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30 years in and out of the Korean Shaman World

Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF (Book Cover)

I have just published a book that witnesses changes in the Korean shaman world I first encountered as a novice fieldworker in the mid 1970s. In the intervening decades South Korea experienced an unprecedented economic, social, political, and material transformation and Korean villages all but disappeared. Even so, the shamans are alive and well. Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF (Unviersity of Hawaii Press, 2009) describes how shamans and their clients have absorbed changes in South Korean life over the last thirty-odd years and how they continue to make sense of the ground that moves beneath their feet. They are active in a place where common sense would not place them at all, not in villages although some remain there, but in the high-rise cities of a relatively affluent and technologically sophisticated South Korea, working with clients who are arguably middle class. Emphasizing the open and mutable parts of shamanic practice, I describe both how gods and ancestors give voice to the changing concerns of clients and how the ritual fame of these transactions has itself been transformed by such developments as urban sprawl, private cars, and zealous Christian proselytizing.

For most of the last century Korean shamans were reviled as practitioners of anti-modern superstition; today they are nostalgically celebrated icons of a vanished rural world but heritage recognition is a double-edged sword that privileges the past over the present, causing even shaman advocates to regard what contemporary shamans do as "diluted" or "inauthentic" rather than "adaptive" and "timely." By contrast, I describe a dynamic realm of popular religious practice where shamans who once ministered to the domestic crises of farmers now address the anxieties of entrepreneurs whose dreams of wealth are matched by omnipresent fears of ruin. New wealth and access to foreign goods provokes moral dilemmas about getting and spending, expressed in shaman rituals through the longings of the dead and the playful antics of greedy gods, some of whom have acquired a taste for imported whisky. I make comparisons between a 1970s "then" and a series of more recent encounters - some with the same shamans and clients - as South Korea moved through the 1990s, endured the Asian Financial Crisis, and entered the new millennium. Old and young shamans speak for themselves in a complex portrait that suggests different and contested ways of doing shamanship in South Korea today.

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