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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Fetish: towards a theory of powerful things

Omur Harmansah
A response to Discussion Week 3: Problem of the fetish

Posted: February 25, 2007 Sunday 11:31 am.

Work In progress!

"Works of art are true fetishes only if they are material objects at least as intensely personal as the water of tears."
William Pietz quoting Michel Leiris on Alberto Giacometti, (Pietz 1985:12).

William Pietz's ethno-historical study of the concept of the fetish in the 16th-17th century context of the colonial encounter of the Portuguese and the African societies offers a concrete and also tremendously mind-opening paradigm for developing a theory of materiality and object agency. This essay is in a way a quick summary of my ideas concerning Pietz's work on fetish: I have been thinking about this for over a year in the context of the Material Worlds class. The significance of these three articles published in the journal Res: Anthropology and aesthetics between 1985 and 1988 is not simply because he offers a complex ethno-historical account of fetish as a postcolonial concept that emerged out of the encounter between Europeans and Africans in a very specific historical context, a product of a fascinatingly heterogenous socio-symbolic processes. However, Pietz goes beyond such historicizing endeavour and gives us some brilliant theoretical glimpses that opens doors for developing an overarching theory of material culture, a poetics of making. Most significantly fetish emerges from this particular ethnographic research as a powerful object, at once intimately personal and social, that gathers in itself events, places, things and people, but resists the sickeningly representational discourse of Western humanities. Fetish in this context is not a representation of something other than itself, not an idol, material signifier or image that points to or houses a supernatural being, not the representational mirror that places it only secondary and epiphenomenal to the real world. Pietz's work therefore also operates as a severe critique of the representational and symbolism-based discourses in Western art historical discourse, its structuralism, blind-folded methodologies.

To understand the fetish in its 16th-17th century colonized African context, one has to leave aside all the more recently accumulated associations of the concept of the fetish, especially 18th century Enlightenment theories of religion of philosophy with its use of the fetish to develop a general theory of primitive religions, Marx's discussion of commodity fetishism, psychoanalytical theory of the sexual fetish and early 20th century modernisms's fetish as art object. Pietz instead discusses the fetish of the intercultural spaces of Portuguese colonization of West Africa with the help of a rigorous ethno-historical contextualization within Europian religious and colonial history (Christian feudal, merchant capitalist) and in response to African material culture and cult practices, and a vital theory of materiality. The fetish derives its power from its "irreducable materiality": its ontological substance and the process of its making is the sole source of its efficacy and not any representational or encapsulated spiritual power. It is by its nature, a heterogenous object, a gathering of sorts, of a variety of desires, beliefs, narrative systems, and the commemorative materialization of "a unique originating event". It continously configures itself by calling that event to memory, repeatedly invoking a concrete sense of collectivity, through its very materiality, the material components and technologies gathered in it. The originating event is usually understood as an abrupt encounter of radically different worlds. In its making and throughout its life history, the fetish develops an intense relationship with an individual's body (with power over desires, actions, health and self-identity). It is worn about the body to achieve tangible affects, such as protection or cure. Fetish points to the human body as a material locus of action and desire.

As Merleau-Ponty suggests, "all historical objects are fetishes" (Pietz 1985: 5).


Pietz, William; 1985-88. “ The problem of the fetish”

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