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Return of the fetish: a plea for a new materialism


This essay argues for a renewed form of critique based upon a non-deflationary realist and materialist understanding of the nature of objects. Such an understanding is set against the deflationary conception of materiality common nowadays, one that sees ‘signs’ in the place of powerful objects (exemplars, charms, fetishes), adjudicates against the latter as mere relics of the past and can only conceive of material relations and causality in representational terms, as co-relative to our self-positing powers. Such a conception is responsible for our present inability to think the role of radical claims, thick attachments and religious objects in modern secular societies. The argument is developed from within a phenomenological tradition that includes Hegelo-Marxian themes and connects them with more and less recent insights from anthropology and elsewhere concerning value and objectification in modern times.

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  1. 1.

    In this respect, Dolar writes: ‘There is a specific dimension of the uncanny that emerges with modernity... in premodern societies the dimension of the uncanny was largely covered (and veiled) by the area of the sacred and the untouchable. It was assigned to a religiously and socially sanctioned place ... With the triumph of the Enlightenment, this privileged and excluded place (the exclusion that founded society) was no more. That is to say that the uncanny became unplaceable; it became the uncanny in the strict sense’. M. Dolar, ‘I Shall Be with You on Your Wedding-night: Lacan and the Uncanny’, October 58 (1991), 7.

  2. 2.

    M. Heidegger, ‘The Way to Language’, in Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), D. Krell, ed. (London: Routledge, 1993), 402.

  3. 3.

    S. Mahmood, ‘Objectivity and Moral Claims’, Paper delivered at the Thematics workshop, School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London, 9 February 2007. See also Mahmood, Politics of Piety: Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

  4. 4.

    I am grateful for the support of the Modern Coloniality Discussion Network, the ‘Duke in the Andes’ programme; Law School, Birkbeck at the University of London; the Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, (UASB), Ecuador; and the Instituto de Estudios Sociales y Culturales – Pensar at Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá. All of which, in different ways, enabled me to conduct and discuss fieldwork in Southern Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. The first set of interviews, concerning the status of fetish-objects in the stabilization of social and political attachments, took place in Belalcázar, Cauca, Colombia, between 2003 and 2005. The second included talks with activists and popular leaders associated with indigenous and ‘afro’ causes in Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia. I would like to thank Arturo Escobar, Bruno Mazzoldi, Michael Taussig, Walter Mignolo, Javier Sanjinés, Fernando Garcés, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Costas Douzinas, Catherine Walsh, Graham Harman, and Victoriano Pennakwe for their encouragement, insight, and guidance at various stages of this project, as well as Anton Schütz, Panu Minkkinen, Michelle Everson, Valerie Kelley, and the anonymous reviewers of Law and Critique for their very helpful comments.

  5. 5.

    The name of the interviewee has been changed.

  6. 6.

    In October 2003, a series of protests in El Alto, Bolivia led to the resignation of then President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The division between these sectors came to a head over the 18 July 2004 nationwide referendum on the future of the country’s gas reserves, and once again in 2006/7, after the victory of the coalition led by the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and Evo Morales over the issue of ‘decentralisation’ and, potentially, secession. Since Morales’ electoral victory, the Cruceñista movement and other groups within its orbit have actually carried out acts of violence and threatened all-out civil war. In January 2007, right after the exchanges were completed, Hernando and other interviewees contacted me and reported on the daily violent clashes taking place between supporters of Cochabamba’s right wing Governor, Manfred Reyes, and left-wing MAS supporters and representatives to the Constitutional Assembly. See F. Fuentes, ‘The Battle for Bolivia’s Future’, posted on 15 June 2007 at (last accessed 16 June 2007), and J. McDowell, ‘Disputed Ground: Battle Between Left and Right Becomes Territorial in the Plaza de Cochabamba,’ posted on 12 June 2007 at (last accessed 17 June 2007).

  7. 7.

