09 Apr

W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” (1986)

“The Rhetoric of Iconoclasm” appears in Iconology: Image, Text, Rhetoric. This book is not specifically about images, but “the way we talk about the idea of imagery” (1). Mitchell wants to show “how the notion of imagery serves as a kind of relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value” (2). This is also a book about the fear of images. According to Mitchell, the term iconology “turned out to be, not just about the science of icons, but the political psychology of icons, the study of iconophobia, iconophilia, and the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry” (3).  This struggle can be seen within our conceptions of images and text. Mitchell recognizes that images cannot be read without text and context. Pictures need words and vice versa. “The recognition that pictorial images are inevitably conventional and contaminated by language need not cast us into an abyss of infinitely regressive signifiers…The history of culture is in part the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights in ‘nature’ to which only it has access” (42-43) Thus, historians cannot separate pictures from words in history or in their analyses. Ways of seeing images are socially constructed by texts and language. With this struggle between pictures and words in mind, Mitchell examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm.

Mitchel examines the rhetoric of iconoclasm in Marx’s ideology and fetishism. Marx defined ideology as a false consciousness. According to Mitchell this means “a system of symbolic representation that reflects an historical situation of domination by a particular class, and which serves to conceal the historical character and class bias of that system under guises of naturalness and universality” (4). Since Marx, historians have taken ideology to mean the “structures of values and interests that informs any representation of reality” (4). This meaning loses Marx’s notion of false consciousness, oppression, and criticism.

Marx made his notion of ideology concrete by using the language of imagery. Marx suggested that ideology was the camera obscura. Like the camera obscura, ideology projected false realities. For Marx, the camera obscura was a commodity, a bourgeois amusement that created illusion with images. Marx called for iconoclasm or a break from ideology and false ideas.

Marx also called for iconoclasm, or a break from material things in Das Capital. Marx criticized capitalists’ material objects and concrete practices in his explication of the commodity fetish. Marx applied the European idea of the fetish as a perverse, primitive, religious illusion to the commodity. Marx argued that commodities were fetishes. Commodities to the capitalist appeared to have a “transcendent” being, they were endowed with a “mystical” and “enigmatic” character (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81-96). A commodity to the capitalists “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81). This mystery, according to Marx, stemmed from a commodity’s abstraction of labor and concealment of labor history: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of the labor” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 83). A commodity’s material existence seems to have nothing to do with the labor involved in its creation and its value in relation to other commodities. Thus, Marx looked for a category in his contemporary, historical moment that could describe this mysterious power of things.

 

The parallel he saw was the fetish as Europeans deployed it against West Africans. According to Mitchell, “Marx adopted fetishism as a metaphor for commodities at the moment when Western Europe (and particular England) was changing its view of the ‘undeveloped’ world from an unknown, blank space, a source of slave-labor, to a place of darkness to be illuminated, a frontier for imperialist expansion and wage-slavery. ‘Fetishism’ was a key word in the vocabularies of nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologist who went out to convert the natives to the privileges of enlightened Christian capitalism” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 205).

Marx applied the word fetish to commodity as a critique of capitalism and its perception of magical things. According to Mitchell, “In calling commodities fetishes, Marx is telling the nineteenth century reader that the material basis of modern, civilized, rational political economy is structurally equivalent to that which is most inimical to modern consciousness” (191). In other words, capitalism was a perverse illusion. Capitalists fetishized commodities and money. Money embodied the value of the commodity. Marx argued that money was not a symbol of exchange, but “the direct incarnation of all human labor,” or “the embodiment of their values” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 105, 122). Capitalists ignored the symbolic form of money. They recognized that money was a real, powerful thing and that money begot more money.

Marx called capitalists to recognize their own false perceptions of material things. Capitalists were not idolaters in the sense that they worship the symbolic (money) through a material form (commodity). For Marx, capitalists were like West Africans who recognized things (for capitalists, commodities) as magical objects that contain their value (the abstraction of human labor). According to Mitchell, “Commodity fetishism can be understood then, as a kind of double forgetting: first the capitalist forgets that it is he and his tribe who have projected life and value into commodities in the ritual of exchange. ‘Exchange-value’ comes to seem an attribute of commodities even though ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in either a pear or a diamond.’ But then, a second phase of amnesia sets in that is quite unknown to primitive fetishism. The commodity veils itself in familiarity and triviality, in the rationality of purely quantitative relations and ‘natural, self-understood forms of social life.’ The deepest magic of the commodity fetish is its denial that there is anything magical about it: ‘the intermediate step of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind’” (W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193). In other words commodities seem like timeless, ahistorical things with power. The abstraction of labor conceals their production processes and history. Capitalistic economics forgot “the historical character of its own mode of production” (193).  The commodity fetish and money, according to Mitchell, level “all the distinction of sex, age, and skill into quantities of universal labor time in both the exchange and factory” (196).

