Jie-Hyun Lim on the Humanities in Korea during COVID-19

Jie-Hyum Lim, Director of the Critical Global Studies Institute at Sogang University in Seoul, Korea, and Professor of History, discusses with CHCI Events and Membership Coordinator, Bill Warner, the effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic on academic research and community programing as well as the significance of the humanities in times of crisis.

Bill Warner: It's wonderful to get the opportunity to talk with you, thank you for taking the time, especially during these difficult months. I would like to find out more about the humanities institute that you run as well as the institute's response to the current pandemic, so could I start by asking for you to introduce your institute and its work?

Jie-Hyun Lim: Yes, of course, and thank you for reaching out. The Critical Global Studies Institute (CGSI) is a project-based institute anchored in Sogang University, Seoul, Korea. Its current project is "Mnemonic Solidarity: Colonialism, War and Genocide in the Global Memory Space," which aims to deconstruct the Eurocentrism in memory studies and to contribute to global memory interactions that foster mnemonic solidarity and dialogue.

The institute's activities are divided into research and multiplication. Research-based activities include conferences, colloquia, seminars, publications, etc., while the Local Humanities Center tries to connect the local community with academia. The Center's community outreach programs are focused on "the meeting of research and the local community," "local residents as the central agents," "humanities lecture series," and "international grassroots exchange program." The CGSI's main actors are professors, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate students from history, philosophy, literary theory, comparative literature, political science, area studies, and other humanities and social sciences. Their research orientation is largely transdisciplinary. School teachers in the neighborhood middle and high school, residents, community activists, and artists are major actors in the Local Humanities Center.

BW: What a wonderful agglomeration of communities your center has brought together, that's fantastic to hear. With so many participants and actors, what was the institute's response as the pandemic came to Korea?

J-HL: When COVID-19 broke out, the CGSI was a sort of dormant because the Korean academia was in the middle of winter vacation, which lasts from Christmas holidays to the end of February. COVID-19 came to my attention when I was in New York City as a two-month visiting professor at Columbia University in January. The situation in Korea became worse and worse in February. When I was about to leave for Seoul in late February, I heard the news that Korean universities postponed the opening of the spring semester from March 2 to April 1. I had wondered if I would stay some more time in NYC after the news of the suspension of the academic program in Seoul. But I had to hurry back to Seoul because we needed to reschedule the academic calendar of the CGSI. As soon as I arrived in Seoul on February 26, I recognized the COVID-19 situation in Korea was grave. I summoned the emergency committee meeting, and we decided to suspend all scheduled conferences, seminars, colloquium, and other academic programs. We informed all invitees of our decision to put off the scheduled meeting, and, at the same time, Sogang University advised all lecturers to teach classes via on-line throughout the upcoming spring semester.

BW: Were all programs entirely cancelled or was there some adaptation to other venues or projects?

J-HL: Some things have continued. For example, despite the cancellations, individual research has kept going. Perhaps research was the least affected aspect of CGSI's work by the COVID-19 virus. In fact, in certain ways, research could be even more active because researchers, including myself, were not distracted by administrative works and other meetings. And, additionally, our staff, faculty, and community members are in an excellent communicative mood. The conspicuously well-developed IT infrastructure in Korea made us much more comfortable to stay connected. Of course, some brave members, including myself, were not reluctant to keep socializing around the institute. Two visiting researchers from Britain feel safe in Korea. Indeed, they were safer than the British prime minister. In general, morale is high. And the institute is kept going well, however in a bit odd manner. The only severe complaint comes from the Local Humanities Center. The Center's community outreach program is difficult to work on-line only, its many programs were designed on the basis of off-line interactions among researchers, multiplicators, and audiences. For instance, the exhibition about forced labor in the Japanese empire, scheduled to open on May Day, 2020, had to be canceled. Compared to the academic program, the replanning of the exhibition is challenging because many extra-academy actors, including galleries, art curators, city councils, are involved in the exhibition. We have to reshuffle all the exhibition plan from the Zero Hour.

BW: Do you think that in the tumult of these events, and in relation to your own experiences and efforts, that your perspective on the humanities has itself changed, or that you are forming new conceptualizations about the significance or content of the humanities?

J-HL: I think that it is too early to say what lessons we could get from the COVID-19 crisis. We are learning how to slow down without losing the vitality. The most challenging question is how to develop the community outreach program at the Local Humanities Center when we have to resort to on-line only programs. But I am not that pessimistic about the future of humanities. As COVID-19 hit the global community, one could witness the revival of live discussions on the classic thematic: the tension between the state and individual, and the relationship between capital and labor, disease as political metaphor, age-old anti-Semitism, the medical version of the Yellow Peril, medical pre-fascism, libertarianism, etc. I found myself going back to contemporary classics, among them Albert Camus's Plague, Susan Sonntag's Disease as Political Metaphor, the neo-Malthusian-cum-Marxist economic history of the relation of production between land and labor in the post-Plague feudal society, debates between Anthropocene and Capitalocene, and even the remembrance of the hideout during the Second World War by the Holocaust survivors in social quarantine. I am not sure if those classics can give us an answer, but they can teach us pretty much how to question the existing answers.