The Sewol Ferry Disaster, New Formations of the Social, and Digital Media (Part 2)

In my prior blog post, I covered two of six themes interwoven with the issue of religion and digital media in terms of the Sewol Ferry Disaster: 1) hyper-connectivity in and through media event/spectacle as the condition of collective traumatic experience of the nation and 2) the structural transformation of South Korean journalistic field. In this blog post, I will discuss the other three themes that are not covered in the prior post: 3) the archiving of social memories through digital media, 4) the rise of civil religion and/or Messianism, 5) the cultural politics of image and the aesthetification of the social, political and ethical. Let me begin with the noticeable change in the perception, experience and imagination of Korean people on the alleged existence of a single, objective, and unchanging social reality.

3. The Archiving of Social Memories Through Digital Media

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YTN news reporting shows the caption of “All the 338 Students Were Rescued.”

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MBC news reporting shows that the number of survivors is 368 and only two are the number of the dead.

Right after mainstream media’s report that all the Danwon high school students were rescued turned out to be false later (only 75 students of them were actually rescued), people were severely shocked. After experiencing such miserable denial of the public reality that they did not doubt, people came to be confused about which one among the information reported by mass media they should accept and believe as the real. Peoples’ perception, feeling, and meaning made on the first day of the disaster came to be absurd, false, and nullified all of a sudden because most of the information of mainstream media, on which their perceptions, experiences, and meaning-makings are predicated, kept turning out false or fabricated. Each one had to go, find, and make their own realities that can be believed as facts about the disaster. At least, in the beginning phase of the disaster, there was no certain public reality that people can collectively stand on, that is, perceive, share, and agree in order to communicate with each other in the public sphere. It was not a mere collapse of the public reality which people can share together, but the foundational collapse of the social trust and belief in the mediated reality by institutionalized mass media.

This scary sense/idea that the truth and facts about the Sewol ferry disaster might be disappeared, aroused the collective desire for spontaneously seeking and collecting all sorts of the facts related to the disaster, from the cause of the sink to what the government and Coast Guard actually did in the course of the disaster, and even to the media fabrication by mass media. People longed for certain authentic realities that are not mediated by institutionalized mass media at all and this (un)conscious collective longings for the unmediated realities would not be irrelevant to the huge popularity of some alternative digital media and citizen journalists reported the disaster scene for themselves.

It is noteworthy that such strong collective desire for immediate, authentic realities, that the State seemed to be hiding, was able to materialize into undeniable social forces mostly by digital media technology and digital media practices of capturing, saving, uploading, searching, sharing, and so on. Surprisingly, It turned out that some people recorded and captured almost all the news reporting of the first day online and that they made the capturing of the news reporting on the accident even before the accident occurrence time that the government officially announced. And this gap between the official accident occurrence time and the initially reported time of media ignited distrust of the government.

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The caption reads “We Will Not Forget (잊지 않겠습니다). We Will Act(행동하겠습니다).”

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The caption reads “We Will Not Forget (잊지 않겠습니다).”

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The pickets read “Ascertainment of the Truth(진상규명)” and “I’m So Sorry. We Will Not Forget.(미안합니다. 잊지 않겠습니다).” The statement of “We will not forget” became one of the popular catchphrases of the social movements for supporting the victims’ families.

People collected and stored not only the facts about the disaster but their own individual or social memories on the disaster. Noteworthily, the most popular catchphrase of social movements supporting the victims’ families was “We Will Not Forget.” People began to make photos, paintings, poems, essays, and a variety of cultural works to remember and commemorate the victims and even to criticize the government. The Civilian Network Remembering the Sewol Ferry came to be established just for the purpose of restoring and archiving all the records and memories people have and make in terms of the disaster. And the digital archiving site of this civilian network designed for anyone to upload anytime all the images, photos, voice records, and documentaries related to the disaster they have. Interestingly, the disaster crucially offered a chance that the social imaginary on the digital media practice of uploading in South Korea can be transformed. The uploading into the archiving site is not just a mere entertainment-oriented individual activity but a crucially social, political, historical, and ethical act through which the uploader contributes to the collective construction of social memories about the Sewol Ferry disaster.

