Thursday, July 19, 2007

Hybridity, the new buzz word

Since my summer is filled with catch up reading and writing, I have become very aware that post-colonial hybridity has found fertile ground in recent publications in the field of early Jewish and Christian studies. In postcolonial studies, "hybridity" refers to "the creation of new transcultural forms within the contact zone produced by colonisation" (Aschroft, Grittiths, Tiffin: Post-Colonial Studies, p. 118)

A hybrid, if I remember my biology correctly, is an often (always?) sterile offspring of two different taxa. So a donkey and a horse make a mule. A blackberry and a raspberry make a loganberry. A fallen angel and a human woman make a giant (okay, not in our biological world, but in biblical mythology!).

I have nothing particularly against the term "hyridity" when it is applied in the context of two or more different aspects of society-culture morphing into something other, although I know that the word is debated in post-colonial circles.

In religious studies, one of the words that we used to use to talk about this phenomenon was "syncretism," which still seems like a good descriptor to me. So the worship of Serapis was a religious movement that morphed out of the mixture of Egyptian devotion to Osiris and the religious sentiments of the Greek colonizers. His name is a combination of Osiris and Apis, a bull god that was worshiped at Memphis. The Greek ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy I established the cult of Serapis at Alexandria and incorporated features of Greek worship including iconographical features of Zeus.

As a side - when I was in Egypt last, I made the trek down to Alexandria - a spectacular city on the coast - and visited the Serapion site. This picture is from that adventure. It was an incredibly beautiful day. Below the Temple ruins was a huge underground library, with shelves carved out of the rock ledges.

Although "hybridity" might be used to replace our term "syncretism", I wonder if its application as a descriptor of early Judaism-Christianity is really such a good idea. To apply this term to Judaism-Christianity before Judaism and Christianity became distinct, only serves to confuse an already confusing nomenclature. Christianity was Jewish for almost two centuries, although by the mid-second century some demarcations are beginning to be either created and/or acknowledged. But this entity was not a hybrid that developed out of Judaism and Christianity merging! It was more like an androgynous entity which became two religious traditions over a long period of time. Maybe I should coin the term "androgynity" to refer to this phenomenon?!


Stephen Hebert said...

I too have taken issue with the use of the word "hybridity." To me, it seems like some folks ran across Bhabha or Spivak or whomever and decided to start using this word even though what they're really saying is nothing new, but something very much akin to "syncretism." I continue to ask the question: "Is post-colonial theory a good framework to use for early christian studies? Or, are we merely ramming a square peg into a round hole?"

April DeConick said...

I agree whole-heartedly! Thanks for this comment.

Jared Calaway said...

The issue of the application of the word "hybridity" might have some relationship to the whole ball of yarn of post-colonial studies in the deciphering the asymmetric colonial encounter between an empire(in our field, Persian, Hellenistic, or Roman imperial powers) and its provinces. I personally avoid the word, because, to be quite honest, I have yet to read Homi Bhaba--I try to avoid using terms that I do not fully understand. But I have heard people make distinctions between hybridity and syncretism. Are all blended forms inherently syncretic? Or should we disntinguish between different types of mixings? In fact, I wonder if Bhaba thinks it is applicable to the study of religion as a whole (not just Christianity and Judaism) or whether it is more a theoretical lens to understand British-Indian encounters. I am pretty sure Spivak would not think the concept to be completely applicable to religion (or, to be more accurate, she would see it as a waste of time). Can that same lens be applied to the really complicated social systems, say, in Egypt, where, looking at law, for example, in the Roman period we have multiple legal systems operating simultaneously (traditional Egyptian law, Hellenistic law, and Roman law--and lets not forget Jewish law for those to whom it applied)? I actually wonder if this legal situation, with the coexistence of many forms working together, but necessarily coming into conflict at times, may be a candidate for a "hybrid" legal system. On the other hand, if the legal traditions all made compromises with one another to make a new coherent whole, perhaps that is syncretic. The latter hides its origins in many distinct traditions, whereas in the former it is painfully obvious. But, again, since I have not read Bhaba enough, I maintain caution.

As all "buzzwords," it is bound to be used, misused, understood, misunderstood, and stretched in ways far beyond the intentions of its original progenitors (Bhaba and Spivak).

For full disclosure, the religion graduate students at Columbia are trying to negotiate with Bhaba to have him speak at our annual conference in the Spring on hybridity and religious studies. So, as the graduate student coordinator of the same dept., I best be reading up! said...

Why not use simple language that most folk understand? Nothing wrong with hybrid in that case. And Jared, what is anyone supposed to make of: "The issue of the application of the word "hybridity" might have some relationship to the whole ball of yarn of post-colonial studies in the deciphering the asymmetric colonial encounter between an empire(in our field, Persian, Hellenistic, or Roman imperial powers) and its provinces."? Come on!

Jared Calaway said...


From what I understand of the word "hybridity," which I whole-heartedly admit is not much and perhaps I am misrepresenting it, is that it seems to be used to describe the blending of two cultures of unequal standing, one dominant and the other dominated (that is why it comes out of post-colonial studies). It seems to me that in our field of antiquity, I find it most often applied to the Roman period. I am not entirely sure why, unless it is being used in the desperate attempt to say something "new." I do know it has been used by Daniel Boyarin in _Border Lines_ and Karen King invokes it quite a lot in _What is Gnosticism?_.

At the moment, I basically refuse to defend or oppose "hybridity." I will suspend judgment until I have read how it is used by Homi.

But here is a major criticism often launched at "syncretism" and perhaps the same thing can be applied to "hybridity": all religious phenomena are ultimately syncretic when you start looking at them closely (although maybe not as obviously as Serapis). If all religious phenomena are syncretic, the syncretism loses its analytic value. If hybridity is being applied to only a particular kind of blending or encounter of two different cultures(again, I do not know), then the analytic distinctions can be valuable again. said...

If prophetic Judaism was what came out of Judea, and existed for a short time as the earliest
'Christianity', then I can easily think of gnostic or 'orthodox' Christianity as a hybrid. Did all gnostic ideas come out of Judaism? I doubt it. Did all the ideas of 'orthodox' Christianity come out of Judaism? I doubt that too. Thus the later philosophies can be regarded as hybrids - commonly used to mean something that has some characteristics of two different things. They were and are a merging of prophetic Judaism and other philosophies. Syncrestic is OK for theological wallahs.

Today we breed hybrid cars.