Unweirding shamanism

My friend Dr. Kyra Gaunt described her field of anthropology to me as “making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” It’s a fine definition of what I seek to do: to show people themselves and their cultures in ways that might surprise them, and to give people access to new or unfamiliar cultures by making them comprehensible.

There’s also another approach to cultural studies, which one could call “making the strange strange.” It’s a finger pointing at the exotic. It’s the way we look at Honey Boo Boo, not really to understand, but just to tell each other how weird it all is.

In today’s New York Times, the Korean novelist Young-ha Kim takes that approach to Korean shamanism, pointing at the exotic weirdness of Korean CEOs turning to fortune tellers and geomancers. She calls it “bizarre” and “an open secret” that senior executives engage in this sort of thing, before sharing her own story of an encounter with a fortune teller. It’s a curious attitude.

This is, unfortunately, a typical Korean response to shamanism (and an ironically orientalist approach), and it reminds me of the general atmosphere I encountered when I first traveled to Korea in 2001. Back then, traditional culture was fine for museums and folk villages and special performances, but it was cordoned off. As you walked down the street, you were meant to see nothing but a Westernized, modernized nation full of people doing capitalist business.

It turns out that traditional Korean culture — music, dance, architecture — was already undergoing a long rehabilitation. Back in the 1970s, traditional music was simply looked down upon as backward. By 2001 it was already making a comeback, and in the last decade the government has actually promoted more fusion and integration of traditional culture into Korea’s modern flash. It’s perhaps no accident that Bukchon, one of Seoul’s few remaining enclaves of traditional houses, has become a fashionable neighborhood.

But shamanism has yet to be rehabilitated. It’s still an embarrassing secret, like eating dog meat or going to a hostess bar. Partly this has to do with Christian and secular attitudes, which look on shamanism as superstition at best, devilry at worst. Some of it goes back further, to Neo-Confucian elite attitudes toward shamanism, and toward women, it’s primary practitioners. And some of it is simply inertia.

Korea is good at keeping certain kinds of secrets. For one thing, until pretty recently, the outside world wasn’t really prying. And then there’s the language: if you can’t speak it, you can’t join the conversation, so Koreans can keep outsiders from looking at certain things by just not talking about those things in English.

Shamanism is still something that doesn’t get talked about all that much to outsiders. Young-ha Kim has chosen to speak of it, but only as a curiosity. I wonder whether Koreans, or Americans, would consider it bizarre for CEOs to consult charismatic Christian ministers, or Catholic priests, or their rabbis, before making big decisions. Why should Korea’s indigenous spiritual practices be the odd ones out?