Anthropology of Religion

Fetishism And The Erasure Of Identity, Part 2 (Roger Green)

The following is the second of a two-part series.  The initial installment can be found here.

Although we must constantly remember that the fetish is the product of European imagination, the taking-up of the concept by postcolonial thinking also informs important ways to think about race and religion.  The “middle finger” of the fetish has historical precedence.  Let me take the Haitian Revolution as an example.  Carolyn Fick’s The Making of Haiti points out that the 1791 insurrection was not spontaneous, but rather carefully planned by slaves.[1]

Fick notes that most sources point to a particular voodoo ceremony performed a week before the event, which has since transformed into legend.  The secret ceremony, which involved sacrificing a pig and passing its blood around, was apparently performed during a storm by an unnamed “high priestess” and Boukman Dutty, an early leader in the revolt.  In one account, Dutty is reported to have proclaimed, “Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us.”[2]  While the story has historically taken on the amplifications of lore, and scholars debate its accuracy, Fick notes:

The “Eh! eh! Mbumba” voodoo invocation dated back to at least the mid-eighteenth century in colonial Saint Domingue, when, as part of the initiation ceremony for a neophyte, it was a call for protection against the dreaded forces of those who had enslaved them and, as such, a form of cultural and spiritual protest against the horrors of the New World environment. On the eve of the slave insurrection, however, in the midst of what would be a difficult and dangerous liberation struggle to actually rid themselves of their enslavers, the incantation must have taken on a more specific, a more political, if still fetishistic, meaning; for the individual rebel would need now, more than ever before, a great deal of protection and, perhaps even more, luck in the annihilative measures that lay ahead.[3]

Fick’s use of “still fethistic” stands out to me, like Hegel’s conception of the fetish existing in the moment just preceding History.  When we compare Fick’s work with Rachel Harding’s work on alternative spaces of Blackness in Brazil and Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús’s work on Cuba in Electric Santería, it is easy to see the persistence of spiritual revolt and the use of “dark forces” against oppression similar to what Taussig’s work describes.

For example, Beliso-De Jesús argues that in Cuba, “Afro-Monteceros […] are produced through a complex historical interaction between self and cityscape.”  Much like gradients between Hoodoo, Voodoo and Santería in the U.S., which move toward more intense uses of “dark magic,” Mantanzas Santería “darkens” with its geontological relationship to slave resistance and revolt.[4]  Additionally, she continues, “[o]ne might say that ‘trance’ of copresences renders Santería’s transnationalism as possessed by multiple interconnected assemblages of power.”[5]

Beliso-De Jesús’s term, ‘copresencing,’ offers another way of conceiving fetishism in the trajectory of Deleuze to which Pietz pointed us.  Beliso-De Jesús argues for attention to copresences, not only in the sense that an anthropologist ought to leave room for the phenomenological experiences of devotees who perform rituals to question the dominance of rationality and objectivity, “but also to emphasize how these spheres are interrelated.”[6]  She goes on:

Among the spirits of the dead slaves, Santería priests, and ethnographers, what has been written also haunts us.  Reading Santería copresence through ethnographic diffraction, then, might allow us to see that anthropology is also constructed through muertos.  Indeed, even the spirits of anthropology might be conceived of as possessing us similar to the electrifying oricha who mount the bodies of practitioners.[7]

Copresences invoke the simultaneity of the deathspace of the past, of which academic work plays a part.  Beliso-De Jesús’s method in support of this thesis relies on anthropology “of the body and phenomenological theories of race and sexuality [which] are helpful in decentering particular forms of Cartesian consciousness by shifting elemental awareness and attending to bodies as primary locus of experience.”[8]

When combined with the historical persistence of the fetish in Fick and Harding, we can resist any facile claims that the attention Beliso-De-Jesús gives to phenomenological method is “merely subjective.”  It is rather like Indigenous claims to the persistence of tradition in the face of claims of essentialism and the masked persistence of mechanisms attempting the erasure of indigeneity.

