|Food in traditional Korea was hard to come by and never frivolous. Korea Times file|
By Emanuel Pastreich
Every time I get on the crowded bus after work, I am forced to watch broadcasts on the television affixed just behind the driver's seat. Those broadcasts are not thoughtful discussions about Korean history, or even reports about important contemporary issues that citizens should know about. Rather we are subjected to vivid shots of food being prepared that are followed by the grotesque image of a man (usually) taking an enormous dumpling, or rice roll, or sandwich, and cramming it into his mouth to the tremendous amusement of those sitting around him on that inane program.
I am not sure why these images are so disturbing to me. Perhaps I feel that it is a violation of my right to take the bus together with fellow citizens without being subjected to a vacuous and indulgent show that is the equivalent of pornography in terms of its ethical content; it is a grotesque appeal to the appetite, to the unreasoning instincts of the brain stem.
Or perhaps I found it offensive that the blatant waste of food should be so celebrated, making it appear to those watching as if it is fun to thoughtlessly consume food. This is an age when many go hungry, and the spread of deserts into what were once productive farmlands, and the slow death of our oceans, are making food something profoundly precious. You could never guess that truth if you watched these broadcasts.
We should be encouraging people to value every grain of rice, every drop of water, and it is unethical to suggest to our citizens that they should treat binge eating as something to be emulated. In this respect, these programs deny what I feel is the best in the Korean tradition: the ethical imperative for personal frugality and a deep respect for agricultural production.
But even though I was irritated by the videos, I also felt a deep sympathy for the latent sadness lurking beneath the surface of things. The man who was thoughtlessly stuffing a dumpling into his mouth appeared to be trying, desperately, to fill some deep emptiness in his soul.
He was not so different from many people I saw on the bus who tried to fill a similar eerie vacuum in our culture with video games, music videos, images of clothing, and semi-pornography that they dug up on their smartphones.
I can still remember when Korean buses were full of people reading books and newspapers, trying to actually understand the world around us. Now, almost without exception, indulgence of the senses has become standard practice, and a dark cloud has settled over our society even as our streets are brightly lit.
These days there are large and crude photographs of the food served plastered outside almost every restaurant in Korea. It seems as if customers cannot be attracted by words but must have something that makes them salivate before they will come in.
When I first visited Korea in 1995, no such photographs were seen in restaurants. There was no need to appeal to the basest instincts of people.
Of course I remember women talking about food when I first visited Korea. They discussed how they purchased food and prepared it to feed their families. At that time, the process of cooking was viewed as part of an ethical system that was embodied in the concept of family.
But this bizarre ritual of eating as entertainment has nothing to do with that previous culture. Food in traditional Korea was hard to come by and never frivolous.
But something else is going on in our society.
I was witnessing right there on the bus the collapse of the metaphysics of Korea. In traditional Korean society, the most important aspects of human experience were those that could not be seen, values like virtue 德, loyalty 忠 and filial piety 孝 that were implied by Confucian writings, or respectful behavior toward neighbors.
Today, however, we are surrounded by vivid images but we live in a flat and etiolated reality smashed between the smartphone screen and our instinctive brain stem which responds to those images without our conscious control.
Those videos are not meant to convey difficult truths, or to explore ethical complexities through an appeal to the logic of the prefrontal cortex. Their primary function is to stimulate desire in the amygdala. We have left the written word behind, and the deeper understanding of a reality beneath the surface and we have collectively dived into a deeply anti-intellectual culture.
The failure of citizens to wrap their minds around the threat of nuclear war, of climate change, of the rapid concentration of wealth and of other dangers is a direct result of that anti-intellectual culture. We no longer employ rigorous scientific approaches to the analysis of contemporary society, or even to our private lives.
Technology continues to evolve, but it does not advance civilization, but rather simply stimulates our brain in a manner that reduces our capacity to make moral decisions on our own. Emotional responses are encouraged by technological bells and whistles. But if we lose our ability to employ a scientific approach to understanding our world, we will all be lost.
Training our citizens to control and moderate their desires was considered to be essential in traditional Korea. As I witness so many highly educated people lost in frivolous amusements today, I wonder whether we should see those past norms as representing not so much an oppressive ideology as an ethical imperative.