Suyu finds a niche where academic trappings are goneIn the book “Freedom of No One’s Plans,” Ko Mi-sook describes Suyu Neomo (Beyond Suyu), the group she founded seven years ago, a “research space” that gropes for ways to envision happiness without trying to nourish the lifestyle of an urban middle class in Korea.
Suyu’s education concept is based on some of the key notions by 20th-century revolutionaries. Several catch-phrases are often used to describe the group ― nomadism, commune and becoming ― that attempt to convey the philosophy of a group that is pushing its members to break out from the boundaries of their knowledge and produce a dynamic cross-cultural discourse.
Pretty heavy stuff? Indeed. In some study groups, the members are exploring the theories of Nietzsche and Foucault, veering from classics to contemporary studies, and trying to harness ideas that are as open-ended as the group’s name. Suyu was the neighborhood where the group first set up its offices in 1997, and the group is indeed trying to move well beyond that neighborhood.
“We could almost make a book out of these theories,” says Ko Byeong-gwon, a chemist turned Nietzsche expert. Mr. Ko just ended a six-week lecture series on “Concepts of Modernity,” a course that looks at the origins and significance of some of the major ideologies of the modern era and their influence on issues of class, race, nation and capitalism.
“But that’s not really necessary,” he says of the idea of a book.
What is necessary, he continues, is what they already do, and that is a lot for a group that relies solely on membership fees to maintain their three-story building in Wonnam-dong, the seasonal lectures and the food they provide to hungry students and staff at 1,800 won ($1.65) per meal.
They hold seminars and lectures, publish books, write newspaper columns, host art shows and hold yoga classes. Members of the group generally spend several hours a day in their building, cooking and eating together, playing table tennis, watching movies or hanging out in their lounge, reading books, scribbling notes and listening to music.
For members of Suyu, their community is the ultimate testing ground of their theory that life can be happy without middle-class urban trappings. There are rules and divisions of labor to back that concept up. Each seminar at Suyu is arranged for the purpose of helping the lecturer articulate his subject before he writes a thesis or a book. To keep that guideline and to relieve the instructors of the chore of attracting seminar participants, there is a modest 10,000-won monthly fee for students; that allows them to choose from as many as they want of the 20 seminars usually in progress. Flexibility seems to be an issue at Suyu as well.
Similar to the way in which Suyu tries to use theories to enrich individual lives, their kitchens are for eating and cooking, but also for seminars and table-tennis games. The space at the center is communal; in the third-floor study rooms, users must empty their carrels and pack off their personal belongings before leaving for the day. That allows other students access to the space, of course, but it also forces Suyu’s members, the group says, to practice “nomadic thinking” in their private spaces, adjusting to the idea of a system of moving on and not settling in. The only exceptions to that rule are the desks behind the bookshelf on that floor, which are for the exclusive use of people who have a thesis or other writing project to finish. The consensus, though, in using this space is that you can only leave that area when you finish the project you’re working on. Members tend to camp out in that area with trepidation, fearing a logical or writer’s block that would doom them to staying there forever.
“We go with the sense of innate wisdom,” Mr. Ko says. “A lot of it is based on instinct. We trust the decisions of the veterans. Our basic rule is that whoever has done the most work on the subject knows the most about it. There is no majority rule or democracy. That may get us into the question of transparency, but we think that’s the right way to go about it.”
The main difference between Suyu’s team of experts and faculties at a traditional university is that the system assigns instructors based solely on their ability to manage the subject. Instructors for seminars at Suyu range from students preparing for a doctoral thesis to established intellectuals, but there is no general rule to become a member instructor at Suyu. That is a bigger difference in Korea than in many other countries, perhaps, because Korea’s Confucian heritage still sometimes treats age, sex and academic background as more important than insight into a subject. In a culture where hierarchy and bureaucracy are considered institutional traditions, Suyu’s ideas are perhaps radical and subversive. It mixes play and study ― one slogan of the group is “A friend is both a teacher and a friend.” Such philosophy has triggered serious debates among some scholars about the meaning of the human learning experience.
Indeed Suyu now represents one of the country’s most influential institutions for contemporary humanities studies. Its works have been given admiring reviews by hard-grained experts as serious challenges to mainstream academic theories held by most university professors in Korea, many of whom rely heavily on Western texts. One of the series of philosophy lectures at Suyu was published in a two-volume text from recordings of the series.
“Their biggest strength is freedom from the usual constraints of the authoritarian institutions of higher learning,” says Vladmir Tikhonov, a Russian-Korean history scholar. “They are not obliged to follow the accepted theories and don’t have to fear that their careers would be ruined if they disobey established authority.”
Mr. Tikhonov continued, “My understanding is that one of the main reasons there was very little critical reflection on the limitations of nationalistic interpretations of Korean history and culture before Suyu came into being was because when nationalism is embedded institutionally and you don’t follow it (or at least, don’t pretend you do), you have no job prospects. Suyu broke this mold. This kind of more equal relationship between the producers and consumers of knowledge is exactly what we need for the sake of social progress.”
But Mr. Ko, one of the four leaders of the group, was reluctant to elaborate on its differences from other organized institutions like universities.
“What’s important is that we are doing what we want to do,” he says. “What’s the point of talking about what we don’t do? If there are differences it will naturally show.”
On a recent Thursday evening, a group of students and instructors were gathered in one of the center’s kitchens for dinner before a seminar. A buffet of typical Korean food was spread, but a slice of white bread was added to the end of the meal to capture the remaining juices and sauces on the plate.
Food has always been an integral part of Suyu, one of the key elements that helped the group to establish its reputation as a community that sublimates “mundane life into a festival.” One student is always responsible for bringing snacks to every class, and everyone who joins the group has to take part in kitchen work, whether it’s cooking, chopping or cleaning up.
“We stress creating an extravagant condition without status,” Mr. Ko says. “That leads us to better thinking.”
by Park Soo-mee