation of the bonds, which is supposed to bind the members of a community into a unified social organism.

By collective trauma… I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. The collective trauma works its way slowly and even insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it, so it does not have the quality of suddenness normally associated with ‘trauma’… But ‘we’ no longer exist as a connected pair or as linked cells in a larger communal body (Erikson 154).

Much like the sense of self and control over one’s own consciousness is dissociated through individual cases of trauma, collective trauma alienates the individual from the collective sense of belonging or the “we” that justifies the imaginary of community. Often we witness this sort of communal breakdown as a consequence or symptom of colonial violence. This collective trauma could be a source of the disconnect felt between the second generation Korean Americans (a category with which we, the coordinators of the collective oral history project, identify ourselves) and our relatives who have visible memories of living in the colonized peripheral territory.


Works Consulted:

Erikson, Kai. Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Erikson, Kai. “Notes on Trauma and Community.” Trauma Explorations in Memory. Baltimore (London): Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 183-99.

See, Sarita. “An Open Wound: Colonial Melancholia and Contemporary Filipino/American Texts.” Vestiges of War: The Philippine-American War and Aftermath of an Imperial Dream, 1899-1999. New York: New York UP, 2002. 377-98.

Abstract Updated (May 2013)

Abstract (May 21, 2013)

This thesis research project is intended to re-invigorate a discussion on the need for Korean immigrant communities in the U.S. to narrate or represent, on our own terms, our struggles with U.S. imperialism, migration, and racial marginalization cultivated by American culture. Through the processes of reclaiming our history(s) and re-configuring the modes by which we represent our experiences, we can engender new ways of re-constituting our cultural identities and empower our communities to resist the culture of racial subordination. The purpose of this project is to demonstrate how a group of Korean American artists, activists, and community organizers are attempting to coordinate collective approaches to oral historical research, by which we can visualize the gaps within the collective consciousness and memories of Korean immigrants. My objective is to observe my role in the processes of coordinating group discussions on goals and strategies, training sessions, story-sharing workshops, and practice for applying methods of oral historical research. The participating coordinators aim not only to find other artists and activists with whom to gather the oral testimonies but also to work together with them to re-interpret the testimonies for creative artistic representations, most likely manifested through radical performance presentations inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed and South Korean protest theater known as madang-guk. In examining this whole process, I intend to make sense of how new cultural processes of visualizing and representing collective memories can engender sites of radical pedagogy in which to prepare activists to challenge the dominant ideological forces reinforcing white superiority and the violence of U.S. neocolonialism and military expansion.

Theater as a Site of Radical Pedagogy


Looking at Theater of the Oppressed and madang-guk

The Korean American coordinators (including myself) hope to develop the collective into a facilitator or a medium that aims to decode the lost memory fragments of a national past and re-encode new narratives for empowering Korean Americans to act against the continued colonial violence perpetuated by the United States. However, in order for that to happen, participants constituting the collective, through radical processes of story sharing, should feel encouraged to act, organize their memories into collective consciousness, and mobilize toward change. Augusto Boal saw the theater to be a site of pedagogy in which to rehearse for “real action” and critically discuss the tactics for social transformation or upheaval against the forces of an oppressive political system. In the words of Boal, “In this case, perhaps the theater is not revolutionary in itself, but it is surely a rehearsal for the revolution. The liberated spectator, as a whole person, launches into action” (Boal 122).

Similarly in South Korea, activists, artists, workers, and farmers needed ways to combat the “official” national narrative of South Korea, which justified the nation’s assimilation into the world capitalist system and violent projects of rapid development. The movements of the oppressed subjects sought to create pedagogical sites in which to make preparations for the fight against U.S. neocolonialism, militarism, the rise and multinational corporations disenfranchising farmers or exploiting workers, and the corruption of centralized dictatorial regimes, which were sustained throughout the latter half of the 20th century. According to Chungmoo Choi, “Madang guk, as underground theater, was produced not only by the minjung activists to mobilize masses but more importantly by the workers and farmers themselves, both as a means of collective resistance and as their discursive forum” (Choi 253). These ordinary workers and farmers worked side by side with activists in sites of radical pedagogy in order to rehearse collectively, as a community, for political action and consolidate a united front against powerful forces of oppression, including U.S. imperialism.


Works Consulted:

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1985.

Choi, Chungmoo. “Transnational Capitalism, National Imaginary, and the Protest Theater in South Korea.” Boundary 2 22.1 (1995): 235-61.

