Uchang Kim

Professor of English, Korea University

4/8/2003
4/10/2003

Universities are in the midst of a debate over the meaning and place of the humanities in training our students and future leaders. In a world consumed with the worship of rationality or defense of different world-views embodied in traditional religious or cultural dogma, the emphasis or de-emphasis on humanistic studies becomes a critical question. Yet at a time when international crises with the prospects of war in the middle east or, more recently, the Korean peninsula loom, the values of humanism are even more trivialized by power politics, the threat of nuclear disaster, or prospects for international anarchy. But according to Uchang Kim this is precisely the time to re-embrace the humanities as a space for re-invigorating reflection, perception, and meaning in our individual lives. Indeed, it is within the humanities that Professor Kim finds traditions in both Eastern and Western philosophical thought that can guide us to ways of imagining outside of the economic, political, and religious dogmas that limit our vision of self and society.

Uchang Kim (Ph.D. Harvard Univ. 1975, M.A. Cornell University 1961, B.A. Seoul National University 1961) is a professor of English Literature at Korea University in Seoul, Republic of Korea. Beyond his credentials of a professor of literature, he is an important public intellectual and shaper of articulate opinion in South Korea, and an active participant in literary movements in the Third World. He has taught at Harvard (American Council of Learned Societies Fellow 1980), Cambridge University, Tokyo University and is currently a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. In addition he has served on the UNECO Commission in Korea, the Board of Directors of the Korean Broadcasting System, and the Executive Council of the International Comparative Literature Association. His scholarly work encompasses literary criticism and philosophy for which he has been recognized with a number of national and international honors, most recently the 2001 Paeksang Award for the best book (Politics and the Life World) published in any field in Korea. With this book, Kim has synthesized a life-long engagement with global literature and the relationship between politics and literary culture.

Professor Kim came to prominence in 1980s Korea as a champion of culture and humanist values then under assault by the twenty-five year forced march toward modernization in Korea. Kim rose to critique the enormous cultural and social costs of untrammeled economic growth. His steadfast opposition to the worship of commercialism stems from his belief that it is only through cultural development that we will find a means for preserving human values. His more recent interest in multiculturalism grows from this commitment as he continues to oppose the leveling influence of global mass culture in favor of preserving diverse cultural identities.

His first lecture, "Margins of Indeterminacy: Humanist Studies Today, East and West" reflects on the general situation of the humanities in today's world. He asks how it might be possible to find free space for thought within the dominating ethos of rationality and function. Drawing on both Western and Eastern traditions of humanities, Kim finds a space that can be cultivated as a source for human creativity, tolerance, and mutuality while coexisting with the dominating values of science and rationality. His second lecture, "Poetics of Presence: Korean Writing in the Post-Democracy Movement Era" uses the case of Korea to pose a central question of modern life. The very seriousness of modernization (economic development, political struggle, social change) in any society masks the destruction of traditional sources of authority that gave meaning and weight to life itself. It is at the end of the process of modernization when the essential problem of modernity emerges. This problem can't be solved by more growth or even the achievement of political freedom; it can only be addressed by questions of quality and meaning within contemporary life. Herein lies the importance of the humanities to our lives and to the life of our university at present and in the future.