The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make

A Conversation with J. Lorand Matory 


July 30, 2020


The construction and use of the fetish framework in European social theory is the focus of J. Lorand Matory's book, The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make. In this conversation, Matory explains how social theorists based in Enlightenment principles deployed simplistic interpretations of Afro-Atlantic religious traditions as a way to prove to their European audiences the similar "foolishness" of European political, economic, and religious policies.

Matory is Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and the director of the Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic Project at Duke University. His book, The Fetish Revisited (Duke University Press, 2019), won AAR's 2019 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in the category of Analytical-Descriptive Studies.

Kristian Petersen:
Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host Kristian Petersen. And today I'm here with J. Lorand Matory, professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University and winner of the AAR book award in analytical-descriptive studies. He's here to speak to us about his book, The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make, published with Duke University Press. Congratulations and thanks for joining me.

J. Lorand Matory:
Thank you very much, Kristian, And thank you for having me on.

Kristian Petersen:
Now, this really is an excellent and also a challenging book. You've really gone into great detail in all these various strains that you're pulling together. I'm wondering if you could begin talking a little bit about how this project emerged from you. Why did you choose to focus on these figures and kind of think about this dialectic that you do in the book? And what are some of the broader conceptual interventions you've sought to make with the book?

J. Lorand Matory:
Very good. Thank you. Well, first of all, I grew up the child of a child psychologist. So the vocabulary of Freudianism or psychoanalysis was omnipresent in our home as it was in the popular culture, generally. Terms like "Freudian slip," one could hear in a daily setting, even among non-university publics. And as I moved through graduate school, particularly during the 1980s and early 90s, Marx was a key figure in the critical interpretation of life and the capitalist West. Again, following the general disposition since the Enlightenment to expand the circle of equality from white males to decolonized peoples, to Black people, to women, to gay people and so forth. So allegiance to Marx and the criticism—excuse me, I should have mentioned working class people, particularly working class white people, were increasingly included in the circle of social equality, entitled to vote, self-determination, recognition of individual rights, and so forth.

So Marx's name was a watchword in the elite academy's analysis of the ways in which Western capitalism and democracy still failed at the endeavor to include all in the promissory note of equality. No more than most academics or most Black middle-class people who grew in Washington, DC, and circulated on the coasts or in Chicago, I devoted a great deal of time to thinking critically about these figures. Even if at some preconscious level terms like "wait slave" and "savage" and "negro slave," which are casually thrown around in key documents written by Marx and Freud, did strike me as a bit odd and only later struck me as worthy of focal reflection.

I am the grandson of a Pentecostal bishop in the Church of God and Christ. So during my youth, there was an annual cycle between much of the year when my father would try to expose us to a middle-class Baptist church, at one point and then the Washington Ethical Society, which is an extension of the New York Jewish Ethical Society. He wanted us to have some kind of religion, even though my mother, frankly, having grown up in a setting where daily church attendance and self-abnegation, such as the prohibition on watching movies on smoking and drinking, having grown up that way, she basically in adulthood, found alternative paths for her spirituality. And that alternative path was investing in her children's academic enrichment and scholarly success. Nonetheless, each summer, when we would visit my grandfather's house of worship, he was a bishop who founded and presided over a hundred or so congregations in Virginia, where I would spend hours in a sweltering Holiness church, where I saw manifestations of the Holy Spirit, people laying on hands, speaking in tongues dancing and the Holy Spirit. I was exposed to those ecstatic experiences of worship.

Now, the other dimension of my entry into this topic is that growing up in a predominantly Black professional world in upper northwest Washington, DC, I saw images of Black people who were normal, complex, diverse in class status, diverse in financial status, diverse in intellect, diverse in emotional expression and athletic ability, and so forth. I received a consistent message from television that Black people were all one way, largely a seething mass of either foolishness or intellectual deficiency or physical prowess. Such messages were reinforced when I began attending predominantly white schools and junior high school, where as soon as I walked across the threshold of the palatial grounds of my predominantly white high school for example, the white boys surrounded me and pelted me with the question, "You're going to play football for us, aren't you? You're going to play football for us. You're going to play basketball for us, aren't you? You're going to play basketball for us." When I got the best SAT score of any one in my class at that same school, I was approached by one white boy who said to me, "Randy, you did better on your SAT than I did," as though that were a surprise to him, even though for the prior two and a half years, I had always performed as well as if not better than he.