Against Official Historiography and Liberal Documentary

As briefly discussed in the earlier parts of this essay, what is at stake is uncovering the links between the untold experiences and our analyses of the socio-political conditions that engendered those experiences. Perhaps the greatest challenge for the collective is continuing to form our cultural identity as we figure out how to negotiate or consolidate the different political stances, regardless of how similar they will tend to be. Some of the members have revealed their political intentions or agenda with more conviction than others, however, there is a general sense that we cannot separate the political issues from the collected stories nor should we try to depoliticize them. In other words, how do we recognize that the representations of repressed memories are not isolated from, for example, the politics of war, neocolonialism, and epistemic violence?

Another way of approaching such a question is to decipher and distinguish the different types of existing practices of historiography, oral historical representations, or even documentary. We are trying to demystify the whole process of historiography, from documentation or documentary practices, to archival, to the narrativization and public mediation. Part of the purpose of pursuing this project is to think beyond the kinds of documentary and historiographical practices, which assume truth value without revealing or eliciting complex political discourses embedded in the representations they produce. So, what are the practices of engaging with or handling historical accounts of social issues that we aim to avoid? This section of the essay will focus on critically evaluating the limitations or problematic functions of “official” historiography and a kind of social documentary called by Martha Rosler as “liberal documentary.” As a side note, although we cannot ignore the importance of medium specificity, for the purposes of this discussion, we will broaden the scope of “documentary” to include not only photography but also other forms of audio and visual media.

Teshome Gabriel suggests that cultural practices of sharing, what he refers to as, “popular memory” challenges the purpose of “official history,” which tends to “privilege the written word of the text… It claims a ‘center’ which continuously marginalizes others” (Gabriel 53).  Official history devalues all memories and recollections not included in the “center.” On the other hand, popular memory seeks to collect all the pieces of the past from different perspectives. It does not consider one trajectory of temporal flow. Within the dynamics of popular memory, the past becomes consciousness of the struggle for the present and future. That consciousness, or the recognized perception and experience of the struggle, is constantly subject to change, depending on which memories and recalling of the past are uncovered. However, change is to be self-determined or brought about through conscious negotiations made by those who choose to be a part of the struggles against colonial violence.

Why do we choose the oral history approach to re-building collective consciousness and Asian activist community? The process of writing the official historical narrative is exclusively reserved for elite or expert “historians” who have privileged access to not only the archived documents but also the tools necessary for producing the narratives and representations, which preserve the authority of institutionalized knowledge and in many cases, the legitimacy or public reliance on state power and control. We strive to resist the notion of establishing standards for expertise. We aspire to empower those who hold the painful and traumatic memories to tell their own stories. Oral history does not require participants to “write” their own stories or have specialized skills to express or represent their experiences.

In her critical analysis of “liberal documentary,” Martha Rosler discusses the violence of certain modes of visual representational practices intended to make humanitarian interventions or bring some light to the physical properties of the conditions of poverty and oppression. However, according Rosler, these types of images often detach themselves from the political complexities or historical formations of oppression based on impositions of power. As she articulates so eloquently, “In the liberal documentary, poverty and oppression are almost invariably equated with misfortunes caused by natural disasters: Causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome” (Rosler 179).

Such modes of documentary have become a platform for the more privileged classes of society through on which to exercise their catharsis and experience a sense of moral fulfillment by invoking emotional responses of sentimentality and pathos. In some cases, as Rosler notes, engaging with the images bears a resemblance to watching horror movies. The fear or threat of poverty, although channeled through the affective responses of the privileged social groups that have access to images depicting such realities, is more of an aesthetic or a distant “fantasy” to be enjoyed rather than palpably real conditions to be confronted on a daily basis.

Liberal documentary serves another function. It serves to remind its viewers of their comfort or stability, which comes with being positioned in the upper echelons of the socio-economic class hierarchy. While the images of this kind of documentary practices works to elicit emotional responses often leading to sympathy or pity, they also drive viewers deeper into passivity, as the realities of poverty and oppression othered and distanced by the representations do not pose an immediate threat to their lives. The very tendencies of documentary images to be looked upon as fantastic or sensationalized imagery help the most privileged people of society to be more at ease with their wealth. Poverty and oppression just are not palpable experiences to them.

