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 …