So my difference, as it was cognized by others, caused me to think about how I could better cognize my difference. And one of the ways I did so, I don't know, it started very, very early from the age of five, was a fascination with Africa. I had a book called "The Illustrated Book of Africa," which in the usual racist fashion of Western books about and conceptions of Africa, was half about human beings and half about animals. And I was fascinated by them both. So that book was my teddy bear. So the upshot of it is of my interest in the Afro-Atlantic religions was I had been born with an awareness of religious diversity and a fascination with it. I had been nearly born with an awareness of Black diversity and I was fascinated by it. And the touchstone of my awareness of Black diversity was the cultures of Africa. And I wanted to understand how it had affected the cultures of the Americas and the diversity of ways in which it had done so. And one of the best researched forms of that influence had been religion. That is to say Candomblé, which is an Afro-Brazilian religion, Santería Ocha, which is a Cuban religion, Haitian Vodou, which is a Haitian religion, and African-American Pentecostalism had long been studied by Melville J. Herskovits and his successors as instances of how African culture had influenced the culture of African Americans.

By extension, that became a route to my greater self-understanding. Therefore, for the past 40 years or so, I've actively studied these traditions, which I call the Afro-Atlantic religions. My interest in Marx and Freud, and my interest in the Afro-Atlantic religions converged when it dawned on me that one of Marx's and Freud's chief analytical metaphors is fetish. That is, the notion that on the part of the accuser that the people who value a particular physical object or practice are disoriented, that they have accorded inappropriate value and inaccurately assigned agency to physical objects by contrast to the ostensibly reasonable way in which the accuser values objects or distributes or attributes agency to the world. It dawned on me that this concept was deeply rooted in a history of European imperialism.

Actually, following the argument of William Pietz, I learned and began thinking about the fact that this term, which literally means "factitious" at its Latin root, originally referred to the physical objects and practices of female healers in Portugal who were subjected to trial by the inquisitors. Soon thereafter, it was used as a means of critiquing and parodying African monarchs and trade partners by European merchants on the West African coast. This discourse critiquing and parodying African sacred objects, and the alleged foolishness with which Africans construct their religiosity on social order around objects was, by Enlightenment philosophes, used to criticize European royalty, the aristocracy, and the Roman Catholic clerisy.

That is to say those people being described and critiqued by the European social critic via or expository of the Enlightenment, those Roman Catholic clerics, those aristocrats, and those royals who inappropriately worked with the cross or the host or who inappropriately imposed tariffs on the trade goods of the European bourgeoisie, were as foolish as Africans in effect for doing so. Because the real value of objects and the real order of human society should be X, Y, or Z, as stipulated by the social critic. And those social critics, among other things, emphasized the virtue of individuality or the naturalness of individuality, freedom, and personal self-determination on the part of the class for whom they spoke. That class, being bourgeois European males as opposed to the royalty, the aristocracy, and the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy.

So that is to say fetish is a trope. It is a nonliteral way of speaking, if you will, that compares one area of life to another, that compares European social and political and economic practices that the critic approves of to what he assumes his entire European audience will agree is the foolishness of African religious practice.

So here comes the perhaps more interesting and concrete story. I had prepared a book manuscript that, based upon my extensive knowledge of how African and African diaspora priests actually do attribute value and agency to objects, in contrast to the way that I saw that Marx and Freud were themselves attributing value and agency to particular objects in a culture-specific way, in a class-specific way, and a highly motivated way, given the arguments they were trying to make about who owes what to whom and who is deserving of esteem in a European world in which they were challenged by anti-Semitism.

