Against “Context”: New Essay on Translation

by on Mar.03, 2015

I have a new essay, “Toward a Sensationalistic Theory of Translation.”

In many ways it’s a response to Mia You’s review on Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream published in Book Forum a while back. You basically made the argument that we (the American readers of Kim Hyesoon) were “gross sensationalist” because we lacked the proper context for understanding her work.

I picked up on this critique and turned it around because I think the idea of context as a stable, determining force has become pervasive in our culture – both in discussions fo poetry and translation, but also wider culture – and that this is an incredibly simplistic idea of the way art works. The context-model posits that context basically determines “meaning” of a work of art. As a result, translation becomes impossible. Instead we get “gross sensationalism” and “appropriation.”

(I’ve even been accused of appropriating Swedish poetry, which I think is a really interesting charge because it makes clear the problems that not just translations, but immigrants, cause to this model of “context.” And authors – as I mention in the Volta essay – are not always (or even mostly) central figures of some kind of monoglossic illusion of “central”, true language/culture, often existing in peripheries and crossing all kinds of borders.)

Rather than stealing or decontextualizing, what translation – and art! – does is continually forge next contexts. Don Mee Choi and Action Books have for example forged a lot of contexts for reading Kim Hyesoon’s work. There is not one true meaning of Kim Hyesoon’s poems that can be gained from some supposedly stable idea of Korean culture (the instability of ideas of “context” is actually brought out in You’s essay since she questions some common ideas of Korean culture in the US); there is in fact no one true context for reading her work. In one recent interview (in South Korea) for example, she talks apprecriatively about what an essay I wrote about her work as “gurlesque” for the Swedish journal 10-tal, discussing how this brings out the important figure of “the girl” in her work. This is how poetry work: it constantly brings artworks into contact with readers and writers, creating new “contexts” for reading.

This doesn’t mean we should forget about the fact that Kim Hyesoon is a Korean poet, and that Don Mee Choi translated her. That is why I invoke Joyelle’s and my phrase “deformation zone,” a booklet we wrote for Ugly Duckling in which we argued that artworks are deformation zones (“appropriating” this terms from Aase Berg’s Swedish poem) that includes various contexts and deformations and translations and forgeries.

24 comments for this entry:
  1. adam s

    That the “native” can appropriate the native feels apt, and rather encouraging to me–perhaps because ” the native informant” trope strikes me as largely rather sketchy. I wonder if my teaching of a play called No Child yesterday meshes. I argued to the class that the line “because Mr. Johnson is a faggot. Fucking faggot,” is rather hilarious, and this case-making may be drastically underestimating how cruel the word faggot is, and reasonably so, for many people, but too it’s because I’m gay that I find the line great/amusing. I didn’t justify my questionable argument with the disclaimer I’m Gay: if the point was reasonable enough, I don’t believe it should need the “native informant” defense…Which is not to argue that one can never be smart articulating one’s “own” subject position(s).

  2. Johannes

    Kent Johnson wanted me to add this insightful note:

    A fascinating scenario in regards “context”–one that You seems not to consider– would be one where translational “deformation” (be it deformation by accident or design) helps spur rapidly altered subcultural contexts in the target language, i.e., new relations or expectations of aesthetic value that then push a national poetry in entirely novel and unexpected directions. Often, this takes place via misappropriation and lack of understanding–indeed, most often it is misunderstanding that is the catalyst. American innovative poetry, starting with Fenollosa and Pound’s fantasies and errors about Chinese is an obvious example: the alternate, radical tradition in US poetry right up to our day can’t be fully grasped, at least genealogically speaking, without account of its roots in early modernist development of “ideogrammic,” paratactic method– with all its mutations and branchings right up through Language poetry and beyond. Conversely (and this is an even more interesting case), Eliot Weinberger has pointed out how development and change in innovative Chinese poetry of the past decades cannot be understood without the impact that translations of American poetry have had there, not least that poetry of the Poundian tradition, including, importantly, the book Cathay itself, in its Chinese translation! So that, in other words, recent changes in Chinese poetry can be seen as significantly propelled by the assimilation of a foreign avant-garde poetry whose aesthetics were themselves propped on basic misunderstandings and deformations of Chinese poetry in the first place! If that can be followed…

  3. Mia You

    Hi Johannes, thank you for the very serious, very engaging response to my review. It’s what reviewers always want and far more than we usually get (as you probably know!).

