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Environmental Studies

The Exquisite Corpse and Korea’s DMZ: 10/5

Date: 5:00pm PDT October 5, 2009 Location: Miller 105

Miller 105

The Exquisite Corpse and Korea’s DMZ

Monday, October 5

5:00 PM

Miller 105 

In 1925, Surrealists invented a parlor game they called “the exquisite corpse.” Each player added an element to a drawing without being able to see what others had drawn. The result was a concoction of random additions. With luck, the result could be startlingly beautiful.  The beauty and biological diversity of Korea’s DMZ are the result of the same sort of contingency that created the Surrealists’ “exquisite corpse.” The question is whether the DMZ, through the conjunction of non-human and human players, will continue to be an exquisite corpse, a dead zone that is in fact alive with beauty, or whether it will become well and truly dead. The same question, I argue, also applies to the discipline of history as it confronts the challenge posed by incorporating environmental factors into our narratives of the past.

In other words, the biodiversity flourishing in Korea’s Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) will be preserved, if it is preserved, by a fortuitous convergence of forces.  My talk will explore the unlikely conjunction of people–including a Korean-Japanese scientist, crane enthusiasts, Swiss Peace keepers, and business mogul Ted Turner–who seek to protect unusual species–like the goat-antelope, the bean goose, the Korean magpie viper–in a scarred landscape created by a series of political mistakes and the stroke of a pen across a line of latitude. On all levels, oddities abound.  My interest lies not only in the ecological, political, and environmental forces at work on this thin strip of land, but also in what the random and contingent nature of the history here tells us about history itself. My paper moves from the fauna and flora of the DMZ to the people who are working to protect this “treasure house of ecosystems,” to, finally, a consideration of how studying the environment and environmental protection changes the historian’s craft. The salvation of endangered species is sometimes the result of the concerted actions of one or two agents, but in many cases–indeed, it seems most–it is merely accidental. This accidental quality in the case of the DMZ is what leads me to consider the nature of history itself and our ideas about agency, narrative, and meaning.

Julia Thomas, Associate professor of History at Notre Dame, won the American Historical Association’s prestigious John K. Fairbank prize in 2003 for her book Reconfiguring Modernity: Concepts of Nature in Japanese Political Ideology.

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