That's what my talk was intended to be about at Ohio State. But as is my normal practice, I really like to explore the university towns where I've been invited to speak. So the afternoon before the talk, my wife and I took a walk up North High Street through this university town of Columbus, Ohio. And we saw the usual Doc Martens shoe shop, we saw all the usual shops of the university town, until we were nearing the predominantly Black area that we had been warned about. We'd been warned it was sketchy by the student at the front desk who was advising us on where we could take a walk. And then as we approached the predominantly Black part of the street, we encountered this shop with a big billboard in front of it that that described the shop as "the chamber, Ohio's largest fetish store."

And it dawned on me, "Oh my goodness, I overlooked this whole area of usage of the concept of the fetish in daily life in North America," as I analyzed the use of this term in constructing ostensibly normal social and economic, political, and psychological life in Europe. It dawned on me that the ultimate referent of that metaphor, too, was Africanness and the exemplary difference of Africanness. That's akin to the metaphors and white American life of walking on the wild side, that's associated with miming blackness or miming the forms of blackness that have been constructed as justifying our exclusion from society, sexual abnormalcy, sartorial abnormalcy, abnormalcy of speech, of music, and so forth that can actually be quite liberating for white people when they enter that world and mime its forms.

So in any case, that was the inspiration behind this book, "The Fetish Revisited" and its sequel, which will more centrally be about the likeness of white American BDSM, that is bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism, as well as other forms of kink, such as cuckolding, to religious expressions, to religions intent on spiritual transcendence, self-discovery, the building of hierarchical social solidarity, and indeed trance. I saw from my subsequent encounters with practitioners of these traditions, that the possibility of thinking of BDSM as a religion and understanding religions more clearly by asking the question of how they are similar to BDSM.

And of course, the richest body of my experiences with Afro-Atlantic religions in which hierarchical social solidarity is a priority and trance, that is the transcendence of individuality, is a goal. That's also true of BDSM. And both of these cases presented interesting counterpoint to the Enlightenment priority on individualism, freedom, self-determination, and equality. It seems to me that this joint discovery that some of the people most advantaged by the discourse of individualism and freedom, that is elite white American males, and some of the people most excluded from it and with most to gain from the discourse of social equality, personal autonomy, and self determination, often feel happiest in religious institutions and in sexual practices in which they are subordinated, in which they are serving, in which they have handed over decision-making and responsibility to a party they construct as a great master, who has the power to hurt them, but does not, and who instead protects them. So in any case, that's where I'm going after this book. Now we can talk more essential.

Kristian Petersen:
People are going to need to get that as well when it comes out. Now, listeners will already gather from your very broad and detailed introduction already that there's a lot to this book, probably could have been at least two books, if not more. I think one of the things that, in addition to this critique about European social theory being shaped by the historical material circumstances it emerged in, what you do in the book is help us rethink Afro-Atlantic religious practice, especially practices centered around these human made gods and how that can help us think about methods of critical analysis. This might be the part of the book that many listeners will be most unfamiliar with. So I was hoping you could talk a little bit about these alternative interpretations of the role of agency attributed to human-made gods and then how can thinking about Afro-Atlantic religious traditions help us think about the study of religion and social life more generally, maybe.

J. Lorand Matory:
Very good. Now first, let me offer a slight revision. My book isn't intended so much as a critique of social theory as much as it is intended to be a rethinking of it. That is to say normally, European social theory and theorists are represented as though they were thought-generated out of the pure air of empirical neutrality and brilliance, and therefore they can be carried to other parts of the world and imposed on those other people's relatively concrete ways of thinking and socially grounded human-generated ways of thinking. And I think of the matter quite differently, because having come out of a predominantly Black world and entering a predominantly white world with great intimacy—I mean, I made very, very dear friends in predominantly white secondary schools and post-secondary education—I saw that there was much that was culturally specific about their way of acting. For example, the role of alcohol and social interactions, the rates of suicide, the hiddenness of so many phenomena that happened to all human beings, like domestic abuse and alcoholism and so forth. There was nothing super cultural or extra-cultural about the way that white men think. They are subject to the same social forces and ironically, some of the same fears of undue subordination as everybody else, despite on average, the general availability of much greater privilege and power to white males. The same insecurities are flowing through them.