Protestants charged Catholics with fetishism, or idolatry. “The idolater is naïve and deluded, the victim of false religion” (197). Similarly, Marx accused Protestants of being idolaters and victims of capitalism. According to Mitchell, Marxism “plays the role in modern Western intellectual life of a kind of secular Puritan/Judaism, a prophetic iconoclasm that challenges the polytheistic pluralism of bourgeois society. It tries to replaces polytheism with a monotheism in which the historical process plays the role of messiah, and the capitalist idols of the mind and marketplace are reduced to demonic fetishes. The liberal pluralist complaint against the intolerance of its iconoclastic rhetoric is likely to be met by a Marxist dismissal of petit-bourgeois ‘tolerance’ as the luxury of a privileged minority” (207). The struggle between these two positions, Mitchel hopes, will make “both our love and hate of ‘mere images’ contraries in the dialectic of iconology” (208). Mitchell hopes to show the struggle between iconoclasm and idolatry, between words and images. He also hopes to show how ideology (in the Marxist sense) can be transformed into ideology as reality so that the iconoclast appears to stand above everyone else as the messiah. And the rhetoric of iconoclasm continues between image and text, idolatry and iconoclasm.

08 Apr

Karl Marx, “Capitalist Production” in Capital (1867)

“Capitalist Production” defines commodity and commodity fetishism. These are important categories for the analysis of things because Marx used these categories to criticize materialism, and objects exchanged and produced in capitalist societies. Marx wrote Capital while living in London and working as a journalist for the New York Daily Tribune. Capital was a critique of political economy, more specifically labor exploitation in capitalism and a bourgeois society that relied on things exchanged.

Commodity

Marx defined “commodity” as “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 41). Commodities have a use-value and an exchange-value.

The use-value of a commodity is determined by the desires of humans, or how useful a thing is. Use-value is qualitative. The commodity is the use-value. The use-value cannot be measured until the thing is exchanged, or in use and consumption.

A commodity has an exchange-value that is determined by the quantity of other commodities for which one commodities is exchanged. The exchange-value of a commodity cannot be determined by its physical characteristics or properties. The material nature of the commodity has nothing to do with its exchange value. Exchange-value is quantitative and is set by humans, not the commodity. Exchange-value is an expression of the value of a commodity.

Value connects all commodities so they may be exchanged with one another. Value is set by the social necessary labor time of a commodity. This value is tied to use-value because if no one wants the commodity the labor has no value. Commodities only have value when they have use-value for others, or social use value. Use-value, exchange-value, and value are all separate, but related.

Socially necessary labor has a direct correlation with the value of a commodity. As labor increases or decreases so does the value of a commodity. Different types of socially necessary labor are abstracted so that labor of different commodities can be compared. Commodities hide their individual labor histories. The concealment of labor history is what Marx explains via “the fetishism of the commodity.”

The Fetishism of the Commodity

Marx applied the European idea of the fetish as a perverse, primitive, religious illusion to the commodity. Marx argued that commodities were fetishes. Commodities to the capitalist appeared to have a “transcendent” being, they were endowed with a “mystical” and “enigmatic” character (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81-96). A commodity to the capitalists “is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 81). This mystery, according to Marx, stemmed from a commodity’s abstraction of labor and concealment of labor history: “A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of the labor” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 83). A commodity’s material existence seems to have nothing to do with the labor involved in its creation and its value in relation to other commodities. Thus, Marx looked for a category in his contemporary, historical moment that could describe this mysterious power of things.

The parallel he saw was the fetish as Europeans deployed it against West Africans. According to W.T. Mitchell, “Marx adopted fetishism as a metaphor for commodities at the moment when Western Europe (and particular England) was changing its view of the ‘undeveloped’ world from an unknown, blank space, a source of slave-labor, to a place of darkness to be illuminated, a frontier for imperialist expansion and wage-slavery. ‘Fetishism’ was a key word in the vocabularies of nineteenth-century missionaries and anthropologist who went out to convert the natives to the privileges of enlightened Christian capitalism” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 205).

Bill Pietz has chronicled this history and the encounter of European traders with West Africans. 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.” 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.

Marx applied the word fetish to commodity as a critique of capitalism and its perception of magical things. According to Mitchell, “In calling commodities fetishes, Marx is telling the nineteenth century reader that the material basis of modern, civilized, rational political economy is structurally equivalent to that which is most inimical to modern consciousness” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 191). In other words, capitalism was a perverse illusion. Capitalists fetishized commodities and money. Money embodied the value of the commodity. Marx argued that money was not a symbol of exchange, but “the direct incarnation of all human labor,” or “the embodiment of their values” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 105, 122). Capitalists ignored the symbolic form of money. They recognized that money was a real, powerful thing and that money begot more money.

