Since the early-modern encounter between African and European merchants on the Guinea Coast, European social critics have invoked African gods as metaphors for misplaced value and agency, using the term “fetishism” chiefly to assert the irrationality of their fellow Europeans. Yet, as J. Lorand Matory demonstrates in The Fetish Revisited, Afro-Atlantic gods have a materially embodied social logic of their own, which is no less rational than the social theories of Marx and Freud. Drawing on thirty-six years of fieldwork in Africa, Europe, and the Americas, Matory casts an Afro-Atlantic eye on European theory to show how Marx’s and Freud’s conceptions of the fetish both illuminate and misrepresent Africa’s human-made gods. Through this analysis, the priests, practices, and spirited things of four major Afro-Atlantic religions simultaneously call attention to the culture-specific, materially conditioned, physically embodied, and indeed fetishistic nature of Marx’s and Freud’s theories themselves. Challenging long-held assumptions about the nature of gods and theories, Matory offers a novel perspective on the social roots of these tandem African and European understandings of collective action, while illuminating the relationship of European social theory to the racism suffered by Africans and assimilated Jews alike.
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About the Author
J. Lorand Matory is Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Director of the Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic Project at Duke University. He is the author of Stigma and Culture: Last-Place Anxiety in Black America; Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé; and Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion.
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The Afro-Atlantic Context of Historical Materialism
Marx was a mid-nineteenth-century lawyer who, as a second choice, pursued a career as a journalist and labor activist. In neither profession did he manage to earn enough to sustain his family or to fulfill the bourgeois aspirations to which his upbringing had accustomed him. It did not help that he lacked an academic appointment and yet spent much of his time writing on political economy. His greatest influence was posthumous, shaped by the uses that others could make of his millenarian language and model of history. He generated his most influential language and reasoning while he was, for political reasons, exiled in England — a land he had long admired from afar as a model of the sort of economic development and prosperity that was then yet to evolve fully in the German-speaking land of his birth.
Marx argued that capitalism structures people's actions, dispositions, and worldviews much as a religion does. His description of capitalism and narration of its dynamic history focuses on the tension between who is doing the work of industrial production and who is receiving the rewards of it, as well as the tension between how people see their collective activities and what is really, in Marx's view, happening underneath. In the context of his own financial discontent, he formulated a general argument about the historical sources of and reasons for the general discontent of the population he collectively reified as "the workers" and "the proletariat": a system of social compulsions in which the fundamental operators were no longer people but social constructions that he called "commodities" (objects manufactured expressly for the purpose of exchange) and "capital" (profits mobilized for the purpose of generating more profits).
Under capitalism, for Marx, the paradigmatic form of labor is the industrial labor of free, wage-earning factory workers. For Marx, the primary problem with this system is that the manner in which commodities are imagined justifies a maldistribution of the proceeds of labor, a maldistribution that favors the owners of capital, or the capitalist class, over the workers. Marx's intended contribution to early nineteenth-century political economy was a razor-sharp focus on the unfairness of reigning patterns in the distribution of profits from manufacture and on the history-making rivalry between wage workers (that is, the "proletariat") and wage payers (capitalists). For Marx, it is labor that generates all profit and is the foundation of all social organization. Therefore it is the laborers who deserve to reap all of its benefits.
Marx's binary classification of the actors under capitalism — capitalists and proletariat — appears to reflect his personal social experience, his hopes, and his fears. He minimized and even actively denied the contemporaneous existence, labor, subjectivity, and importance of a third class: the tens of millions of mainly African or African-descended enslaved people whose labor was integral to the process through which European and Euro-American capitalists, according to Marx himself, falsely imagined that their money was, by itself, giving birth to more money. Marx also imagined out of existence a range of other actors in this system, including the Native Americans whose land was appropriated for the founding of Marx's much-idealized United States of America, which he described as "virgin soil colonized by free immigrants" (Marx  1990: 931fn1), as well as the coastal African merchant-monarchs who, through trade and the ritual transformation of social relationships, also seem to have seen themselves as making cowrie-shell money give birth to more cowrie-shell money. (More on that subject in part III.)
