The Concept of Fetishism as a Theoretical and Historical Problem

Part of the Marx, Engels, and Marxisms book series (MAENMA)


In 1907, Marcel Mauss put an end to the role that the concept of fetishism played in the field of ethnology and in the history of religions. In reviewing a book by Dennett for “Année Sociologique,” Mauss observed:

When the history of the science of religions and ethnography comes to be written, one will be astonished by the unmerited and fortuitous role that the notion like that of the ‘fetish’ has played in theoretical and descriptive works. It corresponds to nothing but an immense misunderstanding between two civilizations, the African and the European; it has no other foundation than a blind obedience to colonial usage, to the lingua francas spoken by Europeans on the West coast. One has no more right to speak about fetishism concerning the western Bantu than one may be accustomed to speaking about it with regard to other central or eastern Bantu. Equally one does not have the right to speak of Negro fetishism: Guinean or Congolese idolatry (this is very rare), Congolese witchcraft, the ownership taboo, and others, are not found to be, in the Congo or Guinea, of a different nature than that of other religions or other societies. On the contrary, it is really remarkable that the fact of what appears to be the very truth concerning the notion of the fetish had been known since the seventeenth century…. The success of the book by de Brosses had to be due to some sort of simplicity, of mistake, perhaps necessary, in which the science and the study of religions, African religions in particular, have existed up to now.1


Formal Connection Sexual Object Original Meaning Symbolic Process Semiotic Process 
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© Alfonso Maurizio Iacono 2016

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