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Fetishism, The Study Of Religion, And The Colonial Imagination (Roger Green)

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Charles de Brosses’s Du culte dieux fétiches (On the Worship of Fetish Gods), originally published in 1760, was translated into English for the first time this past summer of 2017.  While William Pietz has exhaustively traced the etymology of the term ‘fetish’ within Latin Christian theology and law, as well as Portuguese language, de Brosses’s book coined the term, ‘fetishism,’ and was the touchstone for some major European thinkers, including Hegel, Marx and Freud.

A lesser-known member of the Enlightenment, de Brosses employed an early comparative approach to religion, using cultural critiques of different peoples of the world living during his own time period and then comparing them with ancient civilizations.  Although echoing both Hume’s and Rousseau’s reliance on historicized “Natural” religion, in an accompanying essay to the new translation Daniel H. Leonard says, “de Brosses emphasizes the distance that separates fetishes from later, anthropocentric gods” (30).

Rather than psychologizing fetishism, de Brosses sees the phenomenon as “a forceful reduction of all power to the material realm, creating the fetish as a tangible object that can be addressed and manipulated through a variety of actions”; or “direct worship, rendered without figuration” (32).  Basing his analysis on linguistic observations, he sees fetishes like interjections: “just as interjections are ‘something more’ than words, fetishes are not mere signs or symbols, but rather objects of attachment” (33).  In this way, he associates fetishism with the first words of infants.

For de Brosses, figuration is a kind of curse.  He historicizes religion moving from fetish to polytheism to monotheism, claiming, “[t]he desire to obscure, idealize, or erase the origins of religious belief in primitive fetishism leads to a proliferation of new allegories that eventually enshrine reason itself as the agent of history” (37).  As Leonard summarizes, figuration “serves to enhance cultural prestige, defend the interests of the priestly classes, and legitimate colonial and imperial expansion.”

Discourse on fetishism is vast.  It was disavowed as a useful concept in early twentieth century anthropology yet came to inform other disciplinary approaches and was even re-appropriated by postcolonial and poststructural discourses.  To exemplify, let me point to a rather dense quotation from anthropologist, Michael Taussig, on the concept of the fetish in The Nervous System:

Like the Nation-State, the fetish has a deep investment in death – the death of the consciousness of the signifying function.  Death endows both the fetish and the Nation-State with life, a spectral life, to be sure. The fetish absorbs into itself that which it represents, erasing all traces of the represented. A clean job. In Karl Marx’s formulation of the fetishism of commodities, it is clear that the powerful phantasmagoric character of the commodity as fetish depends on the fact that socioeconomic relations of production and distribution are erased from awareness, imploded into the made object to become its phantom life-force. (138)

Taussig’s words highlight the magic of colonial power framed within European conceptions have little to do with indigenous perspectives.  He is reaching back toward conceptions of magic, witchery and maleficium in Latin Christian law.  In “Fetishism and Materialism,” William Pietz notes:

Derridean post-Marxists would locate the fetish in semantic indeterminacy and the ambivalent oscillation (hence no dialectical resolution) between contrary determinations, a ‘space’ where codes and their logics break down in a materiality that is conceived in terms of pure difference, contingency, and chance.

To gloss a complex discourse, the post-structural tendency to note how the condensation of an idea itself potentially becomes the fetish object in a very real inversion of common descriptions of reality.  In a “postmodern” way, this hyperreal space would become “reality” itself in the same way that the notion of transcendent reason had been psychologized by the Protestant underwriting of a rational transcendence that would be a zero-degree for Euro-centric claims to the neutrality of “civilized” space.

As Pietz notes in “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” for de Brosses, “the fetish the was essentially a material, terrestrial entity; [and] fetishism was thus to be distinguished from cults of celestial bodies (whose truth might be a sort of proto-Deist intimation of the rational order of nature rather than a direct worship of natural bodies themselves)” (7).

Pietz points to Hegel, where the fetish resists entrance into History and Aufhebung, a resistance to sublation, then picked up by Marx, modern art, and psychoanalysis – but also appearing in Deleuze’s “schizo-analysis”:

The fetish is, then, first of all, something intensely personal, whose truth is experienced as a substantial movement from “inside” the self (the self as totalized through an impassioned body, a “body without organs”) into the self-limited morphology of a material object situated in space “outside.” (11)

Pietz notes that for Deleuze, “The fetish is the natural object of social consciousness as common sense or recognition values,” in other words as repetition in Difference and Repetition (13).

 Although I must constantly emphasize that the fetish is the product of European imagination, the taking-up of the concept by postcolonial thinking to discuss the magical power of the State also points toward ways to think about race and religion.

Christian theologian, Willie James Jennings, has argued the development of the modern concept of religion is itself intimately tied to the development of modern conceptions of race during the early modern economic explosion fueled by European enslavement of Africans.  George “Tink” Tinker argues, “colonialism is Christianity. Christianity is colonialism. They go hand in hand so that the violence of colonialism is the violence of Christianity.”

Tracking the issue of fetishism is a way of tracking this violence.  Let’s take the Haitian revolution as an example. The flight of the runaway slave, as Ruby Sales noted earlier this year, is a revolutionary movement. Carolyn Fick’s The Making of Haiti points out that the 1791 insurrection was not spontaneous, but rather carefully planned by slaves (91).

Most sources point to a particular voodoo ceremony performed a week before the event, which has since transformed into legend.  The secret ceremony, which involved sacrificing a pig and passing its blood around, was apparently performed during a storm by an unnamed “high priestess” and Boukman Dutty, an early leader in the revolt.