The Afro-Atlantic priestly heirs to these sacred traditions have long been more successful at making and mobilizing the collective subjectivities that they prescribe than Marx was at creating or mobilizing a unified proletariat through his own preferred fiction — that is, that labor alone produces value and does so in proportion to its duration. Indeed, as the reader will see, Afro-Atlantic priests ritually make and install such collective subjectivities in people's heads, resulting in dramatic performances that the patients of these rituals typically swear are completely involuntary on their part.
Because they live in a world physically and socially connected to but imaginatively different from that of Marx, Afro-Atlantic priests do not typically cognize the social roles in production or profit making as "proletariat" versus "capitalists." Yet Afro-Atlantic priests far more effectively cognize a phenomenon common to the imagined worlds of both Europeans and Africans. Marx and most Marxists tend to explain away the ritual processes of collective value and subjectivity making that create, for example, races, nations, ethnic groups, and cults, even though these social units are much more consciously real to their participants than are the proletariat and the capitalist class. Typically, for classical Marxists, races, nations, ethnic groups, and cults are "superstructural" fictions concealing the real agents and operators of history. Yet the Marxist faith in unseen and often ineffective collective agents — proverbial "classes-in-themselves" — hardly seems more empirical than the subjectivities conjured by capitalists and African priests. Indeed, the Marxist prediction that the "working class" will ultimately recognize itself as a collective entity is of a piece with the equally false prediction that all religion is on the way to disappearing.
Like all prophecies, Marx's was less an uncanny premonition or scientific extrapolation than a recommendation about the ways people should act toward each other in the here and now. The limited efficacy of Marx's class ontology has always lain in the hope that it inspired, not in its descriptive or predictive accuracy. Marx's historical materialist prophecy was a quasi-religious element of Lenin's success in building the Soviet Union. In ritualized and forcible ways — and not as the historical inevitability predicted by Marx — Lenin and others successfully induced new forms of collective subjectivity in large swaths of Eastern Europe, China, and Southeast Asia for a period of about sixty years. Like all prescribed subjectivities, those forged by Lenin and Mao had their adversaries and contained much internal resistance. As Benedict Anderson ( 1991) observed, the proletariat of socialist Europe and Southeast Asia always identified more with the ritually manufactured nation-state than with the international proletariat (see also Postone 1993: 13).
The socialist nation-states tended to eschew the highly effective capitalist-nationalist strategy of cementing racial solidarity between white capitalists and the white workers in the same nation-state through collective violence against a racial Other — domestically and in the nation's overseas colonies. However, the authoritarian governments in the Soviet bloc failed to erase xenophobia and racism, a fact made evident by the waves of racist and xenophobic violence unleashed after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since the late 1980s, many in the proletariat of the former East Germany and Eastern Europe have made sport of assaulting nonwhite visitors to their countries, and, under former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, Russia has become the global epicenter of white Christian nationalism. Though less violent, anti-African racism is popular and profound in postsocialist China, as well. The greatest evidence of the weakness of Marx's socialist ontology, though, is that the socialist actor-networks of which proletariat subjectivity was a linchpin have collapsed since 1989, while the actor-networks of the Afro-Atlantic religions continue to grow. The state-planned industrial economies that Marx imagined would reappropriate capitalist technology and liberate everyone by fairly distributing surplus production did not ultimately work. However, my main point is not that Marx was wrong but that the pretense that he was more right or more scientific than the people he calls fetishists lacks any empirical basis.
Marx wrote his history and critique of capitalism in the midst of a circum-Atlantic war over the fate of the enslaved African, whom he turned into a metaphor for the fate of the "wage slave." Of course, Marx was sympathetic to the "negro slave," but the first volume of Capital expressly employs the enslaved African American not as a human victim of capitalism or protagonist in its overthrow but as a "pedestal" ( 1990: 925) for the display of European workers' suffering. That enslaved person could hardly take comfort in being the lens, rather than the target, of Marx's concern.
