Foreign Perfume and Other Fetishes, Part III

It’s interesting in light of this to compare David Graeber’s and Peter Pel’s (1998) work on the fetish. Although both Graeber and Pels acknowledge all the same features that distinguish the fetish, they seem to reach strikingly different conclusions. In Graeber’s discussion, the fetish illustrates the tendency of human groups to treat their own social creations as somehow having power them rather than the other way around. His main point about the circulation of objects of “alien” or foreign value is that they expose the constructed nature of social reality, and thus people’s power to change what would otherwise be seen as natural and immutable.


But Pels seems to challenge the veracity of this claim. The fetish, he argues, throws into doubt the very notion that our worlds are nothing beyond what we’ve made them to be. The fetish, Pels says, “sits uneasily with the new magic of constructionism, which tends to treat the social as nothing but a human product and to see the materiality of social life as just an empty carrier or representation of human intention and artifice.” Pels points out that the discourse on representation and social constructionism is essentially idealist in orientation, which holds there is no meaning or value to be discovered in material objects that was not put there by human beings.


The fetish throws social constructionism into question in two principal ways. First, as an object characterized by its “irreducible materiality,” the power of the fetish cannot be explained as the mere material embodiment or representation of projected human meanings and values. Its power is self-contained and that power is its very materiality. Second, the fetish is an unruly object that trespasses across various categorial boundaries and cultural divides and thus occupies what Pels describes as, “a border zone where we cannot expect the stability of meaning that is routine in everyday life.”


One unfortunate shortcoming of social constructivism is that it fails to appreciate the material process of the mediation of knowledge through the senses. It is through the senses that we come into contact with things. Fetishism recognizes that human passions (which cannot be contained, and resist ideological incorporation) and desires emerge within the encounter or dialectic between human sensory routines and material objects. It also recognizes the evocative power of material objects and their capacity to shape us as much as we shape them. “Not only are humans as material as the material they mold, but humans themselves are molded, through their sensuousness, by the ‘dead’ matter with which they are surrounded.” 


I’ve been thinking about what implications this may have for my interest in estrangement. As I mentioned before, Graeber seems to suggest that what really matters about the alterity of ‘objects of alien value’ has little to do with the strangers who make them but, rather, the extent to which they make us appear as strangers to ourselves. Pels, it seems, is pointing to yet another kind of estrangment. And its not just that the radical alterity of the fetish makes strange what are familiar, Western ways of thinking about the relationship between humans and the material world. Pels also talks about how the unique or anomalous quality of material objects (which would include strange, exotic objects) can disrupt the everyday rhythm of things when we come into sensuous contact with them. So, for instance, he mentions the power of a striking smell, sound, taste, touch, vision etc. (i.e., one that stands out from the ordinary for any number of different reasons) to break through the everyday and evoke some memory or history of something that would otherwise remain forgotten, hidden, or lost. So, what he’s getting at is how the familiar cadence of the everyday is made strange by the sudden intrusion within our sensuous experience of a novel or otherwise unusual material object. Nadia Seremetakis adds to this by discussing estrangement of the everyday through circulations of the “foreignness” of the past.


Pels rightly points to what it is about the fetish that has for so long struck the Western theoretical imagination. As a material object, the fetish is not only alive but an animated entity that can dominate persons. But Pels is really only interested in the fetish to make a point about “materiality” more generally. Pels attempts to demonstrate how material objects are not merely passive entities, blank slates upon which humans inscribe or invest meaning, but are endowed with an agency or power all their own that shapes us as much as we shape them.


Although I agree, I do have some issues with his particular ethnographic elucidation of how this might work. His example is the “rarity.” The power of the rarity is precisely the unique status it acquires in resisting assimilation to existing taxonomies and systems of representation (due to its scarcity, its freakish aberration from a norm, its foreign origin etc.). Its power is its difference or alterity, an “otherness” that endows it with the power to evoke wonder and estrangement. And it is because of this that some worried that, like the fetish, the rarity’s evocative power might “paralyze” the human subject – that is, arrest their agency and reverse its direction, a case of the material world dominating and controlling people rather than the other way around.


But the problem with Pels’ ethnography is that the evocative power of the rarity is traced to an “otherness” it gains solely in relation to certain cultural forms and systems (forms of reprentations, taxonomies, epistemologies etc.). For instance, whereas a babushka doll might have evocative power for Americans, it is less likely that it would have a similar potency in Russia, where it is (I can only assume) a likely mundane and unremarkable material object. Pels thus seems to limit the agency of material objects to those that, under certain cultural or historical conditions, stand out, call our attention, or grab hold of us only because they are unique, anomalous, freakish, extraordinary etc. This would mean that the agency of material objects is relative; it depends on what kind of object we’re talking about and exactly who or what culture is coming into contact with it.  


