Thursday, 17 April 2014

Fetish-Fétiche-Feitiço redux

 The concept of the fetish is a little understood thing, in the modern world the word is commonly associated with any number of variations in human sexuality, expressed in what are generally considered idiosyncratic ways. Body parts; the lack thereof; situations; inanimate objects; etc., each serving as the specific focus of disparate urges and desires, distinguishable from each other and “usual habits” as a specific sexual fetish.

Wider use of the term refers to a created material object, thought to be endowed with supernatural power through the mystery of it's manufacture, whether for use as a channel of divine consciousness, protection against "evil spirits",  a device able to influence other people's behaviour or attitudes, every human culture can be seen to have utilized manufactured "fetish" objects at some point, in order to mediate the "tangible and intangible" aspects of the world, or extracted items in that world ascribing to them a range of supernatural properties.

The word comes down to English speakers via the French translation fétiche, of the Portuguese term feitiço {sorcery; artificial} derived from the Latin factitius {artificial} and facere {to make; act, take action; construct; produce; bring forth}.

Later Latin has facturari {to bewitch} and factura {witchcraft}, hence Portuguese feitiço, Italian fatatura, and French faiture {sorcery; witchcraft; magic}, terms coinciding with the exposure and response of Roman Catholic missionaries, to various diverse religious practices throughout the Portuguese Empire and Christian World.

The Latin root of these words is still in use in the modern English language: factitious {not spontaneous or natural; artificial; contrived} , fatuous {inane; unreal; illusory}, facade {a superficial appearance or illusion of something} and facsimile {an exact copy; equivalent of} are particularly relevant examples, reflecting a negative attitude towards art, religious mysticism over the centuries following industrialization, or used to refer to examples of inauthenticity, insincerity etc,.

Lisbon to Nagasaki
In the early 16th century the seafaring Portuguese Empire spanned much of the world, Christian missionaries had begun the process of interacting with indigenous cultures throughout known Africa, South America and Asia, cataloguing their historical and religious systems while encouraging conversion from ancestral Animist theology to Christianity, amongst elders, tribal leaders and institutions within the indigenous social structure.

Portuguese commerce was already well established in the trade of African slaves, sugar and spices and Christianity was the State religion, in the 15th century Portuguese Monarch King Afonso V funded the establishment of trading monopolies along the West Coast of Africa, with orders for the further explorations throughout uncharted territories in search of a passage to the “Indies”.

Portuguese expansion brought greater potential for cultural transmission deeper into Africa when Diego Cao -travelling along the uncharted Congo river around 1482- reached the Kingdom of Kongo, there he exchanged several of his men for a group of Kongolese Noblemen, stalwarts of the tribal community who were taken to Portugal to be indoctrinated into the Christian religion and experience the material grandeur of European Civilization before returning to Africa with their new found knowledge "understanding" of the power of the European Colonizers in 1485, inevitably convinced the tribes to accept conversion willingly assimilating Christian cultural structure and ideology into tradition tribal practice, the King himself Nzinga Nkuwu converted to Christianity upon Diego Cao's return with the Noblemen, within a few years the Kingdom was exchanging ambassadors with Portugal and the Vatican, Portugal continued it's explorations East of Africa, and Catholicism made for them a foothold on the mainland.

Traders obtaining these exotic and mystical "works of art", the tribal “Nkisi” of the African Shaman in the early periods of cultural transmission, selling them as "Feitiço” {fetish objects},  ornate charms devoid of any mystical power other than the ability to provoke fascination, as such modern anthropology has generally called them either "power objects" or "charms."**

It is during the productive process of the West African “Minkisi”, and the mystery this represents to the members of the tribe, that the mystical powers it holds, the purpose of the "spirit" within the object (it's value) is assigned, by the producer, it's effects thenceforth outside the producers control are dependent on it's observed effects of it's intended purpose, his confidence in the objects power dependent on how much he attributes material events to it's imperceptible influence.

William McGaffey writes* that the Kongo ritual system as a whole:
"bears a relationship similar to that which Marx supposed that 'political economy' bore to capitalism as its 'religion', ….The irrationally 'animate' character of the ritual system's symbolic apparatus, including minkisi, divination devices, and witch-testing ordeals, obliquely expressed real relations of power among the participants in ritual.
'Fetishism' is about relations among people, rather than the objects that mediate and disguise those relations.

Ukisi is a Bantu word derived from the root kitį {spirit or material objects in which it is manifested or inhabits} and refers to an object ritually blessed by a “Nganga”, a member of the tribe who works as a healer and protector, a mediator of the tribe's relation to the incomprehensible forces of nature.

Attestation to the meaning of the term in Kongolese language was recorded by Dutch visitors in the early 17th century, it was spelled "mokissie" the mu- prefix in this noun class was still pronounced until the 18th century, when mu- evolved into a simple nasal n- reported by Dutch visitors to Loango as, referring both to a material item and the spiritual entity that inhabits it.

