Benedikt Pontzen, Matory, James Lorand: The Fetish Revisited. Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. 362 pp. ISBN 978-​1-​4780-​0105-​8. Price: $ 28.95 in:

Anthropos, page 246 - 247

Anthropos, Volume 115 (2020), Issue 1, ISSN: 0257-9774, ISSN online: 0257-9774,

Browse Volumes and Issues: Anthropos

Bibliographic information
These minor criticisms do not detract from this bril‐ liant contribution to the literature. In addition to the strengths that I have outlined, “Fada” flows seamlessly from cover to cover while each chapter offers sufficient contextualization to stand alone. This is a challenging book, but readers will find it well worth the effort. Scott Youngstedt ( Matory, James Lorand: The Fetish Revisited. Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018. 362 pp. ISBN 978-1-4780-0105-8. Price: $ 28.95 In the 16th century, Portuguese seafarers coined the term feitiço to designate (and criticize) the human-made things that Black people, whom they met with on the West African coast, employed in their religious practices. Forged in an unequal Atlantic encounter, the notion of the fetish as material expression of a “false consciousness” or a “human projection” had a remark‐ able career in the West making it into Marxian theories of value, Freudian psychoanalysis, and people’s sexual desires. In an ambitious two-book project, anthropolo‐ gist J. Lorand Matory revisits the trajectory of this am‐ biguous subject. Based on more than three decades of research and partial initiation into half a dozen Afro-At‐ lantic religious traditions, descriptions of selected ob‐ jects from the “The Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic” collection at Duke University (), close readings of Marx and Freud, and in‐ terviews with Afro-Atlantic religious practitioners, Ma‐ tory puts different heirs of the fetish into dialogue with each other and thereby has Afro-Atlantic priests “talk back” to Marx and Freud (27). Staging a complex conversation, Matory shows that fetishes are inherently ambivalent and controversial as they are made in unequal exchanges between people in hierarchical relationships (xixf.). Hence, the value and agency of fetishized objects result from a displacement of value and agency from other things and people onto them (31). Marx’s and Freud’s fetishes as well as the gods Black people make share rhizomatic roots in Afro- Atlantic exchanges (38), but they invest contrasting de‐ grees of value and contrasting types of agency into the different fetishes they make (39). Therefrom, Matory develops an argument of four main points (39, 316 f.): First, no theory is disembodied or universal but created and situated in its specific context; second, fetishism is a useful way to illuminate people’s competitive mean‐ ing-makings and strategic assignments of value and agency to certain things; third, fetishes embody the so‐ cial ambiguities and ambivalences of their makings; fourth, people’s assignment of value and agency to cer‐ tain things entails the devaluation of other people and things whereby one party raises itself above the other – Matory calls this “ethnological Schadenfreude.” Devel‐ oping this argument by following his main protagonists – Marx, Freud, and Afro-Atlantic priests –, Matory structures his book into three main parts, each devoted to their respective makings and theorizations of differ‐ ent fetishes. Part 1 traces the Afro-Atlantic genealogy of the fetish and its appropriation by Marx and Freud via Hegel. As Matory shows, Marx excludes “negro slaves” from cap‐ italist modes of production and thereby denies them val‐ ue and agency. He uses them solely as pedestal to pro‐ mote the cause of the White working class and ascribes the value production of the enslaved to the White prole‐ tariat, thus creating a fetish – the “negro slave” – of his own (chap. 2). Another of Marx’s fetishes is found in his labour theory of value that ascribes value to a thing solely based on its production and thereby denigrates its exchange and cultural values. Thus, Marx himself fetishizes people and things, and he does so due to his own ambiguous identity as an impoverished Jew striv‐ ing for higher social status in a White Protestant Eur‐ ope. This is betrayed by the fetishes he surrounded him‐ self with: his overcoats or the piano in his home. In his “ethnological Schadenfreude,” Marx denigrates Black people and labour to demarcate himself and his fellow proletarians as White. Accordingly, Marx’s historical materialism is no universal human history but an inter‐ ested fetishization of people and