What Pels is getting at, I think, is something Merleau-Ponty already discussed long ago, especially in his discussion of what he called “flesh.” By “flesh,” he wasn’t introducing a terminological substitute for the body. Rather, “flesh” is all about the relation of material bodies with other material bodies. The example I remember is this: when I, say, reach out and press my palm against the trunk of a tree, obviously it can be said that I’m “touching” the tree. In this sense, I’m the “subject” of an action and, as subject of this action, I constitute the tree as “object.” But there is also a very real sense in which we could also say that the tree is also touching me, that I’m the object and the tree the subject. Now, the tree does not have intentionality in the sense that it reaches out and touches or takes hold of me. But when I press my hand against the tree, it is not as if my hand passes throught it. There is a material resistance such that the tree can be said to be pressing against me as much as I press against it. I’m touching as much as I’m being touched. When it comes to perception or sensory experience, I cannot simply impose onto the material world any quality, value, or meaning I so want or desire. The tree presses back against me; my flesh gives way to its protrusions, ridges, and other tactile features of its surface. If this didn’t happen perception wouldn’t be possible in the first place. My gaze or my hand would pass straight through things; I could project onto them and fill their emptiness with any imaginary value or meaning that suited my fancy. It as, as Pels put it, “matter strikes back.” Sensory perception is this two-way street in which I’m always both subject and object, both acting and acted upon.


I’m not sure yet if M-P had anything to say about how we might get from “flesh” (the chiasmatic-like nature of the relation between material bodies) to “fetish” (material objects that dominate persons) but it’s worth considering. In any case, whereas in Pels’ ethnography only unique or anomalous objects have this capacity to strike back, for M-P, all material phenomena do. Of course, M-P wasn’t talking about culture. All of this “brackets” culture and history. But, still, this might help us understand how even mundane material objects within a given cultural arena might exert a kind of agency or plastic power all their own. 


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Comment by Soumhya Venkatesan on February 13, 2013 at 1:22pm

Ken, thank you for this very interesting discussion, which I have just found two years too late! I am grappling with statues that become/instantiate embodied gods in Hindu India. Priests who animate the statues are insistent that it is their work that turns a statue into a god. Notwithstanding this, they are also insistent that once a god enters a statue he/she can defy attempts to remove him/her. I have been working with Pels's distinction between animism and fetishism and am thinking about the conditions under which a methodological animist (one who insists that 'spirit' is inserted into things by human intention and action) can become a methodological fetishist (one who believes that the power of a thing is because of the thing itself). However, this transition is not smooth and people backtrack and seem to shift between both positions reasonably often. A key point is that they are in no doubt that the 'spirit' actually exists and is qualitatively different to them even if it might partake in similar desires and intentions.

Comment by John McCreery on April 7, 2011 at 5:14am

Reviewing the comments so far, I detect a muddle whose origins lie in the different intellectual spheres in which the term "fetish" has become popular. There seems to be broad agreement that a fetish is both set apart from other objects and powerful in its own right. There are, however, significant differences in emphasis in the way in which the other objects, the background against which the fetish is foregrounded, and the nature of the power in question is conceived. In the psychiatric/psychoanalytic tradition in which fetishes are regarded as pathologies, a fetish is typically an obsession with some particular part of the body or with clothing associated with some particular part of the body, foot and shoe fetishes are good examples. In the Marxist tradition the commodity as fetish is separated from the site and social relations involved in its production; a person who buys a can of soup or an iPod, for example, sees neither the factory in which it was made nor the supply chain and relationships between capital and labor involved in its production. One might note, too, the difference in scope between foot fetishes, which are focused on one particular part of the body, and commodity fetishism, which, as a theoretical concept comprehends all sorts of things that have been commodified.

 If, moreover, we abstract the two criteria mentioned above, being set apart from ordinary things and powerful in its own right, we instantly see similarities with conventional definitions of art and the sacred. Both works of art and deities are set apart from everyday life, seen and interacted with in consecrated spaces, and seen has powerful in their own right. But the power in question is not taken to be evidence of pathology (unless one is a philistine or dogmatic atheist; "I don't see what they see in that crap" is the shared starting point for critique from these perspectives). And neither deities or works of art are commodified. Instead of being mass-produced in standardized units, they are imagined or created has possessing unique individual properties. There may be other variations (what have I missed here?). The point is that the significance of "fetish" as a theoretical term varies depending on the context of its use, and there is little point in countering the usage of "fetish" in one context with its usage in another, unless the comparison points to something interesting in the data under analysis.

