On July 13, 1990, a group of shamans innovated and performed a ritual they refer to as the haewŏn chinhon to appease the deceased spirits of Japanese military “comfort women.” Caught unprepared for the large number of spirits who appeared, as well as the accompanying spiritual and emotional toil, they made a promise to the spirits that they would perform the ritual in all eight provinces of Korea — three in the North and five in the South — keeping in mind, of course, the obvious geo-political problems in that regard. Eventually in 2003, the shamans began their fulfillment of that promise with another series of haewŏn chinhon rituals, this time better prepared and stronger in numbers.
This article analyzes one of these rituals in detail, not only focusing on its structural aspects but also considering it as a site to reexamine Gayatiri Spivak's conceptualizations of the subaltern, as they relate to both comfort women and shamanic activity. Drawing on the work of Jacques Derrida, Spivak theorizes the subaltern as both stemming from and producing what she refers to as a “blank space” in text, and consequently speech, which opens a fissure for the potential constitution of the other. This productive space — unscripted and undifferentiated — I argue, is likewise a potential site for what Walter Benjamin referred to as the emergence of “historical materialism,” which reveals itself in flashes, or unexpected moments of danger. Within the structured mechanics of ritual there is space for chance and contingency. The unforeseen accident lurks as a break in the action, which takes place outside ritual structure and goes beyond representation and repetition. During the performance that I detail, there was one such moment — completely unexpected — that reveals more about the mimetic possibilities of shamanism than a ritual that goes entirely as planned. This article examines this incident, when a shaman, unable to control the possessing spirits, collapses to the ground, as well as the events that follow. The article also contextualizes this ritual in relation to debates surrounding the “comfort women” issue, and how it is both situated within and outside of what C. Sarah Soh refers to as the “paradigmatic” narrative of victimization, in addition to the larger problem of representation as it relates to both presence and discursive claims to factual truths.