As my title suggests, the “Erasure of Indigeneity” is a revanchism perpetrated against the necessity for the concept of Indigeneity itself, developed to mark the shared experiences of various peoples all subjected to the process of colonization.  This has perpetuated interesting reversals among the victims of colonization.  Rachel Harding notes this in relation to the orixá Exú, echoing Taussig’s descriptions concerning the “Devil of the mines.”  Taussig’s early work was in Colombia, and what we are seeing are particularly African inflections of resistance as a result of the slave trade.

In nineteenth-century Brazil, Harding writes: “For Exú, the streets and crossroads of Bahia become the sacred spaces in which slaves and others act out their apperception of the insecurity of their social position and make gestures toward the resolution of circumstances in their own circumstances.”[9]  Indeed, the street – and especially a crossroads – became the ideal place for offerings to Exú.  If the fetish is the “still present” enchantment that Fick notes with respect to the ceremony that initiated the first Haitian revolt, then it is arguably the Black spaces and the crossroads work with Exú that Harding describes as spaces of resistance that evokes the revolutionary power of the fetish, over and against “white,” abstract liberalism and static-transcendent concepts of religion and culture.

In such a reading, concerning revolutions, the fetish would be a persistent core, not a lingering or “leftover” form of superstitious enchantment; nor would it be simply a “spell,” feitiço.  Magic is not the “excess” beyond the state but essential to the process of the foundation of the state in its posturing to power.  The process and the fetish itself cannot be divorced from one another. It is the very making of poesis, as in Luis D. León’s concept of religious poetics.  Michael Taussig closes his book, The Magic of the State with a meditation on pilgrimage, predicting:

For the task of cultural anthropology, no less than of certain branches of historiography, has been, and will increasingly continue to be, the storing in modernity of what are taken to be pre-modern practices such as spirit possession and magic, thereby contributing, for good or bad, to the reservoir of authoritative, estranging, literalities on which so much of our contemporary language is based in its conjuring of the back-then and the over-there for contemporary purpose if not profane illumination.[10]

With respect to the diaspora of African spiritualities during the colonial era, Rachel Harding’s A Refuge in Thunder has amplified the revolutionary power of the fetish by building on Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism and the work of William Pietz.  She writes: “For Pietz, ‘fetish’ originated from, and as a term remains specific to, the problem of the constructed social value of material objects ‘as revealed in the situations formed by the encounter of radically heterogeneous social systems.’”[11]

Harding then applies this to the bolsa de mandinga, which, “like the original concept of the fetish is a ‘crossroads’ object with a meaning that encases and expresses the tensions and values of its interstitial location.”[12] Although Harding is writing about Brazil, African-inspired religious textures in north America, such as hoodoo, conjure, or rootworking, often focus on the material presencing in mandingas as well:

At the level of materiality, the meaning of the mandinga is contained in the object itself. It is not a representation of a transcendent reality; rather, its value, function, and meaning are present in its construction from elements which speak to the perils of slave life and attempt to provide magico-religious efficacy in negotiating freedom, or at least a form of refuge or defense.[13]

The mandinga, like crossroads work, presents a renegotiation and an inversion, the out-fetishizing work of the maleficium.  Taussig says of “Maleficium; the bad-making”:

The maleficio, in other words, brings out the sacred sheen of the secular, the magical underbelly of nature, and this is especially germane to an inquiry into State fetishism in that […] the pure and the impure sacred are violently at odds and passionately interlocked at one and the same time.  It is to this ability to draw out the sacred quality of State power, and to out-fetishize its fetish quality, that the maleficium – as I use it – speaks.[14]

The malady, the evil-eye of the inversion impulse, the perversion of the revolt in its overturning impulse is importantly an upturning of soil.  What is at work is not so much a cleansing as a tilling of the soil that allows it to breathe.[15] The fetish concept as it arises from the Euro-Afro encounter is different, however, than that mixing of blood and breath, as Barbara Mann describes it with respect to Native American cosmology in Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath.

In Mann’s description of Turtle Island cosmology, sustaining balance between blood and breath is central, rather than a fetish of state power or ‘religion’ as itself a fetish-concept.  To the extent that current ecological millennialism attaches itself to Indigenous movements, such as those against the Dakota Access Pipeline, an Indigenous perspective might claim that “Western” activists need to divest in eurochristian trappings that inform “revolutionary” and millenarian sensibilities.  It is fundamentally not about the fetish, but the fascination with the fetish continues to tint the perspective of those who gaze upon Indigeneity, especially in terms of spirituality and religion.