Comment by Ken Routon on April 3, 2011 at 11:39pm
You're last point is well taken, and one that has already been made by both Pietz, Graeber, Taussig, Pels and others.
Comment by M Izabel on April 3, 2011 at 11:35pm
There are dogs who perform tricks because there are treats that  positively reinforce expected behavior.  I read  somewhere what  Graeber wrote about how Europeans characterized the cultural materials in West Africa as fetishes although they were not really too fetishized  by the  locals as they were part of their daily lives.  I  find  that to be a critique  of the  early European explorer's concept of "fetish"  more than anything  else.  If  there was fetishism, it would be among  the  Europeans who were looking and digging for gold in  West Africa during the time of  de Brosse.  Imagine how they went that far just to act out their urge and response to the powerful influence and allure of gold.
Comment by Ken Routon on April 3, 2011 at 11:20pm
I'm not sure we can so easily sweep aside these issues - which, by the way, have consumed some of our most brilliant ethnographers and social theorists, most recently including the likes of Michael Taussig and David Graeber, among many others - just because dogs like tasty snacks. And, by the way, the last time I checked my dog doesn't bow down before bacon snacks she herself has made and then beg it for favors.
Comment by M Izabel on April 3, 2011 at 11:14pm
I visited my folks yesterday, bringing them a plastic bag of goodies. As  usual, their  dog  licked my hands  and  the bag.  I always buy  him a  treat.  The bag is  a hint that I have something  for  him  as  he always  excitedly wiggles  his tail when he sees me with  a bag.  Remembering this  post,  I wonder if the  dog  bone  or  the  plastic bag was  a fetish  to the  dog and  the  dog was a fetishist, considering  the arguments here about fetishism.  If so, we have a problem here-- the "social science" of dogs.
Comment by John McCreery on April 3, 2011 at 3:17pm

Ken, sorry about that brain dump in my last reply. I had begun to write it. Then we had a Skype call from the amazing daughter. As that ended I realized that I had to get showered and dressed and race off to Tokyo for a practice with the men's chorus to which I belong. I saw the unfinished message on the screen and a bout of logorrhea ensued. 


Going back to read more carefully your descriptions of what Graeber and Pell have to say, I find myself responding like the Sufi judge who says, "Yes, yes" to one side in a court case then says the same thing to the other side as well. I find myself thinking, "Is meaning socially constructed? Yes." Then "Is there a world that contains things that resist the constructions we impose upon them? Yes."


To me, the interesting anthropological question is why either of these statements should be seen as controversial. I could, of course, invoke Marx, "Men make history but not under conditions of their own choosing." But why not simple common sense? Aren't we, for ever, in everyday life making mistakes and correcting them, adjusting ascribed meanings in relation to evidence that appears to contradict them. "Is that a sparrow? No, it's a Robin." "I just added the sugar. No, that was salt. Have to start over again." "The wine had turned to vinegar." "I woke up thinking, 'Another beautiful spring day.' Then a 9.0 earthquake hit Japan." Or, underlining social construction, "I didn't like the way you were looking at him." "His pants were falling down." What human being does not find him or herself spending a large part of his or her life negotiating the meaning of things with others, with whom they may be working, playing, joking or quarreling?


From this perspective the problematic issue is preoccupation of both authors with a class of things called "fetishes." Why do fetishes in particular, attract so much attention? It is this question that directs our attention to intellectual history, for the answer is likely to be found in scholarly obsessions that less obsessed folk may find a bit absurd. 

I mentioned A.N. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World. Whitehead observes that the scientific revolution that blossomed in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries had a curious effect. It bifurcated the world in which we humans live. From one angle, the division was between what Locke called primary and secondary qualities, the former qualities such as mass, scale, location, and movement that lend themselves to mathematical description and were held to be the underlying causes of things; the latter all the rest of experience that was said to exist only inside the minds processing input from the senses. From another, the division was between what Descartes called mind and body, with will and judgment trapped inside the mind, isolated from the "material" world described in terms of, yes, what Locke called primary qualities. 

It is this bifurcation of the world into mind vs body=secondary vs primary qualities that the fetish intrudes. If one is to take those who believe in fetishes seriously, there is mind IN matter, which contradicts our current assumptions about the nature of things. This must, if we accept Lockean/Cartesian premises, be a mistake. That in turn raises the question, why do people make this mistake?


