A.T. Coates

PhD Candidate in American Religion, Duke University.

Tag: economics

Bethany Moreton, “To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise” (2009)

Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard, 2009).

Wal-Mart Moms forged today’s America. It seems a cheap compliment to call a book smart and well-written, but this one sets a new bar for each adjective. First, the smart argument. Moreton tells a new story about the rise of conservatism after World War II. Instead of towing the party lines of economic, political, and religious history, Moreton demonstrates that neo-evangelicalism, free enterprise, and political conservatism mingled promiscuously. And they met each other in Wal-Mart. By wedding value with family values, Wal-Mart turned consumerism into a Christian duty. A responsible Christian mom became a Wal-Mart mom. By modeling the service industry on a patriarchal Christian family, Wal-Mart managed to bring the evangelical wives of Sun Belt yeomen through the doors as employees and customers; they also made it culturally acceptable for old-fashioned Sun Belt men to work in the service industry. This family business headquartered in the Ozarks helped shift the nation’s economic and political might from the unionized industrial northeast/Midwest to the freewheeling Sun Belt—and the nation shifted, so Wal-Mart’s fortunes lifted. They ran the best mom and pop store in small towns across the country, then became global missionaries of down home capitalism. In Moreton’s telling, the story of Wal-Mart’s rise does not represent manifest destiny or commonsense logic: “[Christian free enterprise] was an unstable compound, the product in part of impressive agglomerations of power and money. But it was also the progeny of pragmatic responses to real needs, of idealistic hope in redemption, and of the elevation of service from its devalued position in the broader culture” (269-270).

Second, the sizzling writing. Moreton’s prose cooks. Practically every paragraph includes an apt metaphor, a clever turn of phrase, a spicy verb, or some kind of witty wordplay. Here is an arbitrary example: “Like postwar evangelicalism, the country music industry, or the Republican Party’s ‘Southern Strategy,’ the [Sun Belt] region’s service sector spun traditional straw into radical new gold” (50). This sentence sits mid-paragraph. Mid. Paragraph. This is how Moreton’s book works so well: she shows how ingredients as diverse as country music and Richard Nixon stewed together in the world of Wal-Mart. There’s no monocause or grand narrative here, but only ad hoc, unstable mixtures of cultural ingredients held together by superb writing. Form supports content.

Review by A.T.

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

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