So. I rarely get really, really excited about an observation I make about something, but fuck, everyone–I think this is kinda fucking profound.
John Halstead wrote a bit about why he doesn’t call himself a polytheist, in response to what seemed like he had been, and in response to Sannion and Galina’s posts about what polytheism actually means.
On my way home from work, thinking about being exploited (long story, but suffice it to say I’m getting a write-up for not making lobster sauce on a 9 hour prep shift without a lunch or breaks) (and I’m all like, Fuck off, I’m someone’s Rhino) (long story on that, too). I’ve been really contemplating spending a lot of time writing on Capitalism from a Pagan perspective, and one of the things I realized I’ll have to do lots and lots of defining because of the peculiarities of American discourse on, well, anything.
And so I’m reading J0hn’s essay, and thinking about why I, too, feel like people are appropriating a term to make it mean whatever they want (which happens with many, many other things, not just Polytheism), and it occurred to me that this is a horribly American problem (one doesn’t have this problem when discussing such issues with my German or French friends, for example).
So, I…I think I’ve put it all together.
Here’s my comment on John’s post about this. Please bear with me, here, as I get all Critical Studies geek (I talk remarkably “bro” in real life, by the way).
As an interesting question related to this matter, I wonder if all of Paganism itself is suffering from the same problem that American discourse seems to suffer; that is, the difference between a label that denotes ascribing to a belief or tendency, and a label which denotes a practice.
Let’s move it out of the realm of religion altogether for a moment, if you don’t mind. Consider “Capitalist.” I run into this quite often when speaking about Capitalism, as many people who identify themselves as Capitalist actually are not.
How can I say that? Because “capitalist” (as a noun, not an adjective) specifically denotes a person who engages in capitalist accumulation and re-investment. That is, a person who hires (exploits) labor on behalf of his or her capital. I’m not a Capitalist because I do not hire any workers, nor do I possess any capital. The small, single business owner without employees is, likewise, not a capitalist.
On the other hand, Capitalism as a system functions as an adjective (Capitalist exploitation would be an example), and people who think Capitalism is a good idea might identify themselves as Capitalist, even though they (according to the specific denotation of Capitalist) they are not.
See how this may apply to Polytheism? If Polytheist, as the denotative form, describes someone who worships multiple gods, then Sannion and Galina are correct in suggesting that it shouldn’t be used by those who do not engage in the worship of multiple gods.
If it functions on the other level as well (as merely a modality of belief, or an adjectival description of another form of belief), then anyone might describe themselves as such.
But the secondary (adjectival, intangible definition) definitely functions as a way of muddying discourse, at least when speaking of Capitalism. In order to talk about the activities of a Capitalist, I often have to weave back to a more primary level of semantic agreement just to begin a conversation with many people, because on a more general level, “capitalist” has come to mean anyone living in a capitalist country, just like “American” might.
As a matter of fact, I think this is probably the root of many, many of the conflicts about words. What constitutes polytheism to the “devotional polytheist” is practice, not only ascribing to the idea of many gods. One can be a Monotheist, for instance, while still acknowledging the existence of many gods–what matters is the practice.
Consider: When a “hard” polytheist or a “devotional” polytheist speaks about Polytheism, they are speaking on a concrete level similar to the same denotative understanding of Capitalist. That is (to borrow Judith Butler’s terminology on gender), Polytheism is “performative.”
When others speak of it, they might be meaning more the level of “acknowledgment” or “association;” that is, a Polytheist is someone who believes in the existence of multiple gods (with no further definition inherent or implied).
Out of the Mire of Imprecise Language
My suggestion is that we all go with the concrete definition, because the second is messier. Here’s why. One could (as I mention in the comments), believe in the existence of many, many gods and yet still worship only one (that is, be a Monotheist on the performative level–such a thing isn’t as odd as it might seem, as the Bible itself is replete with references to the Canaanite gods really-existing but being less trustworthy and less powerful and less “true” than the Hebrew god). One can also believe in the existence of many, many gods and worship none of them at all, as in common amongst many witch practitioners.
And I mean no judgment here, by the way. In fact, we’re not even at the level of discourse where we can accurately judge the statements of belief because we still don’t even know what we’re all talking about.
Consider another example: Democracy. Is America a Democracy? On the level of political/philosophical/practical discourse, no. It’s a Republic, a representative form of government with Democractic traditions. But on an “everyday” level, we describe it as such as a shorthand, and it is described as such by politicians and the media to very ill effects. Forgetting that we use “Democracy” as a shorthand makes it difficult for us to even speak about the fact that it is not, under most definitions, actually a Democracy, but try starting up that conversation with strangers (especially if they are already very pro-America) and you won’t get anywhere.
When people talk about the watering-down of language, this is part of what they mean--the shorthand eventually subverts the actual denotative level of words, making it awfully difficult to speak about things. This is why American civil discourse is an utter train-wreck, and also, I think, why we’re having so many very, very frustrating arguments about the meaning of theological terms. We aren’t quite even speaking the same language when we say the word Polytheist. Until we can acknowledge this, these arguments are going to continue, and no one will get anywhere.