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Syncretism and Its Synonyms: Reflections on Cultural Mixture

From: Diacritics
Volume 29, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 40-62 | 10.1353/dia.1999.0023

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Diacritics 29.3 (1999) 40-62

The subject matter of anthropology has gradually changed over the last twenty years. Nowadays ethnographers rarely search for a stable or original form of cultures; they are usually more concerned with revealing how local communities respond to historical change and global influences. The burgeoning literature on transnational flows of ideas, global institutions, and cultural mixture reflects this shift of attention. This increased awareness of cultural interpenetration has, furthermore, been instrumental in the critique of earlier conceptions of "culture" that cast it as too stable, bounded, and homogeneous to be useful in a world characterized by migrations (voluntary or forced), cheap travel, international marketing, and telecommunications. Contemporary social theory has accordingly turned to focus on phenomena such as globalization, transnational nationalism, and the situation of diaspora communities. In this body of literature the word syncretism has begun to reappear alongside such related concepts as hybridization and creolization as a means of portraying the dynamics of global social developments.

In what follows I consider some current attempts to theorize mixture before turning to examine the suitability, or not, of the terms listed above. Anthropologists and other social scientists have expressed ambivalence about all three terms--syncretism, hybridity, and creolization. I discuss these reservations before presenting a genealogical consideration of the single term syncretism. My purpose in considering the history of syncretism up to the present is not to enforce a standard usage confined to the domain of religion; nor is it my goal to promote syncretism to a position of primus inter pares in the company of all other terms for mixture. I see my approach instead as an attempt to illustrate historically that syncretism has an objectionable but nevertheless instructive past. If this past can be understood, then we are in a position to consciously reappropriate syncretism [Shaw and Stewart 2] and set the ethnographic study of cultural mixture on new tracks.

This might seem too minimalist to readers who currently have no reservations about the term, but many anthropologists, on both sides of the Atlantic, have personally expressed to me strong reservations about ever employing the word syncretism. If asked why they hold this view, they are often unable to articulate a specific reason. Some, however, did express one or both of the following objections: (1) syncretism is a pejorative term, one that derides mixture, and/or (2) syncretism presupposes "purity" in the traditions that combine. Both of these reservations will be considered below, but it is the broad disagreement within the anthropological community on the appropriateness of the very term syncretism that has stimulated this inquiry. Such ambivalence reflects basic uncertainties about how to conceptualize cultural mixture.

Current Discussions of Mixture

Cultures, if we still wish to retain this term (and I do), are porous; they are open to intermixture with other, different cultures and they are subject to historical change precisely on account of these influences. This has no doubt always been the case. Certainly decolonization and the entry into a postmodernity where master narratives of purity and homogeneity are vulnerable to doubt have contributed to valorizing recognitions of mixture where formerly they had been stigmatized as inauthentic and hence uninteresting for anthropological study. Research in the Caribbean, in Sidney Mintz's view, started relatively late precisely because this region "was considered theoretically unfruitful . . . its peoples supposedly lacked culture, or were culturally bastardized" [303].

Cultural borrowing and interpenetration are today seen as part of the very nature of cultures [Glissant 140-41; Rosaldo, Foreword xv]. To phrase it more accurately, syncretism describes the process by which cultures constitute themselves at any given point in time. Today's hybridization will simply give way to tomorrow's hybridization, the form of which will be dictated by historico-political events and contingencies. In examining cultural hybridity, writers such as Edward Said and James Clifford [Predicament 14-15] have lifted syncretism out of the framework of acculturation. Syncretism is no longer a transient "stage" which will disappear when, with time, assimilation occurs. As Said expresses it: all cultures are involved in one another; none is simple and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous, extraordinarily...

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