Beyond Binaries: Syncretism, Hybridity, and other Frustrating Descriptors, Part 1


by Doug Valentine

In their introduction to Religion on the Edge: De-Centering and Re-Centering the Sociology of Religion (2012) Courtney Bender et al. describe the religious landscape as a space in which:

[r]eligious bodies, objects, and ideas leave from and travel to specific national contexts  … through transnational networks, organizations, and movements. Some circulate within the context of traveling faiths that move to spread the word, while others do so within the context of migrant religions that circulate as people move and are moved, voluntarily or otherwise. (4)

The interaction between these migrations and extant behaviors we call ‘religious’ has been of central concern to my graduate research career. Returning from the 13th Annual Florida State Graduate Symposium on Religion, I spent much of my car ride (15 grueling hours) wrestling with various terminology at the disposal of religious studies scholars to describe these meetings, having just presented a paper on Días de Muertos, Empire, and Identity with respondent Sylvester Johnson of Northwestern University. Among his varied and helpful comments, Dr. Johnson restated a problem I’ve recently found myself trying to address, both in my work and in the classroom: how to talk about the confluence of religion without implying zones of purity.

Turning to the classroom, a few of my lectures are dedicated to the ways religion geographically ebbs and flows, using trade, travel, colonization, and missionization as starting points. We discuss seemingly “minor” adaptations, which students don’t question (recent “ashes to go” services throughout the United States were particularly helpful). However, when confronted with a mythic narrative, ritual practice, or important physical agents easily indicative of blending, things get tricky. For example, during a lecture on Santa Muerte, a skeletal folk-Catholic saint popular among working-class Mexicans, many of my students unknowingly engaged in syncretic analysis: indigenous iconography meets the Catholic saint and creates Saint Death (voilà!). This inevitably leads students to ask “doesn’t this mean they’re just making it up?” As a young instructor, green behind the ears at a Methodist-affiliated university, I’ve danced in and around this question with varying degrees of success. Lecturing, it seems, is like stand-up comedy. You try things out, see what works, keep the good, and adapt or discard the bad. At times I’ve felt like the novice comedian unprepared for the tough crowd, or (to borrow another simile) like a pitcher who wants his one bad pitch back.

A recent approach involves a syncretism flowchart, of sorts, through which I address the problematic baggage associated with the type of analysis described above. Namely, viewing religious behavior as syncretic (using a simple ‘circle A meets circle B and becomes circle C’) assumes the purity of circles A and B and the bastardization of C. In the case of Santa Muerte, students focus critical analysis on the folk saint only, rather than those disparate forces that shaped her construction. I then give the students a passage from Reneto Rosaldo’s forward in Néstor García Canclini’s Hybrid Cultures (2005), in which he compares the biological usage of hybridity (for his purposes, identical to the common usage of syncretism) as “a space betwixt and between two zones of purity … that distinguishes two discrete species and the hybrid pseudo-species that results from their combination” to his proposition that hybridity should be understood as “the ongoing condition of all human cultures, which contains no zones of purity because they undergo continuous processes of transculturation.” (xv) The most helpful way to discuss this process, according to Rosaldo, is “hybridity all the way down.” I then draw a hybridity flowchart, containing as many circles as I can fit on the dry-erase board. This exercise has been successful, more or less, for its intended purposes. Of course, this is a 100-level introductory course, not a graduate symposium.

Following a brief introduction to hybridity and Rosaldo, which I used as a way to introduce the subject of Días de Muertos and identity, Dr. Johnson rightly pointed out some terms do not necessarily do as much as we wish them to do. He cited Manuel Vásquez and Marie Friedmann Marquardt’s excellent Globalizing the Sacred: Religion across the Americas (2003), from which I took some cues regarding the helpfulness of the term, and noted hybridity still functions within a framework of binaries, related terms in categorical opposition (good/bad, light/dark, male/female, and so on). Dr. Johnson articulated a growing concern, both in my research and introductory lectures. Do not all discussions of confluence, blending, etc., imply purity, whether in the case of circles A and B or at the imagined source of my innumerable circles on the dry-erase board? Can this be remedied? French philosopher Jacques Derrida called binary a “violent hierarchy,” through which one force assumes superiority to its opposite. In this case, Santa Muerte holds an inferior position to the supposed “purity” of European Catholicism and indigenous cults of the dead. The question I would like to pose (and hope to address in a second installment) is this: how can scholars discuss confluence divorced from the implication of binary, and therefore, hierarchy between purity and amalgam, when even something as innocuous as a circle on a dry-erase board implies an inside and an outside and a top-down directional hierarchy?

Doug Valentine earned a BS in Religious Studies and Psychology from Bradley University in Peoria, IL and an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO. He currently teaches part-time at Central Methodist University in Fayette, MO and at the Missouri Scholars Academy at the University of Missouri. His academic interests include cultural theory, immigrant religious expression and identity, and religion and globalization.

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3 Responses to Beyond Binaries: Syncretism, Hybridity, and other Frustrating Descriptors, Part 1

  1. These are questions we’re very interested in at Culture on the Edge, but the key difference is that we’re not trying to get beyond binaries; instead, if you (you/me) see (see/don’t see) them (them/us) as the enabling conditions of thought and identification, then they are not a problem to be solved or overcome but, instead, the response to how they are used by us (or used on us by others), now becomes the object of study. For if all identity is a work in progress, then the issue is not how best to study immigrant identity, for example, since all identification is taking place on the move, in time and place, always concocting a nostalgia for an imagined origin. So the issue is not how best to describe or account for migrant identity but, instead, to study how we all craft the impression of a stable source to begin with, since there’s never anything stable about “it” from the scholar’s point of view.

    • Doug Valentine says:

      Thank you very much, Dr. McCutcheon. Those are great insights. I believe I’m trying to get to a place you’re describing. This is especially true when I reflect on students’ engagement with figures such as Santa Muerte, coupled with a refusal to engage in such analyses of their own perspectives (i.e. SM is fair game because she is blended/impure/etc, my mainline Protestant perspective is unchanging and, therefore, safely out of bounds). Throughout the semester, I emphasize my interest in the uses of categorization, rather than agreeing what goes in bag called religion, and the value assigned to certain categories. Those lectures have been largely successful and I hope to build on that approach as I progress.

  2. See what you think, if “creole” can stand in for the frustrations we share with “hybridity”…

    PS it’s Russ or Russell.

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