William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish”

William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish.” Res: Anthropolgy and Aesthetics. No. 13 (Spring 1987): 23-45.

Rather than accepting and deploying the anthropological concept of “the fetish,” Pietz historicizes it. Far more than just a descriptor of “religious” practices, “fetishism” operated as an accusation that separated rational Europeans from irrational Africans, rational traders from deluded tribesmen, people from things, moderns from non-moderns. As Pietz demonstrates carefully, it was only peripherally related to pre-existing medieval religious concepts. Fetishism, in other words, did not come out of theological evaluation of a foreign religion—fetishism was never located within the traditional theological frameworks of witchcraft or idolatry. Rather, it was coined to describe undue allegiance to venial things, petty trifles, undeserving objects. Predicated on particular assumptions about materiality, fetishism served to reinforce a specific arrangement of power and the purity of the autonomous subject. Despite a little post-structuralist mustiness, the essay still offers much food for thought on religion and materiality, modern subjectivity, and “secular” exchange. In particular, the essay reminds us not to assume that exchange is–and has always been–secular and rational. Exchange offers a rich (and largely unexplored) field for analysis in religious studies.

According to Pietz, the word “fetish” derives from the Portuguese pidgin word “fetisso.” It emerged in the late 16th century on the West African coast. This is no curiosity: the term acquired its meaning in the context of colonial trade, bridging two cultures that were practically incomprehensible to each other. The European (primarily Portuguese and Dutch) traders used the term “fetish” to describe objects worn or ingested by the Africans, which were thought to be “quasi-personal powers” that could be coerced into exerting force on the material world (40). The Europeans found two major problems with the fetish—but both concerned economics. First, as far as the traders were concerned, all objects possessed exchange value. However, this exchange value easily became “distorted” in the fetish object. Africans would overvalue “trifles” as fetishes. Although often highly profitable, trading such items became much more complicated than “rational” exchange would require because the object of desire held personal, social, and/or religious value in addition to its exchange value. In short, what the Europeans regarded as the “secular” rationality of the market broke down in the face of the fetish. Second, in order to engage in trade with locals, Europeans frequently found themselves required to swear oaths on a fetish object. Instead of entering contracts between autonomous, rational individuals, Europeans had to enter social relations via “quasi-religious ceremonies” (45). It was precisely such “perverse superstitions” in matters of trade that conditioned the general theory of fetishism that developed later.

Pietz identifies four major aspects of the idea of the fetish. First, the fetish always denoted objects, things, “mere” matter—the fetish maintained “untranscended materiality” (23). The fetish concerned what things were and weren’t, what they could or couldn’t do, what their proper worth might be. Second, the fetish is not a natural concept, but arose out of a very particular historical encounter between two cultures in the context of colonialism. The term retains the weight of this historical encounter in every subsequent usage. Third, the “meaning and value” of the concept of the fetish depends on a particular social order (23). The concept of the fetish is an accusation that only makes sense under particular arrangements of power, arrangements which the term itself helps to establish and support. Fourth, the fetish served as an antithesis to the autonomous subject. Worn on the body of an individual, the fetish exerted its power from the outside. The accusation of fetishism sought to establish the proper bounds and responsibilities of the embodied subject.

Review by A.T. Coates