So my suggestion for the use of European social theory is that its implications are enriched by thinking carefully about the social and cultural conditions out of which it arose, and that the abstractness attributed to it in many ways, rest on the backs especially of Black people and of other colonized populations. It presupposes that we are the object of knowledge rather than subjects of knowledge and that the European is nothing but a subject of knowledge and a value neutral subject of knowledge. I think Europeans have a lot to contribute to our understanding of all populations. But the Afro-Atlantic religions also have a lot to contribute to the understanding of European society. So the book is a dialogue among these three actors, the Afro-Atlantic priests, Freud and his followers, and Marx and his followers, more than it's a critique of any of them. And I take them all to be human actors driven by a complex set of motives.

So as for the lessons of the Afro-Atlantic religions regarding our understanding of agency and value, first, a brief introduction to what these religions have in common beyond the historical links to the slave trade, to the commerce with Europeans on the coast, the back and forth movement of African merchants between Africa and Latin America, all of which I deal with in prior books. These are religions of dance, of music, of delicious food, of building community, especially through a coordinated bodily movement that, with the orchestration of the drums and of senior priests, results regularly in a trance or spirit possession in which beings called Orisha or Lua or Voduns, take over the body of the medium, who's often called a horse or a wife of the god, and speak through that body. The medium regularly reports amnesia after the event, and the messages of the god are constructed communally based upon the reports of all of those surrounding the person who interpret the words of the god, using the mouth and the gestures of the medium.

These possession priests are, in my view, models of normative humanity. They are virtuosi, but they model the general principle that a human body is not the vessel of one spirit or one being alone, contrary to the Enlightenment principle that each of us as an individual, or each normal person as an individual, and the social security principle that each of us is the same person through life, just as much the same as our social security number is from the moment of our birth to the moment well beyond our death. That's an assumption quite foreign to the traditions that I study and practice. The premise of these religions on the contrary, is that each person is the vessel of multiple spirits and is a crossroads of multiple spirits, that the decisions we make bear an imprint of the spirit of our ancestors, of our foremothers and our forefathers.

They also bear the imprint of forces known as Luas or Voduns or Orisha who are networks uniting quite a heterogeneous set of things. For example, the god Shango in West African Yoruba tradition is embodied in the thunder and lightning, in royalty, in the leopard, in the mortar, in thunder-stones that are understood to be the substance of lightning, in the Bata drum. And every priest who has ever been initiated in the service of Shango becomes part of this network, that is a single being. Every object on the altar, or rather the assemblage of certain iconic objects on the altar makes the god. So there is a spirit that unites multiple categories of objects, but any given manifestation of it in a possession priest or on an altar is given a certain individual personality. It's understood to be distinctive in some way. And that's the personality that occupies the priests of the genealogy that worships around that altar or the followers of a particular Orisha priest.

Any given medium might be possessed by multiple gods of this sort or multiple gods might hover near that person, even though that person has a special tutelary relationship with one of those gods. So again, the upshot is contrary to the notion of individualism and internal integrity and internal homogeneity with which I grew up. That as a middle-class US American, I try to be as consistent as possible in my behavior, not to say contradictory things, always to preserve my credit rating because it's understood that all of my history will follow me and be attributed to me. By contrast, Afro-Atlantic priests are aware of the heterogeneity of forces, the conflict of forces, the struggle among forces, that constantly constitutes any given person. And the aim of their conduct of religious life and personal life is not for each person to render himself totally consistent, but to be aware of the heterogeneous forces converging on his or her body and to balance them properly.

