Synthesis, Syncretism and Dissimulation

OK, so if you have been following all the back-and-forth everywhere you might get the impression I am completely, inflexibly, intolerably opposed to what people have been referring to as 'syncretism'. As RO points out with  his  post, I am in fact all about synthesis. Much of what I blog about is synthesis. Yes, my blog is even titled Gnostic Conjure. So why am I being such an enormous pain in the ass about it with Jason?

Firstly, I am not convinced that syncretism is something that can be done consciously by individuals. No, in my opinion, syncretism is a cultural force that happens when living systems interact with new information and external pressures; historical, social or environmental.

Individuals synthesise. It is what makes us human - we compare and combine in order to make sense of all the diverse facets of our experience, spiritual or otherwise. We do it in order to find common ground and areas that overlap. When I learn a new language, for instance, one of the easier techniques I was taught is to listen for all the words that kind of sound the same as the language that I already speak and then build my sentences out of those words, adding the new language's grammar and vocabulary as I go a long. Most germanic and romance languages have quite a few words that are the same - and sooner or later I am speaking more and more of the new language by using what I already know as the basic framework.

Secondly, our blogs have been getting increasing visibility and currency in popular occulture which is neat. This kind of discourse and debate is healthy and important because it brings an important issue out in the open so we can confront it and talk about it. And the issue of cultural appropriation in western occultism is an important one. It's one that won't go away by pretending it doesn't exist because it is thorny or uncomfortable - nor should it. It's a bit like racism - nobody likes to talk about it. And when confronted with it everyone groans and shuffles their feet uncomfortably because, surely they would never do or say that. Yet racism continues to exist in our world. It's a harsh reality that many, many people have to contend with every day. Pretending it doesn't exist doesn't make it go away, it makes it more malignant. It enables the people who are guilty of it.

Is everyone who uses a technique from another tradition guilty of cultural appropriation, and should the culture police raid their temple and confiscate their dream-catcher, didgeridoo and hotei statue? Probably not. Does it give us free license to grab whatever we like, in any manner we like, from whomever we want?

No, it doesn't.

The question that remains is this - can anyone stop us? Probably not. So we are totally free to be the spiritual equivalent of those annoying fucking morons on quad bikes that are destroying the beautiful, fragile dunes in Cape Town. Just go ahead and tear through another culture's magical heritage like it's our big play ground; spin our wheels and then piss-off when we are done and have had our fun.

Though, you can bet whenever I see one of those idiots rampaging around the dunes I tell him what a stupid knob I think he is and that I pray he falls down and breaks his neck next time he ramps over the fynbos.

What then, is the difference between sane, sensitive synthesis and making a mockery of another's heritage? I am unsure quite frankly, and it is confusing terrain that I continue negotiate as carefully as I can. Conjureman Ali, takes an eloquent stab at distinguishing the two issues here.

Check it out he makes some good points.


  1. Now reading this post I think we are not so far apart. You seem to have taken my exhortation to experiment as an invitation to be a disrespectful nut case. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    While I do disagree about the individuals ability to synchretize (seen it time and time again through history and real life) this is not the same as the silly eclecticism that you can see elsewhere.

    You state that "Synchretism is a cultural force that happens when living systems interact with new information and external pressures; historical, social or environmental."

    I would say that we are undergoing those pressures as a result of jet travel, mass media, and very modern information technology. It is living systems interacting, and also dead ones. I mean how are you defining living system? Clearly Hermeticism and European Paganism are not living systems in the way that Buddhism and Santeria are, are those practitioners false because they are a sub-culture?

    You also seem to have an issue with time frame. I still hold that things never happened as slow and steady as you indicate but rather in short bursts of extremely creative periods. These bursts moved increasingly faster over time due to advances in communication. It only makes sense that it is going to happen even faster now! I mean look at what we are doing just on these blogs.

    To me the difference in sensative synthesis and making a mockery of anothers culture is very clear and can be summed up in two principals:

    1. In any system there is tech and symbol set. When dealing with a symbol set (this includes specific spirits, dieties, etc) you must tread very carefully. Symbol sets are usually dependent on culture, time, tradition, and sometimes only available through initiation. Using a symbol set outside of its culture, or initiatory stream can sometimes be difficult, disrespectful, or even downright dangerous. Tech on the other hand works because it works, and thus can be looked and examined from outside of any specific tradition. In this way you can find the most effective techniques without falling into the trap of making an eclectic mess. For example it would be fine to borrow the idea of multiplying offerings with the mind from Tibetan Buddhism and use it in Wicca. It would be quite another to grab the nearest Phurba and call it your Athame, using it in the way that an Athame is used without really learning anything about the Tibetan Phurba traditions.

    The second guiding principal is not to lay claim to titles of official roles of a trad that you borrow from. If you study books on Yoga and Tantra you will find a lot of stuff that can be imported to whatever you are doing. This does not make you a Tantrika. There are other facors involved.

    You ask the question "Does it give us free license to grab whatever we like, in any manner we like, from whomever we want?" You than answer
    "No, it doesn't".

    I disagree. We do have the right. As long as we are not violating laws or vows we have the right. It is what freedom is about. Will it always be done wisely, intelligently, or even safely? No, but sadly that is the price of that freedom.

    Keep in mind that if we did not have that freedom and that right we wouldnt be doing what we do and we certainly would not have been able to study some Rootwork under a little old Jewish Lady in California.

  2. Frater Balthazar, I think you make a really compelling point. The struggle to find the difference between what is the abusive appropriation that we sometimes see and what is healthy syncretism really is a personally matter that needs to be contemplated and discussed. Each of us will take up a different perspective and we all agree that the waters are a bit murky on the topic.

    It seems there isn't always a cut clear line.

    Jason, an interesting distinction. Would you say that adopting a technique would be synthesis, but trying to take a symbol out of context might be appropriation of sorts. The former is done in a manner that recognizes value and learns from it while the latter attempts to remove something in a dangerous manner?

    My only issue is that when techniques are being adopted into a practice, does it not lead to a rather muddied up system? Shouldn't the focus not be on what works, but on finding what works and is copacetic with the principles of the system or tradition that is doing the adopting?

    btw, that little old Jewish woman is just wonderful :-)