Foreign Perfume and Other Fetishes, Part I

Foreign Perfume and Other Fetishes, Part I

Some Notes on the Senses and Commodity Fetishism

There’s a Cuban joke that goes something like this: While visiting a local secondary school, Fidel turns to one of the children and, patting them affectionately on the head, says, “Tell me, son, what do you want to be when you grow up?” The child ponders the question for a moment but soon looks up and says, enthusiastically, “A foreigner!”


As anyone who has visited Havana in recent years knows, the foreign possesses an unusual attraction. Cubans have even invented a name for it; they call it “el yuma.” Walk down the streets of any just about any inner-city barrio, sit among the natives at just about any local dive, or listen to the pop music that spills out of just about any open window or passing Lada, and you’re sure to hear it. A truly weird moniker for almost anything and everything born in the capitalist metropoles of North America and Europe, el yuma seems to possess an almost magical allure. Apparently taken from Delmer Daves’ 1957 western The 3:10 to Yuma, the word, as Ana Maria Dopico notes, refers to what cannot be named, “ironically invoking a destination in a work of fiction that is never quite arrived at in order to signify a word that cannot be spoken.”  


I’ve often wondered about this fetish-like power of the foreign. An anecdote from my fieldwork comes to mind, one that intrigued me but never quite “fit” with the questions I was grappling with at the time. It was the night before my departure when my friend Martha suddenly rushed to her bedroom to retrieve something she wanted me to see. Rummaging through her dilapidated armoire, a disheveled repository of clothes and assorted miscellanea, Martha produced a now empty spray bottle, a gift given to her some years ago by a tourist. “If possible, and if it’s not a bother, could you bring me back some of this?,” she asked. And, using a phrase that’s difficult to render in English, she added, “¡Me encanta!” (lit., “It enchants me!,” but commonly translated as, “I love it!”).


What Martha had managed to retrieve from the depths of that motley pile of old shoes, photographs, letters, souvenirs, and discarded rationing books was the plastic carcass of a bottle of Calgon body mist (“perfume,” as she called it). She made me write down the name of the scent – “Hawaiian Ginger” – and stood over my shoulder as I did so. She didn’t want just any perfume; it had to be this one. 


Now, Martha couldn’t have known this (because she spoke no English) but the scent comes with its own epithet: “The dazzle of island sunshine meets the exhilarating rush of exotic fruit.” It’s this commodified promise of flight to the tropics and other exotic, far-away lands that defines the company’s marketing. Some may even recall the old commercial of the American housewife who, desiring an immediate escape from the spreading chaos that threatens to overcome her tenuous grip on the domestic order of things, utters her famous incantation,  “Calgon, take me away!”


When I returned six weeks later, I brought along an entire case of the stuff. I figured Martha would probably keep a couple bottles for her own personal use and sell the rest on the black market for a profit. But, no. Over the following weeks, as I watched Martha spray her hands and rub the scent into her cheeks and around her neck (as did everyone else in the household, including the men), and even invite some of her neighbors and friends who happened to be passing by to do the same (only to then vehemently refuse their offers to give up a substantial chunk of their monthly state salary to purchase one of the prized bottles), I realized that something else was going on. Although she would occasionally make a “gift” of the scent, Martha’s “yuma” perfume was definitely not for sale.


I still have not gotten around to digging deeper into the ethnographic nuances of this and similar manipulations of foreign commodities and imagery (the American flag, for example, was also vogue in men and women’s fashion at the time), and to what I feel are its potentially rich theoretical implications. But, one day, a few months ago, I was re-reading David Graeber’s wonderful essay on wampum, and another on fetishism and social creativity, and one of the lines just jumped right off the page at me: “The numinous, alien nature of the object is really the degree to which it reflects on that aspect of our actions that is, in a sense, alien to ourselves.” 


I’m really struck by the idea that those material objects that so often come to be regarded as the embodiment of “pure” value (things not considered commodities even if they began “life” that way, and that therefore cannot be assimilated to a system of equivalences; things that cannot be bought and sold), and that acquire a fetish-like character, (1) happen to come from very far away (i.e., they are often of foreign origin), and (2) that one possible reason for this lies in their capacity to draw to people’s attention to their own alterity. This seems counter-intuitive because it suggests that what really matters about the alterity of the object or image has little to do with the strangers who make them but, rather, the extent to which it makes us appear as strangers to ourselves.


The more I wrestle with this assertion, the more I’m reminded of what has by now become a kind of trite observation concerning the critical task of anthropology, its raison d’etre, usually rendered as, ‘making the strange familiar and the familiar strange.’ Since reading Graeber, it’s the latter part, the part about estrangement, that’s got my head swimming. Because what I find really interesting about Graeber’s discussion is the suggestion that what John Comaroff calls “critical estrangement” may not be unique to ethnography but a capacity already present in popular culture – that is, something people themselves already do (and, if so, probably much more effectively than anthropologists).


To be continued …



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Comment by Philip Swift on March 23, 2011 at 9:02pm


These are fascinating reflections, Ken.

They put me in mind of Alfred Gell’s arresting essay on the evocative powers of perfume in Umeda and elsewhere (‘Magic, Perfume, Dream…’). Perfumes, he says, participate in transcendence, in part because they are transcendent substances (‘spirit, halfway between thing and idea’).