Now that's like the granddaddy of all formulations compared to Freud's rather simple model that each human being is made up of three entities, the id, the super ego, and the ego. It's the granddaddy of models that you might call ambivalence in the terms of Freud. But in the terms of Afro-Atlantic priests and practices, the vocabulary is not negative or critical. It's about balance, achieving balance, with an understanding that each person is the crux of forces converging from a broad universe and a broad society. Quite the opposite, again, of this ideal of personal autonomy, freedom, and self-determination that has reached the most absurd extremes in the United States, when people insist on carrying their guns to a state legislature to force them to open up because their individual rights are more important than the cumulative consequences of people interacting enormously and potentially harming others' health and their own.

Kristian Petersen:
There's really a great deal to the book that I think listeners are going to have to get a copy and take a look. So I'm wondering if there's anything perhaps that you weren't able to get to in our conversation, any final thoughts you'd like listeners to take away?

J. Lorand Matory:
Yes. I think that the major lesson of this book is that European social theories should not be regarded as a self-existent truth generated in a time and space without politics, without social backdrop, without the argument of the trial, as Bourdieu described it. That is usually European social theories on scholarly assertions are made against the backdrop of somebody else who was saying something to the contrary. Often, something with implications, for the self-esteem of the theorist or of the fact maker. Afro-Atlantic religions, it's no surprise to anyone—actually many people have historically thought of African religions as something generated at the beginning of time and unchanged because Africans are essentially without history. And in so far as they recognize history as influencing these religions, the limit of reflection typically has been to recognize how forcible westernization of the enslaved and the colonized, has given rise to something called syncretism. That is the adaptation of African spiritual logics to Western material forms.

My emphasis is on the historical genesis of the Afro-Atlantic religions, and the most influential forms of those religions, having been generated and deeply shaped by the Afro-European encounter on the West African coast, which was the source among other things of an efflorescence of symbolism using multicolored beads, which were largely of Venetian or Bohemian origin, inspired by Syrian technology, by horses, which were imported heavily from the Muslim lands of the North and from Christian rulers, which enabled certain West African empires to prevail over others. And the hypertrophy of the representation of the monarchs, captives and other delegates as wives who through the spirit possession, religion, and allied ritual practices commanded the Oyo Kings trade with the Europeans on the coast. So the interstitial positionality of the merchant monarchs between African and European culture, I think shaped much that has been mistaken for the primordial roots of the African diaspora religions.

Likewise, it seems to me that the interstitial position of assimilated European Jewish men, like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, were significant influences on their social formulations, on the arguments that they posed in the logic of the trial in pursuit of the dignity of people like them. Their theories, though often applied as though they had not arisen out of a social context, need to be understood within their social context. And the dialogue between European social theory and the practices and thoughts of the populations outside of Europe, that those theories are used to analyze, needs to be understood necessarily in more equal terms. The priests of the Afro-Atlantic religions have enormous insights, not only into the psychology of people like Marx and Freud, but also into the psychology of Westerners who imagine themselves autonomous individuals and self-determined individuals. And again, I'm not just making up what they say about Westerners in contrast to their own self understandings.

The priests I work with, like the priests in the days of yore, when they were operating on behalf of the Oyo emperor in West Africa, in the context of the Afro-European trade, are highly aware of European society and are highly aware of pretenses. That they're less likely to judge simply as false, but to recognize as specifically European. And among the multiple influences that these African and Afro-Atlantic priests embrace, the contrary position deeply embedded in the Abrahamic religions, but highly characteristic of post-Enlightenment modernity, is to look at the life ways and thoughts of priests, of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the Afro-Atlantic religions as anti-types of modern rationality, and as phenomena to be excoriated from the ideal or normative person's self-development. This book presents a dramatic irony that we grow the best when we recognize, as Afro-Atlantic priests do, the presence of the other within us. And we balance that presence rather than trying to excoriate it in the effort to become self-determined, autonomous free individuals.

Kristian Petersen:
Well, I think you certainly accomplished your task in communicating that in this wonderful book, which certainly deserves this award. So congratulations again, and thanks for making time to talk. It has been a pleasure talking to you.

J. Lorand Matory:
Thank you so much Kristian.