    M. Lora, ‘Los capitanes del Comando Camba’, in Juguete Rabioso, 5 February 2005, 8–10. The ‘half-moon’ or media luna comprises the resource-rich northern, eastern and southern lowlands of Bolivia, controlled by well-heeled civic and business groups and a handful of multinational corporations, as opposed to the impoverished western highlands or altiplano. The altiplano is primarily indigenous – mainly Quechua and Aymará – while the ‘half moon’ has a much larger mestizo or light-skinned population. See also T. Ballvé, ‘Bolivia’s Separatist Movement’, NACLA Report on the Americas 38/5 (2005), 16–17, and ‘Far From Over: Bolivia on the Brink of Civil War or Revolution’, posted on 10 June 2005 at (last accessed 10 June 2005).

  8. 8.

    The Pact was formed in September 2004, gathered together sectors of the peasantry and indigenous peoples from the highlands, and stated as its central aim the summoning of a participative, popular Constituent Assembly that would make radical changes to the country’s modern/colonial power structure.

  9. 9.

    M. Vargas Llosa, ‘“Izquierda Vegetariana” versus “‘Izquierda Carnívora”: Enfrentamiento que Toma Fuerza en América Latina’, in Lecturas Dominicales, El Tiempo, 15 June 2007. The article is a rendition of his prologue to C. Montaner, P. Mendoza and M. Vargas Llosa Jr, eds, El Regreso del Idiota (Madrid: Random House/Mondadori, 2007).

  10. 10.


  11. 11.


  12. 12.

    As Vargas Llosa puts it in the cited article, the task of politics proper would be to explain (and overcome) what he calls ‘backwardness’. For a detailed explanation of the deployment and pitfalls of the discourse of ‘development’ in the post-colonial condition, see A. Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

  13. 13.

    ‘Doing evil to the other’ is a rendition of Rousseau’s ‘mal d’autrui’. See J.-J. Rousseau, Rousseau juge de Jean-Jacques. Dialogues, in Oeuvres de J.J. Rousseau, Tome Quinziéme, Premier Dialogue (Paris: Detervill, 1817), 214. On the connection between blindness and the greatest violence, see H. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London: Penguin, 1994, 2nd edn). See also J.-P. Dupuy, Avions-nous oublié le mal? Penser la politique après le 11 septembre (Paris: Bayard, 2002).

  14. 14.

    B. Clavero, Ama Llunku, Abya Yala: Constituyencia Indígena y Código Ladino por América (Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 2000).

  15. 15.

    This is the case, for instance, in the first Latin American independent constitution in respect of the Spanish empire: the 1811 Venezuelan constitution extends common citizenship to indigenous peoples on the basis of an educational programme, viz., ‘that they understand the intimate commonality that unites them with all other citizens’, while at the same time providing that ‘the property of the [common] lands that were conceded to them, and remain in their possession, be distributed’. This articulation of ‘common citizenship’, as opposed to their full recognition as indigenous peoples and the privatisation of common property, is a generalised pattern of modern/colonial constitutionalism. Constitución de 1811, Disposiciones Generales, arts. 200 and 201 in L. Otero, ed., Constituciones de Venezuela (Madrid: Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, 1965).

  16. 16.

    On this see J.-P. Dupuy, Petite métaphysique des tsunamis (Paris: Seuil, 2005), 70–99.

  17. 17.

    Mahmood, Politics, supra n. 3.

  18. 18.

    B. Mazzoldi and F. Téllez, ‘The Pocket-Size Interview with Jacques Derrida’, Critical Inquiry 33 (2007), 362–388, at 372.

  19. 19.

    Dolar, supra n. 1; M. Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983); The Magic of the State (London: Routledge, 1996); Law in a Lawless Land (Chicago, IL:University of Chicago Press, 2005). See also J. Mariátegui, ‘El Hombre y el Mito’, in El Alma Matinal (Lima: Biblioteca Amauta, 1979).

