week 3: the fetish


Hi all–if you have a wordpress account set up, feel free to make your own post responding to the readings.  If not, go ahead and add your comments to this one.

  • Keane, Webb. 1998. Calvin in the Tropics: objects and subjects at the religious frontier.
  • Pels, Peter. 1998. The spirit of matter: on fetish, rarity, fact and fancy.
  • Stallybrass, Peter. 1998. Marx’s coat
  • Spyer, Patricia. 1998. The tooth of time, or taking a look at the “look” of clothing in late nineteenth-century Aru.
  • Holbraad, Martin. 2007. The power of powder: multiplicity and motion in the divinatory cosmology of Cuban Ifa (or mana, again).

9 Responses to “week 3: the fetish”

  1. narfe Says:

    As I began my studies of ethnographic objects and theories of museum display and interpretation, one of the first things I learned was that the term “fetish” was no longer acceptable. My understanding of this restriction was that it represented racists and colonialist views towards the object the culture from which it originated (much like the views of the Christian missionaries in the Keane article). I was taught that the term “fetish” was used by those who did not understand the object, were scared of it and perhaps the power it possessed, and did not see it as the art object that the museum believed it to now be.
    It did not occur to me, however, that the word and classification of fetish might not have negative connotations. Saying something is a fetish is only negative if one is afraid of animism and what the fetish is said to be (or the type of power is possesses). When the marapu described and defended their fetishes, they compared them to the Christian practice of using an altar as the point of communication (one of the two ways to demystify the fetish). When viewed in that light, and when studied as an integral part of a social function (the other method of demystifying), a fetish and the term fetish no longer seem bad. The first two articles in the Spyer book (I regrettably have not finished the others enough to bring them into discussion just yet) offered up analysis of what exactly are fetishes and what are their functions– “Fetishism is animism with a vengeance” (91), “the fetish functions to question the boundaries between things and the distinctions they are held to delineate” (92), “To the fetishists, the thing’s materiality itself is supposed to speak and act; its spirit is of matter” (94), “In such a view, the fetish would be merely an isolated, phenomenological moment within a culturally and historically encompassing process” (95). If fetishes are indeed another category of objects, a way of classifying them versus objects that are rarities or wonders, than it seems as though museums would utilize the classification. Pels points out that museums during the Enlightenment “replaced wonder with doubt, and questioned the naming of things by drawing up ever-perfected systems of classification (which, among other things, declare fetishism, the religion of materiality, to be the most primitive expression of mankind)” (111). A collection that included items identified as fetishes and rarities were considered to be “too feminine”, not scientific enough for the proper (more masculine) forms of collecting (111).
    True, I still may not wish to label a Kuba statue as a fetish in an exhibit because of the history of the word, but these articles have given me a different insight on what a fetish was, is, and could be. (The statement that provided the “ah-ha!” moment for me: “Present-day museologists’ negative assessment of the rarity cabinet, as a museum deficient in order, can be traced to this eighteenth-century suspicion of the unordered object” (111). )

  2. savannahfetterolf Says:

    While this might not be a pertinent direction in which to take the discussion, I wanted to address the reoccurring ideas of the almost fetishistic relationship with clothing that appear in several of our readings. From Stallybrass’ “Marx’s Coat,” we see that Marx thought of the coat as “the abstract cell-form of capitalism,” but in an incredibly physical and real way it informed Marx’s ability to provide for his family and to project a “positive” image of himself. In a way, Stallybrass believes that clothing, or rather the lack of appropriate clothing due to pawning and/or one’s economic situation, inhibited Marx and his family since it “sharply delimited their social possibilities” (Stallybrass 195). Clothing, then, could be seen as having agency, since it actively determined what social situations people can enter into and be seen favorably by others. Though her focus is situated in the East Indies, Spyer’s piece also looks at how clothing and cloth acquired social powers. She writes that “cloth repeatedly served as a kind of border, a ‘civilizing’ skin which, depending upon one’s inclinations, could be filled in favorable or not” (Spyer 170). The Aruese people were encouraged to assimilate to their colonizer’s mode of dress, but the “clothing always pointed beyond itself to a ‘civilization’ that could never fully be attained” (Spyer 170).

