Shamans, Nostalgias and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion

By Song, Jesook | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Shamans, Nostalgias and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion


Song, Jesook, Anthropological Quarterly


Laurel Kendall, Shamans, Nostalgias and the IMF: South Korean Popular Religion in Motion. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009. 251 pp.

Shamans, Nostalgias and the IMF demonstrates Laurel Kendall's rigorous and masterful observation that the aboriginal belief system and its practices can serve as a lens through which we can see modernity and social life as they continually unfold in South Korea. It is a paragon of work written by a mature ethnographer having built a long-term engagement in the field, in this case in exploration of issues relating to Korean religion and modernity. This book's contribution to both subjects clearly builds upon Kendall's research and publication record from the last three decades. To name a few, these publications include Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits (1985), The Life and Hard Times of a Korean Shaman (1988), Getting Married in Korea: Of Gender, Morality, and Modernity (1996), and Under Construction: The Gendering of Modernity, Class and Consumption in the Republic of Korea (2002). Along with these previous publications on religion specializing in shamanic rituals and modernity with a focus on women's worlds and gendered practices, this book continues to articulate the understanding of Korean shamanism as consisting of on-going practices of the present time-not as an icon of a feudal past. This understanding comes from her unfailing challenge to the assumption that shamanism represents something fixed and dead, and therefore something not modern. This, in turn, connects to a criticism of the dichotomy between tradition and modernity.

In this exemplary anthropological work, based on now life-long engagements with the same research participants, it is extremely helpful and intriguing to discover changes in the lives of informants with whom we are already familiar from Kendall's previous work. For example, we again encounter Yongsu's Mother, the key informant shaman from Pine Endurance Village, the ethnographic site featured in Kendall's books in the 1980s. At that time, Yongsu's Mother was a novice professional shaman whose narratives and relationship with other women clients reflected the challenge and solidarity set by rural Korean women against a patriarchal society rendered particularly so as an impoverished nation still struggling in the aftermath the Korean War. The personal-lifeprogress of this shaman is shown in Kendall's 1990s publication on Korean weddings, which focused on the experience of this shaman as a mother of adult children. Yongsu's Mother appears regularly in Shamans, Nostalgias and the IMF, now a senior shaman who trains and accompanies other professional shamans in successful shamanic ritual events, and whose life story and shamanic practices have come to represent experiences and practices of a semi-urban middle class. The connection between the material affluence of a booming Korean economy that has adapted to Western commodification is richly evoked in Kendall's delineation of Yongsu's Mother's narratives that validate the offering (referred to by the participants in these shamanic rituals as the "divine appetite" ) of Chivas Regal and bananas that takes place as part of current shamanic ceremonies.

Readers of Kendall's scholarship will further appreciate her sense of and sensitivity to time-of the duration of its passing and the (critical reflection of) nostalgia that emerges from it-that is crossed in the lives and careers for both research participants and the researcher throughout their longterm relationships. In other words, readers glimpse not only Yongsu's Mother as she advances in life and her career, but also the author's paralleled maturity, revealed in dialectical nostalgic reflection: while resistant to "a simple comparison between the materialist present and a more innocent time when all of us were younger" (131), Kendall candidly reminisces about Korean rural communal life before televisions and automobiles became more prevalent, taking attention away from ritual and personal gatherings. …

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