By Theft and By Gift

I believe it was in Difference & Repetition that Deleuze specified that the foundation of any system of exchange was not exchange at all, but theft and gift. This fits into his broader argument in that text regarding the derivative nature of systems of equivalence and representation. Those are deep waters, beyond the scope of a blog to plumb, but I want to focus on that bit about theft and gift in regards to a discussion of spiritual syncretism and appropriation.

Most syncretism is comparative. They begin in people identifying some family resemblance between two figures or rites and on the basis of that resemblance using them in an identical fashion. Sometimes, this will develop into eclecticism and/or monism, with folks pointing at the joining of figures in syncretism as evidence for the primordial unity of divine figures, and so on. I approve of cosmologies rooted in primordial unity, but an account of primordial unity has to address the real and present diversity of individuals, human, spiritual, or otherwise.

(At some point, this account of real difference will require a thorough re-examination of the concept of a husk / qlippoth / kiumba, but that point is not now.)

This comparative syncretism tends to be shallow. While outer forms and a few rites may be adopted on the basis of them, in general the spiritual practices to which they are attached remain largely unchanged. Most forms of spiritual work are not only tolerant of such variations, they tend to benefit from them. New images and rites can invigorate the attention and the invigorated attention can make more of the subtle spiritual dimensions of the practice. So long as the syncretism is contained and does not distract from the practice’s spiritual core, it is no big deal.

All of this presumes that that the spiritual practice engaging in the syncretism has been centered on a stable bit of spiritual reality. Sometimes this isn’t the case. Sometimes the practices never had a strong spiritual core or sometimes, by natural drift or perverse application, they have lost touch with that spiritual core. When this happens, syncretism tends not to be syncretism at all, but a hunger for what is not present. Here, syncretism can turn into a quest for novelty and veers into theatricality. Though theatricality does not preclude ritual efficacy, in general its increasing visibility indicates a diminished connection to the invisible roots of spiritual reality, or a sign that they were never present.

All in all, syncretism operates at the more abstract level of practice, in its derivative and second-order system of equivalences which are articulated atop the deep and invisible spiritual realities that give it life.

This isn’t meant to dismiss someone who has concerns about how culturally appropriate is may or may not be to engage in a specific syncretism. It might be often almost always is, for example, culturally inappropriate (as in rude) for a pagan to make use of African iconography or spirit names in their practice without interacting with living communities who use them as integral to their practice. It is downright oppressive (as in participating in the racism which pervades our society) to do so and demand people in those communities remain silent about what they think about that.

(As in, rudeness is bad but tolerable to a certain point, but racism is intolerable and we live with it only under great duress or threat.)

Spiritual appropriation entails taking up a practice wholesale, though it may be a practice excerpted from a broad body of related practices.  The term has come to have very negative connotations, but it doesn’t have to be negative. If someone appropriates a practice fully, they are going to be entering into it fully, which means that in order to make use of it, they will be forced to negotiate with the spiritual reality underlying it.

This connection to the primordial roots of a practice in spiritual reality cannot occur in a system of exchange. It transforms the conditions by which a person exists, and as such can only be undertaken according to the logic of theft or of gift. Both theft and gift place the person in a relationship to the practice that they cannot undo. The violation of theft and the gratuity of gift form a special form of debt that exceeds the capacity of a system of exchange to moderate.

If the thief manages to appropriate a spiritual practice from another, they are beholden to the spiritual reality of it and often in a way that places them in greater danger than one who receives a gift. While the one who receives a spirit or rite as a gift can usually rely on the support of the givers to help them negotiate its manifestation, the thief must often come to terms with it unaided. Successful thieves are rare. They are usually eaten up by the lack of knowledge required to negotiate with a spiritual reality.

(As an aside, I would suggest that this is why many foundational figures have what we might call outlaw traits. In most cases, they found with what they stole and managed to survive. But what they bequeath to those who come after them is not the theft that made the founding possible, but a transformation of the theft into a gift that others could make into a gift for others, and so on. It is also why the founder must be succeeded by a lawgiver of some sort, who neutralizes the traces of the theft.)

In most cases, syncretism and appropriation are different things. There are occasions, however, when appropriation can be the entry point toward syncretism. These are rare and successful occasions of it are even more rare. Successful appropriating syncretism requires individuals capable of participating, fairly fully, in two worlds of spiritual practice. As most forms of spiritual practice tend toward cosmologies, it requires a person capable to living with and integrating two understandings of the world at both an abstract and ritual level.

It also requires that there be an underlying sympathy between the two forms of practice that allows their practices to be integrated in a way that retains a connection and direction toward that reality.

If the sympathy between practices is lacking or if the individuals involved in realizing it lack the necessary wisdom, the fusion of syncretism and appropriation usually results in great damage to one or both traditions involved. If practices and concepts are poorly integrated, that disparity tends to open a rift between the practices and the spiritual reality to which they are intended to direct the practitioner. In other words, members of a community have a mighty big interest in preventing appropriation from easily giving way to syncretism.

More often than not, the best choice for a community confronted with syncretic applications of appropriation is to put a stop to it or, failing that, isolating or jettisoning the individuals involved, set them to their own devices and see what comes of it. That is harsh, no doubt, but often a necessary part of preserving the community’s foundations. Which means, inversely, that if you are seriously committed to exploring an appropriated syncretism, you have to be willing to risk isolation for it.

In times of great change, though, risks like that need to be taken. Communities living through great change will do better if they manage to find ways to preserve weak ties to those undertaking such risks, because it might just be those risks that will provide the basis for practices better suited to the world that takes shape. Unfortunately, this is often precisely when fear and anxiety make people more likely to engage in dramatic exclusion. It takes work to maintain weak ties, too.

I guess this one more leaf in the book of “let’s not rush toward inclusion or exclusion” in the near future? I know, it doesn’t sound very sexy, but that’s part of it, too: learning to pay attention to the plodding and difficult road, cultivating compassion for our fellows on it, and not exhausting ourselves in defining what we don’t quite have the knowledge to define anyway.

Take care.

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One thought on “By Theft and By Gift

  1. Pingback: Binah, Chokmah, Command, Ascription, and a Correction to Geomantic Attributions | Disrupt & Repair

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