The most plausible answer I know points to the helplessness of human infants. Unable to manipulate the things they encounter, they attempt to communicate instead. And, low and behold, it works, a cry brings mother to the rescue, to change the diaper, feed the hunger, provide the desired cuddle. Then, mother, the first object to be distinguished in the blooming buzzing confusion of the infant's earliest experience becomes the prototype for other objects. In brief, the experience of communicating with another agent precedes the experience of physical control over material things that have no say in how they are handled. I know in my own case, that I still live with the consequences. Why else would I swear at my computer when it crashes, as if it were an animate being deliberately inflicting pain on me?


But this way of approaching the problem leaves untouched the original bifurcation of the world to which Whitehead pointed. A more radical approach may query the bifurcation itself and ask how to overcome it. 


Perhaps, instead of simply talking about trees that push back (Ents, anyone?) or asking, a la Gregory Bateson, if the blind man's stick is a tool or part of the blind man himself, we should take a look at what our colleagues in psychology, cognitive science and design are talking about. Consider, for example, the phenomenon called affordance....


Comment by John McCreery on April 2, 2011 at 5:20am
Ken, allow me to restrict "Poppycock" to the sentence to which I applied the adjective, which still looks to me like explaining fire by invoking phlogiston. It does not apply to your thoughtful attempt to compare the approaches of Graeber and Pel to the concerns to which the widespread use of "materiality" points. I wonder, however, if it mightn't be a useful move to further widen the scope of the discussion and consider these approaches in relation to broader discussions, e.g., the bifurcation of the world into primary and secondary qualities noted by A.N. Whitehead in Science and the Modern World, which appears at least as early as Locke in the British empiricist tradition; the tendency of infants, toddlers and sailors to anthropomorphize objects, as in "The chair hit me" or "She doesn't like this weather"—a shared human experience that makes the Sorcerer's Apprentice scene in Disney's Fantasia as classic an example of objects dominating a (quasi-)human subject; the history of modern art leading up to Abstract Expressionism, Informel, and Gutai (Concrete) in Japan;  or, in the history of anthropology itself, the oscillation between museum collection building and abstract theorizing exemplified, to me at least, by Edmund Leach remarking that he wasn't at all interested in things like costume and hair style among the Burmese hill peoples he described in Political Systems in Highland Burma, and the swing back to the material exemplified by the work of Daniel Miller, et. al. At any rate, the point I am trying to make before rushing out the door is that we shouldn't see exclusively as a parochial debate among anthropologists a conversation with a much broader history that includes many comparable threads.
Comment by M Izabel on April 1, 2011 at 8:46pm

I suspect we have the problem about the materiality of things because we view their conceptual power to be formal, inherent, and permanent.  If we view an object as a mere vehicle or instrument for capturing an idea or stabilizing a meaning, we will not have such problem.  


Not long ago, there was a big news among Hindus all over the world that the statues of Ganesh sipped milk.  After Indian scientists explained the physics behind it and how porous surfaces sipped liquids or how friction worked in smooth surfaces, the fanatical talk about the milk-drinking Hindu statues subsided.  It is clear that an object does things because of how we want it to perform or function.  A thing is what it is because of the idea of a person who conceptualizes, makes, and uses it.


Even the spirits in things are temporary and persons-dependent.  Statues of Christ or of ancestral spirits are defiled after believers are convinced that there is no god or that the supreme being they worship is the wrong one.  A talisman, too, "anting-anting" to Filipinos, has no permanent or inherent power.  It cannot function without a person's belief, ritual, and attachment.  When it no longer brings luck and protects its user or believer, it is nothing but a stone, a metal, or a pouch of something that has no value and can be thrown away.


In my reading, the power of an object, if we situate it in a system or network of actors and actions, is dependent on a person (actor) and his perception (action).  An object, therefore, is the material form of a concept.  It formally stabilizes a meaning or idea that is thought and created by a person.  A haunted house is no longer haunted when it is blessed and paranormal activities happening inside suddenly cease.  Things, like a haunted house, are nothing but homes to our ideas about the world, concepts about life and living, beliefs in anything powerful and extraordinary, and imaginings of the different and the strange that are not human and  ordinary.


Comment by Ken Routon on April 1, 2011 at 6:43pm

@M Izabel Please see my comment below.

Just for clarification. The point was that, when it comes to fetishes, from an emic perspective, the very materiality of the object is its power. I think that - again, from an emic perspective - this is true. People do not describe the power of the fetish as being put there or projected onto matter by themselves. And although in the case of, say, Cuban prendas or nganga, there may be spirits said to be imprisoned within the object, it is the object itself that is alive; the object itself is treated as a person. As I mentioned earlier, this, of course, gets at a troubling paradox - not just with fetishes but with all social constructions. People tend to treat their own creations as having control over them rather than the other way around, which is an issue Graeber has wrestled with quite a bit.


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