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.