- Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion
Laurel Kendall’s latest book on Korean shamanism is an ethnographic tour-deforce that provides significant and nuanced theoretical insight into the ever-changing realm of shamanic practice in South Korea. Kendall has the remarkable vantage point of having spent nearly four decades living with, talking to, and learning from a large number of Korean shamans in the southern part of the peninsula. During this period, South Korea has undergone profound changes not only in the economic and political realms, but also in the social and religious realms. In seven engaging chapters, Kendall deftly weaves a complex narrative that explores aspects of this change and the flexible responses of the shamans and their clients to this shifting cultural terrain.
Kendall acknowledges early on the tension between the way things once were and the way things now are, and explores the seductive nature of cultural nostalgia while also delineating its theoretical pitfalls. The shamans she profiles recognize the productive and meaningful shifts in their practice engendered by the changes in the social, political and economic landscapes of Korea. From a folklorist’s perspective, Kendall has put her fingers on the very pulse of the folkloric process in which meaningful cultural expression emerges from the dialectic tension between the individual and tradition. Here, the “tradition” of Korean shamanism is constantly reformulated by the shamans and their clients as they continue to engage the practice of shamanism as a meaning-making aspect of their spiritual lives.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Kendall’s book is the flash of recognition one experiences from having read her previous books and articles and having seen her documentary film on Korean shamans. Yet the book is much more than a simple “update” or “where are they now” account of these earlier ethnographic subjects. In several of the chapters, Kendall reexamines her earlier ethnographic accounts in the context of the changing contours of daily life in contemporary Korea, and recasts her earlier interpretations in light of the additional perspectives gleaned from later, additional fieldwork. In this manner, her theoretical engagement with the shamans recapitulates the same type of dynamic processes and accommodations to the shifting cultural terrain [End Page 209] that animates the shamans’ practice. In other chapters, Kendall introduces new, compelling figures, and brings them into this broadening understanding of Korean shamanism.
After an excellent introduction, Kendall opens with a historical overview of the changing perceptions of “shamanism” in Korea, both in the academy and in the general population. She explores the political dimension of shamanism—a dimension that has been part of the study of shamanism since the earliest academic considerations of the phenomenon—and how shamanism in Korea has been deployed as a trope of national identity, often by competing groups. She also explores aspects of “nostalgia,” and lays the foundation for the theoretical discussion of the cultural nostalgia that informs a great deal of scholarship and popular engagement with shamanism; this consideration of different types of nostalgia emerges as a leitmotif in later chapters.
The chapter, “Memory Horizons,” brings us back to a memorable kut (shaman ritual) described in Kendall’s now classic book, Shamans, Housewives and Other Restless Spirits (1985), and pairs it with a kut from 1992. This pairing is a productive one, and allows Kendall not only to explore aspects of performance but also to highlight some of the fundamental changes in performance context wrought by the rapid changes in Korean culture, not least of which is the break-neck urbanization that characterized Korea during those two intervening decades. As she writes, “The village house that I saw as both setting and symbol for the kut’s social universe survived only as a palimpsest” (62–63). The palimpsestic reading of what once was—here the changes in the man-made environment that erase the sociostructural elements of village life and by extension kinship ties—opens up a wide range of dense, overlapping theoretical issues. Kendall is not so much concerned...