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Transcoding as Cultural and Social Practice (2014-2019)

The consortium builds upon the achievements of the first project during the second funding period by maintaining a joint focus in research. In order to ensure both continuity and innovation, our focus for the next period would take up a central aspect of knowledge circulation, namely the process of adaptation and translation of knowledge which we choose to label "transcoding", thus zooming in on one aspect of our prior research, but at the same time widening the realm from knowledge exchanges with the outside world to transcoding processes within Korean culture/politics/society. "Transcoding" is not an established term within the humanities and social sciences and therefore needs some explanation. Put briefly, "transcoding" replaces the term "translation" in its – by now quite ubiquitous – metaphorical usage for acts of transposing cultural forms from one context to another, as in "policy translation" (the topic of one of our previous conferences). To speak of "transcoding" instead of "translation" has three major advantages.

Firstly, it relieves the term "translation" of its metaphorical burden which has created some ambiguity, especially in textual/literary contexts. E.g., in literary studies we need to differentiate between translations and (other forms of) adaptations, but could well use an umbrella term that covers both (e.g., translations of Sanguozhi yanyi into Korean, and adaptations into a Korean genre as in the case of Chŏkpyŏkka).

Secondly, in order to disambiguate "translation" in its metaphorical use from its basic linguistic meaning, recourse is often taken to the phrase "cultural translation". However, at least for our purposes, this would unduly narrow down the scope of inquiry, as the re-contextualizations we have in mind can be social as much as cultural processes. "Transcoding" carries no such bias.

Thirdly, the term transcoding has its own metaphorical value: It points to the change of "codes", i.e. of sets of rules of signification, that is part of every transposition of knowledge contents from one context to another, and thereby calls attention to these contexts (and the ways in which these are potentially affected by the incorporation of transcoded knowledge).

"Transcoding" thus will serve as a cover term for all kinds of transfers, transpositions, translations, adaptations and transformations, both within (the same) and between (different) media, institutional settings, social contexts and so on. Methodologically, it helps us to focus on the shifts in meaning that such transcoding processes incur both in the material that is transposed and in the new "codes" (rules of signification) into which it becomes embedded. As we do not want to restrict our attention to cognitive processes, however, we look at transcoding processes as cultural, political and social practice. Who are the actors, who/what has agency in these processes? What are the institutional settings in which they take place, and how are both actors and settings affected by them? How and through what impulses are transcoding processes generated, and what are their unwitting social effects?

All these questions are of more than theoretical relevance for a culture and society subject to rapid change and situated in the vortex of the forces of globalization, as present-day Korea is, and they will help us to intensify research in areas we have touched during the first funding period, as well as open up new fields of inquiry. How can experiences of other countries be usefully adapted to the Korean situation ("policy translation")? How is knowledge about North Korea encoded and decoded by the (global) media and their consumers? What does it do to Korean cultural productions that they are to some extent produced with their "transcodability" in mind (Hallyu)? How, and why are older cultural forms transformed to better fulfil present-day societal needs – be it video game versions of Ch'unhyangjŏn or death rituals for pets?

These questions apply no less, of course, to pre-modern Korea. The diglossic language situation of Chosŏn times brought with it a multitude of transpositions of textual material between different linguistic and genre codes that are much better grasped as “transcodings" than as "translations", and that are best understood when looked at in the framework of the different social practices that marked these different contexts. Similarly, the adaptations of military and technological traditions to new circumstances can be studied more fruitfully when taking into account the nexus between changes in signification and changes in social practice that our research paradigm implies. We thus expect to again have identified fertile ground for methodological and thematical interaction and cooperation between our two institutions and the social science/humanities approaches they represent.