things itself (chap. 3). The same holds for Freud’s psychoanalysis. The psy‐ che and its analysis are less of a human universal than situated in a specific context and an interested practice that is also heavily informed by the ambiguous identity of its founding father as argued in Part 2 of the book. Again, we find “ethnological Schadenfreude” in Freud’s theorizing, as he denigrates Blacks and women to as‐ cribe himself the social status of the White European male he aspired to. Accordingly, Matory discusses how psychoanalysis consists not in a disembodied theory but in a network of people, things, and ideas that enhances certain forms of agency and value production at the ex‐ pense of others and thus creates a fetish of its own (chap. 4). Fetishizing the White penis as able to curtail its libido, Freud turns vaginas and penises of other skin colours into its libidinous Other, and thereby denies them the same value and agency (chap. 5). Again, his ambiguous identity as a gay Jew and his aspiration to higher social status are betrayed by the personal fetishes he surrounded himself with: antique busts, cigars, and books. These things co-shaped his psychoanalytical the‐ orizing, which is a fetishization of its own emerging from a specific network and driven by the aspirations of its founding father (165). As for Marx and Freud, the fetishes that Black people make are also situated in and emerging from specific networks. But in distinction to the former, the Afro-At‐ lantic priests are aware that it is them who make their gods and fetishes. This creation takes place in ritual ex‐ changes and material assemblages which, in turn, shape their communities and themselves as well. The Afro-At‐ lantic fetishes and their changing histories are embed‐ ded in Afro-Atlantic exchanges as people, gods, and their mediating fetishes shape each other: “people make the gods but the gods make us, too” (178). Part 3 of the 246 Book Reviews Anthropos 115.2020 book develops this argument in detail by discussing sev‐ eral objects from the SABA collection and having dif‐ ferent Afro-Atlantic priests “talk back.” In chapter sev‐ en, Matory spells out this argument, claiming that the Afro-Atlantic gods embody human-made hierarchical networks that link this world to the other one (176). These networks are animated by people’s participation, the meanings they ascribe to them, and the things they assemble and exchange. And as these networks take shape in intercultural exchanges, they are commonly criticized as fetishizations by cultural others (187 f.). In the book’s strongest chapter (chap. 8), Matory then delves into several of these spirited networks and presents selected cosmopolitan gods and spirits, their social meanings and values, material things and assem‐ blages embodying and memorizing Afro-Atlantic net‐ works of exchange, Afro-Atlantic ideas of personhood as made from relationships, people’s ideas about spirits, and ritual practices that animate their spirited networks. As Matory shows, these spirited networks are shaped by and embrace Afro-Atlantic capitalism while they are built from hierarchical relations in which the gods and their priests acquire value and agency at the expense of their devotees (192). Having the Afro-Atlantic priests “talk back,” chapter nine unravels how the gods and people reciprocally make each other (250). Via initia‐ tion, worship, and commensality, the people and their gods form ritual families in which they nurture each other. Thus, the gods are at once products and producers of assemblies that gather human beings, spirited things, and their human-made histories. In this sense, the gods are made by humans while they, in turn, render humans into certain subjects within the networks that they share. Thus, the Afro-Atlantic gods and their fetishes are nei‐ ther abstract nor universal but emerging from the net‐ works that animate them, as people project specific val‐ ues and qualities of agency upon material things (287). Concluding his vast tour of the fetish, Matory asks what we can learn from its history and do with the “word-weapon” fetish in our hands (311). From an Afro-Atlantic perspective, fetishes emerge as made in exchanges and as animated by specific networks. Thus, Marx’s and Freud’s theories are as interested and mate‐ rially embedded as the gods Black people make (296). Furthermore, fetishes emerge from clashes between people of different statuses and backgrounds who strug‐ gle to define their relationships not least through con‐ tested things (294). Therefore, fetishes not only index the competitive