  20. 20.

    I. Kant, Opus Postumum, E. Forster, ed., E. Forster and M. Rosen, trans. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  21. 21.

    E. Kaufman, ‘To Cut Too Deeply and Not Deep Enough: Violence and the Incorporeal’, in Theology and the Political: The New Debate, C. Davis, J. Milbank and S. Zizek, eds. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 350.

  22. 22.


  23. 23.

    Ibid. at 351. To illustrate the point she makes reference to a passage in Simone De Beauvoir’s 1943 novel, She Came to Stay.

  24. 24.

    Ibid. 354. She refers directly to Sartre’s work. See also P. Verstraeten, Violence et éthique: Esquisee d’une critique de la morale dialectique á partir du théâtre du Sartre (Paris: Gallimard, 1972).

  25. 25.

    Kaufman, supra n. 21, 358.

  26. 26.

    K. Marx, On Freedom of the Press. Proceedings of the Sixth Rhine Province Assembly: Debates on Freedom of the Press and Publication of the Proceedings of the Assembly of the Estates [1842], in K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works [normally cited as MECW], vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 132–181. First published in 10 May 1842 in the Rheinische Zeitung.

  27. 27.

    A. Chase, Law and History: The Evolution of the American Legal System (New York: The New Press, 1997), 26.

  28. 28.

    R. Meek, Social Science and the Ignoble Savage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 160–161.

  29. 29.

    W. Lehmann, John Millar of Glasgow, 1735–1801 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960, repr. Arno Press, 1979), 29, 67.

  30. 30.

    I. Ross, The Life of Adam Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 417–418. See also R. Meek, ‘The Scottish Contribution to Marxist Sociology’, in Economics and Ideology and Other Essays (London: Chapmann and Hall, 1967), 43.

  31. 31.

    A. Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, R. Meek, D. Raphael and P. Stein, eds, Glasgow edn of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978, repr. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982).

  32. 32.

    As Laurence Dickey observes this entails ‘something like universality within what Hegel regarded to be as the particular social moment of experience itself’, a problem whose solution would lead him, on account of the debate concerning the relation between commerce and luxury, down the path that ends with fetishism. See L. Dickey, Hegel: Religion, Economic, and the Politics of Spirit, 1770–1807 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Millar and Ferguson, who noticed that uneven distribution of wealth would give rise to social and political tensions between poor and rich, had already argued that what was accidental and habitual to human nature, rather than essential to it, had often become an ‘idol’ of the mind. A. Ferguson. Principles of Moral and Political Science, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: A. Strahan, 1792), 134–139. Later on, in the essay on Ethical Life, Hegel would indict the ‘business class’ for its fascination with property rather than ‘higher things’, as a result of which the ‘absolute bond of the people, namely [true] ethical principle, has vanished, and the people is dissolved’. G. Hegel, ‘The System of Ethical Life’, in System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of Spirit, H. Harris and T. Knox, ed. and trans. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1979), 171.

  33. 33.

    This idea, that the technical object has a genesis and dynamic of its own, irreducible to the intentionality of its human creator, is expressed most accurately in Capital. See K. Marx. Capital, vol. 1, B. Fowkes, trans. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), 493 n. 4. See also G. Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (Paris: Aubier, 1958), 9–11; and B. Stiegler, Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, R. Beardsworth and G. Collins, trans. (Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998), 26, 66–67.

  34. 34.

    On this see D. Losurdo, Hegel and the Freedom of Moderns (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 153–179.

  35. 35.

    For my use of the term ‘popular constitutionalism’, see L. Kramer, The People Themselves: Popular Constitutionalism and Judicial Review (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

  36. 36.

    E. Dussel, 20 Tesis Sobre Política (Méjico: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006).

  37. 37.

    Don’t touch me!

  38. 38.

    Marx, On Freedom, supra n. 26.

  39. 39.

