23 Mar

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I” (1985)

Pietz historicizes the word fetish and theorizes how it works as a category of material analysis. Pietz argues that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.”[1] Pietz allows the fetish to function as a category on its own rather than a corrupt genus that obscures and dismisses the social and religious practices of non-Western societies. The fetish can help scholars recognize a historical moment about exchange between Europeans and West Africans as well as how Westerners are attached to objects in particularly religious ways.

The characteristics of the fetish include: 1) irreducible materiality, or the recognition that the object embodies truth; 2) a fixed power to repeat an original event and order; 3) social value of things; and 4) personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object. The fetish is a “factitious universal” and was never used by a religious group to name its objects or relationship with objects. The term was used by Europeans to describe West Africans’ relationship with material objects. Thus, it emerged from cross-cultural interaction. The fetish names something personal and its truth is experienced as a movement from inside the self to outside the self into a material object in space. The fetish subjects the body to material objects.

Fetish versus Idol

A fetish is not the same thing as an idol. As idol is conceived as a free-standing statue. It emphasizes the worship of a false god or spirit by someone in a religious tradition different than the pronouncer. A fetish is usually worn on the body and is used to achieve tangible effects, like healing, on the user or for the user. The fetish acts on the body and shares a phenomenology relationship with the wearer. Idols do not necessarily participate in a phenomenology relationship.

The Fetish in Marxism and Structuralism

Marxism and structuralism have not fully developed the notion of the fetish because they recognize the displacement of objective social relations. According to Pietz, Marx recognized that “Material objects turned into commodities conceal exploitative social relations, displacing value-consciousness from the true productive market prices and labor.”[2] Marxism and structuralism stress the institutional structuring, or objective structuring, of constructed value consciousness. Marxist fetish theory explains this consciousness as “false consciousness based on illusion (hence alterable only by institutional transformation, not mere subjective ‘consciousness raising’).” Structuralism “either dismisses the fetish as a significant problem or else views it as nothing but a nonverbal signifier, sometimes ‘animated,’ with pure status of sign-vehicle for a process of signification.”[3] By stressing the social objectivity of the fetish, these theorists dismiss the fetish’s relationship to the individual person (like psychological and psychoanalytic theories ignore the social dimensions). Thus, the fetish comes to stand at the point where “the objective institutional systems are ‘personified’ by individuals, in two ways: 1) material entities (the market, natural species) are understood “to constitute the order of personal relations (social production, culture) which establishes “a determinate consciousness of the ‘natural value’ of social objects; and 2) personal activity is understood to be directed by “the impersonal logic of such abstract relations, as guided by the institutionalized systems of material signifiers of values arranged according to this logic.”[4] Fetishes, in these systems, are conceived of as negative material objects that have no personal relationships to individuals and objects of illusions (Marxism), and as immaterial, impersonal signifiers that only have relationships to other signifiers, or words (Structuralism). Thus, Pietz stresses an individual’s relationship with a fetish, and a fetish’s irreducible materiality, historical emergence, socially constructed social value, and fixed power.

[1] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (April 1, 1985): 16.

[2] Ibid., 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 9–10.

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