International Conferences for Research Presentation
We plan a series of three conferences (in addition to more informal workshops between the project members) as a means to both publicize and enrich our research efforts. While the thematic focus of the first two conferences would vary according to the main research interests of the two cooperating institutions, we would devote much attention to developing a joint heuristic framework to be tested in both conferences, which would be communicated to invited speakers at the time of invitation. The basis of this framework would be constructed by a typology of transcoding processes according to their function or purpose, of which we have so far developed a rough outline: Partly following Searle's terminology for speach acts, we propose to discern between transcodings with primarily expressive/declarative, didactic and directive functions. Typical examples for transcodings with primarily expressive function would be literary or artistic products such as the use of p'ansori elements in Kim Chiha's poem Ojŏk (Five Bandits), but also the construction of the Tan'gun tomb in North Korea (which uses architectural elements from different ancient civilizations and transposes them into a modern context for the sake of demonstrating grandeur); for those with didactic function, ŏnhae versions of religious and ethical texts like the Samgang haengsil to; and for those with directive function, all instances of policy translation. This typology may be fruitfully combined with heuristic distinctions between the different modes of transfer involved: spatial transfer (mostly transcultural adaptations), diachronic transfer (adaptations of cultural heritage), and social transfer (adaptation of cultural forms to new audiences). This heuristic framework for our research would be further elaborated during the first project year before it is put to test in the first joint conference. The results of all three conferences would be published in edited volumes.

Circulation of Knowledge and the Dynamics of Transformation (2009-2014)

In 2009, the Korean Studies Institutes at Ruhr-University Bochum (RUB) and Freie Universität Berlin (FUB), as leading institutions for Korean Studies in Europe, have been awarded the prestigious five-year grant from the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS).

The research project "Circulation of Knowledge and the Dynamics of Transformation" is a jointly conducted project of both Korean Studies institutes in Berlin and Bochum, led by Professor Eun-Jeung LEE (Project Group Chair), Professor Marion Eggert (Project Group Deputy Chair), and Professor Joerg Plassen (Project Group Vice Deputy Chair).Through collectively developing and conducting this project, new research ideas and significant synergies will emerge. The consortium brings together a critical mass of scholars, all of which are dealing with Korea on a permanent basis.

Starting point of the research project is the assumption that the enormous social, political and intellectual transformations that Korea has gone through especially during the last century, but already during several periods earlier in her history, should not, as is often the case, be interpreted in a unilinear way as reactions on outward impacts, thus positioning Korea on the receiving end of an assumed international import-export economy of ideas, political systems, and social institutions. This is not only problematic vis-à-vis the important role of Korean actors in supranational transformation processes, but also methodologically unsound. We believe that these transformations, as well as Korea's position in world history, are better understood under the paradigm of circulation of knowledge, thus stressing that Korean actors have, during most phases of history, not passively submitted to brute force, but have consciously chosen options, thereby again affecting external actors. Under the paradigm of circulation, the production, consumption and dissemination of knowledge are looked at as a single, closely knit process which invariably leads to dynamic transformations of both objects of knowledge and their (social and intellectual) context, and in which national borders play a rather unimportant role. By forcing to look closely and in conjunction at the material, intellectual and social factors in transformative processes, this approach will help to achieve a more sophisticated understanding of shifts and dynamics in Korean intellectual, social and political history both at the local level and in its regional context.

This perspective departs decisively from previous debate, in which external impacts on Korea were conceived as contrasting with developments in Korea, rather than regarding both as parts of interlocked processes. By perceiving Koreans as actors who imbibe external impetus and new knowledge, process those within their respective contexts and thus are actively involved in the development of new processes of knowledge circulation in the political, economical and cultural realm, the project may give a new impetus to Korean Studies.

Beyond this envisioned contribution to issues internal to Korean Studies, this research project is geared towards generating research results that can be useful for refining general theories of cultural transfer and cultural transformation. Korea with its peculiar geographical position and its history of manifold and incisive cultural and social transformations can serve as an excellent object for case studies on such processes. This research project, if done on a sufficiently large scale to guarantee national and international visibility, may help to foster awareness of the potential and importance of Korean Studies in the humanities in general. Against the background of their respective thematic orientations, the consortium, consisting of the Korean Studies institutes at Freie Universität Berlin and Ruhr-University Bochum, is in an ideal position to analyze both the premodern as well as the modern processes in this context and thus reach both methodological refinement and international visibility. We will work towards this end also through collaboration with other projects on cultural transfer, e.g. with the international consortium "Dynamics in the History of Religions between Europe and Asia" which is located at Ruhr-University Bochum and in which both Professor Marion Eggert (Korean Studies) and Professor Joerg Plassen (Religions of East Asia) participate.