    For a detailed account of Marx’s reading of American revolutionary thought and democracy, see A. Nimtz Jr., Marx, Tocqueville and Race in America (Lanham, MD & New York: Lexington Books, 2003). Nimtz argues convincingly that Marx and Engels recognized the centrality of the struggles about slavery and actively mobilized German Americans in opposition to slavocracy prior to the Civil War. More recently, other writers have picked up on the relationship between revolutionary thought and political practice in the Americas and Marx’s own ideas but have not developed the point sufficiently. See for instance: C. Hitchens, ‘The Grub Street Years’, The Guardian, 16 June 2007. Hitchens’ article is a review of James Ledbetter’s edition of Marx’s writings on America, Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx (London: Penguin Classics, 2007). For other sources see R. Weiner, Das Amerikabild von Karl Marx, reviewed by D. Reeves in German Studies Review 7/2 (1984), 353–354. There is also a Spanish edition that includes Marx and Engels’ writings on the Spanish Americas and the Caribbean that helps to correct the ‘Americo-centrist’ bias of other editions and allows for a more complete picture of the centrality of the issue of slavery in nineteenth century revolutionary thought and practice. See K. Marx and F. Engels, Escritos Sobre España, P. Ribas, ed. (Madrid: Trotta, 1998).

  40. 40.

    Kramer, supra n. 35.

  41. 41.

    St. G. Tucker, ‘On Sovereignty and Legislature’, in Blackstone’s Commentaries, Appendix A, (Philadelphia, 1803), repr. in St. G. Tucker, A View of the Constitution of the United States with Selected Writings, vol. 19 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).

  42. 42.

    On the need today for this sort of power see H. Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search for an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

  43. 43.

    J.-L. Nancy, ‘The Two Secrets of the Fetish’, in Diacritics 31/2 (2001), 3–8, at 4. See also Taussig, supra n. 19.

  44. 44.

    Marx, On Freedom, supra n. 26, 132–177.

  45. 45.

    Ibid. 135–181.

  46. 46.


  47. 47.

    Quoted by Kramer, supra n. 35, 4. Hamilton refers to the Executive branch of government.

  48. 48.

    On the notion of ‘concretisation’, see Simondon, supra n. 33; see also Simondon, L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1964). For an analysis of Simondon’s notions of ‘concretisation’ and ‘individuation’ in relation to Marx’s famous ‘Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse, see P. Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 76–84. A more detailed and remarkable analysis, which sees Simondon’s theses as moving away from human-centred accounts of techniques towards unpredictability and contingency as the new central notions of (post-industrial) nature and society, see Stiegler, supra n. 33.

  49. 49.

    Marx, On Freedom, supra n. 26, 137–181.

  50. 50.


  51. 51.

    Charles River Bridge v Warren Bridge, 36 US (II Pet.) 420 (1837).

  52. 52.

    R. Epstein, Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

  53. 53.

    US Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 10, cl. 1.

  54. 54.

    See Charles River Bridge v Warren Bridge, 36 US (II Pet.) 420 (1837). Also cited in Chase, supra n. 27, 124.

  55. 55.


  56. 56.

    Supra n.27, 124–125.

  57. 57.

    On this see S. Fischer, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 1–4.

  58. 58.

    For these sources, see Nimtz, supra n. 39, 4.

  59. 59.

    Marx, On Freedom, supra n. 26, 167.

  60. 60.

    G. Hegel, Philosophie des Rechts: Die vorlesung von 1819–20 in einer Nachschrift [1819–20], D. Henrich, ed. (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983), 51. For the same formulation in the recently discovered manuscript of the 1821–22 lecture course on the philosophy of right (Das Vernünftige ist wirklich und das Wirkliche ist vernünftig, rendered as ‘the rational is actual and the actual is rational’), see P. Becchi, ‘Hegelsche Vorlesungsnachschriften und noch kein Ende?’ Materialli per una storia della cultura giuridica 16/1 (1986), 251–261.

