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Looking at Korea through a Different Lens

December 21, 2017

Associate Professor Travis Workman is known for his research on the Cold War with a focus on Korean film. He answers some questions about his research, his teaching, and what it’s like to be a scholar interested in North Korean topics.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What was your career path? What brought you to the University of Minnesota?

I was born in St. Cloud, Minnesota, but I grew up in southern and central California. I studied modern literature at the University of California–Santa Cruz. I spent some time studying abroad in Japan, which prompted me to apply for PhD programs to study Japanese literature. I was accepted to Cornell University’s East Asian Literature PhD program and decided to go there based on the scholarship of the professors. Alan Christy, a wonderful historian of Japan at Santa Cruz, mentioned in lecture one day that the Japan field was in dire need of scholars who could work adequately with Korean texts.

I understood what he meant—if the Japan field hoped to overcome its myopia concerning culture and history, working comparatively with its former colony Korea would be essential. Departing from an intellectual interest in problems of imperialism and colonialism, I determined in graduate school that I would obtain a more-than-cursory knowledge of Korean, so that I could write a comparative dissertation on Japanese and Korean texts during the era of Japan’s colonization of Korea (1919–1945).

I realized that I would need go to Korea to study the language and do research, so I lived and studied in Seoul, where I first began to develop the ideas that would become my dissertation and then my book, Imperial Genus: The Formation and Limits of the Human in Modern Korea and Japan (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016).

I moved to Los Angeles while writing my dissertation and was extremely fortunate to move into a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, which I held for two years. Those two years gave me the opportunity to teach in comparative literature, move out of area studies, and develop my arguments at a theoretical level. When I applied for tenure-track jobs, I tried for both Japan studies and Korean studies jobs—which probably made me a slightly-confusing applicant for area studies departments with a stricter focus on single, national contexts. Thankfully, I applied for a Korean studies job here at the University of Minnesota and found the ALL department’s comparative, inter-Asian approach a perfect fit for my own approach to research and teaching.

You were a McKnight Land-Grant Professor from 2014 through 2016. Can you talk a little bit about what that means?

The McKnight Land-Grant Professorship is a wonderful, University-wide opportunity for junior scholars at the University of Minnesota, and it is an honor to have been selected. Only around eight or nine assistant professors are chosen per year. The application process is complicated and akin to a preview of the tenuring process in the amount of work that goes into it. I am thankful to former department chair Prof. Joseph Allen and the rest of the ALL department for their willingness to nominate me.

There are unfortunately very few recipients in the humanities, but our department has done well to have two (myself and Jason McGrath), despite our small size. I ensured that the funding provided by the professorship was put to good use: it provided a subvention that allowed my book to be offered in online open-access and paperback formats, it allowed me to travel to South Korea to do research, and it funded a graduate student research assistant for a semester. Overall, the award was a great boost to my scholarship and career.

What inspired you to research Korean film industries during the Cold War era?

My first book is on Japan’s colonization of Korea and the role of humanist literature and philosophy in the assimilation of metropolitan and colonial intellectuals. However, particularly after arriving to Minnesota, I decided to make my longstanding interest in film into a scholarly interest and to begin publishing articles in the dynamic field of Korean film and media studies.

There is so much yet to be written about both South and North Korean films, and the South Korean film industry has become very important and powerful in East Asia and around the world in recent history. Although I have written a bit about more recent films, I am interested in 1950s and 1960s films, due to my abiding concern with colonial politics and the history of US occupations in East Asia, as well as communist movements and their attendant aesthetic ideologies. Although there have been attempts to compare South Korean and North Korean films during this era, it has been difficult to come up with a comparative framework. I would like to explore Cold War film aesthetics on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone and have chosen the “melodramatic mode” as a way to connect the two film industries with each other and with the history of world cinema in both capitalist and socialist countries.

So are you a big film buff? What got you interested in studying cinema?

I was not trained in a film studies department, which has been challenging as I try to produce legitimate scholarship in a field that is new to me. I am not sure exactly what one must do before they can call themselves a “film buff,” but I would say I have transformed from a film enthusiast to a kind of “buff” in the last few years. Film is interesting to me because it is very challenging to write about, and I’ve found that it forces me into new ways of thinking. It has also been particularly exciting to turn to film in the study of Korea, which has such a rich cinema history.

How does your research inform the way you teach courses like Korean Film and Cultures of the Cold War in Korea? And does teaching influence your research interests or methods?

My research and teaching are intimately connected to one another. I don’t teach very much on modern Japanese thought or other areas of my research, but in the case of Korean literature and film, I find there is a great deal of synergy. Often a discussion of a novel or film that I have had with students in one of my undergraduate courses reemerges as I sit down to write an article or work on my book manuscripts. I also wrote the introduction to my book after teaching a graduate seminar on the topic of the colonial construction of Asia and the West. Ideally, my research deepens the content of my courses, and my teaching allows me to translate my more obscure ideas and topics into a more relevant everyday language that keeps the interest of a general audience.

What is it like to be a scholar interested in North Korean topics?

I do not think there is anything inherently unique about dealing with North Korean topics, except perhaps that other people tend to ask me about it more than anything else. I always look at North Korea with a broader regional and global perspective. Since I wrote extensively about the Japanese empire, I understand well the importance of the 1930s in the historical and cultural imagination reproduced by the North Korean state and in the philosophical and literary legacies of the first half of the twentieth century.

I also look at North Korea in relation to global communism and have had an interest in the vicissitudes of Marxist ideas, particularly within national liberation movements. Finally, I don’t read North Korean films as strange and exotic products of a “hermit kingdom,” but rather as a part of world cinema that is connected to very general narrative, visual, and dramatic conventions. I approach North Korean film through the concept of melodrama precisely so that I can read its emotional and ideological elements as part of a broader history of film aesthetics that is not simply peculiar to North Korea.

Being a scholar interested in North Korean topics, I often wish that I could convey all of this information about my approaches to people who ask me in passing about recent political developments or the “truth” of the North Korean state’s motivations and ideologies. Usually, I am left just having to remind people about the culpability of the US during the Korean War, in order to provide them with some political perspective beyond the demonization of North Korea as a “rogue state.” However, there are so many more fascinating things to think about in relation to North Korea for which its contemporary status as an exotic enemy often does not leave room.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.