Appropriating the Foreign(er) and Localizing the Strange(r)

Ken Routon's posts on fetishizing the foreign have surely made me think.  It's easy to regard an insider's preference for something foreign imported from an outside culture as a fetish.  One can even go further by becoming postcolonialist and material culturist and dropping theories that range from the overstretched to the overanalyzed.  It's interesting how a bottle of perfume can touch almost anything complete with theoretical assumptions.  I'm not really allergic to theories, but  I just think that any material, if studied anthropologically, should be contextualized in a system where it belongs.  A bottle of perfume is not what we think it is if it's in the hands of a traditional healer or in the bag of a prostitute.  It can be for charming spirits to the healer and for luring male customers to a prostitute.  What I'm saying is that any material should not be analyzed away from the people who make, sell, buy, or use it to avoid losing the focus on humans and diminishing their roles in social and cultural phenomena.


I've always been interested on how locals appropriate foreign concepts and materials in their social activities and cultural ways.  In my language, for example, we have words that sound foreign but have local meanings and appropriations.  For "toothpaste," we have "kolgit."  In our village, one doesn't sound incoherent when he wants to buy and use a "kolgit" that's Pepsodent.  "Pridyidir" is our word for "refrigerator."  We have quite a lot of foreign and borrowed words.  We don't have indigenous words for "ice," "bra," and "candy."  I don't think considering such linguistic borrowing as fetishizing something foreign is correct.  The best explanation, at least to me, is that the locals have merely appropriated the foreign and the strange in their language and culture after realizing their uses and functions.  Culture change is not only physical and social but also mental and behavioral.  So, I'm more interested why my people use "kolgit" for a toothpaste not how a toothpaste has become "kolgit."  I see a nuance in it.


I used to think that Filipinos' preference for imported goods coming from Europe and the US is a colonial form of fetishism.  I believed then that cultural inferiority also involved inferior materials or goods produced and sold locally.  I now consider such thinking absurd.  People in my village who buy and wear Nike shoes and Lacoste shirts have no clear knowledge of colonialism and what fetishism is.  I don't think it's right to ascribe concepts or even ideologies, which are foreign to them, to their ways of buying and consuming goods.  I do, however, think that their preference for something imported has a sociocultural basis that's local and economic.  One of the things that establishes social status is one's wealth and capability to use it to avail expensive luxuries.  Anything expensive, among my people, is luxurious.  So, Nike shoes and Lacoste shirts are like gold jewelries and cut gems to them.  They display their wealth and their ability to spend on something expensive and wasteful among those who are poor and can't afford.              


A couple of days ago, I read in an Indian magazine how European men and women, who are white, spend their gap year in Mumbai and New Delhi by vacationing and working.  They're paid just to eat in upscale restaurants, stand in weddings, and show up in private gatherings.  They're hired because they're white foreigners.  It's easy to call such premium put on white skin as India's "colonial fetish" or "slave mentality" or "cultural inferiority," but I don't think it's really the case.  Social stratification in India is very complex.  It includes one's caste, religion, group, family background, educational attainment, and economic status.  The latter is the most powerful one.  These white foreigners and European strangers are objectified by the locals and appropriated in their cultural ways of making and marketing their social images and economic statuses.  They're not really different to gold jewelries and imported goods as used in our village. 


Those Europeans who are paid to eat in Indian restaurants help create an upscale image restaurateurs want to convey to their markets.  In developing countries, Europeans mean euros and Americans, dollars.  The ones hired to pretend they're brides' or grooms' friends from Europe reinforce the cosmopolitan image of either a bride or a groom.  One's ability to spend on foreign travels is also related to one's disposable wealth and economic status.  Those who go to gatherings and get their hourly payments afterwards show off how the wealthy locals who hire them can easily waste money on white foreigners whose functions in gatherings are no different to those of gigantic elephant statues or gold vases of marigolds in themed parties.  What I see in this phenomenon that uses white-skinned Europeans as mediums for social images and economic statuses is not fetishism.  Indians just appropriate the foreign(er) and localize the strange(r) in their highly stratified society and culture that gives importance to social roles and statuses.


