XXIX.4 July - August 2022
Page: 21
Digital Citation

A bear-woman, a cave, Plato’s or otherwise

Jaz Choi

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Here is a monstrous creature, born in a country founded by a mythical shaman, the child of a bear-woman. Her wish to become a human saw her committing to enduring 100 days in a cave void of light, subsisting on garlic and mugwort. The bear transformed into a woman in only 21 days, much sooner than the god had predicted. But she was still a bear-woman, too extraordinary for humans to accept. Praying earnestly yet again, she was able to conceive a child with a god by lineage in a human body. The child, the shaman, is believed to have founded Joseon, evolving into what is now known as Korea.

Traditional Korean culture and its underlying ethos were fundamentally influenced by shamanism; time and space manifest mutually in plural, circular, and messy ways. Lamenting and accepting the flowing time-space is an art, and often the subject of creative expressions. Shamanism blended into Korean Buddhism, as evidenced in the architecture of Buddhist temples, which often include shrines dedicated to local or foreign deities such as the Mountain or Dragon Spirit, obscuring religious boundaries. There are also more-defined, concrete practices. For example, 100 days of praying—the God-given time for creaturely transformation into a human—remains a well-practiced ritual across religious settings, from Buddhist temples to Christian churches, or even at home with a bowl of clean water. Persevering through hardships and suffering, as the bear-woman showed, is a virtue, connecting the this-worldly with the other-worldly.


Back to the monstrous creature. She grew up embedded in the hybrid norms of shamanism and Buddhism by familial ties, with a dash of Christian morality thrown in, reflecting Christianity's growing stately occupation of the country since the Korean War and so-called modernization. Then she traveled to a faraway place. The place spoke a language she did not know. At school and home(stay)s, she was told different stories of Christian faiths, ranging from Presbyterian to Catholic to Jehovah's Witnesses. All the while, the place was bleeding from never-ending colonial atrocity, covering eyes, ears, noses, and pores from stories of the Dreaming [1]. One could still learn the dominant language of this place without being able to hear or talk about these things. Nevertheless, speaking the dominant language allowed her to hear certain people and sometimes be part of certain communities aspiring to unsettle certain systems of power by blurring the edges of the tyranny of disciplines, or logocentrism. She moved across art and design, engineering, and the humanities, with others from health, science, law, business, and other fields. She would find Michel Serres [2] as helpful in a message to the beloved as in an intellectual exercise:

No amount of living on garlic and mugwort or praying in the dark could help my body or spirit become unextraordinary.

Âme: soul. The French word âme translates the Latin anima which, in turn, translates the Greek anemos, meaning wind. The wandering soul comes from where the wind comes from.

The wind. The movement of the light, subtle, vaporous, turbulent air, rhythmic, almost periodic, chaotic; mixture and carrier of mixtures, confused, the medium of every signal that reaches our senses, penetrating body, nose, mouth, ears, throat, and lungs, surrounding the skin. Base line of the senses, carrier to all of them.

Having begun in the air, the circuit of odours returns there; rising through emanations, descending towards love, death and knowledge, rising again. Having begun in the wind, in the soul, the circuit returns to the soul, on the breath of the wind. Soul: base line of the sense, carrier to all of them. I love your light, subtle, vaporous, turbulent, chaotic soul, I love that it penetrates your skin, your ears, that it reigns over your skin. Tell me the difference between soul and wind [2].

Then there was practicing yoga with Hare Krishnas and meditating with Tibetan bhikshunis. But what of that lingering miasma she has been eschewing? Even when in/exhaling a poem in a sensual language beyond the alphabet or the familiar five senses, it permeated and penetrated everything, and became unbearable over the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. So she started to give up on looking for the answer and accept the thoughts and feelings as they manifested inside, changing again and again through major ecological and social ruptures, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements. It was only then, in shimmering light, that she saw her own reflection as both a settler-colonizer and a bear-woman on the land. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes the land as "everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustains us… where our responsibility to the world [is] enacted" [3]. The creature could only see and speak of the land as a noun, as a metaphor, because, though she did not know, she had too narrow a vision and lack of language. No matter that she could explain to other settler-colonizers what standpoint theory was and how it came about.

Yes, I am the monstrous creature in this story, perpetually in the liminal space of "the not-external outside and the non-internal inside" [4] confusing the orderliness that modern science and state prefer and protect. I am your collaborator, colleague, participant, interlocutor, critic, friend, lover, and more. I admit that many of us, including myself, in our researching, practicing, and educating, tend to believe we can go and explore a new land—any land—and speak of the exotic ways of seeing and being through the bodies and languages in place as our discovery. But by doing so, we are killing the dying, and the ghosts, too. We might think we caught the change in the wind; we can be a pioneer making a timely anti-normative stance. Yet maybe instead we caught the remnants of disappearing ghosts, or perhaps of somebody we thought we loved or even oneself, the wind. Still, we made it: our "original" contribution to knowledge, to our CVs, and to the undying imperative of oppression, upkeeping the Euro-Western academy as a living "colonial crime scene" [5].