    [I’m not especially comfortable with online debates/conversations– it’s not that I don’t believe in it and it’s value, it’s just not my own best mode of engagement. So I hope that in addition to this small comment here, I’ll have an opportunity to engage your essay, you’re development of a “sensationalistic translation theory,” and your and Joyelle McSweeney’s Deformation Zone in greater depth in a different form.]

    I do feel I have to say now, because this really matters to me, that I feel my stance on KHS’s translated book is slightly mischaracterized in this essay. I’m a translator; I work for an organization (a non-profit) that supports, promotes and encourages poetic translations– as well as a wide variety of translation practices. I absolutely do not believe that some kind of “authentic” reading practice must be privileged and made inaccessible. This is not only the case in how I feel about translatability, but how I feel about identity formation in general. It is contrary both to how I live my life, and how I have experienced being an immigrant (twice over and back and forth) and living constantly in what you call “the deformation zone.”

    My reason for invoking Kim’s context within Korean literature/culture was to make the point we should consider, in any number of ways, why a particular work does what it does — it’s particular, peculiar turn to violence and the grotesque — rather than making the work representative of any general(ized) aesthetic. I am not saying you or anyone at Action Books/Montevidayo does that. But when I write for Bookforum, I consider the fact that more readers there might have seen Old Boy or have been to the Marina Abramović retrospective than have read Montevidayo. Come on, that’s fair. I also consider the fact that KHS, as you know, appears more frequently than most Korean poets on the European book festival circuit, not without good reason, but is sometimes put forward as “the representative from Korea,” and I do come upon the conversations and commentary surrounding her work that is not connected to or put forward by your framing of her significance.

    I do, also, note in my review how the strangeness of KHS’s writing comes across not just in her grotesque imagery, but her humor, her astute observations about daily life’s awkwardness. This is, in fact, why I think Don Mee Choi is brilliant and incredibly skillful in her translations. So clearly I do think translated poetry’s unsettling, disruptive effects in its translated context are very important!

    So, Pound. I always consider Pound. I know about Pound. But thanks for the mini-lesson.

    Anyway, I glad this conversation is continuing and am grateful that you read my review and took the time to expand upon the questions raised there!

  4. Johannes

    Hi Mia,

    Thanks for your response (and for your review, our books are very seldom reviewed in prestigious publications like Bookforum, so that made me very happy).

    As I suggested in the article (it’s an abbreviated version of a longer text, and it follows an essay I published last year in Two Lines, so it may not have come across as well in this one), I realize that you wanted to trouble the idea of “representative” – which is of course always a “context”-based reading of literary works, one which often creates a stable text and a stable context, countering the destabilizing potential of translation. And I do agree with you that we should definitely consider the translatedness of the work. One of the really great things about Venuti’s work (and others of his generation) was to call attention to the act of translation. Too often in academic discussions of “world lit” or some such, translation is ignored and what is created is just a new, slightly wider anthology to study and master.

    However, it seems to me that despite this vector of argument in your essay, you still go back on a version of this rhetoric: that the translation reader is inherently mis-understanding the context for KH’s work. And that this reader is a morbid, “gross” and “sensationalistic” reader. So what I wanted to do was to bring up this contradiction and see what translation has to do with sensationalism, grossness. This connection – I don’t talk about it in this version of the essay, but in the longer one which is going into the book I’m working on – has a long history: the connection between sensationalism and reading works in translation without the proper distance or education about “context.” One complicated instance in this discussion could for example be seen in Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting anthology of poetry from genocides (another topic in my book).

    In your review you seem to focus in on the “morbid” text we picked out for the back cover. It is a very sensationalistic excerpt, but why is this so troubling to you? Why does the “sensationalism” of the grotesque seem to you so problematic?

