It would seem that the manipulation of objects of alien value – or, the making and manipulation of images of foreign peoples and things (and I may be confusing here two issues that are best treated separately) – might serve at least two possible functions, both the flipside of the other. In both cases, it would appear that what we’re really talking about is the capacity of foreign objects/images to provoke estrangement (even if the subject of this estrangement may differ in each case). If so, there are some striking ironies at play.
(1) First, there is the kind of estrangement Taussig is at pains to point out. When, say, the Merina make a kind of fetish out of European-manufactured silver coins, or when Cuna women include images of Western commodities in their molas, they might be understood to be calling attention to the fetish-like character and mythic naturalism of the foreign society from which they come. By making a fetish out of Western society’s fetishes, they might be exercising a kind of vernacular form of “critical estrangement,” revealing as a characteristic of the West that which it usually attributes only to its cultural others, which is of course what Marx did when he spoke of the fetishism of commodities.
When Europeans subsequently come into contact with this unfamiliar appropriation of an object or image with which they are all too familiar – e.g., a silver coin or mirror used in a “primitive” fetish or an effigy of a colonial officer carved into a Cuna curing baton – they just might be jolted into realizing and, perhaps, coming to terms with, what is alien or strange about their own society and culture.
Appropriations of Western material culture, in addition to cultural practices like mimesis and parody, would seem to expose construction – social constructions of value, meaning, reality etc., or, at the very least, have the potential of doing so (whether they actually do or not is, of course, a serious question that one would have to address). Taussig says that all this is suggestive of a whole new sort of anthropology, one that defines its object of study not as the Other but as the reflection of the West in the mimetic magic of its Others, the West itself as mirrored in the eyes and handiwork of its Others.
But this is all about how “their” appropriations, imitations, and parodies of “us,” and our stuff, harbors the capacity to make us appear strange to ourselves. But, as far as I can tell, Taussig, unlike Graeber, says next to nothing about how all this can also be estranging for them.
(2) As much as they might serve as a foil in the construction of a shared identity, the manipulation of objects of alien value or images of foreign peoples, as Graeber seems to suggest, could also be about provoking estrangement among the people doing the manipulating.
Setting aside the question as to whether wampum really revealed to the Iroquois the constructed nature of their own society (which seems unlikely), making it possible for them to actively intervene in their own affairs and reconstitute themselves as a community following a period of disintegration through gift-giving, the potential estranging character of the alien object is even more striking when we consider the fact that more often than not estrangement really doesn’t seem to amount to much.
What is most fascinating, and disturbing, is that even when people know this about their own society and culture – that our “world” is not natural, that it is a kind of make-believe that by pretending otherwise, paradoxically, becomes for all practical purposes “real” – it doesn’t seem to matter all that much. If we’re not totally mystified by our social creations, and therefore know they are not natural, then why does this really not seem to make much of a difference? Why do we act as if we didn’t know this? Even if the Iroquois seem to have acted on the realization that they made their own reality and therefore could re-make it, most of the time, Graeber says, as the case of Merina sampy illustrates, people do not behave like this. The Merina, for example, seem to know that the king is not really divine, that they make the king, but that this doesn’t matter much because most of the time people go about things as if this were not the case. So, Graeber says, even though the king is not really divine, he might as well be. And, so, all this seems to lead to a kind of dead end.
This is probably best illustrated with the case of European merchants encountering what they came to call “fetishes” along the West African coast. They must have, at some point, had the sneaking suspicion that value was arbitrary (an idea “alien” to the emergent mercantile culture form which they came). But even if they did have this suspicion, they ultimately recoiled from it, not allowing themselves to come to terms with it full implications. They chose to ignore it, to go on acting as if their attribution of value to things was indeed objective and natural.
It is interesting, in light of this, to consider the role estrangement played in Marx’s use of the image of the “fetish” to describe the commodity form. An image which until then had only been conceived as something belonging to alien cultural worlds, Europe’s primitive “others,” was now being used to describe an aspect European material culture itself, an attempt to get Westerners to realize what was really strange about capitalism. That the image of the “fetish” would play such a prominent role in Marx’s “critical estrangement” with regard to the commodity form throws another fascinating to twist to all this. But if the tendency is to recoil from this realization that commodities are fetishes that ultimately reflect our strange constructions of reality then what does any of this matter?
To be continued …