The article, "Minding Their Gaps," from Tehelka:

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Comment by M Izabel on April 1, 2011 at 12:40pm

I have a problem with the idea that everyone is a fetishist, considering that  fetishism is used in social analysis.  What do we analyze in social science?  Isn't it a social phenomenon?  Nobody analyzes why humans eat because everyone does it and it's not a head-scratching issue.  We do, however, want to know why some men rape their wives or girlfriends, for example, which is rare a phenomenon in gender dynamics and domestic relationship indeed.   


As far as my reading of fetishism goes, the only kind of fetishism that fits to the original usage of De Brosse is sexual fetishism as the latter involves subjugating power, emotional attachment, and ritualistic activity.  I checked an online discussion on foot fetish.  I read strange rituals, emotional attachment, and uncontrollable urge among foot fetishists.


We also have to consider the history of the concept and term "fetish."  I think it was due to De Brosse's observation of his informants' fanatical treatment of and deep belief in their cultural things such as spirit masks, statues, and images that the term came out.  It was not used to describe a fixation to just about anything.  I also don't think my attachment to our national flag is the same as my attachment to statues of Jesus Christ or of our ancestral spirits.   

Comment by John McCreery on April 1, 2011 at 6:31am

We're all fetishists ... really, all of us, not just non-Western "others." Flags, for example, are fetishes, and, as Marx noted, commodities are Western society's greatest and perhaps most dangerous fetish.

An important observation, to be sure. It teeters, however, on the edge over which, when everything has become a fetish, the concept "fetish" becomes either vacuous, misleading, or both. Flag and commodity are fetishes in Marx's sense only insofar as they are seen a embodiments of value in and of themselves, detached from the social relations involved in their reproduction.

But if, for example, all commodities are fetishes, it is not the case that all fetishes are commodities. Consider the celebrity or work of art whose value is largely a function of uniqueness. In these cases, the branding involved is a constant struggle against the threat of commodification, i.e., reduction to the status of a uniform, reproducible product easily replaced by another. Also, it is, perhaps, this incessant struggle to avert anonymity and oblivion that  distinguishes what we might call "fetish in the age of reproduction" from the original West African fetishes and their counterparts in other polytheistic traditions around the world. It is characteristic of these, shall we call them "particularistic" fetishes that while they may be seen as powers in their own right, the claims of power made on their behalf are always embedded in particular, typically miraculous, histories that link them to particular social contexts/places.  


Comment by Ken Routon on April 1, 2011 at 4:20am
Also, my apologies for not having the entire thread of comments here. A bit like trying to jump into discussion that started before you arrived, having no idea how it got where it did.
Comment by Ken Routon on March 31, 2011 at 4:18pm
Just a couple quick thoughts. (1) We're all fetishists ... really, all of us, not just non-Western "others." Flags, for example, are fetishes, and, as Marx noted, commodities are Western society's greatest and perhaps most dangerous fetish. The question become how best to choose what our fetishes will be! Incidentally, check out Stallybrass's fascinating dicussion of "Marx's Coat." (2) There might be more parallels between using a perfume as a "charm" (your word, not mine), which suggests that some form of sympathetic magic is at work, to attract male customers, one one hand, and spirits or gods, on the other, than you might initially think.
Comment by M Izabel on March 29, 2011 at 9:50am

It's good that you asked that.  As I always situate an object in a network or system composed of actors and actions and between individuals and groups that engage in exchange and relationship, I don't stop on the power of an object that influences or controls the behavior of a person.  That is the pitfall of material culture where the object is the focal point of inquiry.  I am interested how an object is empowered and disempowered by a person and how it empowers and disempowers him or another person.  In this kind of analysis, a person who creates and gives power to an object is more powerful.  In a linear model, it is not object-person but person-object-person.   I think if we want to study things anthropologically, the second model makes sense.




Object-centered research where a cultural material is the focus of inquiry


statue of Christ - Catholic devotees

herbal medicine - sick person


Person-centered Research where a cultural material is a signifier or a bridge of a relationship between persons


Catholic priest - statue of Christ - Catholic devotee

medicine man - herbal medicine - sick person

Comment by John McCreery on March 29, 2011 at 9:14am

How do you expect to make progress in thinking about these things so long as your thinking is confined to the ways you imagine things have to be?