  61. 61.

    Losurdo, supra n. 34, 32–38.

  62. 62.

    G. Hegel, Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie [1824–25], K.-H. Ilting, ed. (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 1973–1974).

  63. 63.

    Losurdo, supra n. 34, 32–38.

  64. 64.

    Q. Meillassoux, ‘Potentiality & Virtuality’, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development II (2007), 74–75.

  65. 65.

    Losurdo, supra n. 34, 32–38. See also V. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, in Collected Works, vol. 38, C. Duit, trans. (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), 309–310.

  66. 66.

    Marx, On Freedom, supra n. 26, 167–168.

  67. 67.


  68. 68.

    Tucker, supra n. 41. See also Kramer, supra n. 35, 6–7.

  69. 69.

    Marx, On Freedom, supra n. 26, 167–168. See also Marx, Dispatches, supra n. 39.

  70. 70.

    L. Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, G. Eliot, trans. (New York: Harper Row, 1957), 29, 105 ff. Feuerbach wrote ‘Providence is a privilege of man. It expresses the value of man, in distinction from other natural beings and things; it exempts him from the connection of the universe. Providence is the conviction of man of the infinite value of his existence, a conviction in which he renounces faith in the reality of external things’. Ibid. 105. For the original, see Das Wesen des Christentums, Gesammelte Werke, vol. V, W. Schuffenhauer and W. Harich, eds (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1973), 71.

  71. 71.

    K. Marx and F. Engels, Gesamtausgabe (new MEGA), vol. 4/1, Exzerpte und Notizen bis 1842 (Berlin: Dieta Verlag, 1976).

  72. 72.

    Nancy, supra n. 43, 44.

  73. 73.

    M. Lifshitz, The Philosophy of Art of Karl Marx (London, 1973) quoted in M. Rose, Marx’s Lost Aesthetic: Karl Marx & The Visual Arts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 60.

  74. 74.

    See on this W. Breckman, Marx, The Young Hegelians and the Origins of Radical Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). This is a very thorough effort to capture Marx’s formative years, indeed the first major attempt in almost twenty years. Unfortunately, Breckman does not take into account Marx’s growing interest for the legal and political language of the Americas. Not only do we find no mention of his familiarity with the Caribbean story, there is only passing reference to the more political American sources of Marx’s argument in the Rheinische Zeitung articles and On the Jewish Question, i.e., popular constitutionalism, civil religion, anti-slavery insurgency and judicial review of property’s legal framework.

  75. 75.

    Feuerbach, supra n. 70, 29 ff. (Das Wesen des Christentums, 71).

  76. 76.

    Crucially, Feuerbach’s move announces Michel Foucault’s critique of ethnology as a science predicated on a hypothesis of sameness. See M. Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences [1966] (London, Tavistock Press, 1970, repr. London: Routledge, 1994), 376–377.

  77. 77.

    Feuerbach, supra n. 70, 92.

  78. 78.


  79. 79.

    A. Métraux, Le Vaudou Haïtien (Paris: Gallimard, 1989), 72.

  80. 80.

    A. Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, A. Bloom, ed., J. Nichols Jr., trans. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1969), 4. The purpose of this reference is to highlight the connection between Feuerbach’s post-Hegelian take on the fetish and Kojève’s central notion of ‘anthropogenic desire’ as the source of the idea of justice. On this see A. Kojève, Outline of a Phenomenology of Right, B. Frost and R. Howse, trans. (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000), § 35–38.

  81. 81.

    See C. Douzinas, The End of Human Rights (London: Hart Publishing, 2000).

  82. 82.

    L. Feuerbach, supra n. 70, 105.

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Guardiola-Rivera, O. Return of the fetish: a plea for a new materialism. Law Critique 18, 275–307 (2007).

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  • fetish
  • materialism
  • mimesis
  • object
  • projection
  • realism
  • religion
  • rights
  • violence