    And might this gross sensationalism in fact not be a “context” – a cross-national, transcultural context – that responds, as so much such sensationalistic poetry does, to the violence of global capitalism? I think it’s noteworthy that your critique of the gross sensationalism assumes that it’s not a context – that it’s a lack of context, a shallowness – and that it’s inherently without a political dynamic (b/c perhaps it’s not a “critique”, which is the primary mode of politics US literary culture considers.)

    This is a line of thought I see throughout US literary culture, and a line of rhetoric that has been used to attack and dismiss my own work. So I’m of course interested in it.

    As for the Pound comment, that’s from Kent Johnson, I can’t take credit for it. But I might note that he used translation to get away from the sensationalistic “corpse language” of 19th century poetry (just as Wordsworth wrote ballads to get away from teh gothic predecessors).

    Thanks for your response and I hope I explained my stance a little better.


  5. Johannes

    Also: I posted a part of my Two Lines essay, which explains my interest in this line of rhetoric more fully perhaps a couple of weeks ago:


  6. Johannes

    For others who may be interested, here is Mia You’s article:

  7. Daniel

    Another set of problems seems to come from de-politicizing the art and assimilating it to fit into an Anglo-American worldview in the process of translation. This sensationalistic framework seems to risk neutering the political agency of the artist/writer, flattening perspective of another culture while reifying the values of hegemonic center. Does a work employing grotesque imagery to criticize complex or unjust political situations becomes, to a reader at the hegemonic center, act as yet another piece of evidence used to dismiss the Other? I have in mind Bellow’s famously racist comment, “Show me the Proust of the Papuans, the Tolstoy of the Zulus, and I will read him.” I’m behind much of what you wrote—for instance, the troubling of cultural boundaries, the radical effect of a translation, the closure of distancing—but I have concerns about the power imbalance that exists prior to the act, the reading, and in which the engagement necessarily takes place. But I’m certainly not as knowledgable about theories of translation and would be very grateful to see your thoughts, Johannes.

  8. Johannes

    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad that both you and Mina have written in to expand the discussion that Don Mee Choi’s translation of Kim Hyesoon’s work has helped generate.

    Yes, there is a “risk” that this neutralizing will happen, though I welcome that risk, and that is a risk behind all works of translation. However, I think a far greater risk is to keep the foreign work at a distance, or worse yet, untranslated, out of anxiety about how a translation may neuter the “original.”

    There most certainly is a power imbalance in the world, but I think translation can bring that balance in, make it visible, make it part of discussions, ask us to engage with it (as now we are). And usually that power imbalance leads not to a proliferation of translated and “neutered” text, but rather the absence of translation in US literature.

    One of my central points in this essay is to question the idea that to be political we must necessarily engage in critiques, must master the foreign culture, must know it, and the idea that the sensationalistic is somehow inherently apolitical. I think there’s a powerful politics in exactly “sensationalism” and it has a long history of being deeply political, even if this sensational politics tends not to be the kind of cut-and-dry politics we discuss in US literature – especially not in academic writings. Though we can certainly see the obvious politics of something like the Sex Pistols or Genet. And I would argue that in the model of the critique and mastering the foreign context can easily become very conservative – allowing us to keep the poems at arm’s length, rather than sensationalistically be absorbed by them.

    Kim Hyesoon herself discusses a kind of sensational politics in her essays and interviews (and she has several times in recent interviews mentioned that she likes my sensationalistic interpretations of her works!), and which I think Mina You is familiar with (judging from her review, which does take these into account).

    (BTW, Tinfish has published a selection of KH’s critical writings:

    As you note, those remarks from Bellow are not only racist, they also depend on a kind of deracinated/de-ethnicized model of a great writer. It’s a common model in US literature where few international writers are allowed to be “great,” and a large part of their treatment as “greats” is that their literature is somehow beyond/above translation, somehow “international” (thus the model of “global” or “world lit”). And perhaps it is the power of the “grotesque” – as well as the power of translation – to undo such monument-models of writing. (Though Kafka would of course be an exception here). I always find it interesting that US critics/poets tend to assume that the poets I translate/publish are “experimental” poets in their home context, when they are almost all incredibly famous. Maybe it’s just that the US has an allergic reaction to the grotesque? Perhaps it’s exactly in bringing up this grotesques that we may engage with power imbalances?