    In both of these scenarios, clothing has a legitimate and recognizable voice in its existence as they articulate a great deal about “their” wearer. Clothes, then, might as Spyer suggests, be a “concretization” of the larger social system. Would recognizing clothes as a marker properly recognize their thingness since they demand attention, as Brown conceptualizes? Or would they be more accurately classified as an object in the sense that viewer looks through them to arrive at their significance? Could we go as far as to recognize clothing as a fetish if we use Pels’ explanation that “To the fetishists, the thing’s materiality itself is supposed to speak and act; its spirit is of matter” (Pels 94) and consider just how much the voice of the clothes affected Marx?

  3. Alina Says:

    The three texts for this week centered around two main issues: the problem of presence and the implications of the fetish. The history of the object can be read as a narrative in which the presence of the thing has come forth in uneven degrees and varying intensities, and has been met with wavering dispositions. Things existed before humans, and ever since things and humans have coexisted their relationship has involved many compositions ranging from ignorance to necessity, indifference to complicity, terror to triumph, concurrence to dependence. Things have always been with us and this fact has lead to the dual capability of being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. I may use, encounter, and be affected by thousands of things each day, but how often do I contemplate these usages, encountered and affects? I look around my surroundings as I write this and I see my countless things: collections of rocks, shelves of books, vestiges of my childhood, projects, piles, fragments, fluff…then I put all these things in the context of the readings and I find how intimately involved I am in what Pels calls, “the spirit of matter” and how ignorant I was of the (human) cost of things explored by Stallybrass in Marx’s Coat.

    Each of the readings employed the concept of the fetish to explore presence and the historiography of things. As demonstrated by each of these authors, the concept of the fetish has resurfaced in current socio-cultural theory as the urgency to understand consumption and comprehend the effects of globalizing market forces have emerged. The fetish, a shape-shifting concept, seems to appear at the borderlands of experience where cultures, languages, religions, epochs, and markets collide. Each author explores the notion of fetish in discrete contexts, showing its reach and multi-faceted nature.

    Keane used the fetish to explore the subject/object divide against the backdrop of religion and colonial presence. Using a precise historical encounter that brought two previously separate peoples and belief systems together, he shows how beliefs surrounding the relationships of subjects and objects destabilize the boundaries between persons and things. He ends his paper by bringing forward a dialectical tension that, “both sides have to contend with the problems of ambiguous presence.” (29) Both sides accuse the other of being fetishistic, in words, deeds, and visions of the divine. I am left wondering: if the concept of the fetish (and the part that it played in this story) was extracted, whether the same issues and contentions would be displaced onto something else? Or is the concept so central that without it, there would be no story to tell? Has Keane molded the concept of the fetish to fit his own research interests and given it a central role that straddles the divides he seeks to explicate and the ambiguity of presence that he locates along the way?

    Stallybrass explains that for Marx fetishism of commodities was extremely problematic, not fetishism as a concept in itself. For Marx, “The radically dematerialized opposition between the ‘individual’ and his or her ‘possessions’ (between subject and object) is one of the central ideological oppositions of capitalistic societies.” (Stallybrass, 185) He took issue with the form of fetishism that turned the object into an “evacuated nonobject that was the site of exchange” devoid of human sentiment and sweat. (187) Stallybrass uses a period of Marx’s life that revolved around his coat (an object) as an example of “vulgar material determinism.” Exploring sentiment, memory, the ebbs and flow of life, gender, and sacrifice, Stallybrass crafts an argument that disavows a simple understanding of the relationship between value, cost, and self. For Marx, things are the materials with which the self constructs its life, and when these things are commodified and its ‘sensuous characteristics’ destroyed, the self is also destroyed. However, I am still a bit confused about where the concept of the fetish fits in with this fear of self-annihilation.

    And finally Pels shows us a fetish that is seen as ‘untranscended materiality,’ as something that has incurred a negative aura due to historical essentialization that obscured the aspect of fetish as, “an uncontrolled object that burst the bounds of capitalist calculation.” (Pels, 93) He shows us how capital, non-Western religions, and the concept of value, have been fetishized. He then suggests that we use aesthetics to look at the materiality of human interactions with things: “the material process of mediation of knowledge through the senses.” (100) Pels states that humans are material and are shaped through the sensuousness of our surroundings. (101) In an engagement of ‘mutual influence’ the idea of fetishism is turned back upon humans as we are, “objectified by the spirit of the matters [we] encounter.” (101) In this state of mutual influence (between people and things, the sensuous and the non-sensuous, self and other) Pels tells us that fetishism invites us to, “move in, rather than escape” these borderlands. However, if we do as instructed, won’t we be entering into a space of substitution and displacement. For the article ends with, “The fetish shows the limits of representation by disrupting the continuity of reference and replacing it by substitution (not a re-presentation but a presentation of something else.)” (114) I believe that erasing the distinction between signifier and signified, actual and virtual, meaning and senselessness is an act that may be aesthetically achieved, but beyond that is self-defeating.

