August 26, 2012
Privileging knowledge of the center at the expense of the periphery: the netizens vs. B1A4

This is an actual news story, apparently: Netizens (“citizens” who participate in the life of the nation/entertainment sector via the internet) are upset that in Episode 2 of Hello Baby, members of boy band B1A4 appeared to be ignorant about the city of Seoul. People were particularly incensed that only one of the five members could name the current mayor of Seoul, and that all five struggled to correctly name all five of Seoul’s palaces. The producers of Hello Baby rose to B1A4’s defense, arguing that since none of the members are actually from Seoul, it’s not reasonable to expect that they know the city inside-out.

I wanted to draw attention to this because it really highlights the politics of the center and periphery, which is something we don’t talk about a lot outside of political-economy-of-development conversations. I actually first started paying attention to B1A4 in part because they’re known as “country-dols” - which translates to “none of them are from Seoul.” (In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re from reasonably-sized cities as opposed to the actual countryside, but to kpop, it’s all the same. I’m reminded of the Parisian tendency to define their country as “Paris” and “everything that is not Paris - la France profonde,” or “deep France.”) Since I come from a rural Midwestern flyover state and have become accustomed to my East Coast friends asking, “So… are you going home to Idaho over break?” and not being able to locate my home state on a map of the US, I know that center/periphery issues are still relevant, even in developed countries. I’ve kept an eye on this idol group to see how the issues play out - and for that reason, I’ve been following this particular season of Hello Baby, which brings center/periphery relations to the forefront as its concept.

The political aspect of this is that we see the ways in which certain kinds of knowledge are privileged over others. Netizens - many of whom, I would wager, live in Seoul themselves - think that the members of B1A4 have some kind of obligation or duty to know these “basic” facts about the city, such as the mayor’s name and famous landmarks. I note that these types of facts are privileged over more practical knowledge such as how to navigate the subway, which neighborhoods to avoid late at night, where you can go to buy Nigerian home videos (Naija, I know you’re there!! And that’s def the first thing I’d want to know if I moved to Seoul), where the best food trucks park, etc. I’m strongly reminded of E.D. Hirsch’s “cultural literacy” argument, which prescribed a certain cultural knowledge base that privileged white male contributions as a necessary foundation for all students in the US. On the flipside of that, I’m also reminded of arguments about the SAT exam (and other standardized tests) being culturally biased - and the counter-exams designed by urban youth to prove that their vocabulary abilities are not necessarily lacking, just different (“Yang is a) street talk b) rhythmic music c) a liquor d) a basketball shoe;” “You say ‘give me a dime’ when you want to a) smoke marijuana b) find a prostitute c) make a phone call d) jump a police officer”). The netizens’ expectations that B1A4 know certain facts about the city follow E.D. Hirsch in that they are biased in favor of a certain kind of knowledge that, in my view, does not offer any real information about HOW to live in the city.

I also note that B1A4 members are probably quite proficient in all of these things - both the facts and the practical knowledge - in their home communities. Judging them as “ignorant” is a highly political move that valorizes the center, Seoul, at the expense of the periphery. To further demonstrate this point: why wasn’t Hello Baby conceptualized as taking place in the members’ hometowns, with the viewing audience expected to learn FROM the members about those places? The show itself is also a political move to privilege the center over the periphery.

Even so, where does the real responsibility for B1A4’s lack of knowledge of Seoul lie? Here are a couple of ideas:

1) Mayor Park Won Soon. Sir, if people who live in your city don’t know your name, could it be because you have not managed to get your name out there enough? I’m not in Seoul, so I obviously don’t know your degree of visibility, but I was recently in Boston, and there was no way I could avoid knowing Mayor Tom Menino’s name: it’s everywhere!

Granted, he has the advantage of having been around for awhile (like 20 years), but he’s very intentional about his interactions with the community and has prioritized being visible, particularly in conjunction with Boston Public Schools and community-based nonprofits as well as Boston’s athletic teams. All I’m saying, sir, is that maybe B1A4’s relative ignorance of your name is a piece of feedback for you that you could be more visible/involved in the community. Since kpop is a big part of Seoul’s economy, maybe that’s an area to start participating in. (And how great would it be to get idols politically engaged - Rock the Vote, anyone?)

2) The B1A4 management team. Team, whether you acknowledge it or not, you are responsible for the development of your idols, beyond the business side. They are not conscious enough yet to determine the importance of getting to know the city. If you choose not to teach them how to get to know their new community - indeed, if you teach them that this is NOT important - you are, in my view, handicapping them from growing up into well-informed adults who participate responsibly in their community. The nature of the business is that idols get shuttled from one enclosed space to another inside vans that isolate them from their setting. If you don’t intentionally make time for them to understand their city, then embarrassments like this happen. But more importantly, they lack the ability to take part in the life of the city in meaningful ways. That helps no one in the long term.

I’ll be continuing to watch Hello Baby to see what kinds of knowledge the producers privilege in terms of B1A4 getting to know Seoul - perhaps I can do a final analysis once the series is complete. Even if I don’t agree with the show, it’s important that these issues are brought to the forefront and named and discussed so that we can better understand the politics of the entertainment industry.

End notes:

  • Has anyone done an ethnography of the Korean netizenry? Because I feel like they’re an entity all on their own and play such an important role (even though their power is more or less imaginary!). Is there a fan club for netizens? I feel like they should have a fan club because they’re wicked effective, even though they’re also universally critical…
  • The answers to the counter-SAT questions above are both a), for anyone who didn’t know. I didn’t. They’re from an exam called the Uptown Guide to the Life of Youth (UGLY), featured in a chapter by Deborah Sterns in Ayers & Ford, City Kids, City Teachers (1996).
  • Image credits: B1A4’s ignorance; Mayor Menino is everywhere.

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