In one account, Boukman is reported to have proclaimed, “Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us” (93). While the story has become lore, and scholars debate its accuracy, Fick notes:

The “Eh! eh! Mbumba” voodoo invocation dated back to at least the mid-eighteenth century in colonial Saint Domingue, when, as part of the initiation ceremony for a neophyte, it was a call for protection against the dreaded forces of those who had enslaved them and, as such, a form of cultural and spiritual protest against the horrors of the New World environment. On the eve of the slave insurrection, however, in the midst of what would be a difficult and dangerous liberation struggle to actually rid themselves of their enslavers, the incantation must have taken on a more specific, a more political, if still fetishistic, meaning; for the individual rebel would need now, more than ever before, a great deal of protection and, perhaps even more, luck in the annihilative measures that lay ahead. (104-105)

Fick’s use of the phrase ‘still fetishistic’ stands out to me, like Hegel’s conception of the fetish existing in the moment just preceding History.  When we compare Fick’s work with Rachel Harding’s work on alternative spaces of Blackness in Brazil, or perhaps more recently, in Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús’s Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, it is possible to see the persistence of spiritual revolt using “dark forces” against oppression.

Beliso-De Jesús argues that in Cuba, “Afro-Monteceros […] are produced through a complex historical interaction between self and cityscape.”  Much like gradients between Hoodoo, Voodoo and Santería in the U.S., which move toward more intense uses of “dark magic,” Mantanzas Santería “darkens” with its geontological relationship to slave resistance and revolt (118-119).

Additionally, she continues, “[o]ne might say that ‘trance’ of copresences renders Santería’s transnationalism as possessed by multiple interconnected assemblages of power” (220).  Beliso-De Jesús’s term, ‘copresencing,’ offers another way of conceiving fetishism in the trajectory of Deleuze to which Pietz points.  Beliso-De Jesús argues for attention to copresences:

Among the spirits of the dead slaves, Santería priests, and ethnographers, what has been written also haunts us.  Reading Santería copresence through ethnographic diffraction, then, might allow us to see that anthropology is also constructed through muertos.  Indeed, even the spirits of anthropology might be conceived of as possessing us similar to the electrifying oricha who mount the bodies of practitioners. (28)

Grounded in the discipline of anthropology, this thesis also speaks to both the larger field of Religious Studies, echoing in resonance with Luis Leon’s work on religious poetics, anthropologists such as Michael Taussig and Elizabeth Povinelli, and affect theorists such as Lauren Berlant.  What it adds is the “deathspace” of the past, of which academic work plays a part, especially in the reoccupation of fetish concepts in poststructural studies.

As Fick’s work hints and Beliso-De Jesús’s expands, intertextual experiences come to not only shape subjectivities, but also to persist over time. Harding notes something similar in A Refuge in Thunder when she connects the orixá Exú and the “Devil of the mines.”  In 19th century Brazil, she writes: “For Exú, the streets and crossroads of Bahia become the sacred spaces in which slaves and others act out their apperception of the insecurity of their social position and make gestures toward the resolution of circumstances in their own circumstances” (62).

The street and especially a crossroads became the ideal place for offerings to Exú.  If the fetish is the “still present” enchantment that Fick notes with respect to the ceremony that initiated the first Haitian revolt, then it is arguably the Black spaces and the crossroads work with Exú that Harding describes as spaces of resistance that evoke the revolutionary power of the fetish.

In this reading, concerning revolutions, the fetish would be a persistent core, not a lingering or “leftover” form of superstitious enchantment; nor would it be simply a “spell,” feitiço.  With respect to the diaspora of African spiritualities during the colonial era, Harding’s A Refuge in Thunder amplifies the revolutionary power of the fetish by building on Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism and the work of William Pietz.  She writes: “For Pietz, ‘fetish’ originated from, and as a term remains specific to, the problem of the constructed social value of material objects ‘as revealed in the situations formed by the encounter of radically heterogeneous social systems’” (29).

Harding applies this to the bolsa de mandinga, which, “like the original concept of the fetish is a ‘crossroads’ object with a meaning that encases and expresses the tensions and values of its interstitial location” (30). Although Harding is writing about Brazil, African-inspired religious textures in north America, such as hoodoo, conjure, or rootworking, often focus on the material presencing in mandingas, as I noted in a Political Theology Today post in May.

The mandinga, like crossroads work, presents a renegotiation and an inversion, the out-fetishizing work of the maleficiumTaussig says of “Maleficium; the bad-making”:

The maleficio, in other words, brings out the sacred sheen of the secular, the magical underbelly of nature, and this is especially germane to an inquiry into State fetishism in that […] the pure and the impure sacred are violently at odds and passionately interlocked at one and the same time.  It is to this ability to draw out the sacred quality of State power, and to out-fetishize its fetish quality, that the maleficium – as I use it – speaks. (129)

The malady, the evil-eye of the inversion impulse, the perversion of the revolt in its overturning impulse is importantly an upturning of soil.  What is at work is not so much a cleansing as a tilling of the soil that allows it to breathe as opposed to the white supremacist notions of “blood and soil.”  The publication of Charles de Brosses On the Worship of Fetish Gods in English occasions the necessity to uproot the ways Christianity has given political-theological fuel to empire, racism, and nationalism.

Roger Green is a Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of “Aldous Huxley the Political Theologian” in Aldous Huxley Annual (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015), and “Force in Religious Thought: Carl Raschke and Victoria Kahn in Dialogue” in The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  His doctoral dissertation, Beware of Mad John (2013) explores connections between political theology and psychedelic literature.  He is currently working on a second PhD in Religious Studies and Theology at University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology.

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