  4. eastonrivers Says:


    I apologize as I am very ill and my fever is spiking at 101 so my mind is functioning a little strangely. Please bear with me.

    I have always experienced the word fetish in a confusing and disorienting manner. On the one hand, my mother being the son of a Methodist minister and my school years spent in the Bible belt, fetish was a dirty and shameful word with connotations of clandestine sexual practices and mortal sins. In academia, however, I came to associate the fetish with animism and ritual practices that harkened to my identification with the Lakota Ogalala and my grandfather. It still held negative implications, however, mostly because its classification seemed to place my Native American side in an inferior cultural state when compared to the Western idiom from which it took its perspective.
    It is, therefore, probably natural that Keane’s article immediately resonated with me. I was particularly taken with his argument that the fetish is not a simple, well-bounded category but a complicated categorization shaped by Christian history and ideology and experienced in a multitude of overlapping and sometimes contradictory manners. (13) We see in a Keane a spectrum of the fetish which calls into play a number of the factors we discussed in class last week. Keane sees the fetish as including varying degrees of agency, a significant factor of which seems to be the transcendence of human actors over material objects. The fetish seems to hold such a strong place in the Western imagination because we do not want to believe that an object can have agency over us, a people who have conquered nature and directly commune with God. Yet, Keane argues that objects are an essential component of human connection with the invisible divine. (17) In the end we are left with a number of factors to consider when examining the fetish; the visible and invisible, the amount of human agency, and the role of language in mediating the experience with the fetish. (29)
    These themes carry over into Pels but come to include a sense of strangeness, rarity, and ambiguity that reflect the definitions of thing provided by Brown last week. The fetish holds such an influential position in Pel’s analysis because of its liminality and its association with the unknown. (104-105) He uses the Cabinets of Curiosity to show the complicated nuances brought to bear on the fetish in the West and the Otherness these collections created in their attempt to classify and bound, including the bounding and determining of self as we see in Stallybrass.
    So what does this all mean? I am going to go out on a limb and make a few statements and ask a few questions. There is a notion in the capitalist, Christian West that we are above fetishism which is a naïve belief in the agency and power of inanimate objects. However, in both Stallybrass and Keane we see that we are in fact fetishists in many ways and it can even be argued that we are The Fetishists in certain discourses. So does our love of and relationship with objects make them alive and/active? Are we more naïve in our denial of object agency than say the marapu who at least recognize the importance of the fetish in their culture? To complicate matters further, what does Pel’s point about our emphasis on Enlightenment ideology mean for our interaction with and influence on the fetish? How is the fetish represented? How does it represent us? I feel that the fetish in all of these articles serves as an interruption, a disruption of the constructed capitalist, Christian, EuroAmerican world in which we are lords over the material world. The fetish is the reminder, and the fear, that the material world in which we live is not static, but a constructed reality of active materials which are involved in human life.

  5. brookhenkel Says:

    In my posting for this week, I would like to single out Peter Stallybrass’s “Marx’s Coat,” not because it is an exceptionally good article but because of its status as exception among the other pieces we read from the “Border Fetishisms” collection. For all of Patricia Spyer’s talk in the introduction––of “cross-cultural border crossings,” European colonial expansion, and oscillations “between a Eurocentric and an Other dimension” (pp. 1–3)––fetishism appears to be thriving in the very heart of the modern mid-nineteenth-century city. In particular, it is Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism that remains clearly situated within a context of modern technological production and market exchange––a central component of the most advanced economic form: capitalism.

    Stallybrass addresses fetishism within this context but does so in a very confused and confusing manner. The source of this confusion, as I understand it, is his inability to distinguish between two very different types of fetishism that appear in his analysis. Following a watered down cultural studies model, Stallybrass seems to lump together Marx’s critical concept of commodity fetishism with a more general sense of fetishism that describes a fixation of desire on material objects, a desire for ownership, personal contact, sentimental connection, etc.––all of which he relates to speculations about Marx’s relationship with his coat.