    I hope I answered a few of your questions and I hope I didn’t ask too many questions in return… Where is that Bellow quote from? I haven’t read it, but it seems I should asap.

    But, yes, thanks for raising these questions.


  9. Daniel

    The Bellow quote (possibly a misquote on my part) is from an NYer article by Alfred Kazin, it seems—and it is contested, as all these types of quotes are.

    Interesting that readers presume the work you publish is experimental. I wonder what they mean. Out of synch with contemporary mainline work, maybe? But I would have guessed your readers to be less so. Racist presumptions based on national origin perhaps?

    Each language has its set of formal traditions and translations are moved from one largely meaningless category into another as the categories shift, as new becomes old, as old is forgotten and gets revived, as established writers die, as others become famous, as social norms change, as speech patterns change, etc.

    Also: that analysis of the apolitical reading of sensationalism runs against the grain of my experience a bit. Sensational acts/art, are they not always and obviously read as political acts? Even when they’re not? I may run in more political circles than some, but it seems difficult to imaging Deborah de Robertis’ “Origin of the World” as anything except essentially political.

    And the risk—I’m not sure, I guess. As a white American male, maybe that just doesn’t feel like my risk to take? To ignore the fact of a body with history and a culture that is the producer of this art, to eliminate or ignore the history imbued in the work, to ignore the historical moment that informed the work, to appropriate images that have existing cultural significance, to ignore (deny?) my own ignorance, to presume English: that feels to me like a very serious act of violence, an erasure, though the theory around it is compelling.

    I don’t have a useful unbinding of this, but am very glad to engage in this discourse.

  10. Johannes

    Daniel, I’m about to eat dinner so I’ll be quick here. The key to my article is not that it glorifies ignorance or that I want to return to some kind of transcendent art object. It’s that the idea of one single, stable context is not good, and is inherently conservative. I am definitely not saying we should ignore everything. I realize that my title was sensationalisticallly “against context” – but it’s in favor of a more volatile model of context. Contexts are not divorced and complete in and of themselves. For me to master a model of a necessarily reductive context (“history and culture” etc) is in fact to appropriate the work, to reduce it to a symptom of a culture in best american fashion.

    Korea is not isolated from the US. It’s a colony of the US! So we’re closely tied together, and global capitalism draws us even closer. KH has read a ton of western poetry (Rimbaud, plath etc). She’s not some pristine native poet who’s been plucked out of her context to be appropriated. The gothic thing is in fact a very potent context. Kim Hyesoon and I have had a lot of conversations about horror movies, but we’ve also talked about Sylvia Plath, Rimbaud. When You ridicules the sensationalistic morbidity of horror movies etc, she’s in fact rejecting a context, a very volatile and vibrant context, and a context that Kim Hyesoon herself is very much interested in (look at her book from Tinhouse, read her poems from Action Books, read interviews with her).

    But my shortest answer to your anxiety about reading works in translation would be: Ask Kim Hyesoon if she feels violated by the publications in English? I almost never hear translated authors complain about being taken out of their contexts.


  11. Johannes

    I should also say that what I like about You’s article is exactly that she challenges easy conceptions of “context” for Korean art and poetry. / J

  12. Daniel

    Thanks J. The response you draw above would be incredibly reductive, simplistic, and obviously that’s not what I’m trying to work toward, or implying about your work here.

    “Contexts are not divorced and complete in and of themselves”—yes, especially joined to your rejection of the imperialist notion of expertise (“For me to master a model…”). Well Said.