makings of their meanings but embody the ambiguities and ambivalences of the hierarchical re‐ lations in which they are made (300). Projecting (hu‐ man) agency and value onto a thing, the makers of a fetish denigrate others by displacing and thereby effac‐ ing their value and agency, thus raising themselves above the others in their “ethnological Schadenfreude” (317). On the one hand, Matory criticizes this kind of fetishization and its concomitant denigration of others. On the other hand, he claims that we stand to learn from our varied attempts to cope with the ambiguities embod‐ ied in the fetishes we make (303). Material things, uni‐ versalizing theories, Afro-Atlantic gods, people, as well as the ambiguous and ambivalent values and agencies ascribed to them are made in interconnected networks and exchanges. Our fetishes can thus tell us a lot about how we are all connected with each other. One of the great merits of this book is that it takes Afro-Atlantic things, practices, and voices as theory and not merely as something to be described and analyzed. This allows for several things. First, it adds Afro-At‐ lantic perspectives and narratives to theorizations of the fetish. Second, it allows Matory to expose the power re‐ lations in different makings of the fetish. Third, it en‐ ables Matory to show that neither theory nor the gods are universal but embedded in the networks that sustain them. Thereby, Matory adds some important voices and perspectives to conversations on the fetish. Unfortunate‐ ly, Matory does not provide a comprehensive summary of current debates on the fetish and, thus, does not par‐ take in these on his own terms. While Matory discusses Bruno Latour’s actor-network-theory in some detail, re‐ cent debates about material religion, material culture, and semiotic ideologies are missing from the text. An‐ other aspect, which comes up short in the book, is the fetish as critique. While Matory exposes the ambiguities and ambivalences that the fetishes of his interlocutors comprise, he does not discuss that their fetishes are also intended as critiques of the relations in which they are made: the alienation of workers from the values they produce for Marx, the projection of repressed desires upon objects for Freud, and the handling of otherwise external powers for Afro-Atlantic priests. Furthermore, I am not entirely convinced by Matory’s summary and eclectic treatment of Afro-Atlantic religious traditions. These traditions are plural and dynamic, as Matory him‐ self writes (172), and some of his interlocutors have never met (280). So, what is it that enables him to write of “us” and of the fetishes his interlocutors make as sharing a single referent (172)? A more systematic and comparative discussion of the Afro-Atlantic religious traditions and their fetishes would have helped me to follow him in this. Nonetheless, this book offers impor‐ tant insights into the Afro-Atlantic origins and makings of fetishes and into the unequal relations they comprise. Matory’s “The Fetish Revisited” is certainly of interest to students of fetishes or the Black Atlantic and an in‐ structive attempt in decentring (Western) theories. The gods Black people make do indeed dance on Hegel’s doorstep (4). Benedikt Pontzen ( McGranahan, Carole, and John F. Collins (eds.): Ethnographies of U.S. Empire. Durham: Duke Universi‐ ty Press, 2018. 548 pp. ISBN 978-1-4780-0023-5. Price: $ 32.95 Nach dem Ende des Systemkonfliktes zwischen Ost und West fanden sich die USA als einzig verbliebene Supermacht wieder. Ihre Rolle als Weltpolizist schien Book Reviews 247 Anthropos 115.2020

Chapter Preview



Anthropos is the international journal of anthropology and linguistics, founded in 1906 by Wilhelm Schmidt, missonary and member of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). Its main purpose is the study of human societies in their cultural dimension. In honor of Wilhelm Schmidt‘s legacy, the cultivation of anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, and religious studies remain an essential component oft he Anthropos Institute – the organizational carrier of the journal.


Anthropos - internationale Zeitschrift für Völkerkunde wird vom Anthropos Institut St. Augustin seit 1906 zweimal jährlich herausgegeben. Ursprünglich als Sprachrohr für katholische Missionarsarbeit geplant, gilt sie heute als wichtige Fachzeitschrift der allgemeinen Ethnologie. Sie behandelt sowohl kulturelle als auch sprachliche Themen in mehreren Sprachen, mit Schwerpunkt auf den Völkern des gesamtamerikanischen und afrikanischen Kontinents.