Marx called capitalists to recognize their own false perceptions of material things. Capitalists were not idolaters in the sense that they worship the symbolic (money) through a material form (commodity). For Marx, capitalists were like West Africans who recognized things (for capitalists, commodities) as magical objects that contain their value (the abstraction of human labor). According to Mitchell, “Commodity fetishism can be understood then, as a kind of double forgetting: first the capitalist forgets that it is he and his tribe who have projected life and value into commodities in the ritual of exchange. ‘Exchange-value’ comes to seem an attribute of commodities even though ‘no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value in either a pear or a diamond.’ But then, a second phase of amnesia sets in that is quite unknown to primitive fetishism. The commodity veils itself in familiarity and triviality, in the rationality of purely quantitative relations and ‘natural, self-understood forms of social life.’ The deepest magic of the commodity fetish is its denial that there is anything magical about it: ‘the intermediate step of the process vanish in the result and leave no trace behind’” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193). In other words commodities seem like timeless, ahistorical things with power. The abstraction of labor conceals their production processes and history. Capitalistic economics forgot “the historical character of its own mode of production” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 193).  The commodity fetish and money, according to Mitchell, level “all the distinction of sex, age, and skill into quantities of universal labor time in both the exchange and factory” (W.T. Mitchell, Iconology, 196).

The commodity fetish like the West African fetish had roots in religious behavior. Marx linked the commodity fetishism to Christianity, and particularly Protestants and Puritans. Marx argued that for a society that reduces “individual private labor to the standard of homogenous labor…Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion” (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, 1906, 91). Marx continued, “in so far as the hoarder of money combines asceticism with assiduous diligence he is intrinsically a Protestant by religion and still more a Puritan” (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859, 130). Protestantism was the religion of capitalism. Protestants abstracted man in Christianity just as capitalists abstracted human labor. Both elevated things (man and commodity) to the magical statuses and then denied it through words and ideas.

04 Apr

Birgit Meyer and Dick Houtman, “Material Religion—How Things Matter” (2012)

“Material Religion—How Things Matter” offers an introduction to Things: Religion and the Question of Materiality. It introduce readers to the study of religion and things.

Over the past twenty years, historians have been concerned with ideas and beliefs in religion. These are important, but they often dismiss the other aspects of religions. Belief ignores the things that people use in religion. Belief assumes that religion is rational, internal, and about thinking, not feelings, things, and places. The scholarly emphasis on belief can be traced to Max Weber’s dismissive attitude toward religious material culture. Weber emphasized belief as central to Protestantism. He suggested that the further religion progressed, the less it relied on things or material objects. E.B. Taylor also emphasized the belief of religion when he defined religion as animism (the animation of things), which could be explored for its larger meaning. The de-emphasis of materiality can also be traced to Protestants during the Reformation who destroyed Catholic images.

Meyer and Houtman argue that “frontier zones,” where religious cultures meet, are a good place to start examining things. This is especially true of idols and iconoclash. The latter term was coined by Bruno Latour to describe how images gain power through being opposed as idols. The relations between religious cultures can also help scholars understand what W.J.T. Mitchell meant by “bad objecthood.” The terms totem, idol, and fetish are not just different types of things. Their names mark them as bad things; things that carry certain attitudes that influence their use.

The turn to material things has become popular in social sciences and humanities. Scholars have traced ideas about matter and materiality to schools of philosophy. The have examined how things are signs that construct social meaning. Scholars look to nineteenth-century materialism to examine how religions have opposed materiality. In 2000, David Chidester called for a “new materialism.” Others have called this approach material culture and materiality. This approach does not use matter to criticize religion, but rather it uses matter to criticize the study of religion. New materialism and material culture ask how and why things matter to religions and religious peoples. Scholars examine the materiality of religion by studying icons, totems, images, fetishes, idols, inconoclash, bodies, words, commodities, and things.

23 Mar

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The origin of the fetish” (1987)

“The Problem of the Fetish, II” delves deeper into the historical and theological emergence of the fetish. Scholars popularized the idea of the fetish in the long nineteenth century. Sociology, anthropology, and psychology engaged in debates about the explanation of the history and nature of religion by examining the theory of the fetish. Pietz looks beyond these debates to better understand the origin of the fetish. Pietz traces the terms “facticius” to Christian theologians like Tertullian and Augustine to show how the fetish and idol are conceived of as different material objects that work in different ways. The basic components of the fetish as a magical and superstitious object were not present in the medieval notions of the “feiticaria” in Christian law. The idea of the fetish emerged out of the cross-cultural mercantile interaction between Europeans and West Africans in the fifteenth century and later. Portuguese explorers first used the term “feitico,” instead of idolo, to describe the religious practices and objects of the people of Guinea. According to these explorers and merchants, “The central idea of the fetish concerned the error of worshiping material objects,” particularly the idea that “any personal or social value could be attributed to material objects whose only ‘natural’ values were instrumental and commercial.” The idea of the fetish originated in a particular place and time.

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.