Finally, for those who are actually involved in the production of such representations, documentary tends to reflect more on the skills and confidence that the documentary producers have in capturing deteriorating social life and surviving the devastating conditions to assume the stories of the oppressed. As Rosler suggests in a sarcastic tone, “Documentary testifies… to the bravery or… the manipulativeness and savvy of the photographer, who entered a situation of physical danger, social restrictedness, human decay, or combinations of these and saved us the trouble” (Rosler 180).

Why is it relevant for us to be critically pointing out the violence of liberal documentary? Actually, the official history of South Korean nation formation, its “liberation” from both Japanese colonialism and the communist North Korea, is based significantly on the images and narratives of the so-called “humanitarian interventions” made by U.S. military forces. As a collective, we strive to resist continuing the legacy of the colonialist historical accounts intended to justify the humanitarianism associated with the U.S. military. We cannot separate the politics deeply rooted into any action or movement of the U.S. military and the general paternalistic leadership exercised by the American empire over much of the world.

Works Consulted:

Gabriel, Teshome H. “Third Cinema as Guardian of Popular Memory: Towards a Third Aesthetic.” Questions of Third Cinema, London: British Film Institute, 1989. 53-64.

Rosler, Martha. Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001. Cambridge, MA: MIT in Association with International Center of Photography, New York, 2004.

Exercising Self-Reflexivity: Personal search for spaces of radical mediation

Personal search for spaces of radical mediation

In my personal pursuits of defining, understanding, and engaging in radical media practice, I have begun to realize the impossibility of identifying a single model to be the ideal formula for social transformation. On the contrary, I have started to question whether any prescribed set of formal or aesthetic conventions can even bring about change without any re-configuration made to the very processes of constructing art or any kind of representation. What has become fundamental in my work is how communities, in this case racially marginalized diasporic communities, can rearrange the process by which production of representations occur. In doing so, such communities are able to share their collective stories or memories beyond the systems of corporate profit maximization, institutions legitimizing the centralized power of the prevailing state apparatus, and/or industries monopolizing knowledge production.

In the spirit of the alternative and the radical left, I sought to be a part of a collective process of storytelling. I sought to be a part of a process in which involved social actors are able to autonomously share their stories without relying on or feeling the pressures of the knowledge controlled by the U.S. colonial state apparatus. I sought to re-visualize the history of the place and community of my origin. However, it is not my intention to form and spread a nationalist agenda. This is more of an attempt at understanding the historical circumstances that contributed to conditioning my family to immigrate to the United States, fall into a subordinated position as racialized subjects, and be identified as embodying an “inferior” cultural identity. It was here, in the U.S. that I was pushed to forget my family’s history and nearly did forget my native tongue. Nowadays, I suspect that the act of forgetting is not a self-contained choice made in an asocial and apolitical vacuum. The act of forgetting was a condition that needed to be fulfilled in order for me to be inculcated into a violent system constituted by racism and cultural assimilation, which are major apparatuses reinforcing a machinery dedicated to colonizing the consciousness, particularly of those marked as the inferior “other” (a mark that applies to members of the Korean diaspora in the U.S., as well).

Therefore, I sought a site of critical and radical pedagogy in which imagining community memory-sharing practices could be possible. I sought to engage in discourse with other Korean Americans who had similar questions I had to ask. I wanted to have conversations regarding questions like, “Why is Korean history so little known in the United States and other parts of the world? Why is the official history of U.S.-Korea relations so riddled with holes, so full of silences that take fifty years to be heard” (Cho 58)? In the year of 2013, I finally found a group of Korean American artists, activists, and organizers who sought to collectively engage with oral historical accounts shared by Korean immigrants who have experienced the Korean War, U.S. military presence in South Korea, and social displacement from their homes and families.

Pedagogy here does not imply that we, as activists, teach those who have been victimized and disenfranchised to reconnect with and make sense of their memories. More accurately, it is we who are being shared their stories, therefore reconnecting with our forgotten family histories. In the words of Paulo Freire, “Political action on the side of the oppressed must be pedagogical action in the authentic sense of the word, and, therefore, action with the oppressed” (Freire 66). Perhaps this project has more to do with my own growth as an activist seeking to learn from those who have experienced the traumas of war, national division, U.S. militarism and continue to struggle through racial marginalization within American society. The argument for many Korean American activists is that we are not separate from those experiences of our family members belonging to the previous generations. On the contrary, particularly in my case, I have inherited the colonized consciousness, which is the very foundation for the inferiority complex I have carried with me throughout my life, as I was conditioned to look at myself to hold a subordinated status, as a Korean, an Asian, and a racialized other. After investing some time researching Korean history, I have come across some literature affirming my suspicions of the perpetuating process of colonization internalized, still occurring within the consciousness of many Korean people. Chungmoo Choi, in particular, articulates quite effectively:

The very fact that the self-marginalization, or self-degradation, has been sedimented in the epistemology of the Koreans appears potently imposing on the life of the Koreans in the so-called postcolonial period. The experience of colonialism was, and is, an impossible weight on Korean consciousness (Choi 238).

