In Praise of Polygenesis

In Praise of Polygenesis November 17, 2015
What better metaphor for cultural transmission than a magic carpet? Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As a folklorist and belly dancer, I deal with cultural appropriation on a daily basis. There are the accusations that wearing a bindi is disrespectful, and the queries I get about where certain narratives and body adornments first come from. I try to be aware of power imbalances, but I also think human creativity is multifaceted and flourishes regardless of restrictions.

I blog about how American Tribal Style® Belly Dance sidesteps some of the nastier cultural appropriation issues, for instance, by not attempting to imitate specific existing tribal dances but rather creating a new form for a new context. This dance style isn’t perfectly free of the bonds of colonialism and capitalism, but what is?

One concept that, in my mind, helps make the cultural appropriation questions a bit easier, is polygenesis. In folklore and anthropology, polygenesis means that a folklore text or piece of expressive culture – a given narrative, custom, or artifact – has multiple origins. This is in contrast to monogenesis, or a text having a single origin. In a monogenesis situation, once the item has been created, it spreads through diffusion and cultural contact.

In folklore studies we’ve devised whole systems for tracking items that originate through monogenesis, such as the tale type index (which I explain here). We have the Finnish method, also called the historic-geographic method, which we use to trace narratives through time and space, assembling all the versions of a folktale or legend that have been recorded, and then trying to pinpoint their origin. As I’ve already said, I don’t particularly care for the quest for origins, but these methods are still useful because they help us get a better handle on the past.

But when is polygenesis interesting and useful? In my opinion, it’s when polygenesis helps us understand that a given cultural artifact probably has multiple origins, and thus can’t be claimed by any one culture. To give a narrative example, a very basic plot like star-crossed lovers, or a rags-to-riches story, might originate anywhere with enough class hierarchy to make those stories work. Once a narrative accrues enough recognizable motifs, tropes, symbols, and/or plot twists, though, it probably had a single distinct origin point, or it was synthesized from other narratives at a single point, and then spread out from there.

This is a fairly simple concept; I’d imagine most students get it in Cultural Anthropology 101 or some equivalent. However, I think if we apply it to the issues presented by cultural appropriation, it opens up another avenue for discussion. We can ask if the artifact, story, or custom at hand has other points of origin, and how much it’s changed in the process of transmission if in fact it’s a case of monogenesis. Thinking in terms of monogenesis and polygenesis might add some more nuance to our conversations, and might help us recognize that while cultural borrowing should not be a careless free-for-all when there are clearly oppressive forces at work, culture has always interacted with creativity in richly complex ways.

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  • One concept that, in my mind, helps make the cultural appropriation questions a bit easier, is polygenesis.

    I wonder how useful it would be – even in terms of introducing another concept that some people may be familiar with – to think of cultural appropriation “activities” as examples of transformative works (like fan fiction and cosplay).

  • jeana

    I do like the concept of transformative works, Mikhail, but I’ve seen it embraced in fan studies more than folklore studies or anthropology. Maybe it’s because we already accept that all cultural works are transformative, because tradition is dynamic rather than static?