4. The Rise of Civil Religion and/or Messianism

It is Jin-Kyu Park, Professor of Media and Communications at Seoul Women’s University, who pointed out the emerging symptoms of civil religion in the later phase of the Sewol Ferry disaster. In a column titled “The Symptom of Civil Religion in Great Sorrow” of Christian World View web magazine, Park captured two social phenomena revealing the emergence of civil religion:

One is the so-called “Son Seok-Hee phenomenon.” As already stated in my prior post, the emotional moments and comments of Seok-Hee Son, the main anchor of JTBC News 9, became a huge sensation. Park reasonably points out that such national popularity and credibility given to Son, Seok-Hee reveals the emerging social expectation of people in this secular and media-saturated age on the media and/or media celebrity to perform public rituals for the victims, console the victims’ families and the nation, and offer more of less plausible meanings on the disaster.

The other phenomenon on which he focuses is the “Yellow Ribbon Campaign” that became a huge social trend of commemorating and supporting the victims and their families in the ongoing social conflict related to the disaster. Park notes the fact that the collective ritual of hanging yellow ribbon or changing one’s profile image into the yellow ribbon image originated from a sort of spiritual and/or religious motivation for wishing the surviving of innocent young students, but not following or being limited to any single religious form or content at all (I will discuss more this campaign later in relation to the cultural politics of image and the aesthetification of the social). In the two phenomena of the Sewol ferry disaster, he detects the symptom of civil religion where contemporary secular society performs and expresses its religiosity in new modes keeping the intentional distance from institutionalized religion.

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It reads”One Small Movement into a Big Miracle”

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The Gwanghwamoon Squre in front of the City Hall of Seoul. Yellow ribbon became the symbol for commemorating the disaster’s victims.

Except for the two case, there is another one that should be noted, that is the visit of Pope Francis to South Korea which was made two months later after Prof. Park wrote the article. Within the five days of Pope’s visit from 14th to 18th August, the news about Pope dominated the media sphere of South Korea and every act of Pope came to be lively reporting. It became a public interest of Korean society whether Pope would meet the victims’ families of the Sewol ferry disaster who were struggling against the government in Gwanghwamoon Square. It turned out Pope met the victims’ families three times in this short term of visit and every meeting between them became a huge sensation and got a great deal of media coverage.

Particularly, the meeting between Pope and Young-Oh Kim, who had fasted for 34 days for establishing the Sewol Ferry Special Law, was one of the most sensational media events about Pope because it made a seemingly spectacular moment in which religious and political meanings were loaded. It seemed religiously glorious and merciful since most people imagined or wanted to believe certain divine consolation from and through Pope even though they do not believe in God nor they are Catholic. Furthermore, it appeared political because, by publicly displaying the meeting with Young-Oh Kim, a father of one victim and the representative figure of the protest against the government, Pope clearly showed on which side he was standing between the victims and the government.

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People enthusiastically embraced and welcomed such Pope’s public gesture on the victims even though many of them are not Catholic nor did believe in God. There might be an identical desire of Korean people for messianic (and thus salvational) moment (or figure) underlying between the huge popularity of the news performance of Son Seok-Hee in JTBC News 9 and that of the media event of Pope’s meeting with Young-Oh Kim. In the traumatic experience of the Sewol ferry disaster where the nation-state, the government, and President Park, Geun-Hye materially and symbolically revealed their crucial inability and impossibility to be salvation, people appear to seek and believe in a messianic figure through whom their wounded hearts could be healed and their torn social imaginaries on (and seemingly religious belief in) the State could be sutured and replaced.