To recapitulate, my personal motivations for engaging in this research project is in the need to address the disconnect between my lived experiences as immigrants struggling with the violence of assimilation imposed by an American culture dominated by “whiteness” and the Korean history with which we have had significantly minimal contact. This collective oral history project coordinated with other Korean American activists (and Asian American artists, activists, organizers) is an attempt at understanding how Korean Americans could make sense of our connections to the continuing realities of U.S. imperialism.


Works Cited:

Cho, Grace M. Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008.

Choi, Chungmoo. “Transnational Capitalism, National Imaginary, and the Protest Theater in South Korea.” Boundary 2 22.1 (1995): 235-61.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 2000.


Planning for Training on Oral History

Along with some of the coordinators of the Korean American activist organization, we have begun to plan for how we could practice conducting collective oral history sharing. We decided to invite second generation Korean Americans to share their understanding of the history of war, division, and U.S. imperialism in Korea. The participants could also help us think about how we should approach engaging with those who have more directly experienced war, displacement, and U.S. military occupation (perhaps more first generation Korean immigrants).

Broad/General Questions to get started?

What do you think are some details that most people in the U.S. don’t know about the Korean War?

What do you think to be some historical reasons for Koreans “immigrating” or “migrating” to the U.S.?

How is the history of Korean national formation linked to our experiences (as racial/ethnic other) in the U.S.?

More specific and personal questions?

How have you encountered Korean history in the U.S.?

Where do you think most of us learn about the history of Korea and US relations, war, militarism?

Oral History Practice & Process

What are some key things we want to establish when interviewing someone for oral history project? (the dynamic between interviewer/interviewee, the tone, the setting, etc.)

This is still a collective work in progress (online brainstorming, via google docs, for a practice session with 2nd generation KAs to happen in mid-April)

Second Meeting (March) Key Points

Collective Oral History Project

March 16, 2013 (6 in attendance)

1. Sharing projects, works, interesting findings that could contribute to collective oral history process

– Two of the participants share works they have done previously

– One participant shares artist squatting practices in South Korea (occupying evicted apartment buildings, using the abandoned territory as a stage for creative re-purposing and aestheticization)
Is this project political? (a critical question asked by group)

– We looked at a creative “oral history” project, which was overwhelmingly problematic (as determined by the group)
(consisted of a white film avant-garde film artist telling the stories of Chinese immigrants residing in “shift-bed” apartments; participants indicate that what was particularly problematic was how the stories of immigrants were undermined, their images were exploited, and the over-aestheticization/over-dramatization contributed to the depoliticization of a highly political situation)

2. Discussion: Continuing conversations on oral history methodologies, techniques, models

– Can we find models or examples of projects done before?

– What are the stories with which we would like to engage?

– How do we train ourselves or prepare for actual field work?

Rethinking Oral History Processes

Questions and issues surrounding the process of conducting oral history (questions formed collectively, as a response to some readings, particularly Benson and Nagar’s “Collaboration as Resistance? Reconsidering the processes, products, and possibilities of feminist oral history and ethnography”)

-How might we prevent depoliticization or deradicalization?

-How do we resist the demands of institutions that seem willing to fund oral history projects?

-Power and knowledge – how do we not lead respondents to tell the stories we want to hear?

-Sharing power – how do we define the “problem” together with the community? How do we encourage the community to generate its own agenda for collective action/mobilization?

-What does it mean to collaborate? How do we make all steps of the process more inclusive and accessible to all those who have participated?

-Prioritizing the larger process of building relationships with communities

-We must focus on continuing to ground and politicize the key questions being investigated by looking at broader connections to surrounding economic systems, historical formations of cultural norms, etc.

-How do we resist the idea that knowledge is beyond the communities; what does it mean to see the people in communities as “experts” of their own lives?