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OverviewComparative Religion, Philosophy, And Fetishism

A full and comparatively oriented theory of fetishism, modeled on the concepts of animism, pantheism, and monotheism appeared a century later, when Charles de Brosses published Du culte des dieux fétiches (1760; On the worship of divine fetishes). On the basis of historical linguistics, de Brosses gave fetishism a meaning distinct from idolatry, with which fetish-worship had previously been conflated. He described its definitive attribute as the worship of an object per se, not as a representation of another power and hence as a confusion of a divinity with its sign, but as a material incarnation and even as a real source of power. In so describing fetishism as a carnal faith, de Brosses emphasized the arbitrariness of fetish objects, which could include plants, animals, and grander natural phenomena like oceans, mountains, and rivers, when these are treated "as Gods."

De Brosses's book not only invented a term, it initiated a critical practice whereby the identification of a seemingly "primitive" habit (in this case, random substitution) becomes the starting point for an identification of comparable qualities in the heart of so-called modern societies and institutions. He compared the putative fetish-worship of snakes in Africa to the serpent of Judah in the Book of Daniel (even contrasting fetishism with the vulgar idolatry of monotheists), while also giving to fetishism the full status of a religion (it thus constituted something like an elementary form of religious life, which Émile Durkheim [1858–1917] identified as totemism).

When Denis Diderot (1713–1784) included the term fétiche in his Encyclopédie, he tellingly assigned the word a modern origin but defined it only as the "name that the people of Guinea in Africa give to their divinities." By contrast, de Brosses discerned fetishism everywhere, from the Americas to Egypt, from Africa to Asia (comparative religion continues to operate on this basis). This was because fetishism was beginning to bear a more general meaning, and to connote a lack of reason whose chief symptom was a confusion of aesthetic, religious, and economic functions. Europeans conflated what they perceived to be a lack of standard measures for assessing value with what they presumed to be a capricious forging of equivalences between otherwise incommensurate things, whence emerged the possibility for the inflation and overvaluation of otherwise trivial things. This was, furthermore, associated in their minds with counterfeiting, either through the dissembling of value (as through gold-plating) or through its debasement (as through the use of alloyed gold, the latter actually being referred to as fetiche gold) (Pietz, 1988, pp. 110–111).

Various European philosophers found in the idea of fetishism the ideal image of Reason's other. For Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), fetishism indicated lack of judgment, an aesthetic incapacity. For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), it constituted a very early if not yet fully developed form of religion within a history that he described as progressing from the perception of oneself as master of nature (associated with an unmediated magic aimed at power over single things) to the intuition of self-consciousness as the object of worship. Hegel observed in fetishism (and animal worship) the beginnings of a dialectical relationship, insofar as fetishism placed before the human being some kind of independent power. But he also emphasized the characteristics of contingency and arbitrariness of the fetish, and noted an aggressive relationship to the fetish, which could be destroyed and substituted with another fetish if it failed to function. Not incidentally, when writing notes on the 1871 study The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man, by John Lubbock (1834–1913), Karl Marx (1818–1883) later reiterated this belief that fetishism is destructive of that which it venerates, when he contrasted it to idolatry as a kind of submission to objects.

The concern with substitution and (and hence, displacement) was awkwardly related to what had been an overriding interest in the affective excess posited at the heart of fetishism—and Marx's Hegelian reading of the relationship as an aggressive one was never really developed. Thus the simultaneous overattachment to an object and the capacity to destroy it was read as doubly symptomatic of irrationality and excess. Ironically, it was precisely because of this excess that Auguste Comte (1798–1857) accorded fetishism a curative function in the hyperrationalized world of his logical positivist utopia. He deemed that the rationalization of the social world could enable freedom if its principles were fully understood—hence his effort to describe that world in terms of "social statics"—but this rationalization had itself been excessive in the long but necessary development of Reason's civilization. Comte therefore advocated as corrective a "religion of Humanity." This religion would cathect people to self-sustaining values, such as an appreciation of the material and social environment, and would cultivate what he termed "universal love." It would do so through the supplementary establishment of a "Great Fetish," to which, he hoped, everyone would be spontaneously drawn. Later, Max Müller (1823–1900), whose own definitions led him to remark that neither has any religion been without fetishism, nor has fetishism ever constituted a religion unto itself, excluded Comte's Great Fetish from the very category of fetishism, on the grounds that it constituted a monotheistic deity.

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