5. The Cultural Politics of Image and the Aesthetification of the Social, the Political, and the Ethical

As, confronting the national tragedy, Korean society performed and expressed its religiosity and spirituality in such a way of Yellow Ribbon Campaign that distant from any single institutionalized religion, the modes of performing and expressing the acts of lamenting, consoling, and commemorating, appeared to be, to a great extent, influenced by some logics of contemporary media and brand culture. Furthermore, since the happening of the disaster and a variety of collective response to it are intricately interwoven with political, economic, social, and ethical issues already latent in Korean society, the initial expressions and performances of people on the disaster, that seemed more or less religious and/or spiritual, came to ripen into those which are not only religious/spiritual but also ethical, social, and political. Of course, most of the expressions and performances of the social, the political, and the ethical related to the disaster, came to be under the logics of contemporary media and brand cultures, for instance, such as the constant making of their presence in public setting, the cultural politics of the uses and meanings of the image symbolizing them, and the aesthetification and brandization of them(the social, the political, and the ethical).

First of all, it became very crucial and trendy to make and display in the public setting an eye-catching visual image that not only effectively but aesthetically symbolizes the messages on the disaster and/or the identities of social movement groups generated by it. Especially, the yellow ribbon became the most prominent symbol in the phase of the disaster. It was made first in digital space by a university club, incredibly circulated and disseminated from online to offline. People commemorating the victims did not merely duplicate the original image of the yellow ribbon but appropriated and hybridized it with other images indicating their own identities. Some religious expressions of the yellow ribbon image began to emerge. But they did not gain popularity with the masses because the religious expressions were too obvious.

"Kyrie Eleison" means "Lord, have mercy."

“Kyrie Eleison” means “Lord, have mercy.” This image made by a pastor called Rev. Jeong. He made it by using paint app for smartphone.

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The image of Yellow Lotus made by a Buddhist monk. The caption reads that “One Small movement into a Big Miracle.”

Second, as hanging of yellow ribbon image on the left side of the chest and/or in SNS profile image became a hugely popular culture, the meaning and usage of the yellow ribbon image came to be a crucial space for cultural and political struggles about the disaster. Since the yellow ribbon image came to symbolize not only the commemorating and remembering of the victims but also standing against the Korean government and President Park, a variety of reactionary responses emerged. Some extreme conservative groups began to argue that yellow ribbon should be replaced by black ribbon because not only the traditional symbol of lament is black one but also the color of yellow has been used by anti-Americans and the supporters of the former President Roh, Moo-Hyun who was a symbolic figure of progressive camp but committed suicide after his and his families’ getting investigation of the prosecutor in allegations of financial malfeasance. The extreme conservatives believed that the popular using of the yellow ribbon is relevant to the political machinations of the so-called “Jonk-Buk(종북)”, which literally means the subordinating ones to(Jong; 종) the North Korea(Buk; 북), but is ideologically used for stigmatizing anyone standing against the current government and ruling party by the extreme conservatives. They initiated the so-called “Black Ribbon Campaign”using the same ribbon figure but changing the color of yellow into that of black.

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The caption reads that “We are sorry as well because we could not get rid of Jong-Buk (종북). We pray for the repose of the Sewol ferry victims.”

Some progressives responded to this campaign by arguing that the original meaning of hanging yellow ribbon came from American custom in the Second World War in which people tied a yellow ribbon to trees waiting for their families and friends in the battlefield. Contrary to them, some of the extreme conservatives try to make this yellow ribbon be the authentic symbol of liberal conservatism. They argued that it originated from the yellow belt used by the soldiers of Cromwell who was a conservative liberalist and defeated the leftist at that time, and thus, that yellow ribbon has nothing to do with Roh, Moo Hyun but is the real symbol of conservatism.