    There is clearly a subversive gesture at work in Stallybrass’s argument when he writes: “To fetishize commodities is […] to reverse the whole history of fetishism. For it is to fetishize the invisible, the immaterial, the supra-sensible. […] For Marx, fetishism is not the problem; the problem is the fetishism of commodities” (p. 184). Stallybrass thus goes on to positively assert a redemptive fetishization of specific material things against the fetishization of the abstract and immaterial commodity as exchange-value, which he associates with Marx’s critique in “Capital.” But for Marx, it does not make any sense to contrast a (positive) fetishization of a particular material thing with the (negative) fetishization of the commodity-form. In Marx’s analysis, fetishism does not at all originate with a desiring subject who externally transforms the status of the desired object. Rather, a fetish character mysteriously arises in the products of labor themselves, as soon as they are produced as commodities (i.e. for exchange). For Marx, it makes no sense to speak of “fetishiz[ing] commodities” as Stallybrass describes it. The fetish character of commodities is rather derived from the social relations of production embodied in the commodity itself. That these social relations (manifested in the exchange-value of the commodity) are strangely undetectable in the material, sensible thing itself, is the reason for the magical, fetishistic quality of the commodity.

    By taking seriously the complex nuances of Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, I think we might generate a lot of interesting ideas for our more general discussion of “thing theory”–especially within 19th and 20th century contexts. Although there is clearly an Enlightenment stance in Marx’s appropriation of fetishism from its 16th century colonial origins––i.e. that fetishism entails a false, illusionary, or magical relationship with material things, which he hopes to dispel through critical interpretation––any close reader of Marx will note how his persistent languages of magic, superstition, spiritualism, and optical illusion work to reinforce rather than undermine the strange fetish character of the commodity . . .

  6. ginajae Says:

    Thinking Through Questions for Class
    From Laura, Elizabeth, and Gina:

    1. All of the authors this week reference Marx’s theory of the fetishism of commodity in Capital (we pasted the except below for your reference). Marx’s key argument is that through the process of capitalist production, the worker is completely alienated from the product of their labor and the buyer from the social life of the commodity’s production. The “social character” of the labor that produces the commodities is therefore completely hidden in daily exchanges. Marx terms this entire masking process as “the fetishism of the commodity.” As we begin our class discussion tomorrow, we would like to first “unmask” what a fetish is, taking into account both Marx’s theory and the authors who reference him. How is a fetish different (or similar) from a thing or object?

    2. Does the fetish require a fetishist? (And, for that matter, is a fetishist one who fetishizes?)

    Several of these readings push us to think of the fetish not only as a material thing, but as a process or a relationship–not (primarily) a semiotic relationship in the sense of one thing representing another, but instead, a relationship of interaction or substitution–such as that between a a coat and its wearer, or a coat and the writing-paper for which it might be exchanged. Is the fetish, a la Pels, “an occult counterpoint that marks the limits of a dominant discourse of representation”? (112)

    3. Key to these discussions of the fetish is the question of its agency: for Pels, “fetishism is animism with a vengeance. Its matter strikes back.” (91) Pels argues that Appadurai’s methodological fetishism is not really fetishism at all, because it limits itself to an essentially animist focus on what people invest in things (spirit in matter) rather than deal with the power of the fetish over people (spirit of matter). So what might a methodological fetishism in Pels’ sense look like? And how does it relate to the approaches proposed in last week’s readings (such as Henare et al’s call to “think through things”), and/or to those of the other authors we’ve read this week?

    4. Last week we wrestled with how to define, describe, distinguish things and objects, and how these relate to subjects and language. Keane’s “Calvin in the Tropics” addresses, destabilizes, and enlightens many of these understandings. How does the piece work as an “object study”? More specifically, how might this help us consider our choice of methodology and analysis when locating the fetish, objects, and the material?

    5. The fetish as a source of power is a theme throughout several of the readings, yet is perhaps most clearly exemplified by the Spyer’s discussion of clothing as a “civilizing skin” (170) in Aru. In her article, power is wielded both through clothing, and upon it. The role of clothing in signifying social status and nostalgic memories is clear, yet does this mean we can consider clothing as a fetish? If so, what or who is more powerful: the clothing or the person who wears it? Finally, what relationship (if any) can we make between Spyer’s observations and the sexualization of the term “fetish” as evidenced by the images of the Google search?