    I think the positioning of the essay as a response to You misled me a bit, because (in my reading) You critiques the ascendent horror movie context into which KH’s poetry neatly fits, reifying that overly-simplistic context. She’s destabilizing the American culture industry’s mass-production of a single limited context for South Korean culture, in which objects reflecting that context can be commodified, tamed, appropriated, neutered. As you said, “one single, stable context is not good, and is inherently conservative.” You seems, to me, to strike against that.

    I’ll be very glad to see this framework pushed further—I’m not yet convinced that troubling context alone will lead to richer or less imperialist readings (nor less conservative readings; conservatives hardly have a monopoly on imperialism). It could easily generate the type of value-trap that’s often seen in neoliberal economic systems, which claim to be open/equal/fair but in practice allow and support conservative power systems in suppressing more complex/diverse/just systems. The dangers of erasure (racial, gendered, classist, imperialist, etc.) still appear too near at hand.

  13. Johannes


    I think we are indeed reading You’s essay differently. Though I have expressed an appreciation for her attempt to get away from the idea of the author as a representative of a culture (and defined by the culture), I think she actually does quite a bit of this as well: she positions the “sensationalist”/abject reading of Kim Hyesoon’s work against a truer, more informed reading.

    And this is really what my essay is about: exploring this coming together of two strands of thought – the idea of the abject/gross/sensatioalistic with the uninformed about context etc. I don’t think this is just coincidence because it happens continually (I’ve given much evidence for this on this blog and in other essays).

    This is especially curious to me since Kim Hyesoon’s poetry and writing about poetry – as You herself points out, and I point out her pointing out – is incredibly engaged with a kind of sensationalistic aesthetic. And she has publicly and privately expressed interest and appreciation of my “gross” readings of her work (and she in turn has given gross readings of my own work:

    So then the question becomes: Why does Kim Hyesoon have to be saved from herself? And in regards to your last sentence: Why is it that publishing/translating Kim Hyesoon is more dangerous to “erasure” than it is to express anxiety about translation, an anxiety that usually (not obviously in You’s case) lead to not writing about KH’s work, not translating work etc. I feel like we are a little bit in an upside down world here.

    I asked in my last comment: Why not ask Kim Hyesoon if she likes to be read in translation? And I’ll ask it again.

    If she likes the way we frame her work? Why should she be spoken for? Why must she be saved from herself? Why must she be saved from a gothic/sensationalitic aesthetic she has written about quite extensively and very powerfully? Why must she in other words be proved agency-less by discarding her own statements?


  14. Daniel

    Edit—I mean to say that KH’s work could reify the overly-simplistic context produced by the US industry, not that You was doing so.

  15. Daniel

    J. — I don’t see the aspect of “truer”, but I do see the “more informed,” as in the sense of adding contexts, and troubling the central commodified context (developed largely by the film industry). And that work, again, seems in line with what you’re describing theoretically: multiplicity, conflict, troubling, diversity, instability. Every critic brings their own context, none more essential than another—that seems to be the essence of the theory.

    Although, maybe not, as you seem to be asserting the sensationalist/gross as the primary context, the one in which all other analysis needs to operate? Then, perhaps I’m way off-base and troubling contexts is not valuable? Or not valuable if it troubles this particular context, because of the context of the context?

    I definitely did NOT mean that publishing KH, or her work, is somehow more dangerous in regards to erasure—that was a lack of clarity on my part, apologies. Definitely not. Only that the larger theory of free-floating competition among various contexts and histories with no more or less primary context, nor a prerogative to gather further contextual information (because, as you write, of foreignness and distancing), still seems to risk reinforcing the various pre-existing marginalization that you’re also trying to address/undermine. That is, one could assert the necessity for contextual indeterminacy and try one’s best to avoid any primacy or reification, but fail, or fail to defend the multiplicity from other forces of reification (and I think this latter is especially risky in the world of academia and other professionalized intellectualism). But, I still think this is a step forward, a valuable path.