Moreover, against this backdrop, Marx's appropriation of African gods as the paradigmatic metaphor of the European foolishness at the root of European workers' suffering is difficult for me to regard as natural or innocent. Marx was critical of religion generally, but he embraced and amplified a gentile European tradition of singling African religion out for special contempt. I see an element of ethnological Schadenfreude in this tandem marginalization of the "negro slave" and singular put-down of African gods, since Marx was himself vulnerable to the sort of marginalization and contempt that he passed on to Africans. Not only Jewish, he was also downwardly mobile in class terms. He stood to gain by advances in the rights of other white workers, and, like the white settler colonists he celebrated, he stood to gain psychologically from the symbolic put-down of Black workers and economically from the marginalization of their agency and interests. Not-so-white whites like Marx and Freud had a special stake in putting Africans down: it clarified their own standing as whites entitled to the full benefits of European citizenship.
In anticipation of my argument's being misread, this is not to say that historical materialism is merely an automatic reflex of Marx's cultural, structural, and biographical background (nor is psychoanalysis of Freud's). It is to say that Marx's vocabulary is soaked in culture-specific assumptions indigenous to certain social positions within the nineteenth-century circum-Atlantic political economy. His use of Black people and our gods as the paradigmatic antitypes of human aspiration reflects one such social position and foreshadows a similar strategy adopted by Freud. Marx's, and later Freud's, amplification of white gentile tropes that had also been used to put down Jews cannot be taken for granted. It appears to be a strategic, even if possibly unconscious, choice.
William Pietz's "Problem of the Fetish"
In the 1980s, a then–graduate student in the humanities named William Pietz published three articles exploring the pre-Enlightenment roots of the fetish concept in post-Enlightenment Europe. Pietz ultimately traced the "problem of the fetish" back to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century encounter between African and European traders on the Guinea Coast of western Africa. These traders, notably Portuguese Catholics (whose word fetisso is the root of "fetish") and Dutch Protestants, expressed the view that Africans were capricious in ascribing godly power to material things. Further, they mocked the Africans for attributing great value to objects that these Portuguese and Dutch critics represented as relatively worthless, such as beads and seashells.
Their readers' ignorance about Africa had its strategic uses. Over the course of the seventeenth century, Dutch Protestant merchants in particular — from Pieter de Marees to Willem Bosman — encrusted the term "fetish" with their own radical opposition to almost all material embodiments of the divine and with the premise that fetishism was the root cause of not only bad business dealings but also political despotism. In the writings of these merchants and of the social critics who later quoted them, the African fetish was thoroughly flexible in the forms of crime and foolishness that it was fit to exemplify. In a potentially infinite array of disagreements, it could be used by one European to cudgel another and, in equal measure, to legitimize the speaker and blacken, as it were, his rivals' reputation and rank. Protestants used it to cudgel Roman Catholics, and the merchant class used it to condemn aristocratic encumbrances on their upward mobility, such as tariffs and trade barriers. In this intra-European struggle, Africa became both hostage and proxy.
Frustration at defeat or disappointment in trade negotiations must have been a further phenomenological element of the "problem of the fetish." The social order articulated by African gods prevented European merchants from getting their way in competitive transactions with their African hosts. For example, the Europeans could not travel wherever they wanted in the African interior (Pietz 1988: 115n19), preventing them from taking over the West African hinterland (1988: 108). They could not buy whatever they wanted (1988: 110–11, 115) or trade with whom they wanted (1988: 115–16n21). African merchants reportedly kept "fetish"-backed promises to each other to the detriment of their commitments to their European trading partners (1988: 115n20). The Europeans rarely spoke African languages and, in their ignorance, behaved like children, calling their African counterparts every bad name they could think of — stupid, arbitrary, irrational, capricious, and ignorant of natural causation — when those trading partners socially engineered their own domination of the terms of trade in the markets of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century coast (consider also Thornton 1992). Despite the apparently greater technological efficiency and causal efficacy of European weapons, African "fetishes" conferred market advantages upon the African merchants and monarchs such that, for centuries, they held European merchants and would-be colonialists in check.
