Friday, February 08, 2008

Michael Taussig - The devil and commodity fetishism in South America (pt. 2)

Karl Marx's concept of 'commodity fetishism' takes a central place in Michael Taussig's analysis of devil worship in South America. However, in "The devil and commodity fetishism in South America", Taussig neglects to trace the genealogy of Marx's concept. This is all the more remarkable, because the concept's origin is in anthropology and Taussig is an anthropologist.

So let's trace the genealogy of 'commodity fetishism' and see what this genealogical research reveals about Taussig and Marx.


"The term, “fetish,” (...) emerged out of intercultural trading relations in West Africa in which European traders argued that Africans, unlike European Christians, had no stable system of value in which they could evaluate objects. Overvaluing apparently trifling objects such as feathers, bones, and cloth used in ritual, Africans undervalued the trade goods brought by Europeans. In this context, European Christians referred to African ritual objects as “fetishes,” a term derived from the Portuguese feitiço, referring to nefarious instruments of magic and witchcraft." (sourced here).

Fetishism as a concept was coined by Charles de Brosses. This French 17th century nobleman and academic published his dissertation "Du culte des dieux fétiches ou Parallèle de l'ancienne religion de l'Egypte avec la religion actuelle de Nigritie" in 1760 (find the French-language text here).

The dissertation brought about an important conceptual innovation in the historiography of religions, in developing the thesis that the mythology and religious life of the ancients (in this case: the ancient Egyptians) can be understood by studying contemporary 'primitive' cultures. Underlying this thesis was the idea of a common humanity of 'black savages' and the ancients. De Brosses stressed that all man had receive intellect from God - an idea which was far from commonly accepted in his era.

For De Brosses the veneration of material objects, deemed to have sacred powers, was a universal form of religion amongst 'primitive' people, interpreting religious practices of inter alia ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Celts, Gauls, Black West-Africans, and Iriquois, as "fetishism". No explanation for the universality of fetishism was deemed necessary by De Brosses, other than the fear and insanity to which the human mind is susceptible.

Anticipating an evolutionist conception of culture, De Brosses characterized fetishist people 'puerile'.

A young Karl Marx read a German translation of 'Du culte des dieux fetiches' in 1842-1843 and based his theory of 'commodity fetishism' on it, as expanded in Das Kapital. The theory of commodity fetishism posits that fetishism is not limited to 'primitive' cultures. Technologically advanced, capitalist cultures know their own form of fetishism, and this is the fetishism of the capitalist commodity.

In capitalism like in any other society, products are created as the result of human relationships. However, in societies with a capitalist mode of production, the production process is presented as something that is abstracted from human relationships, as something that exists independently from the human world. Taussig illustrates Marx's theory with metaphors that are used for capitalist processes: the "economic climate", "an active market", "a sagging dollar". And if the production process is presented a something endowed with a life of it's own, so is the capitalist product. It appears as if it had a life independent from the humans who have created and use it. Thus, they are fetishes.

Marx: "[In] the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. (...) The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour as long as they take the form of commodities, vanishes (...), so soon as we come to other forms of production." (sourced here). In capitalism, commodities come to dominate humans and their relationships: capitalist product are venerated, almost deemed to have sacred powers - like the fetishes of De Brosse's primitives.

Like the French nobleman, Marx ascribed to an evolutionist view on human civilization, expecting mankind to outgrow capitalism and it's fetishism of commodities.

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