Native American
The Native American system of Fetishism shares many similarities with that of the East Kongolese, like the Ngango the Native American “Shaman” or “Medicine Man's” practice was mediated by numerous significant and particular fetish objects, anything used by the medicine man being viewed by members of the tribe with certain wonder, as though anything in his presence obtained a mystical volition, provoking not only fear but devotion and reverent awe depending on how the objects were intended to be used.

This form of artistic, “spiritual” social practice co-existed separately from the traditional religious beliefs of the Native Americans, who generally practised a form of Animism in which all matter is animated by the spirit of ancestors or a creator, being channeled through communal religious activities such as dancing, sacred rituals, forms of blessing, and worship of specific geographically or culturally relevant "spirits" (ie buffalo spirit), with the Shaman this is the practice of fashioning objects endowed with certain mystical power, of being an intermediary for the "intangible" forces of nature and providing tangible forms of order, betraying an implicit hierarchical social structure, based around fear and the unknown.

The difference between fetishism and general religious practice, is adequately described by Lewis Spence in his work on Native American Myths and Legends published by Senate: “A the place of imprisonment of a subservient spirit,,,if it would gain the rank of godhead,(it) must do so by a long series of luck bringing, or at least by the performance of a number of marvels of a protective or fortune-making nature.”

Though there was much diversity of belief amongst the tribes, with geography, individual tribal histories, totems and particular practices differing greatly, the general idea of all things being composed fundamentally of spirit”, enabled the American Shaman just like the African Ngango, to construct fetish objects, from wood, bone or other materials, containing imprisoned spirits kept under some form of enchantment, the inspiration or idea behind an objects construction would usually remain symbolic, only being bestowed to the items heir through a form of ritualism possibly including a secret oath, if an object “lost” it's power of influence, if a “good luck” “charm” brought the bearer no luck at all, or if it's secret was discovered, it would be considered to have lost it's mystical “power”, therefore significance to the owner, who would seek to replace it with a new one, the sheer volume of fetish objects remaining in the archaeological record, testifies to the fact that the practice itself, being rooted in a broader idea of the nature of reality and human existence similar to Animism, far outlived the various individual objects themselves, only those objects which stood the test of experience assumed their position as important cultural items, others would become mere ornaments or items of jewellery holding only aesthetic interest to the owner.

We can see a clear parallel to this archaic practice of ritual in the modern church of the commodity, which provokes it's own moments of fervant exaltation.

Modern Practice
In contrast to the Indigenous use of “Feitiço”, official fetish objects such as: the crucifix; images of Jesus; St Christopher pendants; statues of Mary; etc,. although also inanimate man made objects (endowed with supernatural functions or transcendent abilities through ritual or mythology), were positively encouraged, the “Holy Book” of the Christian world becoming “Ukisi Nkanda”{Ukisi Book} of the Kongolese, the term “Ukisi” {a substance having characteristics of nkisi} being used to translate "holy" in the Kikongo Catechism of 1624.

This cultural practice pre-existed Christianity in every continent, even pre-Christian European, Celtic, Pagan, Greco-Roman and Norse culture, bear the unmistakable evidence of having used various objects in order to mediate the social relations between artisans, master craftsmen, expert poets, warriors, scholars and the masses, retaining a certain social hierarchy in place.

It is the ordering social relations within these systems, the law keeping, regulating aspects of the community for which objects of Fetishism were fashioned, ie the Etruscan “Fasces” symbol was used by the Romans as a symbol of the Judicial and Legal authority of the State, the Caduceus is used as a symbol of the medical establishment, or if we observe the practice of fetishism today; the Crucifix a symbol of religious suffering in devotion to Christ, the Ferrari a symbol of success and vast fortune; the Volkswagon a symbol of popular practicality; Audi a symbol of German efficiency, or “truth”; a symbol of meaning, importance, value or reliability.

In this blind struggle each commodity, by pursuing its own passion, unconsciously generates something beyond itself, while each particular manifestation of the commodity eventually falls in battle, the general commodity-form continues onward toward its absolute realization.

MacGaffey, Wyatt (Spring). "African objects and the idea of fetish". RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 25: 123-131.

John Thornton, "The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491-1750," Journal of African History 25 (1984): 156-57

further reading on the subject,
John Ogilby, Africa (London, 1670), p. 514)

Africa South of the Sahara. London: Europa Publications Ltd., n.d.
Balandier, Georges. Daily Life in the Kingdom of the Kongo: From the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1965.

Hilton, Anne. The Kingdom of Kongo. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985.

MacGaffey, Wyatt. Religion and Society in Central Africa: The BaKongo of Lower Zaire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Olfert Dapper, Naukeurige Beschrijvinge der Africa Gewesten (Amsterdam, 1668), p. 548 (see English translation in John Ogilby, Africa (London, 1670), p. 514)

Dupré, Marie-Claude (1975). "Les système des forces nkisi chez le Kongo d'après le troisième volume de K. Laman," Africa

The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish
William Pietz
RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics
No. 13 (Spring, 1987), pp. 23-45
Published by: The President and Fellows of Harvard College
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