Language as Infrastructure in Myung Mi Kim’s ‘Penury’ (Conference Paper)

Posted May 18, 2023:

Today at 4 pm at the at the Postcolonial Infrastructures Conference I will be presenting the paper “‘Through sameness of language is produced/ sameness of sentiment and thought’: Language as Infrastructure in Myung Mi Kim’s Penury.”

I have long loved Penury and am excited to present some exploratory work in considering how the text presents language as complex infrastructure of both bridge and border, distinctions that have real world effects.

The Postcolonial Infrastructures Conference is hosted by the Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (Gesellschaft für Anglophone Postkoloniale Studien, GAPS) at the University of Konstanz from May 18 to 20. I have linked the Final Program and included my presentation proposal below. 

Click to access GAPS_Final_Program.pdf

“Through sameness of language is produced/ sameness of sentiment and thought”: Language as Infrastructure in Myung Mi Kim’s Penury   (Paper proposal)

Avant-garde Korean American poet Myung Mi Kim’s poetry text Penury (2009) explores topics of immigration, colonization, and dislocation. There is an attention throughout to borders and interior, the construction of who is citizen and foreigner, and what these distinctions mean for the possibilities of agency, choice, and desire. In addition to the material infrastructures one might expect, such as “infirmary/ barracks/ internment camp” (17), there is a sharp attention paid throughout to language as an infrastructure of connections and borders. Translation and the difficulties of making “sense” of a foreign language play a part, but the analysis in Penury goes further to consider how language itself functions as both a “bridge” and to “imprison” (91, italics orig.). In my presentation I draw on Jacques Derrida’s discussion of the shibboleth as a linguistic “difference” that “becomes discriminative, decisive, and divisive” (in “Shibboleth: For Paul Celan”), as well as Huub Dijstelbloem’s Borders as Infrastructure: The Technopolitics of Border Control, to analyze poems from Penury as a means of exploring how Kim presents language as infrastructure. This infrastructural role of language is explicitly connected to the experiences of immigrants and citizens, for instance in “the makeshift shelter’s direct proportion of drinking water to raw sewage” juxtaposed with “just a normal customer with no heavy accent at all”, a distinction that depends on “as by/ one’s ears” understanding the distinctions between “staum  |  stam” and “asperline  | tharp” (6), ambiguous phrases that challenge the reader’s ability to settle meaning, thus signaling both interiority and exteriority in relation to the English language, itself the language of power for British and American colonial empires, in turn revealing how language can function as both infrastructural connector and border.