There must, in other words, be another way of approaching being in the world than Hegel’s Aufhebung, either in its sense of uplifting – what Heidegger might later on call “enframing” [Gestell] – or in its sense of sublation or negation.  This other way is best addressed (for the moment) in terms of what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls Amerindian Perspectivism.

According to Viveiros de Castro, “perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents.”[16]  In contrast to the accepted language of multiculturalism, Perspectivism assumes a static ontology with varying epistemologies, which downplays embodied notions of difference.  As Viveiros de Castro explains:

This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way.[17]

This produces a perspective that is mono-cultural but “multinatural”:

Such a difference of perspective – not a plurality of views of a single world, but a single view of different worlds – cannot derive the soul, since the latter is the ground of being. Rather, such difference is located in the bodily difference between species, for the body and its affections [. . .] is the site and instrument of ontological differentiation and referential disjunction.[18]

Rather than occupying a “zero degree,” a liminal space between subject and object, conscious and unconscious, immanent and transcendent; perspectivism advances an interspecies recognition of personhood.[19]  This does not mean that Amerindians are somehow incapable of noticing differences in species.  This is emphasized by Viveiros de Castro’s description of the work of the so-called “shaman”:[20]

Amerindian shamanism could be defined as the authorization of certain individuals to cross the corporeal barriers between species, adopt exospecific subjective perspective, and administer the relations between those species and humans.  By seeing nonhumans as they see themselves (again as humans) shamans become capable of playing the role of active interlocutors in the trans-specific dialogue and, even more importantly, of returning from their travels to recount them; something the “laity” can only do with difficulty.[21]

While I remain suspicious of the Eliade-esque language of journey and return here, the example elucidates my point concerning the constant epistemology and varying ontologies.  As Michael Taussig’s work has long argued, the idea of the shaman as “wild man,” like the maleficium, owes more to the attitudes of Romans well before contact with Amerindians than to anything culturally specific to them.  We must, however, add the concept of the fetish to that very same history, as Pietz does, while duly noting Pietz’s work on the entanglement between African and European that produces the fetish in its modern form.

One important place to note the premodern history of the term is in the development of the Christian concept of the soul.  Pietz points to this through Tertullian, Augustine and the development of the Theodosian code.  Augustine’s discussion of eunuchism distinguishes between facticium – “he who was made a eunuch by men” – and voluntarium – “he who had made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” out of free will.[22]

In contrast to Manicheanism, Augustine argued that the soul was created ex nihilo by God and therefore was neither of the same substance as God, nor was it of the same substance as the body: “in the Christian worldview, plants and animals do not have immortal souls: being animate, they must have souls, but the substance of these souls is corporeal rather than spiritual.[23]  Viveiros de Castro’s conception of Perspectivism, while certainly intriguing, needs to be read critically with this Christian metaphysical history in mind.

Pietz goes on to note that the original conception of idolatry had to do with religious practice as opposed to inner faith.  Superstitio, on the other hand, dealt with “improper religious attitudes.”[24] Religio “referred to a person’s sense of how rightly to achieve a true bond with divine power, the fundamental definition of superstitio” and thus Lactantius noted, “religio, veri cultus est, superstitio falsi (“religion is the cult of the true [God], superstition that of the false”).  Pietz also notes that the use of relics and saints were accepted without being considered idolatrous.

Pope Gregory I “authorized the use of art for anagogic value,”  which then created the need for “a clear theory regarding true and false sacramental objects.”[25]  Later in the Middle Ages, under Christian law as opposed to Christian theology, a conflation of idolatry with superstition occupied and was superimposed onto the term feitiçaria and the heresy of witchcraft.[26]  But whereas Theodosian codes (438 CE) were developed to penalize paganism of Roman senators resisting Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, this concept of feitiçaria was “minimal” in West Africa because the law’s initial concern was to preserve the State against “divination” or “evil deeds” – maleficia, which threatened it.

