Syncretism from Serenity

We have done a lot of talking over at the REWILD.info forums lately on syncretism.

syncretism: the reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when success is partial or the result is heterogeneous.[1] 

The issue comes up in light of the fact that we as rewilders not only come from a non-sustainable society, but even the culture itself cannot sustain us.  In truly wild societies, the culture provides the people with the tools they need in order to live and survive and even thrive–in harmony.  We “civies” don’t have that.  So where will we get it?

If we just take from the indigenous cultures–swiping wholesale a belief here, a ceremony there, a myth, a song, a tradition, a style of dress–then we have simply continued to commit the atrocities of Imperialism.  We already took the land from these original people, killed the wildlife they lived off of, shot them, infected them with diseases, pushed them into the unwanted corners of “our” world–so now we want to steal their culture from them as well?  Moreover, what guarantee do we have that the things that worked for those cultures will work for us?

The fact remains, though, that we (the rewilders) need something.  Our wild ancestors must have had a wild culture before the machine of civilization swallowed them up, but only traces have survived.  And now we live in a different land than those ancestors as well, with different wildlife in different relationships.  So even if we could reach back and find the culture of our far past, would it help us in this new place?  We need something that works for both our cultural identity as well as something that works with the bioregion we inhabit.  We need a new thing–syncretized from both the old and the new–that will work for us as a new culture.

Fortunately, others have already started blazing this path in the rewilding community.  Michael Green’s Afterculture series presents us with amazing art that depicts an imagined syncretic society–the society we may very well become–where the artifacts of civilization interweave with the modalities of the wild.  Anthropik’s role playing game The Fifth World, taking inspiration from Green’s art, lets us practice life in a syncretized society 500 or so years after the collapse of civilization.

One might expect to find good examples of syncretism among the rewilding community, but I also recently discovered it in a place where I did not expect to find it: on television–well, cancelled television, actually–on the TV show Firefly.

Firefly’s creator, Joss Whedon, has gained a reputation among fans and critics alike for his ability to create an amazing universe for his characters.  The pseudo-mythology of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel swept views away in a cult-like phenomenon.  Even though Whedon and his team of writers generally made up the supernatural terms and ideas and beliefs of their characters, they did so in a very believable way.

In creating the universe (or ‘verse as they call it on the show) for Firefly, Whedon purposely syncretized elements of both the sci-fi and western genres to depict the frontier aspect of space travel.  Gene Roddenberry called space “the final frontier” but the creations from his franchise had a very sterile look to them.  Whedon wanted to make a space opera that showed the messiness and grittiness of an expanding frontier.

For the culture of his ‘verse, Whedon built on the concept of America and China standing as the final two world super powers on Earth-that-was, so he inter-stitched aspects of American pioneer culture with Asian elements.  In the language of his characters, Whedon used the Mandarin Chinese language, American folk colloquialisms from the Civil War era, and his own vernacular style which some have called Buffy Speak or Slayer Slang.  You can also note Asian and western style elements in the costumes, sets, and score of the show.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Though I lift Firefly up as an example of syncretism, I don’t want you to think that I endorse the show as an example of rewilding.  The Firefly ‘verse reeks of hierarchy (among the protagonists as much as among their civilized enemies,) and the expansion into other worlds has come about due to the fact that “Earth got used up.”[2] 

To quote from Serenity–the feature film that Whedon spun-off from the original series to continue the story:

Earth-that-was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many. We found a new solar system – dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Each one terraformed – a process taking decades, to support human life, to be new earths. The Central Planets formed the Alliance. Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control. The war was devastating, but the Alliance’s victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe. And now everyone can enjoy the comfort, and enlightenment of true civilization.[3]

The universe that Whedon created typifies the same frontier expansions that occurred with the age of Imperialism, the discovery of the new world, and the Manifest Destiny consumption of the North American continent.  However, it also exemplifies the same benefits for those who might want to dwell outside of the civilized realm that occurred during the frontier eras of our own recent human history: an open map with places that the civilized world has not yet colonized or even explored–where a tribe of folks that don’t want to live the civilized life can “[live] in the empty spaces of the map.”[4]  

In both the TV series and the movie, the inhabitants of the space ship Serenity take advantage of those open spaces for their pirating ways, but they also reap an additional reward.  They get to form a family by their own definition and live life the way they see fit.

MAL: I tell ya, Zoe, we find ourselves a mechanic, get her running again. Hire on a good pilot.  Maybe even a cook. Live like people. Small crew, them as feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come — and we’ll never be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get… we’ll just get us a little further.[5]

Anthropik notes that as civilization declines, we will see the map open up again in reverse of the way it closed.

