Chan Yong Bu

Postdoctoral Fellow in East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University
Faculty Adviser: Steven Chung

Seeing Like Steelworkers: The Media Ecology of Metal During the Cold War and Its Afterlife in Korea


This dissertation explores the steel manufacturing industry’s place in the media culture of South Korea from the 1960s to the present, by covering a series of pioneering yet little-known media experiments led by Pohang Iron and Steel Company (now POSCO), South Korea’s oldest and largest integrated steel producer. While remaining attentive to the ways that steel-industry corporate media was mobilized within the rubric of Cold War geopolitics, I call attention to a central node for mapping an alternative media network that it belongs to: industry. I use the notion to reflect on specific technologies used by workers of any field, and their resultant bodily experiences, which formulate the aesthetics of corporate media produced within that industry. Therefore, I start from the question of what the steel industry is to begin with, in order to understand its industrial media aesthetics. To demonstrate how the blooming of the steel industry marks a watershed moment in the media culture of South Korea, I focus on Pohang Iron and Steel Company’s construction of integrated steel mills completed in 1973, where all the steps of steel manufacturing, from smelting iron ore to producing steel plates, were carried out in linearly connected facilities for the first time in South Korean metal-processing history. On the government promotion level, the integrated steel mill was narrativized as the unenlightened subject’s transformation into a “steel-willed” earnest citizen, willingly sacrificing for the nation. However, steelworkers’ training manuals, diagrams, and essays were emphasizing how the very linear structure of the integrated steel mill opened up encounters with the extreme temperamentality of metal that they had never experienced in non-integrated steel mills. I see this ambiguous linearity as key evidence for reading the steel industry as a site where the intersection of the human and the nonhuman is foregrounded, belying the formulation of steel manufacturing as the epitome of a regime leader’s successful leadership. Accordingly, I probe how the steelworker’s sensorial experience at the Pohang Iron and Steel Company’s integrated steel mill has formulated its corporate media aesthetics until today, transcending the presumed boundaries of industrialist and post-industrialist society as well as the periodization of the Cold War and post-Cold War.