Third, in ongoing social phenomena derived from the disaster, people appeared to actively embrace branding and aesthetification practices in order to make their messages on the disaster get as much public interest as they can. The front website page and logo of the Civilian Network Remembering the Sewol Ferry is illustrative. Although most social movements for the Sewol ferry disaster have almost the same format of the main page showing in the center of computer screen a big photograph that visually symbolizes and brands the social movement, what distinguishes this network from the other groups is the seemingly traditional Korean calligraphy appeared in its logo and visual image of the front page. The sense of Koreanness that such calligraphy is delivering has been a crucial selling point for a variety of calligraphy advertisement trying to highlight authenticity and antiqueness, but in a luxurious and modern way.

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The front page of the website of the Civilian Network Remembering the Sewol Ferry.

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Advertisements using calligraphy

In the phase of the disaster, to make and use creative art has been an ambivalent practice of not only commemorating the disaster but also branding individual artists/social movement groups. For instance, Zero to Zero project conducted a collaboration work of various artists to produce and sell T-shirts commemorating the disaster and victims. It is no doubt that they aimed at and encouraged a sort of consumer activism for the disaster (They are currently planning for other artistic projects for remembering them including wall painting and exhibition). However, to use art for disaster has been an inevitable strategy of expressing and delivering the traumatic realities of the disaster and victims in an indirect way, as well. For instance, on the purpose of remembering the student victims, the newspaper of Hangyeore decided to carry the face drawing of each student victim, instead of their real facial picture, with the letter written by the student victim’s parents.

 The profile image of "Remember Sewol Disaster" Facebook Group. The seemingly visual image of yellow ribbon comprised of a variety of pictures of picket demonstrators.


The profile image of “Remember Sewol Disaster” Facebook Group. The yellow ribbon comprised of a variety of pictures of picket demonstrators supporting the victims.

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The face drawing of Kim, Do-Un, one of the student victims carried in Hangyeore.

Meanwhile, when the fasting of Young-Oh Kim for over 30 days came to gain a great deal of media coverage, a few Facebook groups supporting the victims began to encourage civilians to participate into the relay one-day fasting with the meaning of supporting the trial of Young-Oh Kim to impel the government to enact the Sewol Special Law. But it was pointless if people fast without anyone knowing. In order to gain and show peoples’ support on Young-Oh Kim to the masses, it needed to be visualized, visually performed, and displayed in the public sphere of digital spaces that one social media user fasted one day for supporting him regardless of whether he or she really did.

For this, Fast4Sewol, the Facebook group made for this relay fast, encouraged social media users to upload their own selfies holding a yellow board that each one’s supporting message on enacting the Sewol Special Law was written. In the phase of the disaster, it was the selfie of the film industry people with supporting message in a yellow picket that first gained a huge public interest on such self-disclosure of the fast for the disaster. Then, it came to be a popular cultural trend for supporters of the victims. Self-disclosure in social networking sites, which has been a central branding strategy of media celebrities or identity movements such as Postfeminism, came to be embraced as an essential media practice for Korean social media users to mobilize more participation of their SNS friends and the masses into the supporting of the victims. Among many supporters of the victims, such self-disclosure came to be understood as a brave, public revelation of one’s authentic self standing against the oppressing government/the State while supporting the weak victims, thus even considered as a sort of moral and ethical achievement in which the boundary between one’s outer appearance and inner sentiment is collapsed.

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The selfies of the film industry people holding yellow pickets filled with supporting messages on the enactment of the Sewol Special Law.

For the people engaging with the masses for the disaster, it was not just enough to have right purposes and arguments in terms of the disaster. Their purposes of movement and messages about the disaster had to be delivered in aesthetically beautiful forms by which people can really be fascinated (the aesthetification of social movements) and/or with creative but easy (media) rituals that people can not only follow but re-appropriate in accordance with their own styles and identities (the branding practice of self-disclosure in social movements). It was not enough for their identities to be unique in the contents of them. In order to gain public interest, their identities had to be differentiated, particularly in the forms that the identities are mediated to the masses. In this regard, my observation shows that the expression and performance of the social, religious, political, and even ethical in this disaster come to be materialized substantially following the underlying logics of the contemporary culture of mediation and aesthetics that are heavily interwoven with capitalist brand culture.

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