As Zoe Todd writes, when researchers "sashay in and start cherry-picking parts of Indigenous thought that appeal to them without engaging directly in (or unambiguously acknowledging) the political situation, agency, legal orders and relationality of both Indigenous peoples and scholars, we immediately become complicit in colonial violence" [6]. Differentially, this could apply to both the Indigenous and indigenous. Now, having encountered myself as a settler-colonizer, colluder, and one who has been colonized, no amount of living on garlic and mugwort or praying in the dark could help my body or spirit become unextraordinary. No amount of theories or methodologies, either; no, not even an ontological turn or the more than human, which despite some good intentions and endeavors, still remain in Plato's cave as the hegemonic Euro-Western knowledge systems [6,7]. The only option for survival is to dismantle the cave.

So I am of many minds, in this body, here, now. I am genuinely delighted about the growing interest across different disciplines, especially those closely related to the Interactions readership, in going even deeper than the more than human toward spirituality. There is a need now. More social and ecological fractures are revealed and emerging, and more people are starting to change their ways of living and dying as a result of this collective trauma. At the same time, I am concerned that this interest could be short-lived, or even be detrimental to the ongoing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) endeavors to challenge the interlocking "white supremacist capitalist patriarchy" [8] systems of oppression armed with modernist science and technologies, as we have witnessed again and again. For a long time, many have returned to the cave, alone and together, to see it in ruins. Yet it still stands, replicates, and even seems to evolve to be smarter and stronger.


I do not want to give up. I am figuring out, shape-shifting, alone and with other monsters, like those before us. I continue to challenge myself and others to seek how we might do better in listening to, sharing, and creating our many different stories. Doing so involves more than experimenting with methodology (or epistemology or ontology). For me, a good starting place would be the place of "I might be wrong," of not resisting the need to change, and/but also of refusal to change. I wonder what your places are, and how can we create and hold such places to relate with others better?

I do not have any answers to offer those who are interested in the intersection between spirituality and X [insert your discipline or field]. So instead, I turn to Katherine McKittrick, who tells us that "the story cannot tell itself without our willingness to imagine what it cannot tell. The story asks that we live with what cannot be explained and live with unexplained cues and diasporic literacy, rather than reams of positivist evidence. The story opens the door to curiosity" [9].

To stay on speaking terms with this particular kind of the unknown and encourage us to live with the unknown more care-fully, I have shared my own ambiguous, circular, and messy story in an ambiguous, circular, and messy way. It is my invitation for you to be curious, care-full, and accurate, as well as you can. These words share the etymological roots of cura, "to take care" in Latin. It also makes this piece the first solo-authored one, at least within the current system of acknowledging authorship, contrary to the original intention for the column named The Co-.

Further, I acknowledge the differences in people's experiences with secular and spiritual intertwinings, and importantly, that although I make references to works by Black, brown, and Indigenous writers in this piece (and in other places), it is not my intention to conflate our experiences or worlds. I honor and recognize their ongoing pain and suffering much greater than my own, as well as their joy and hopeful striving for change despite the hardships. Lastly, though this piece bears (excuse, or why not celebrate, my pun in English!) a single name as the author, it was brought to life by the work of many ghosts and monsters, figuratively and otherwise. Among them, Andrea Botero and Anne Galloway, who reminded me that "in dismantling Plato's cave, we can still use Western theology and mythology instead of co-opting Indigenous cosmology." I am grateful for their generosity.

back to top  References

1. "The Dreaming" here refers to Aboriginal understanding of the world and its ongoing creation.

2. Serres, M. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies. Continuum, 2008.

3. Kimmerer, R.W. Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, MN, 2013.

4. Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. What Is Philosophy? Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 1994.

5. Wandile, K. Colonial history rooted in museums. 2017;

6. Todd, Z. An Indigenous feminist's take on the ontological turn: 'Ontology' is just another word for colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology 29, 1 (2016), 4—22.

7. Graeber, D. Radical alterity is just another way of saying "reality": A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5, 2 (2015), 1–41.

8. hooks, b. Killing Rage: Ending Racism. Penguin, London, 1996.

9. McKittrick, K. Dear Science and Other Stories. Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC, 2021.

back to top  Author

Jaz Hee-jeong Choi is director of the Care-full Design Lab and Vice-Chancellor's Principal Research Fellow in design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2022 ACM, Inc.

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