For all of their faith in the rationality of their own market mechanisms, European mercantilists have never hesitated to hamstring their competitors through arbitrary regulations and monopolies, or to destroy their own productive resources and the entire environment in the pursuit of short-term profit. Nor has the great "rationality" of Calvinist-inspired capitalism prevented the devastating effects of boom-and-bust cycles and continual downward pressure on the wages and well-being of productive workers. Hence the "problem of the fetish" is not an ethnographic observation about Afro- Atlantic gods but a concept in contrast to which European merchant- adventurers — along with the Christian priests who accompanied them — projected European foolishness onto Africans and articulated the socially positioned frustrations of a specific class of Europeans with their savvy African trading partners and with their European rulers and rivals.
The Dutch merchant Willem Bosman wrote his own influential account of Guinea's "fetish problem" after thirteen years on the coast. He was called home in 1701, when his supervisor was dismissed for malfeasance. Bosman's 1702 report was first published in Dutch in 1703 and then translated into French and English in 1705, as well as German in 1706. In its day, it was the most influential among the dozens of published European accounts about the Guinea Coast, and it was frequently plagiarized. His account of the "fetish problem" was read by Linnaeus, Adam Smith, David Hume, E. B. Tylor, Voltaire, Charles de Brosses, Isaac Newton, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and Edward Gibbon. In this way the culturally biased and class-interested ideas of frustrated Protestant merchants who did not speak the languages of their African trading partners offered up a major rhetorical foundation of the Enlightenment — that is, the African and his "fetishes" as the antitypes of Europe's proper future — and ultimately influenced Marx himself.
I will argue that the idea-bearing material forms of the West African and West African–inspired orishas and voduns arose from the same coastal West African mercantile encounter as the Enlightenment "problem of the fetish" and have been shaped deeply by the interests of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century West African merchants and merchant-monarchs, who created empowering, noncausal social relationships using objects that European merchants and writers — in their own ignorance and ethnological Schadenfreude — dismissed as trivial. Perhaps the most obvious sign of the conjoint genesis of the European "problem of the fetish" and the Yorùbá-Atlantic religions is the preoccupation in both with beads. The Dutch and Portuguese merchant-adventurers on the Guinea Coast were as obsessed with claims of their triviality (e.g., Pietz 1987: 39, 1988: 112n12) as Afro-Atlantic priests were and are with their divinity-inducing "flash" (Thompson 1983; Drewal and Mason 1998) and their long-distance relationship-demonstrating diversity.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
A Note on Orthography ix Preface xi Introduction 1 Part I. The Factory, the Coat, the Piano, and the "Negro Slave": On the Afro-Atlantic Sources of Marx's Fetish 41 1. The Afro-Atlantic Context of Historical Materialism 45 2. The "Negro-Slave" in Marx's Labor Theory of Value 60 3. Marx's Fetishization of People and Things 78 Conclusion to Part I 91 Part II. The Acropolis, the Couch, the Fur Hat, and the "Savage": On Freud's Ambivalent Fetish 97 4. The Fetishes That Assimilated Jewish Men Make 103 5. The Fetish as an Architecture of Solidarity and Conflict 117 6. The Castrator and the Castrated in the Fetishes of Psychoanalysis 145 Conclusion to Part II 165 Part III. Pots, Packets, Beads, and Foreigners: The Making and the Meaning of the Real-Life "Fetish" 171 7. The Contrary Ontologies of Two Revolutions 175 8. Commodities and Gods 191 9. The Madeness of Gods and Other People 249 Conclusion to Part III 285 Conclusion. Eshu's Hat, or An Afro-Atlantic Theory of Theory 289 Acknowledgments 325 Notes 331 References 339 Index 349
What People are Saying About This
“J. Lorand Matory's The Fetish Revisited is a brilliant tour de force that links nineteenth-century fantasies about blackness and the power of the fetish with many of the underlying currents of the twentieth century, from Marxism to psychoanalysis. Matory's work consistently contrasts such views with the ‘fetish objects’ themselves, the products of African religions and cultures, their inherent meanings and functions, and their appropriation within the intellectual world of expanding European colonialism. An important addition to the analysis of racial thought in Europe showing how the underlying objects that seemed to inspire Marx and Freud had an autonomous and powerful function quite separate from their role in the two men's thought.”
“J. Lorand Matory's latest book is an all-time glorious masterpiece.”