Theological Reflections on "Gangnam Style"

A Racial, Sexual, and Cultural Critique

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Joseph Cheah, Grace Ji-Sun Kim
Asian Christianity in the Diaspora
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Pivot
    , January
     2016.
     99 pages.
     $67.50.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781349476589.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

When I started reading Joseph Cheah and Grace Ji-Sun Kim’s Theological Reflections on “Gangnam Style,” I expected a close reading of the viral pop song from Korean artist Psy [Park Jae-sang] called “Gangnam Style.” However, perhaps the title is a little misleading; most of the book is neither “theological,” nor a series of “reflections,” nor even about Psy or “Gangnam Style.” It is about Asian and Asian American theology.

Theological Reflections on “Gangnam Style”’s subtitle is probably a better description of Cheah and Kim’s task: an attempt to present the racial, sexual, and cultural critique of the field broadly conceived as “Asian American theology” directed at a world under American neocolonial imperialist hegemony. Cheah and Kim thus try to frame the popular “laughing at” Psy as the fruit of white supremacy and American imperialism, relegating him to a stereotype without seeing his personhood. Situating their work in the academic field of Asian American popular culture, the authors advance a critique of images of Asians in popularly consumed American media that portray them as exotic, passive figures—called “orientals”—in which men are feminized, and women are subjected to unreasonable Western standards of beauty. Instead of laughing at Psy, Cheah and Kim want their readers to laugh with Psy, to understand how he is shaping his cultural context at both the local and global scales. Cheah and Kim call attention, for example, to the immediate neighborhood context of Psy’s song in the nouveaux riches Gangnam district in Seoul, South Korea that is satirized in his song. They also attribute Psy’s global popularity to his location in a global Asian and Asian American community that is marginalized by American imperialism. Drawing on theologian Jung Young Lee’s “theology of marginality,”  Cheah and Kim argue that the marginal circumstances of Asians and Asian Americans produced by the hegemonies of American imperialism are, in fact, the creative juices from which a masterpiece such as “Gangnam Style” can be produced in a way that takes Asians and Asian Americans from margin to center on the global stage. Following Lee, Cheah and Kim’s final words in the book sum up why they think this re-centering is theological: “This means that we must recognize that God is present in the other and therefore embrace and love the stranger who is in our midst” (90).

In other words, this global Asian and Asian American network invested in representational politics is what Cheah and Kim are calling a theological community. For Cheah and Kim, popular culture representation is theological representation, positioning theologians as an integral part of this effort to create a new representational politics. In turn, Cheah and Kim suggest that theologians must also advocate for Asian American representation within the theological academy, criticizing the powers of Eurocentrism and American imperialism within academia as they too are as orientalizing, he popular culture that “laughs at” Psy. For Cheah and Kim, it is in producing a new politics of academic theological representation as part of an Asian American popular culture that Lee’s theology of marginality has the greatest pay-off.

The question, though, is whether Asian American theologians can afford to present the field as the theological fruit of Asian American popular cultural studies. Although Cheah and Kim are right to pinpoint Asian American popular culture as a longstanding tradition within Asian American cultural criticism, constant internal critiques such as Lisa Lowe’s Immigrant Acts (Duke University Press, 1996), Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise (Duke University Press, 2003), and Gary Okihiro’s Third World Studies (Duke University Press, 2016) are launched every few years within Asian American studies whenever the discipline veers toward a single-minded obsession with the politics of representation. Moreover, the implicit centering of the academy as the locus of Asian American theology ignores the wrangling over the historical and contemporary impact of Christian missionaries and academic sociologists in Asian American communities at present, including how it was these white actors who produced discourses about Asian American marginality in the first place. The key texts to read here are Henry Yu’s Thinking Orientals (Oxford University Press, 2002), and the classic Asian American literary anthology Aiiieeeee! (Howard University Press, 1973).

The irony, then, is that moving beyond Asian American representational politics, and into the radical fray of Asian American studies would require Cheah and Kim to do exactly what I had expected from the title: a close reading of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” to expose its ideological contradictions, unfold its attempt at a materialist critique of the Gangnam district, and reflection on how Psy’s global successes might subvert both hegemonic forms of orientalization and accepted conventions within Asian Americans. Here, it is a bit of a shame that Cheah and Kim do not engage with the cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek, who has his own take on “Gangnam Style.” For Žižek, Psy’s genius lies not only in his ability to represent Asians on the global stage, but also in his creation of a song that makes fun of itself for how stupid and satirical it is yet ends up bringing the listener deeper into its world. Framing Žižek’s close reading of the song are theological words: he sees “Gangnam Style” as an example of “divine obscenity” in that it “exploded into something quasi-sacred” such that Psy is even referred to as a “Messiah.” It turns out that Žižek is also making theological reflections on “Gangnam Style,” as he reflects on the quasi-divine power of “Gangnam Style” to circumscribe its listeners’ minds even if they initially deride it. There is no distinction, Žižek claims, between “laughing at” and “laughing with,” for to laugh at Psy is the entry point into an almost involuntary laughing with him. If the task of Asian American studies is to subvert ideologies of orientalization, and the work of Asian American theology is to dismantle the ways that God-talk participates in such processes, then an ideological critique—such as Žižek’s, with its radical disorientation of even the God-talk in and around “Gangnam Style”—would zap the power out of a world that remains complicit in processes of orientalization. But to do this, the Asian American theology that Cheah and Kim describe will have to move past the politics of representation in order for its radically de-orientalizing potential to be unleashed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin K. H. Tse is visiting assistant professor in the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph Cheah, OSM, is associate professor of religious studies and Chair, Religious Studies and Theology, University of Saint Joseph.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion. She is the author of The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

Keywords: 

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