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.

09 Apr

Ann Kibbey, “Iconoclastic Materialism” (1986)

“Iconoclastic Materialism” examines Protestants’ discourse and iconoclasm during the Reformation to understand how they thought about things. Kibbey argues that although Protestants destroyed images, they did not categorically oppose all images or icons.


Historians, according to Kibbey, have misunderstood Protestants’ reactions to images. Kibbey argues that “Puritan iconoclasm no less than Puritan rhetoric, granted substantial importance to material shapes” (42). Protestants iconoclasm was about the right use of material objects. Puritans recognized themselves as images of God, or living icons. Moreover, Kibbey argues that Puritans’ opposition to images was “actually a devoted, if negative, act of reverence, and a very self-conscious one at that” (42). Puritan iconoclasts “believed very deeply in the power of icon” (42).  In other words, Protestants did not see icons and images as empty and meaningless. Images, even if they were bad images, held power over Protestants. Puritans recognized that idols compelled humans to believe in them. Visual figures were a threat to humans because they seemed like they could speak, walk, and act. Puritans felt threatened by idols. Idol invoked fear in viewers. According to Kibbey, “Calvin’s reasoning implies that Protestant iconoclasts believed it necessary to attack the visual images in church sculpture, glass, and painting not because they disbelieved these images but rather because they believed quite strongly in their power” (47).  Protestants believed in the power of icons and idols.


Kibbey’s chapter is important to studies of Protestant material culture. 1) Kibbey recognizes that Protestants held a negative reverence for images. Idols held power over iconoclasts and they instilled fear in humans. Protestants did not recognize idols as dead and meaningless. Idols could act on humans. This is important for understanding 19th century Protestant missions in the United States and missionaries’ infatuation with idols. 2) Kibbey also recognizes that Puritans recognized themselves as living images of God, or icons. This is important for future work on Puritan portraits and gravestones which imaged individual Protestants. Scholars have not yet recognized Puritan gravestones as icons. They were images of living icons and worked in a way similar to other icons.  3) Kibbey also recognizes that Marx’s commodity fetish is deeply rooted in Protestantism. Kibbey suggests that Calvin’s analysis of sacramental bread is a precursor to Marx’s commodity fetish. Both have power that resides outside the material thing. According to Kibbey, “Both Calvin and Marx perceive a contradiction between the ordinary use of an object and the value (spiritual or exchange) that it acquires upon consecration/circulation” (52). Marx’s critique of capitalism is also a critique of Protestantism.  Kibbey’s work is significant because it calls scholars to consider Protestant materialism. Contemporary scholars are still hesitant to recognize the power that things have and had over Protestants.

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.

18 Mar

Helen Knight, The Missionary Cabinet (1847)

The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) partnered with the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society to publish The Missionary Cabinet in 1847. This book provided a virtual tour of an actual room at the ABCFM headquarters in Boston that housed idols. The room, called the Cabinet of Curiosities, was open to the public. The book encouraged children to visit the Cabinet at the headquarters. For those who could not, the book served as a surrogate tour of the room and the idols in the cases.

"Interior View of the Cabinet," The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 2.

“Interior View of the Cabinet,” The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 2.

The Missionary Cabinet included an image of the Cabinet (Figure 1), which children could examine as they read. It depicts white, middle-class children and parents perusing idols. There is a long, rectangular table in the center of the room that holds plant and animal specimens in partitioned spaces. There are seven cases against the walls of the room that hold idols from South Asia, the Sandwich Islands, Africa, China, India, Syria, Russia, and Catholic Germany among other places.

The ABCFM opened the Cabinet in the mid-1830s in Boston. An 1838 letter from the ABCFM to missionaries in Hawaii documented the progress of the Missionary Room and the Cabinet. The letter noted, “You are aware that there is, in connection with the Missionary Rooms, a Cabinet of Curiosities, collected principally by the missionaries of the Board. It is open for public inspection, has excited considerable interest, and is daily visited.”[i] The popularity and notoriety of the Cabinet secured funds for building projects at the ABCFM. The Missionary House was expanded so that the Missionary Rooms and Cabinet could “enable us to arrange and exhibit the collection to greater advantage than we now can.”[ii] The Board requested missionaries to donate maps, drawings, missive publications, idols, images, weapons, decorations, coins, relics, and more from mission fields. Donors were to ensure that each article was “distinctly labeled with its name, and accompanied with a complete description,” and packaged carefully for shipment.[iii] Missionaries fulfilled the Board’s demand and packed the Cabinet with idols.

“God of the Sandwich Islanders,” illustration of an idol from The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 11

“God of the Sandwich Islanders,” illustration of an idol from The Missionary Cabinet (Boston: Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1847), 11

The Missionary Cabinet led children through a case by case examination of idols in the Cabinet. The first idol that children examined in the book was “God of the Sandwich Islanders” (Figure 2). This idol is also depicted in the frontispiece of the book in the first image above (Figure 1). It stands in the middle of the image, behind the table, and in profile view. The idol is “one they [the Sandwich Islanders] gave to the missionaries to bring home” after their conversion to Christianity.[iv] The author instructed children, “Come, let us look at it a little nearer. It has legs, arms, and a body, and a head and staring eyes, and a big mouth. It is quite erect, and looks a very little like the image of a man; and yet it does not look like a man, for no man was ever such a hideous object.”[v] The author also exclaimed, “This is a god!…It was a God of the Sandwich Islanders, a god to whom they used to pray and offer sacrifices.” The idol enticed devotees to “leave their old sick parents to die alone in the forest” and “bury their little sick babies in the mud.”[vi] Idols controlled the “heathen” and commanded them do wicked things. The images of idols in this book enticed children to learn about idols and foreign missions.

The Missionary Cabinet also provided a virtual tour of portraits of famous missionaries and ABCFM board members in the Committee Room. After the virtual tour, the author asks children, “when our fathers and mothers, and all the good people who give their money and their prayers to help send out the missionaries, are gone, who will then do it?” The author called children to the missionary cause. The Missionary Cabinet and the actual Cabinet of Curiosities at the ABCFM headquarters suggests that Protestant adults employed real-life idols to mobilize children for the missionary cause. The ABCFM hoped that if children viewed idols at the headquarters or in this book, they would support the Board and their missions.

[i] David W. Forbes (ed.), Hawaiian National Bibliography 1780-1900: 1831-1850 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998), 174.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Knight, The Missionary Cabinet, 18.

[v] Ibid., 10, 13.

[vi] Ibid., 10, 13.