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  • Korean Shamans in the Present Tense: Introduction
  • Laurel Kendall, Curator of Asian Collection

I agreed to comment on the three contributions to this symposium in a desire to see how the study of shamans in contemporary Korea is developing. I was curious about how and in what ways it continues to attract the attention of young scholars like Dong-kyu Kim and Jun Hwan Park, as well as offering new questions to veterans of Korean shaman studies like Jongsung Yang. As these contributions abundantly demonstrate, and as many of us have argued for a long time, there is no such thing as a fixed "Korean shamanism", but rather a body of religious practices that survive precisely because they are fluid, responsive to other changes in Korean society. Like quicksilver contemporary South Korea, and the shamans who share in its dynamism, scholarship too is a moving target, with new projects and new approaches continuously added to the conversation. At the same time, all of these works build upon some viable scholarship that has gone before.

The idea of transformation, adaptation, and creative adjustment is most explicit in Dong-kyu Kim's contribution on the "Reconfiguration of Korean Shamanic Ritual." Kim takes as his bête noir recent works under the banner of "Restoristic (sic.) Folklore Scholarship" (Pogwŏnjuŭi Minsokhak), works that seek the "original," the "true," the "authentic." This agenda has been present in Korean folklore studies for nearly a century and as Kim and others of us have noted, it is sometimes appropriated by shamans themselves to advance their own legitimacy and to criticize rivals. Following the work of Chungmoo Choi, Kwangok Kim, Seong-nae Kim and myself, Kim is most immediately concerned with shamanic practices as they unfold in the moment of his fieldwork, and most particularly with ritual as a lived and fluid practice. He engages with the slippery matter of how change happens, deploying Catherine Bell's notion of practice theory in ritual, ritual as something constructed by "actors involved in so-called ritual settings," and Ian Hacking's model of the "looping effect," [End Page 5] processes of recognition and classification that create matrices of people, social practices, and institutions. To reduce Kim's complex argument to its simplest terms, constructions and changes in shamanic practice happen when the participants find that new ways of doing things are resonant with their needs and expectations and thereby reinforce the shaman's innovations. The successful shaman is attuned to his or her clients' needs and tastes. Kim provides three examples drawn from his observations of contemporary practice: shamans who have incorporated ritual business derived from other regional traditions into their own kut; shamans who divine in a concise and straightforward manner, emphasizing human social relationships and making only minimal reference to the agency of spirits; and shamans who recognize that contemporary clients are more inclined to see themselves as a passive audience than as actively engaging the gods and ancestors who appear at a kut. Less explicitly, Kim's descriptions and his recorded commentary of shamans and clients suggest not only fluidity but considerable variety within the world of South Korean shaman practice. This is most evident in his discussion of shamans who either adapt ritual business from other regional traditions or hire outsider shamans to perform them, arrangements that provoke contestation among shamans about the appropriateness of these arrangements.

Of the three contributions, Jun Hwan Park's discussion of the greedy Taegam (Official) who acts as a projective template for contemporary monetary desires and anxieties bears the closest resemblance to my own work, and I am (perhaps inevitably) inclined to be more critical of it. Park describes the appearance of the Taegam, a greedy and demanding god, as manifest in the kut performed by shamans from (or trained in the traditions of) Hwanghae Province. With a nod in the direction of Dong-kyu Kim's concerns, it is worth noting that twenty years ago, robust and comic manifestations of the Taegam, like those Park describes, were considered a distinctive feature of kut from the Seoul region, while less remarkable Taegam appeared in Hwanghae kut. The potent Taegam who appear in Hwanghae kut today seem to evidence...