The Return of the Fetish

David Murray (Nottingham University, UK)

Produced out of the economical and cultural interchanges of Portuguese traders and West Africans in the 16th century, the idea of the fetish becomes a general term to describe a form of primitive thinking in the 18th and 19th centuries. Though quickly discarded by anthropologists its use by Marx and Freud has given the idea a whole other life, but I am interested in the ways in which a product of colonial thinking has remained a possible site of use for postcolonial revisions and questionings. From the beginning the fetish has represented the false ascription of value to material objects. In the colonial hierarchy of religion the 'higher' religions were those which transcended materiality, while the lowest forms of belief were those mired in materiality and the superstitious use of magical objects. The way that the fetish persists as a place of denial and misrecognition is related not only to the urge to transcend and disown aspects of materiality in religious and anthropological theorising the in the 19th century, but more broadly to the denial of the material basis of western empires in slavery and economic exploitation.

Modernist uses of primitivism drew on these ideas but more recent writers and artists from these supposedly fetishistic cultures have made their own appropriations of their traditions and the canonical appropriations of them. I shall argue that the use of bricolage and assemblage combines traditional and surrealistic modes to reinstate a materiality that reflects a critique of earlier antithesis of the material and spiritual. I shall refer briefly to the work of some artists -- specifically Fred Wilson's and Wilfredo Lam's responses to Picasso, and Renee Stout's use of fetishes and "conjure. And in literature I shall refer briefly to the American Indian writers Leslie Silco and Gerald Vizenor.

Postcolonial OV discourseov Casablanca Conference

Last modified: 7 May 2001