Protest Repertoires As Expressive Cultures: Reconceptualizing the Struggles of Informally-Employed Workers in South Korea

Friday, July 18, 2014: 6:00 PM
Room: 315
Oral Presentation
Jennifer Jihye CHUN , University of Toronto, Canada
Ju Hui Judy HAN , University of Toronto, ON, Canada
Dramatic acts of resistance and solidarity are a mainstay in South Korea’s public landscape, especially among the many precariously- and informally-employed workers in the country. Whether opposing the labour repression of authoritarian industrialization between the 1960s and 1980s or the market-driven policies of neoliberal democratic regimes during the 1990s and 2000s, workers and their advocates have relied on an array of protest acts to challenge the legitimacy of ruling authorities — from workplace strikes and occupations to hunger strikes and worker suicides. While many labour and social movement scholars have examined the instrumental, organizational and structural factors that promote strategic forms of worker collective action, much less attention has been paid to the expressive, embodied and aesthetic dimensions of workers’ protests. This paper focuses on the characteristics of a new pattern of popular contention in Korean workers’ already radical repertoire of collective action: the prolonged embodiment of emotional, physical, and financial hardship. In particular, we analyze forms of protest with strong expressive elements: religious and spiritual rituals such as head shaving ceremonies, fasting, and the Buddhist atonement ritual samboilbae (translated as three steps and a bow) as well as long-term occupations of symbolic sites such as construction cranes, church bell towers and building rooftops. By analyzing the affective and cultural life of protests, we seek to better understand why workers and their advocates choose to express their collective opposition through corporeal resistance and bodily sacrifice, and explore what such protest performances reveal about the expectations and aspirations of dissenting political subjects.