Shamanism & Divination in Contemporary Korea

A Review of Divining Capital: Spectral Returns and the Commodification of Fate in South Korea, by DAVID J. KIM.

David J. Kim’s “Divining Capital” offers a major new analysis of South Korean shamanism in the present historical moment that is simultaneously a consideration of the present as a moment. Distinctive is Kim’s “peripatetic” approach to his subject, namely “walking through the city” and encountering divination practices amidst a landscape of commodities (p. 38). Chapter 1 weaves together ethnographic encounters with a consideration of the history of the category of “shamanism” for Korea. Comparativists like Mircea Eliade, colonial-era Korean authors like Ch’oe Namson, scholars working during South Korea’s era of rapid development like Kim T’aegon and Ch’oe Kilsong, and finally the state itself through the Cultural Properties Protection Law and related legislation each sought to define (Korean) shamanism’s archetypal character or authentic core. The chapter builds on existing critical studies of such definitional acts, notably by Chungmoo Choi and Kim Seongnae. Where David Kim goes further is in linking attempts to identify a pure form of shamanism to the developmentalist state’s own efforts to “purify” rural villages, and in turn to a “reification of everyday life” (p. 67) that is a more general property of capitalist modernity. “Capitalism,” he writes, “looms over musok as a modern category” (ibid). When shamanism is defined as a technique of the sacred in a way that excludes or denigrates practices such as divination, even as for most working shamans divination is a central part of their everyday practice (p. 74), the definition is not simply inaccurate, but rather itself a fetish.

Kim’s next chapter offers a deeply textured ethnographic meditation on the material encounters of divination. Against a recurrent touchstone of debates of the French College of Sociology, Kim reworks the question of “how the sacred emerges” into an exploration of the “possible mediation between heterogeneous substances and the everyday” (p. 94). The small things of shamanic divination—rock divination is the central example of the chapter—are singular, uncanny, and powerful in the context of the practice. “Things show the way” to the client, but only to the extent that the client is able to surrender to their agency—in a sense, to be come a “thing” him- or herself (pp. 110, 117). In this way, it seems for Kim, divination encounters and their material transactions are restorative of the ineffability of the everyday and the strangeness of the city, always under erasure by forces of containment and rationalization—but never fully erased (pp. 99, 119).

The substantive focus of Chapter 3 is on horoscopic saju divination. At its center, it offers compelling portraits of four diviners who differ greatly in their business practice, view of their patrons, and belief in the accuracy of horoscopic fortune telling. Questions of ethics appear repeatedly in Kim’s narrative. One diviner confesses that he thinks saju worthless and is willing to call himself a “charlatan” (p. 141); another believes it reveals immutable fates all too well, and hides the more dire from his clients. In its latter part, however, the chapter returns implicitly to the perspective of patrons and the issue of divination as simultaneously a knowledge practice and a consumptive activity within a contemporary capitalist economy. Fate is never completely revealed, and divination must be caught up with forgetting—its “fissure” (p. 156)—for it to be enjoyed repeatedly. It is not the possibility knowing one’s fate, Kim suggests, that ultimately drives consumers of divination, but rather the very “moment of play” that (echoing a theme of Chapter 2) temporarily reveals self and future as contingencies (p. 160).

This theme is both expanded and given complexity in Kim’s fourth chapter, where the focus is more centrally on patrons who frequent diviners and divination cafes. Early on, there is a fascinating exploration of the skepticism of some clients, which leads to various attempts to test diviners’ skills and accuracy. Surely skepticism, as Kim’s work makes apparent, is as vital and revealing a topic for comparative study as belief (e.g., religion), once both are freed from the shackles of the secularization thesis. Throughout the chapter, the voices of patrons bring to light the dialogic aspects of interacting with diviners and divination, and express a variety of orientations towards enjoyment, fate, and free will. If, for some, divination may be taken lightly and consumed repeatedly precisely because of the variety of readings, for others the “forgetting” of Chapter 3 is not so easy, especially when a divination proves uncanny (p. 188). Another client feels sheltered from bad results by her Christianity; yet another sees divination more proactively and instrumentally as a way to “inject himself” into fate (p. 195). Gay patrons and saju diviners both engage in nuanced negotiations with heteronormativity—we hear of one lesbian patron drawn to readers who tell her that, as an aspect of her “difficult” fortune, she will “have trouble finding a man” (p. 180).

The final substantive chapter in one sense comes full circle in turning back to kut—part of the ostensible core of Korean shamanism constructed against the marginalization of divination by the definitional acts that Kim describes and critiques in Chapter 1. He focuses mostly on a single performance of the haewŏn chinhon kut, a public ritual for appeasement of the spirits of the “comfort women” of the colonial era. Topically, this places the chapter in dialogue with Kim Seongnae, Kim Kwang-ôk, and others who have examined the use of shamanism to address broad forms of social and national affliction over the past several decades, but themes recur that tie the section to the rest of the dissertation. The shamans find the press of spirits overwhelming, and one eventually collapses and requires treatment. This, for the author, is a moment when history “emerges unannounced” into the now, when for the audience shamanism breaks through as unassimilable into the category of “tradition,” when a “real” irrupts and destabilizes a narrative of victimization (pp. 223, 227, 230).

“Divining Capital” as a whole is elegantly written and offers throughout a high level of theoretical engagement, notably with Walter Benjamin, Jacques Lacan, Michael Taussig, and concepts of everydayness. Particularly the sections on divination suggest homologies and affinities with the epistemic organization of (Korean) neoliberalism and its subjectivities of risk, fate, and agency. In dialogue, most obviously, with Laurel Kendall (an advisor), Kim shows us through his flaneurie a shamanism that is neither anachronistic nor in any way divorced from contemporary South Korean social or economic realities. Through analysis of dramaturgy and time, and through the performance of his own writing, meanwhile, Kim allows the accompanying surrealities also occasionally to peek through.

Robert Oppenheim
Department of Asian Studies
University of Texas at Austin

Source Base

Ethnography of shamans and patrons
Folkloric scholarship on shamanism

Dissertation Information

Columbia University, 2009. 252 pp. Primary Advisors: Marilyn Ivy, Laurel Kendall, John Pemberton, Michael Taussig.



Leave a Reply