    Regarding “Why not ask…?” and “If she likes…?” An artist’s explication of their work is always important, fascinating, often revealing. But just as often, it’s misleading or incomplete, or simply not the whole picture—no? That’s a pretty uncontroversial idea. Certainly an author’s self-interpretation is not the end of all possible interpretation. You’re not really arguing that an author’s explication of their work should be the full-stop on critical analysis. Why then write any criticism? Why book reviews? Why theory? Why academia? Why reflection at all? You’d be out of a job! 🙂

    Maybe you’re just implying that You discards KH’s commentary too readily? That leads us back to the question of primary contexts, and the limitations around this theoretical construct.

    This is the most fun I’ve had online in ages.

  16. Johannes

    She definitely seeks to dismiss a kind of grotesque aesthetic by kitschifying it, associating it with horror movies. As far as I recall, she doesn’t quote a single review or article by these supposedly empty-headed gross sensationalists. She also doesn’t mention KH’s own writing about her writing, which actually is very insistently informed by the grotesque and the gothic, the abject etc. Her argument is indeed to dismiss this context for reading KH’s work, but for such an article it’s a very poor job of it – since she doesn’t mention any of these texts!

    I also totally disagree with what to me feels like a typical academic/high-culture dismissal of Korean horror movies. These can provide a very profound and interesting context for reading KH’s work, and for that matter a reading of global capitalism and its transnational energies. Besides, did this capitalist context-making include poetry at any time? No. So there’s already an interesting tension there.

    And so for me it’s not “troubling contexts” You is doing exactly, but in fact falling back on a very conventional, conservative rhetorical move, very common in discussions of translation, that of saying: people who like this poetry do so without the proper knowledge of the context it was written in, that it was written as a critique etc. Ie, this is really high art and these buffoons don’t get it. To put it bluntly.

    My point in the article is to suggest how “sensationalism” charges go together with a rhetoric that defends against translation. And as I show pretty clearly show in my essay, You’s own argument falls apart pretty quickly – about “critique” vs “sensationalism” etc.

    In the end, there are some thing I like about the review, but ultimately it’s an essay that seeks to dismiss a gothic/sensationalism context without actually engaging with it, and it’s an essay that seeks to quarantine KH’s work.

    And yes, I totally am interested in the extensive writings KH has done – both her poetry and essays. That only puts me out of a job if I think my job is to read – as many US academics do – the texts “suspicously” or “against the grain.” I think she’s really insightful in her analyses of her work. And my attitude is not to go against that in a knee-jerk way.

    Ultimately, the elephant in the room here is really this kidn of “sensationalistic” aesthetic and why You wants to dismiss it without actually thinking about it. If she wants to write an open essay attacking Action Books, I’m fine with that as long as she actually engages with what we’re doing, isntead of just invokign strawmen.

    It’s possible that in this post that I am not giving you all the background you might need to understand where I’m taking this argument, or why I’m straying from so many US orthodoxies of criticism; I’ll write another post when I get a chance. I am particularly interested in the reception of KH so I might write about that. Maybe next week, I’ll get some time.


  17. Daniel

    J. — Not sure it’s a problem of enough background, more a skepticism based on premise-to-QED issues. Once one thinks that some theory holds a special key, one begins to see locks everywhere (or, in this case, to make more locks). It’s not a particularly unusual phenomena.

    But I think there’s a good amount of confusion in the question of political-ideological outcomes for this kind of schema, and around the instability of context / correctness of readings—since you assert the sensational as THE context and THE reading. It is definitely A reading, a good one, on terms the author herself puts forward. Plenty of people have written about it (including Deborah Schwartz at CF, below). But not the only worthy reading; and what’s the point of criticism of everyone begins with the same view, premise, theory? A body criticism invites dialogue, debate.

    As far as a pattern, I’m not in a position to say—you haven’t totally convinced me in this case. But I’m not out hunting for this, either, and would be happy to read more.

    Obviously you’re interested in the reception of KH’s work—you’re her publisher!

    And on those grounds it seems best to call it a night (or, morning).

  18. Johannes

    I guess I am still after all these posts uncertain what your position is.

    You say I say it’s the only context, but in fact I am the one who from the start has been arguing for multiple contexts, which just a few comments ago you expressed unease with. Or did I get that wrong?

