Sunday, February 10, 2008

Michael Taussig - The devil and commodity fetishism in South America (pt. 3)

In this post, the third part of a short series, I continue the exploration of the concept of 'fetishism' in Marx's thought.

In 1871, four years after the publication of the first book of Das Kapital, the British ethnologist Edward Burnett Tylor published his most influential work, "Primitive Culture". Building on the work of Charles De Brosses, Tylor considered fetishism to be a special case of animism, a form of religion in which all things are considered to have a soul: a fetish is a material object with a soul. Tylor believed that 'primitive' people are animists because they are not able to distinguish between dreams and waking consciousness. When primitives dream about dead relatives, they believe that these relatives must be alive in some non-corporeal form. The doctrine of spiritual beings developed out of dreams. And this doctrine was closely linked to the concept of the 'soul': death transformed the individual soul into a spiritual being. Because the transformative function of death is essential, the first rites of mankind we mortuary rites and ancestor worship. (Read an article on Tylor's concept of animism here).

In 1912, more than 40 years later (!), a book was published which would sound the death knell for Tylor's interpretation of fetishism: Émile Durkheim's "Les Formes Élementaires De La Vie Religieuse" (The elementary forms of religious rites). Unlike Tylor, Durkheim did not believe primitives to be blindly credulous. He pointed out that while some dreams might give rise to the idea of a spiritual double, many more dreams are resistant to an animist explanation. Further, the fact that primitives use religious ideas to explain some oneiric phenomena, does not prove that all religious ideas originate in dreams. On the contrary: far from having been able to provide religion with a fundamental idea on which it rests, animist interpretations of dreams presupposed and were the result of a religious system already constituted.

Durkheim pointed out that there is no conclusive evidence that mortuary rites and ancestor worship are in fact the oldest, most primitive forms of religion: such forms of religion have not proven to be central to the least technologically advanced of cultures.

Finally, if - as De Brosse and Tylor suppose - religion is merely based on hallucinations without any relation to reality whatsoever, it is unimaginable that religion could have molded human consciousness so powerfully and so lastingly. Saying that the primitives are mad, is no explanation at all.

Durkheim's criticism of Tylor's theory of animism has devastating consequences for Marx's concept of 'commodity fetishism' as well. Capitalists - like primitives - are not blindly credulous. Businessmen using expressions like 'an active market' and 'a sagging dollar' know full well these are merely metaphors, used to refer to complex socio-economical phenomena in a convenient shorthand. There is no evidence whatsoever that capitalist 'commodity fetishism' fulfills the same function as religion ('religious fetishism'). If that were the case, the need for religious fetishism would be the smallest in the most capitalist societies. However, the most capitalist society - that of the USA - is also a very religious one. Finally, if - as Marx states - the place commodities take in the cultural life of capitalist societies is merely based on hallucinations, it is unimaginable that these commodities would maintain such a strong hold on the popular imagination. Saying that the capitalists are mad, is no explanation at all.

Notwithstanding the fact that 'fetishism' as a theoretical concept has fallen out of use in ethnology, the concept of 'commodity fetishism' still has a powerful hold on literary theorists and social critics. In this sense, the impact that De Brosses work on fetishism has had, is only comparable to that of Sir James Frazer. The kindest explanation is that the chapter of Das Kapital which deals with commodity fetishism is relatively accessible, a chapter which doesn't require some knowledge of economics to understand. Those who are less kind might be tempted to think that the concept of 'commodity fetishism' fulfills the same role in the psychic economy of marxists as the concept of 'fetishism' did for Charles De Brosses: that is, it enables one to feel superior to a 'puerile and fearful' Other who supposedly has no stable system of value in which objects can be evaluated.

That Taussig, as an anthropologist, uses this specific part Marxist theory so unquestioningly and without reference to the genealogy of the concept, is almost unforgivable.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend Taussig's "The devil and commodity fetishism in South America".

First of all, it is very well-written: the long quote in the first of this short series of posts testifies to that.

Second, the way Taussig traces the connections between the economic situation of South American endogenous population and their Satanic cultural life is compelling. For me, it raises the question how Satanic practices in contemporary western society relate to that society's economic life.

Thirdly, reading the chapters in which Taussig presents his ethnographic material, one senses that Taussig's Marxism is already overripe, ready to burst, unable to contain the complexities and dynamism of South American cultural life. Strangely, even though 'commodity fetishism' has a prominent place in the book's title, that fetishism itself is conspicuously absent in the presented ethnographic material. The black-magical and Satanist practices of South American semi-proletarianized miners and farmers are a critique of the significance of commodities in capitalist societies in terms of their own cultural idioms; these practices themselves cannot be assimilated to commodity fetishism. The reality of field work makes his marxist orthodoxies come apart at the seams. The devil of the mines of Potosi is more powerful than the pieties of Marxism.


Jeronimo M.M. said...

looks like Taussig eventually did figure out the origin of the fetish..

viagra said...

Taussig applies this approach to two beliefs, one based on both his own field research and that of anthropologist June Nash, the second based on his own research. The first is the belief held by semi-proletarianized peasants in Colombia (with an analogous case among Bolivian tin miners) that proletarianized sugar-cane cutters can make a contract with the devil that will cause them to make a good deal of money, but that this money can be spent only on frivolous consumer goods, and that the cutter will die an early miserable death.