Initially speaking, West Africa was not seen as under the jurisdiction of a Portuguese state, so maleficium would have made no sense.  It would only come to make sense under colonization when, as “a legal category, maleficia entailed the religious crime of sacrilege.”[27]  Jerome’s Vulgate conflates venificium (poison, sorcery) with maleficium (divination) and King James’s Bible translates both as witchcraft.[28]  While this later, Protestant conception appears in Charles de Brosses’s denigration of figurism, it was, according to Pietz, the emerging economic conception of the fetish object in the context of maritime trade that loosened the hold the Pope had on material goods.

We can see the commodification of African “fetishes” as concurrent with the idea that Africans had “no organized religion”[29] as part of the “lifting up” of the Black body itself into the commodity par excellence of the slave trade.  It was that they neither belonged to the Pope as Christian subjects – and thus lacked humanity – nor did they as commercial objects need to be shared with the Pope.  They could be therefore uprooted as if “naturally.”  Pietz goes so far as to note that by the 1640s, when the Protestant Dutch had ousted the Portuguese Catholics from African coasts, Akan fetissos were described as Catholic “paternosters.[30]  According to the emergent Protestant perspective, “African fetish worship (and hence African society) was thus revealed to be based on the principles of chance encounter and the arbitrary fancy of imagination conjoined with desire.”[31]

What this drama obscures in its conflation of witchcraft and divination is the theology of the soul by which “true religion” might be distinguished from “superstition,” a question of inner faith and external practice of idolatry.  This became an obscure distinction between facere (“to make”) and voluntarism in which external making either fused (and therefore evidenced) external work with internal election or dichotomized external fetishism (and therefore evidenced) lack of internal faith.  This is what Hegel had tried to reconcile in his anagogical descriptions of the phenomenology of Spirit. 


The attempted erasure of Amerindians within the colonizing consciousness, whether Protestant, Catholic, or “secularized” and experience-centered New Age universalism, owes much to the history of fetishism itself, but that history needs to be, as William Pietz has argued, placed within the drama of the early slave trade on the west coast of Africa, before contact with Amerindian populations.  Conceptually, it ought to be placed with Michael Taussig’s descriptions of shamanism and the wild man as existing within the fantasies of the “old world.”  Closely related, Taussig’s connection of ‘fetish’ to ‘maleficium’ in works such as The Magic of the State and The Nervous System remains appropriate historically insofar as it is dealing with the “health” of the State.

His descriptions of creative resistance among the oppressed remain useful as well. But properly speaking, neither the ‘fetish’ nor the ‘shaman’ appropriately describe Amerindian thought.  Viveiros de Castro’s articulation of Amerindian Perspectivism has potential as an analytic concept by which Euro-Westerners (Amerindians do not need to be told how they think by academics) might recognize the limitations of their own thinking.

However, critical attention between perspectival multinaturalism and Christian traditions which either deny Indigenous peoples’ full human participation by relegating them to a “state of nature” – as in the 1823 U.S. legal decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh, does – or grant them souls only to exterminate their bodies and send them right on to “heaven” – as Junípero Serra, among others, did.[32]  The odd rationalization that Indians were a “lost tribe” of Jews merely grounded the longstanding idea that they are people who ought to be relegated to “the past.”  This is exactly what Survivance resists.

To return to a theme that particularly interests me: perhaps the most prominent example of the perpetuation of the ‘fetish’ for Amazonian Indigenous cultures is the growing interest and diaspora of ayahuasca and ayahuasca religions, which often vie for recognition on the basis of Indigenous and “traditional” use.  In the fecund iterations of the term ‘ayahuasca,’ whether as religion, as “healing,” or as tourism, there is a constant reduction of diverse practices, recipes, plant-combinations, and gendered attributions of spirits.

The economy in Iquitos, Peru has embraced western infatuation with the ‘ayahuasca experience’ as a kind of nationalist updating of indigenismo that has little to do with the plights that Indigenous peoples face.  As Westerners are enticed into pondering the Indigenous “authenticity” of their experiences and seeking traditional knowledges as vocational self-buffering and “enlightenment” – at times with a sincere disgust at the emptiness of capitalist life – ‘ayahuasca’ comes to signify both resistance and re-ordering, a kind of “reset button” for mass consciousness.  Ayahuasca, comes to occupy and signify the contemporary incarnation of the fetish itself.