    6. Keane and Pels mention instances of gendering in their depictions of subject/object relations (respectively, “to associate commodity exchange with being female” and the “too feminine” epistemology of “fancy”). we’ve discussed object studies as marginalized and other, but would it also be useful to incorporate a feminist reading of object studies? isn’t the material world, for many groups, already gendered?

    Marx excerpt:

    Marx, Karl. 1990 [1865]. The fetishism of commodities and the secret thereof. In Capital, vol. 1 page 165:

    A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

    This Fetishism of commodities has its origin, as the foregoing analysis has already shown, in the peculiar social character of the labour that produces them.

  7. Matt Says:

    Matt – week 2 response

    The obvious question that ties together this weeks readings is “what is a fetish?” – not surprisingly, there are as many answers as authors. Besides Spyer, who really didn’t explicitly define the fetish beyond some sort of vauge slippage of meaning, the other three authors took a great deal of time attempting to tease out the particularities and oddities that define the fetish. Stallybrass’ focus on Marx brought with it a necessary focus on the fetishism of the commodity – what Stallybrass describes as one of Marx’s jokes. I first found this description to be relatively straight forward – for Marx – as presented by Stallybrass – the fetish is an object that can no longer be a commodity, or that draw their value from sources (history, desire, memory) that do not relate to the commodity. Therefore, a fetishism of a commodity is a ludicrous possibility – a joke. While this seemed straight forward at first, I then had a hard time relating it to the rest of the article in which the author paints a history of Marx, his coat, and the pawn shop as emblematic and constitutive of Marx’s view of commodities.

    The Pels and Keane articles share a similar direction in terms of defining the fetish. For both the fetish is a blurring of boundaries between subject/object as it is recognized as having agency. Pels, Keane, and Stallybrass all recognize that fetishes are first and foremost material (Spyer seems less concerned with the exact nature of the fetish). While Pels seems comfortable in the normal realm of material as being object-oriented, Keane draws non-object materials – such as speech – into the realm of fetish. I found this to be a surprising step which I was first resistant to – but later found myself agreeing with. I am currently unsure whether I am willing to accept speech as being (at least partially) material. Is a spoken word a thing?

    Pels article was illuminating in his usage of generic vs. individual singularity – I wish he would have spent a bit more time on this interesting idea. His application of these terms to rarities, relics, and fetishes was enticing – although I disagree with his statement that “relics and rarities were not meant to represent anything (if that is understood in terms of being a sign that stands for an absent referent)”p104. After wrestling with Pierceian semiotics last semester I have come to learn that it is always a mistake to attempt to place strict boundaries around how signs convey information as the creation of meaning is neither inherent in the sign nor the viewer – but rather in the extremely complicated relation between the two. It would be easy to show that relics did indeed represent things that were not immediately apparent (the veracity of the church, the good deeds of the saint, the power of god, the legitimacy of the altar, etc).

    Finally – I wonder how all of these authors can attempt to tackle the concept of the fetish without touching the predominate use of the word today – as a sexual preoccupation or focus that is outside of the “norm”. If you type in “fetish” into google the vast majority of the sites are sexual in nature. Is this the opposite side of the object-oriented fetish that the authors talk about? Is this the objectification of the subject as opposed to the subjectification of the object?

  8. sarahelsasser Says:

    After finishing all of the readings for this week, I was still left thinking more about some of the issues/problems I was encountering from last week, especially in regards to the materiality of things and how they relate to objects. When I think of the term fetish, i think more of an idea or a concept that has become fetishized, with a physical objects often times coming in to represent or embody that fetish. But after reading the articles this week, many of the authors stress the origins of the word fetish relating back to physical objects encountered by the Dutch in West Africa. Matt commented on the sexual nature of the word fetish that exists today, which is what I most often associate the word fetish with, which makes me wonder if the two can be considered the same “thing”. Is there a difference between a fetish in its abstract, internal mental state, or is it the same as the physical fetish, just refigured? The word fetish carries with it a massive amount of negative connotation, so can an object be regarded as such without all the baggage?

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