2013 Virtual Edition: Amy Levine

Postscript to The Transparent Case of Virtuality

One of my recurring observations during fieldwork from 2005 to 2007 in Seoul was that many of my colleagues enjoyed irony. They searched for and often relished it.  One Korea Pact Against Corruption and for Transparency (KPACT) Council worker, for example, recounted his experience of traveling overseas for an international anti-corruption conference and having to bribe immigration officers to get materials into the country. His story was greeted with laughs and elicited more such stories. After stories were shared and jokes were made, people moved on to the next topic.  There was a sense of nothing more needing to be said; these ironic stories contained the proper mix of commitment and good humor. Those that shared these stories often held senior level positions in their organizations and/or had substantial international experience.

Irony, as I experienced it in those moments, allows for simultaneous belief and disbelief.[1] There is also an ambiguous social distance and commitment familiar to ethnographers. Irony should be disambiguated between a formerly-committed insider and an observing outsider.[2] My colleagues in the field fit neither of these ironic types, however. They were struggling to stay committed to something. For some it was transparency, but for most it morphed into something else over the course of my fieldwork. In my dissertation, The Hope and Crisis of Pragmatic Transition: Politics, Law, Anthropology and South Korea, I describe the historical, political, and social reasons for this turn away from transparency.

In contrast, the commitment that did not abate was to being practical or pragmatic. This is a commitment and practice I share with many colleagues inside and outside South Korea. Pragmatism, in its many forms, not only permits, but also encourages irony.  An appreciation of irony enables pragmatists to acknowledge failures, problems and crises without abdicating action.

My premise in the 2004 piece was that transparency is not just a thing waiting to be discovered in the world; rather, transparency is a moral framework, analytical construct, and empirical fact shared by ethnographers and informants. Doug Holmes, George Marcus, Annelise Riles, Hiro Miyazaki and others have articulated this more artfully than I did. I would have reigned in my analogies more if I were to rewrite the piece. However, my ethnographic sensibility would remain; approaching artifacts such as transparency and pragmatism requires approaching informants as colleagues that share in the movements between moral frameworks, analytical constructs, and empirical facts.

A healthy enjoyment of irony is another thing I learned to share with my colleagues in the field. Some of them borrowed and applied ethnographic techniques in workshops where we all become participant-observers as well as social designers. In these moments I began to understand what Carol Greenhouse meant when she said, “Ethnography is better than irony.”

Amy Levine is a Visiting Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Changwon National University. Her book, South Korean Civil Movements and Organisations: The Hope and Crisis of Pragmatic Transition (Manchester University Press), is forthcoming. 


[1] Sachiko Tanuma (2007) has similarly explored irony in his article, Post-Utopia Irony: Cuban Narratives during the ‘Special Period’ Decade, published in PoLAR.

[2] See, for example, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: On the Literary Structure of Capital (University of Massachusetts Press, 1988) by Robert Paul Wolff.