    I do think it’s a tremendously important one. And many people have written very well about this element of KH’s work – including the essay you link to, and the Ruth Williams piece she links to, and pieces by Jessica Lawson and a Lisa Flowers (and I admit I have written quite a bit) etc. In fact a lot of people have written from this angle, and most of them have been very good. It has actually been really inspiring for me to see articles such as the one you edited – US writers/reader engaging with foreign texts not by quarantining them, but actually dealing with them.

    Which leads me to the questions: Do you think the essay by Schwartz that you published was “gross sensationalism”?

    Because You makes this argument that KH’s work has been hijacked by these thoughtless grossists; then I assume she means not just me and Joyelle, but also Schwartz and Ruth Williams. Again, she doesn’t mention anybody other than Action Books, but she suggests that there’s more than us, even as she gives a version of the argument. In fact she doesn’t mention any of the myriad of essays we have written, only the back-blurb as sole evidence.

    And if I may repeat myself, her argument seems to – even as it breaks down – fall on three points: we don’t recognize it as a critique (I don’t think of it as a critique, but I do think it’s political) and the lack of grounding in some notion of the Korean context (an issue you seem to retain), and perhaps the most important a third point: the abject/gothic is “sensationalistic” and “gross” (again, even as she does make an argument coming out of this “tradition,” a tradition KH endorses quite powerfully in her own critical writing).

    Do you agree with this summary of our winding discussion?


  19. Mia You

    Dear Johannes,

    what began as a rich and interesting response by you, on The Volta and the original post above, has now turned into something I really don’t understand, nor do I really recognize the arguments you claim I make as being my arguments. So I don’t feel I can properly respond in a way that would satisfy you.

    But a few things:

    1. My goal for this review was indeed to do what Daniel describes in his earlier comment [“She’s destabilizing the American culture industry’s mass-production of a single limited context for South Korean culture, in which objects reflecting that context can be commodified, tamed, appropriated, neutered…” etc.]. Now I may not have executed that or expressed that successfully. Clearly you don’t think I did. I accept that. I am open to improvement!

    2. I have no problem with Action Books. I think it’s a fantastic press. If I had to write an open letter about Action Books, that’s essentially what I would say: “Dear Action Books, You are a great press that brings out books very much worth reading and discussing.”

    3. With that said, I’m not really interested in writing an open letter to Action Books. I am interested in Kim Hyesoon’s poetry. I am interested in how it is read, how it will be read, this means I am interested in how you read it, but I am ultimately, mostly, actually entirely, interested in her poetry. As an American reader, as a Korean reader, as a Korean-American reader, as a Korean-American-Dutch reader. Much of the “context” I try to supply in my review comes from or is gleaned from what I’ve read in her own writing, talks, interviews. I certainly don’t want to speak for her or save her from herself. She doesn’t need that from me or you. But/and I do think she provides a lot of interesting, varying modes for reading her writing.

    4. If I had some deep problem with your (Johannes Goransson’s) theoretical/critical framework, I would have written a review about you. But I didn’t. I certainly can’t at this point. And I certainly wouldn’t elaborately hide it under a review of Kim Hyesoon’s latest book.

    5. I am a mother of two small kids working for a poetry organization and writing a dissertation simultaneously. I am not saying this to ask for pity/lenience/charity or anything, but to point out, simply, that in a *really* awesome year, I can write maybe 5 reviews total. Actually, make that 5 pieces of writing (any writing) total. Last year, those 5 pieces of writing were: 1) an actual “open letter” to Harvard to ask them to let mothers bring their kids into the library; 2) a review of LaTasha N. Diggs’ TwERK; 3) a review of Dodie Bellamy’s Cunt Norton; 4) a review of Jena Osman’s Corporate Relations; 4) a review of Kim Hyesoon’s Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream. I write about books I think are important and want other people to read. But I try to do it in a way that’s not uncritical. Does my work reflect a really conservative and mainstream mode of American literary criticism? I hope not. I really don’t want it to. But what can I say, if you say it does? I’m open to improvement.