… the decline of civilization will run many of its historical processes in reverse, and the map will open up again, just as it once closed, and in the empty gaps, the romantic example of the pirate will no doubt inspire many with the freedom of their existence, just as they were once inspired by the freedom of Native life.[6]

So though Firefly and Serenity don’t present us with a golden picture of rewilding per se, they do show us a fine example of syncretism and of life on the open map.  Just as Whedon put together a conglomeration of ideas that work for the universe of his characters, we need to put together a conglomeration of ideas that will work for the world we inhabit.

Start with your bioregion–the place where you live.  What worked for the people that lived there before civilization?  What plants and animals did they gather and hunt?  What kind of home did they live in?  What do their language and their myths tell you about how they related to the world around them?

Now look to your own cultural past–not necessarily your genetic past, but the culture you grew up in.  What stories did your people tell?  What myths and tales inform your beliefs and your sense of self?  They may come from ancient mythologies, or they may come from pop culture.  What do those stories and histories tell you about how your culture relates to its world?  You may find hidden examples of animism that have survived the centuries of civilization, or you may find examples of despicable hierarchy and ownership and usage that you wish to subvert.

Take the two concepts (1) the culture you came from and (2) the culture of the land you now inhabit, and see how they can mesh.  What you want to make should not simply throw back to the past in an attempt to recreate history–even the working history of the cultures that used to live before civilization.  Instead, we have to make a new culture that reaches back into the past to weave some of the things that worked then into a new thing that will work in the future–our future.  I cannot become an Osage simply because I live in the land they used to inhabit.  I cannot become a Pict or a Cherokee simply because I carry genes from those people.  But I can become a new thing that I build from the examples of the old.  Anyone who wants to live a feral life must do just that.

Rewilding involves far more than learning primitive skills and learning about primitive cultures.  It involves creating a new culture that can outlive civilization.  So let’s start syncretizing.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mike on 08/06/2007 at 3:04 pm

    I think you are overlooking something about cultures. I would say that each culture has an overriding belief system which allows it to functions. I haven’t spent much though on it but one of the big things in america or our culture is that you can believe whatever you want and that everyone else shouls respect that. I think that is the heart of what we believe. It may not seem it as various groups calmor for superiority but that is how we act, for the most part

    Point being the ‘culture’ that allows a society to survive is really only a common set of beliefs. I think you can see this in the sub cultures that develop. Or maybe some will see this as evidence of what you are talking about.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Rix on 08/06/2007 at 3:32 pm

    I agree with what you said, Mike. In fact, therein lies the point of syncretizing a culture for ourselves–so that we can function.

    As Jason pointed out on the REWILD.info conversation on syncretism:

    …there’s a huge advantage to undertaking something consciously and deliberately, versus having it thrust upon you later on out of necessity.

    We can’t really create a fully operational culture that will sustain us through the ages. That kind of shit takes eons–or at least generations. It has to get tested and refined and have certain aspects culled as the people see that they don’t really serve the culture. But how do we get to that point? We can just wait for civilization to crash and start from nothing, or we can take steps to get ready. Syncretism (in fact, all rewilding) represents just that–getting ready.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Andrew on 08/08/2007 at 9:12 am

    I think your example of our overriding beleif is quite a bit off. The path that says all must follow their own path is no path at all. If we have an overriding beleif in our culture, it’s that any problem can be solved with more money.

    I’m not sure that a commonly accepted beleif system is a necessity to a culture. I can’t think of one that doesn’t have one (off the top of my head) But I also can’t think of any reason one HAS to have one. What’s your reasoning?

    Reply

  4. The path that says all must follow their own path is no path at all.

    I agree with that statement, but I want to temper it with the fact that those who are saying it generally have other things in common which gives them a culture. They may talk of going on different paths and respecting different paths, but that just overlooks the fact that there are still plenty of things that keep them on the same path as others.

    In order to syncretize a workable culture for our future, we need to find what works. Right now, very few things feel like they work for us in this culture. We try to patch it up with political or religious fixes, but those tend not to work well either. I think Quinn and others have shown how indigenous cultures do work, how members of those cultures don’t have the unquenchable wants we have. Their culture answers their wants; that’s why it works.

    We can’t just go turn ourselves into aboriginals. We can’t just join a tribe. We need to make something new that works for us. I think we will bump heads a lot as we have to break out of our various mindsets. Just look at the discussions on REWILD.info about The Role of the Sexes and Gender Roles and Division of Labor. Most people that come from our “respect all paths” brand of thinking don’t want to give up their concepts of personal freedom. I think cultures by nature define freedoms, and they do so in a way that works for that group of people. Whether you look at matters of genders roles, religious affiliations, sexual practices–whatever–culture defines those areas for a group of people, and different cultures define them differently.

