Just a quick note on the Western Wall fiasco in the wake of Netanyahu’s suspending plans to create an egalitarian prayer space there. Parts of the Jewish left are claiming that the fight over access to the Western Wall, this particular fight over Public Judaism, is no big deal, that the Occupation matters more, that the liberal Reform and Conservative movements have done “nothing” to oppose the Occupation, and that, finally, the Wall constitutes, in their words (in a near constant refrain), a “fetish.”
It seems that no one understands that “fetishism” was an old racist and colonialist rubric with which to negate the significance of African religious materialities. It was recommended to me by Gail Hamner and I’m recommending to you William Pietz’s “The Problem of the Fetish, I.” It appeared in RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 9 (Spring, 1985), pp. 5-17. “The Problem of the Fetish, I” is mostly a theoretical-philosophical excursus. It’s companion, “The Problem of the Fetish, II” is a historical geneaology going back to the Christian origins of the term and then its adaptation by Portuguese and then Dutch and English colonists. It was later picked up by critics like Marx and Freud to signify questions of value, meaning, in particular, some fixation of false consciousness around constellations of crude objects that obscure some more fundamental good. (One could argue that, in this, the implicit racism in Marx on commodity fetishism is sister to his identification of “Judaism” with another false object-god, namely money.)
Against this defamation of the fetish, Pietz begins the first essay with an epigraph by Merleau Ponty, who wrote somewhere in Invisble and Visible, “every historical object is a fetish.” He writes, “Fetishes exist in the world as material objects that “naturally” embody socially significant values that touch one or more individuals in an intensely personal way: a flag, monument, or landmark; a talisman, medicine-bundle, or sacramental object; an earring, tattoo, or cockade; a city, village, or nation; a shoe, lock of hair, or phallus; a Giacometti sculpture or Duchamp’s Large Glass. Each has that quality of synecdochic fragmentedness or “detotalized totality” characteristic of the recurrent, material collective object discussed by Sartre” (Fetish, I, pp. 13-14).
With all due respect to Yeshiyahu Leibowitz, who was one of the first to inveigh against the reactionary theo-political appropriation of the Wall, he was not best known as either a materialist or cultural theorist. Taking up the high cudgel against “idolatry,” a term related historically to “fetish,” as critics on the left identify it, the Kotel has, indeed, become a Jewish “fetish.” But in dismissing the fetish quality of the Western Wall, they would have forgotten, even betrayed the materialism to which so many of us, at least on the academic left, would in any other circumstance embrace as foundational to culture and consciousness. As per Pietz, the fetish is irreducibly material, bound up with significant (not false) social value, and in active relation to the human being as an embodied self. (For a neat summation, see the first paragraph of “The Problem of the Fetish, II, p.23)
With his eye on European colonialists, Pietz distinguishes between the critical discourse of the fetish and his own theoretical reconstruction of the fetish idea as an object of cultural analysis and cultural production, “The discourse of the fetish has always been a critical discourse about the false objective values of a culture from which the speaker is personally distanced…Fetish discourse always posits this double consciousness of absorbed credulity and degraded or distanced incredulity. The site of this latter disillusioned judgment by its very nature seems to represent a power of the ultimate degradation and, by implication, of the radical creation of value. Because of this it holds an illusory attractive power of its own: that of seeming to be that Archimedian point of man at last ‘more open and cured of his obsessions,’ the impossible home of a man without fetishes” (Fetish, I, p.14).
Short of owning up to the bad history of a concept that no one should want to own or to use as a critical weapon, the upshot to all this for our present purpose: the Jewish left should get of its superior high horse; or stop calling yourself a materialist. At the very least, to call something a “fetish” is not an argument against it or attachments to it. Against idealism, for the symbolic-social-spiritual-historical charge it carries, the so-called material fetish object is worth having. In theory, there is no “man” without a fetish, no “home” without a wall.
(With thanks to Gail Hamner and to Biko Gray)