    This has been a rich conversation; I’ve learned a lot from reading what you’ve had to say and will look for your further writing on it. But I am also a little lost, because the “You” you keep describing is not someone I recognize. I am sorry not to be able to respond in a more satisfying way at this moment.


  20. Daniel

    Fast and dirty lunchtime response:

    In regards to unstable context: it’s probably better than some calcified monolithic reading, sure, but instability and multiplicity do not necessarily create anti-imperialistic/conservative value systems or power structures. As I said, I’m not sure I have an answer on this front aside from a certain unwillingness to act in ways that erase identity and history—but I recognize, in that difficulty, a gap of logic between the theory you’re working on and the outcomes you desire. There’s more to it than instability. But on that note…

    You’ve been trying here, it seems, to assert the gross/sensationalist (or abject/gothic) context as the best reading, the legitimate one, the one that deserves to be explicated, the one the author agrees with, the one that shouldn’t be challenged—even as you say you also want many contexts, instability, multiplicity. So, practice doesn’t reflect theory: you say multiplicity, but you return again and again to reify your existing framework; and, you also seem to be reacting strongly and negatively to You’s expansion of the critical discourse about KH through this alternate context.

    Is DS’s essay itself a form of “gross sensationalism”? Not to my thinking. She addresses that aspect of KH’s work at length: she talks about the political implications and the subject/object collapse, bodily immediacy; and so did those other essays—and they all fall in line with the prevailing American media context You describes. And You’s criticism doesn’t negate, to my mind; it expands. In my reading, her essay says “not only, but also.” It says, “be more aware.” Maybe it says, “they’re selling you half a picture.” These are all good things, to my mind.

    The goal of a critical essay is to add and expand and engage and debate, not predetermine or limit or definitively answer. I’m open to both of the readings in play in our debate. They’re both strong.

  21. Daniel

    Edit: I mean anti-conservative (trying to avoid a problematic left-label) in that first para.

  22. Mia You

    Oh yeah, I forgot 6!

    6. I wish I was named after Mina Loy. Unfortunately, my parents have never heard of Mina Loy. My name “Mia” comes from my kindergarten teachers in Tampa, FL, who told my parents “Minjung” was too difficult, and unreasonable, for my classmates to pronounce.


  23. Johannes


    1. Minjung is an amazing name. One of our daughters is named Majken, but due to the US name “Mike” people don’t on the whole mispronounce it.

    2. I really liked your review and appreciate it – especially since it’s so hard to get anybody to write anything about books (least of all translations).

    3. I’m not surprised that you feel lost in Daniel’s and mine conversation. Perhaps part of the reason is that I’m trying to understand Daniel’s position, and in trying find his position, I feel like I’ve had to kind of create more of a conflict than is in the essay. At some point I feel in retrospect that both Daniel and I started writing about other texts than your review and more about something else.

    4. As I’ve written on this thread, my main interest is in looking at the charge of sensationalism – how it accompanies the abject, but more importantly, how it fits into discussions of translation. My point is really not to denounce you.

    5. You do write that our quote on the back plays into a morbid context created by Oldboy etc. And you admonish people not to “glorify violence” etc. I’m interested in that move. Why it’s in the review. And the move that says: this is “critique”, not [whatever else, glorifying violence etc], the move that opposes critique and [sensationalism].

    6. Have you seen an oldboy glorification of violence in any of the reception of her work? (other than our back blurb)

    7. I’m particularly interested in your review because you argue both sides – both a fine reading of the grotesque elements of KH’s poetry and a kind of warning; plus a rejection of “context” and a return to context (we have to read it as a critique of Korean tradition).

    8. There are certainly examples that are much more objectionable, but I’m interested in this review because it is not so simple, and therefore I regret that I have perhaps had to simplify my own argument here into for/against rhetoric.

    9. Anyway, thanks for writing in. I appreciate it.


  24. Johannes

    I’ll try to write about another text to draw out this conversations, because right now I think we’re spinning our wheels.

    Like i wrote to Mia, as part of talking with you, I made my view of her more negative than is the essay.