This presentation draws from a longer project about a contemporary migration of middle-class millennials from Seoul, the political, cultural and economic center of South Korea, to Jeju Island, a semi-rural farming, fishing and tourism island south of the Korean peninsula. This migration constitutes what Paolo Virno has called exodus, the process of exiting from a society by creating alternatives that refuse the rules and limitations of political and social systems. I show in this presentation that exodus to Jeju did not come about because of an organized decision to act against the state. Instead, my ethnographic findings show that it was the creation of materialized alternatives in place in Jeju that precipitated a politically engaged refusal of normative South Korean middle-class life, and by extension economic and social structures formed by state and capital. In particular, I argue that a radical break from mainstream middle-class society was, in part, created in the houses that migrants often rented or bought in Jeju upon their relocation. As migrants discovered, renovated, redesigned and resignified houses on Jeju Island, they built alternative and often subversive modes of sociality and understandings of the self. Furthermore, as some migrants turned their redesigned and repurposed homes into businesses – like guesthouses and other spaces of hospitality – they began to create the spatial and materialized foundation that pulled other like-minded millennials into migration. In this way, a localized subversion of the status quo – an engaged exodus – began to arise on Jeju Island. This paper draws from fourteen months of ethnographic research on Jeju Island.
Agnes Sohn Jordan is a Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Korean Studies at Indiana University.