    Our problem as rewilders comes from the fact that what we have doesn’t work, and we don’t have another one we can just switch over to. Whatever we do develop as individual tribes, will have to work for that tribe, and it will have to form some kind of commonality for the people in the tribe.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Andrew on 08/10/2007 at 12:01 pm

    OK, so we need to go with what works. Makes sense.

    So why should “what works” have to remain constant? Obviously there is going to be more than one way “that works”. At least from environment to environment different working systems would have to develope. It may be that even in identical environments more than one way of living would work.

    So what about being tribal requires that all memberd of a tribe hold to the same beleifs? I can easily imagine a tribe of people who agree on practical matters, but have wildly different concepts on everything else, and still get along with each other. Why wouldn’t a tribe of debating philosophers hold together?

    Reply

  6. So why should “what works” have to remain constant? Obviously there is going to be more than one way “that works”. At least from environment to environment different working systems would have to develop. It may be that even in identical environments more than one way of living would work.

    I don’t think it does need to remain constant. I’m not sure where you got that from my writing. In fact, I feel the opposite, that culture, like language, will always change and always develop. Things may feel the same within a given generation–even across a few generations–but they will definitely change. First of all, getting to the point of becoming “something that works” will take time and refinement. Secondly, situations will always change, and cultures will need to adapt to that. Nobody lives in a vacuum. Nature abhors that. Living in an animist world where you sense all the things around you and respond to them definitely negates stagnation. Hence the e-prime movement and the desire to get rid of the part of our civilized language that says things do have a constant state.

    So what about being tribal requires that all memberd of a tribe hold to the same beleifs? I can easily imagine a tribe of people who agree on practical matters, but have wildly different concepts on everything else, and still get along with each other. Why wouldn’t a tribe of debating philosophers hold together?

    In order for people to come together and stay together they have to have something in common. By “belief” I don’t necessarily mean theology or philosophy, per se. But I mean anything that the people hold as a truth. A group of debating philosophers could certainly stick together, but what would serve to do the sticking? Perhaps they all simply love to debate. Or maybe they staunchly believe in that everyone should allow everyone else to believe whatever they want. Even though those things rest within a framework of disagreement, they do represent something to hold in common.

    No group of people will ever agree totally on all things. But the more big things they can believe in common, I think, the better chance they have of sticking together.

    The point in syncretizing a new culture, though, lies in stitching something together to start from. Very likely, the survivors of civilization’s crash will at least have a desire to survive in common. I would like to have a little more than that, though.

    Reply

  7. Posted by Andrew on 08/14/2007 at 10:39 am

    I wasn’t just responding to what youwrote, but also what Mike wrote. He’s the one who used the phrase “overriding beleif.” I was worried for a bit because I don’t want any beleifs that override practical matters, or wind up being divisive. I don’t like the word “beleif” or the act of “beleiving” anyway. The way it’s commonly used, the word “beleif” says “stop thinking, you don’t have to justify this.”

    There are two things I can think of, that any band of people will share, and that’s their environment and the daily act of surviving in it. Sometimes I wonder if that is enough common ground for anyone.

    Reply

  8. I figured you were responding to Mike as well. I understand your disdain for the concept of “belief” especially when we use it in an “overriding” context. Having grown up in a very belief-driven culture that did use the concepts of belief and faith as a way to tell people how to think, I certainly empathize with your concerns.

    I think your two-fold bond of (1) the environment and (2) surviving said environment serves as a beginning point for cohesion. Definitely in a post-apocalyptic or fresh-in-the-wild kind of situation, those will serve as the beginning points. But once people get better at surviving and start thriving (as every pre-columbian indigenous culture did on this continent) then where do you go? Having a “common enemy” of sorts (in this case, surviving the wilds) works wonders for pulling people together, but I don’t think it keeps them together. Enter belief as the glue that persists beyond survivalism.

    If you can get outside of the way we know it–as the “stop thinking, you don’t have to justify this” concept you described–and think of it from an indigenous viewpoint, it looks more like “don’t worry about thinking about this–our belief explains it for us.” I know that’s a fine line, but I think it’s an important one. It doesn’t mean “don’t think” or “don’t challenge” so much as “think about what you want and rest on these beliefs as a foundation.” Even if somebody did come along to challenge the group’s beliefs, that just might mean that the group redefines their beliefs.

    Reply

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