P.S. I make it a point not to equate things. I assume that they are never equal but may have some other relationship. Absolute difference is only one possibility and usually the least interesting.

Comment by M Izabel on March 29, 2011 at 7:44am

It doesn't have to be a statue of Christ.  It can be a talisman or a love potion which is still used and believed by some indigenous Filipinos.  If we strictly follow how de Brosse originally used the concept and term, "fetish," an object is more powerful than a person.  I think this is only true in a religious or mythical context that involves appropriate time, space, and event.  An African talisman in the collection of a White antique collector in Idaho is no longer a talisman in African sense but a collected cultural material.  It is so because it does not empower the collector the way it can a believer in Africa.

I don't think it is correct to use de Brosse's "fetish" outside of religious or mythical context.  If one insists, then all objects have power subjugating or influencing all humans the way talismans and love potions do to their users.  Even babies will become fetishists of baby bottles.  I don't think such analysis is sound and anthropological.  If material culturists think that way, good for them.  Anthropology to me is about humans.


When we situate an object in the midst of social relations, de Brosse's "fetishism" will not work, and Marx's on commodity is incomplete and incoherent.  This post simply suggests a different way of looking at the foreign in a local setting away from religious or commodity fetishism.  The very concept of fetish empowers what is fetishized and others the fetishist.  That the East has a "white fetish" is actually a subjugating statement.  It establishes, at least in perception, the power and dominance of the West.  Equating a bottle of coke to a bottle of love potion of dark roots and bitter coconut wine just does not make sense. 

Comment by John McCreery on March 29, 2011 at 4:45am

Once again, I observe how closely your thinking is bound by the Christian tradition in which you grew up.

Starting from the assumption that fetish=sacred=set apart absolutely from everyday things, the possibility of considering the family resemblances between fetishes and brands is excluded from the start. You would not, I suggest, be making this assumption if your thinking were grounded in a polytheistic worldview where the structure of the world is more fluid and the gods themselves have their ups and downs. You insist on a categorical difference where none may, in fact, exist.


The not very satisfactory Wikipedia article on fetish traces the term to Portuguese efforts to characterize the use of sacred objects in polytheistic West African religions, which, to be sure, I may be mistaking as more similar than they actually are to the Chinese popular religion that is my favorite prototype. It appears we need some ethnography instead of a priori assumptions.


That said, and taking what you say as a truthful representation of your own beliefs, I arrive at the interesting question of how making the sign of the cross when confronted with a crucifix differs from the behavior of an Apple fanboy confronted with a new iPad2 or a Porsche fanatic who wouldn't drive anything else. Please note, I'm not saying absolutely that there is no difference; I simply see no a priori case for assuming that an absolute difference exists.

Comment by M Izabel on March 29, 2011 at 2:22am
Becoming a fetishist of a product, i think, is not the same as becoming loyal to a brand that makes the product.  In fetishism, it is the power of an object that subjugates like a statue to a devotee.  Like myself, I'm not religious, but still a statue of a crucified Christ somehow makes me do the sign of the cross.  In being loyal to a brand or product, there is no subjugation as there are other alternatives to patronize.  As a consumer, I have the power to choose.  If it is affordable and useful according to my need and available funds, I'll go for the the product until a cheaper and better one comes out in the market.
Comment by John McCreery on March 29, 2011 at 1:43am
Suppose that we take a different tack. Instead of seeing fetishism and selling-buying as mutually exclusive alternatives, let's consider how they might be related. Here is one idea: The fetish is the ne plus ultra, the Holy Grail of marketing, the moment when the brand is perceived as a power in it's own right. The ad agency that used to employ me talks about a bonding scale: (1) awareness, the customer has seen the brand somewhere; (2) consideration, the customer includes the brand in a short list of alternatives from which the final selection will be made; (3) purchase, the customer buys the brand in question; (4) repeat purchase, the customer buys the brand more than once but sometimes chooses other brands; (5) heavy user/diehard fan, the customer refuses to consider any other brand. It is reasonable, I would argue, to say that by step five, the brand has become a fetish for the customer in question.

Is this, however, more than word play? That depends on whether fetish and the work of people who have written about fetishes point us to interesting questions about brands, or, conversely, whether brands and the work of people who write about brands point us to interesting questions about fetishes.


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