Whose fetish?

Recognizing the influence of "Christian colonialist attitudes" on scholarly discourses about the value of sacred objects means understanding how we are all implicated by our field's ongoing use of the term "fetish." Echoing the lessons from Breann Fallon's interview with Prof. J. Lorand Matory, respondent Colby Dickinson calls us to account for the ways in which "we are all hypocritical in our assigning of values to certain things and downplaying the value in other things." This includes, he writes, the theories of fetishism by Marx and Freud to which our field seems inescapably connected.

Colby Dickinson

In response to:

The Fetish Revisited: Objects, Hierarchies, and BDSM

In this episode, Breann Fallon talks to Professor J. Lorand Matory about his book "The Fetish Revisited" and his more recent work on white American BDSM as an Afro-Atlantic spiritual practice.

Whose fetish? A response to Prof. J. Lorand Matory, author of The Fetish Revisted: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make

by

Colby Dickinson, Loyola University Chicago

Having studied and greatly benefited from Prof. Matory’s The Fetish Revisited, I was very happy to be invited to respond to this podcast, from which I learned a good deal and heard, once again, some of the solid, critical insight that has already endeared me to his writing. 

Prof. Matory rightly denounces the modern label of the fetish which, through its many uses, assumes that the one wielding it understands a given field of value better than someone else.  As he puts it, the accuser self-righteously assumes that they know what is valuable and what is not, and they seek to impose their viewpoint upon those whom they deem ‘less worthy’, or ‘less knowledgeable’ than themselves.  In short, those in politically, socially, religiously and economically dominant positions get to brand those they oppress as being ‘fetishistic’ in their beliefs concerning value, something that has historically denied black people representation in these various arenas.  Perhaps Prof. Matory’s most revealing critical insight is that fetishism entails the ‘uneven assigning of agency’, which inevitably leads to the complete neglect of certain persons within a given symbolic economy of representations.

I was particularly glad to hear Prof. Matory describe how he is hesitant to even use the word fetish because it tends to be pejorative and uneven in its assigned value.  In my own work on the illusory historical boundary between fetishes and sacramental-objects (which I wrote about in The Fetish of Theology: The Challenge of the Fetish-Object to Modernity)—both being sacred objects imbued with a value far beyond their material worth—it is clear that western Christian colonialist attitudes perceived the one object to be of inestimable value while the other was deemed to be ‘idolatrous’ and ‘pagan’.  Like the word heresy, these words fluctuate with time and depending on who is deemed to have the authority to affix such labels.  The distinction between the sacrament and the fetish ultimately served imperialistic hegemonic interests, though the distinction has stuck around to such a degree that even Christian theologians, to this day, fail to make any comparison or contrast between sacramental-objects and the material sacred objects of other traditions, most typically considering them essentially as idolatrous (such as notably with ongoing Protestant critiques of Catholic material, sacred objects).  My evaluation was directly geared toward exposing the ‘fetishistic’ within the ‘sacramental’ and the ‘sacramental’ within the ‘fetishistic’ in order to erode the boundary between the terms and implicate everyone in the negative and positive connotations associated with both sides.  I wanted not only to de-stabilize the hegemony of the sacraments through recourse to fetishes, but my sense further was that, as Prof. Matory put it, we are all fetishists at some level, and, as Adorno once added, to claim that you are free of a fetishistic logic was merely to reinscribe oneself within its worst excesses at a deeper level.  Again, as Prof. Matory so eloquently described the situation we all find ourselves in: we are all hypocritical in our assigning of values to certain things and downplaying the value in other things.

The failure to understand the political valences and uses of fetishism results, as Prof. Matory aptly describes it, in various private, mimetic subcultures that parody oppressive hierarchical social, political, and economic relations in order perhaps simply to relieve anxiety or to create situations of carnival that, in turn, actually support a dominant status quo.  BDSM, as the example he takes up here (but also at the conclusion to his book The Fetish Revisited where he foreshadows his next project Zombies and Black Leather), is not a public, political stance that enacts moments of parody in order to destabilize a given normative order—as one might argue that drag performances work to subvert gendered norms.  BDSM is rather a private fantasy of reversal that allows one to return to, and so perpetuate, the governing order.  The daily hegemonic, racist relations that structure our world are not affected in the least by BDSM practice; they do nothing politically, socially or publicly in order to change the injustices that actually permeate our world, while also perpetuating stereotypes regarding hypersexualized black bodies in order to cover up the socially-symbolic ‘vanilla’ quality of white bodies.  It is in such contexts that we can see how BDSM is fetishistic in the sense of providing a false attribution of values to things that do not actually have such value.  But it is also bound up with the blindness of a colonialist perspective that denigrates (‘inferior’) objects and bodies.  That is, the imperialistic, colonialist, racist attitudes that many moderns feel they have left behind for good have only resulted in new, subtler, more insidious forms of fetishism that have yet to be recognized and called out for what they are.

There is so much to be gained by listening, and continuing to listen, to how Prof. Matory critiques the lack of autonomy and value with regard to marginalized persons and how the very label of the fetish signals a disagreement regarding the assigning of value—something often concealed in Western, capitalist societies where the value of a commodity is often inherently viewed to be globally (universally) held.  But, as he also notes, it is not just the commodity that is taken to be universal.  Theories themselves, such as those offered by Marx and Freud regarding fetishism, are capable of becoming fetishes in order to avoid those theorists themselves being aligned with those who were marginalized and fetishized in other ways (e.g. women, black persons, etc.).  The idea that even a theory of fetishism can become a fetish—an idea described too in Hartmut Böhme’s Fetishism and Culture—is something that academics, especially white, male, Western academics need to hear over and over and over again.  The abstracted theoretical worlds deployed in order to subjugate entire peoples and nations need to be repeatedly unmasked and so the necessary work of de-stabilizing theoretical worlds—such as Prof. Matory does with regard to Marx’s failure to account for actual, black slaves in his account of the ‘wage slave’ of white, European origin—is one that must continue to be heard over the ‘standard’ hegemonic and subtly (and not so subtly) racist discourses that continue to dominate many academic, theoretical scenes. 

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