Regarding your intuition of the relation between fetish-like objects (cosmetics, in this case) and alterity, I don’t know why, but for a long time I’ve been struck by the fact that the Japanese words for cosmetics (keshou 化粧) and culture (bunka 文化) share the same character 化, ka, ke, which means ‘transformation’. This has always seemed to me to be somehow suggestive – though of what, I’m not exactly sure!

Perhaps (in the light of your mentions of Taussig and Graeber) it has something to do with the idea that ‘the really real is really made up’ – something Taussig says somewhere, I think. Or, in other words: the relation between alterity and artifice.

Comment by M Izabel on March 15, 2011 at 7:45pm
I wonder if "yuma" is related  to the "cowboy" culture of  Arizona where Yuma is, considering the Western film you mentioned  was popular in Cuba.  Maybe calling an American yuma  means the latter is  a "cowboy" or from the land of the cowboys.  I find  this interesting compared to Mexico's "gringo" that could have come from "griego" (Greek), which also means foreign or  strange even in current English idiom as in  "It's all Greek to me."
Comment by M Izabel on March 15, 2011 at 5:21pm
Do  you think it was not foreignness but belongingness that made the body mist valuable  and important to Martha? Maybe since she could  not get away from the hard life in Cuba, where spending on a scent was wasteful, the  mist that represented  where it came from could  "take her away."  It would  be interesting if you could ask her how she got her first bottle.  Maybe  an American  tourist gave it to her or a relative from Miami sent it as a gift.  Either one could represent what was not Cuban--"luxury".
Comment by Huon Wardle on March 15, 2011 at 11:54am
I very much like this. The anthropology of Cuba tends to become separated from the rest of the Caribbean but sometimes the comparisons are worth thinking about. In the Anglophone West Indies, people simply say 'foreign' for this relationship - 'he gone to foreign', 'in foreign you find...' There is a paper by Dierdre Rose called 'Telling Treasure Tales' that picks up some of the ideas about value involved. In her case Rastafarians in Dominica celebrate the hidden treasure of the former Kalinago inhabitants; in their stories they 'know' where the treasure is but of course it would defeat the object if they actually went and turned it into money. In her case it is the past that is as we say 'a foreign country'.
Comment by John McCreery on March 15, 2011 at 6:44am
I certainly will!
Comment by Ken Routon on March 15, 2011 at 2:54am

John, thanks for kind words and helpful suggestions. As you can tell, these stories and ideas still need to marinate quite a bit longer. And there are more questions than answers to come. I don’t want to overlook social relations but I do want to somehow bring into dialogue people who are not really talking to each other. As my friends David Sutton and Leo Vournelis have called to my attention, Graeber has a theory value and social relations but nothing much to say about the senses. Those we might turn to for a theory of the senses (Seremetakis, Ingold, Jackson, and Howes come to mind) do not have much to say about value. So, stay tuned!   

Comment by John McCreery on March 15, 2011 at 1:51am

Ken, this is a wonderful post. It definitely makes one stop and think. I wonder, though, if it isn't a bit too phenomenological? By that I mean that it seems to approach the fetish, the object that embodies pure value and cannot be bought or sold (though from the case you describe, it can be given away), as though the explanation for its status is purely subjective: the allure lies in its ability "to make us appear as strangers to ourselves." In an old-fashioned social anthropological way, I find myself asking what has happened to the social relations affected by the objects in question. 

I find myself imagining a population of people who are, in their own eyes as well as ours, poor relative to others. Members of this population wish, perhaps even desperately wish, that they could be like "them" (the rich, powerful, talented, however they are conceived) instead of "us (poor, powerless, stuck in a place and with selves that they would rather not be). To have in one's hands even the tiniest piece of that dream is not only to be more like that "them" whose image embodies our aspirations; it is also to be special, not like the rest of the "us" that the "I" feels stuck as a member of. 

A gift is received from one of "them." For as long as it lasts, the recipient will be special, the one with the special friend who provides the gift, the one with something no one else has to share with them, if only for as long as the body mist lasts, Martha becomes a local goddess, a minor but real embodiment of "them," even able to bless others with a bit of that gift that she has received. 

If this reading is correct, then we have a story with plenty of ethnographical precedent, from Melanesian cargo cults to North American vision quests to Chinese spirit mediums to, yes, anthropologists who also distinguish themselves through encounters with special others that their "us" will, if we're still talking the old-fashioned game, never see; who bring home field notes ( the scriptures give to us by our gods, the informants) and objects charged with what appear to be numinous powers, if only because they are rare (though art, or workmanship, or the stories they evoke may also play a part.

The idea that every human being, not just the anthropologist, can long for and experience alterity is, I believe, an important insight. It recognizes something that all human beings share and chips away at the arrogance of interrogation, opening the way for conversation, instead. It may, however, be only the start of a longer story.


I think of Berger and Luckmann's The Social Construction of Reality. In that frame I see you as pointing to something important in the first moment of the dialectic: something appears inside the individual. There remain, however, two more steps to explore: the communication of the idea/feeling to others and their reception of it, with all three steps in constant motion as part of the processes by which societies both reproduce and transform themselves. The yearning for alterity is the starting point.


What is the payoff for Martha when she shares her body mist with others? How does this affect her relationships with them? What would happen if, instead of giving her the whole case, you had given one bottle each to her and her kith and kin? What difference would it make if you had shown up with a shipping container of the stuff instead of just a case?


Lots of issues to explore here.


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