As the veneficium of its questionable legal status combines with its New Age embracement of liberal capitalism and the deterritorializing seekers who wish to escape capitalism signal a kind of maleficium, caught up in the tremendous inequities that South Americans suffer under North American Empire, there is a collapsing and condensing of what ‘it’ is.  Ayahuasca in this globalized context is the true meeting between what William Burroughs called ‘junk’ and ‘soma.’  Ayahuasca is the fetish, and despite any ancient roots of practices with multiple varieties of the vine and numerous other plants, little of the fetish has anything to do with Amerindian perspectives; indeed, the fascination perpetuates the erasure of Amerindians.

Parsing out the history of the fetish helps us see this distinction, and only from such a distinction can more ethical relationships with existing Indigenous peoples be made.  Indeed, at times ayahuasca has been used for acts of creative resistance similar to what Taussig described with miners and the Devil, but the global diaspora of ayahuasca flattens such nuances, as do well-intentioned attempts to get states to recognize ayahuasca religions.

Christian theologian Willie James Jennings has argued that the development of the modern concept of ‘religion’ is itself intimately tied to the development of modern conceptions of race during the early modern economic explosion fueled by European enslavement of Africans.[33]  As George “Tink” Tinker often says, “Colonialism is Christianity. Christianity is colonialism. They go hand in hand so that the violence of colonialism is the violence of Christianity.”

In other words, until colonial violence is thoroughly addressed, interest in ayahuasca as spiritual “experience” for the individual subject will be a perpetuation of both colonial violence and ongoing attempts at the genocide of Indigenous peoples.  Moreover, despite New Age (and other) claims to a completely “secularized” situation with respect to Christianities, seeking an individualized spiritual health within a universalized Notion that sees that self-Enlightenment as “lifting up” humanity as a whole merely reifies genocidal impulses and the tragic underside of Christian colonialism.[34]  More specifically: to the extent that claims for either nationally-based “recognitions” of ayahuasca religions or internationally-based arguments for the “right” to use “restricted substances” endure, one must be aware that neither position adequately respects Indigeneity.

The problem for Indigenous peoples is entirely different and certainly exceeds ayahuasca itself, which is why it is necessary to keep Indigeneity in mind above and beyond the commodity-fetishizing of ayahuasca.  We must keep Indigeneity in mind with Walter Benjamin’s characterization that, “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.”  And with that we should attend to people who have never accepted the position posited by the frame that would make them accessory to the “sublation” by which they would “enter” world consciousness.

Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  His work brings political theology into conversation with psychedelics and aesthetics.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.


[1] Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 91.

[2] Ibid., 93.

[3] Ibid., 104-105.

[4] Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 118-119.

[5] Ibid., 220.

[6] Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 28.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 62.


[10] Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State (New York: Routledge, 1997), 199.

[11] Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 29.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 31.


[14] Michael Taussig, The Nervous System (New York: Routledge, 1992), 129.

[15] Here I invoke a claim I regularly make.  One should not be seduced by binary U.S. claims with respect to either psychedelics or religion.  Both express a political void that liberalism excites to claim itself as a (false) “reset button.”

[16] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology,” The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds (Chicago: Hau Books, 2015), 59.

[17] Ibid., 59.

[18] Ibid., 58-59.

[19] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectivism,” Cannibal Metaphysics, Ed. And Trans. Peter Skafish (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014), 57.

[20] This problematic term is used in general in work on Amazonian Indians.  I am following Viveiros de Castro’s language here.

[21] Ibid., 60.

[22] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (Spring, 1987), 27-28.

[23] Ibid., 29.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 30.

[26] Ibid., 31.

[27] Ibid., 32.

[28] Ibid., 33.

[29] Ibid., 37

[30] Ibid., 39.

[31] Ibid., 43.

[32] See George E. “Tink” Tinker, Missionary Conquest (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[33] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).

[34] See Iliff School of Theology, “Interview of Tink Tinker: Stir the Mud Up from the Bottom of the Pot,”, August 22, 2017.


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