Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make: European Social Theory and the Real-Life “Fetish”


It’s a real pleasure to welcome
back Professor James Lorand Matory, or Randy as we
know him, to Harvard. He is a 1982 BA of
Harvard College. And after getting his MA
and PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago,
came back to Harvard in 1991 as an assistant professor, and
was promoted to full professor with tenure in the anthropology
department in 1998, before deciding to move on
to Duke University in 2009. Currently still at
Duke, he is, as you just heard but I will repeat,
the Lawrence Richardson Professor of
Cultural Anthropology and African-Amercan Studies. Randy Matory is one of the most
accomplished and distinguished scholars of both African
and African-American studies in the world today. Among the many
awards he’s received in recognition of
his achievements are the Alexander von
Humboldt Research award from the Alexander von Humboldt
Foundation in Bonn, Germany. The Distinguished Africana
Award given by the American Anthropological Association
for outstanding contribution to African studies
and anthropology. The Melville J.
Herskovits Prize, awarded by the African
Studies Association for the best book of 2005. Which was for his first book– for his second book,
Black Atlantic Tradition, Transnationalism, and
Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomble. A Choice Oustanding Scholarly
book of the year award of 1994, which was for his
first book, Sex and the Empire That Is No More, Gender and
the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo-Yoruba Religion. And the 2016 honorable
mention, the Elliott P. Skinner prize for the best
book of the year, for his third book, Stigma
and Culture, Last Place Anxiety in Black America. You can tell from the accolades
that his work has garnered, Randy is a brilliant
ethnography and a trenchant original thinker. His first two books kind of
in a sense form a box set. With the first one, Sex
and the Empire That Is No More based on two
years of field work in Nigeria studying Yoruba
rituals of worship and healing. This book takes the
theoretically innovative turn of analyzing rituals not as
structuralist functionalist creations of social order, nor
as Turnerian ritual processes per se, but as metaphors
that in the social context of their performance may
alter the social order or offer alternative
conceptions of it. From a gender perspective, what
is distinctive of these rituals is that female priestesses
and transgendered persons take the
lead ritual roles, though this may not be
surprising in a society where heterosexual male-female
pairings are not privileged in the first place
and both male wives and female husbands
are relatively common. Ritual metaphors authorize
women to take on male roles as husbands and Yoruba
kings and chiefs are like wives and children
to the ritual priestesses. In my view, not since Gregory
Bateson’s classic 1930s analysis of the
ritual Naven has there been such an original and
surprising study of ritual. Black Atlantic
Religion was conceived as a sequel to
Sex and the Empire by looking at the presence
of African culture, especially the Candomble
religion of spirit possession, dance, healing, and blood
sacrifice as a transatlantic religion spanning Nigeria,
Benin, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, and the United States. And astonishingly, Randy did
fieldwork in all these places, though the focus was on Brazil. Far from being a folk
tradition, its practitioners were and are cosmopolitan
writers and merchants of diverse classes
and backgrounds, whose investment in
maintaining the religion were at once spiritual
as well as commercial, and whose influence
were as deep in Africa as they were in Brazil. This transnational
component, he argues, was not recent but
an enduring feature of the religion’s
identity, which Randy’s historical
analysis deftly shows. His third book, Stigma and
Culture, is in a sense, or at least in my
view, his most American of African-American research. Focus on what he
described in a talk he gave yesterday in the
anthropology department as the sad story
of stigmatization that disadvantaged ethnic
and racial groups engage in when describing other
such groups they compete with for merit and
advancement in, more sadly still, US
college universities. The fieldwork was done at
all black Howard University, Harvard University,
and Duke University, and the ethnography
is a provocative yet nuanced and
sensitive handling of a highly controversial topic. But as long as I knew him
as a colleague and friend during the entire
time he was teaching at Harvard, Randy never shied
away from difficult positions or being outspoken
about the things he cared about passionately. Indeed, he didn’t
pull his punches even when squaring
off against some of the most powerful
figures in the university. And what I also remember was
that he never lost his dignity or graciousness under fire,
nor his wonderful sense of humor, which I’m sure will
come through in his talk today. I miss him as a colleague,
and so it is a real treat to have him back
again in our midst if only for a couple of days. You’ve been away
too long, Randy. So you can see the title
of the talk for yourselves. I would like you to
warmly welcome our speaker for today, Randy Matory. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] I cannot fail to do that
first because the last time I lectured here 18 years ago was
the occasion of my inaugural lecture as a tenured
professor at Harvard. And the spirit of
unpredictability [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] screwed
up my slide show terribly. 18 years ago, my late father
William Earl Matory Senior M.D. Sat in one of those chairs, as
did my late sister, Dr. Yvedt Love Matory. Now they sit in memory. This is a place of deep memory
for me and deep emotion, particularly because of
them and because you all, my dear old friends,
and my dear colleagues, as well as new friends
have gathered here. I moved to Duke. My heart’s still here. But I don’t miss the
weather, except today, because I had my mojo working. In Yoruba, that
means hold the rain. Mojo. The rain stopped so
you all could come out. So I thank the
gods of Cambridge. I would also like to thank
Steve for that very, very kind introduction. He just sets the model for
introductions of speakers that I have always felt
totally intimidated by. How could I ever do that? He really reviews
everything you’ve read and gives such a thoughtful
accounting of it. So that’s so much appreciated. And adding a second barrel
to that introduction, Gary, I’m very grateful for your
speaking, for this introduction here. I’m very proud of this museum. You’ve done wonderful
things with it since the days of
Agassiz, whose horrid plaque stands in the hallway. So I thank the Department
of Anthropology, of Human Evolutionary
Biology, the Museum of Science and Culture. I thank Diana Xochitl Munn, Jean
and John Comaroff, Gary Urton and Steve Urton. Steve Caton, of course,
for this wonderful welcome and your generosity
since I’ve arrived. And by way of thanking
you all for coming, I have a little
joke to tell you. One dear friend of mine
said that it’s not funny, so I’ll let you decide. What did the dog fish say
when he swam into a wall? Dam. You can tell I’m
happy to be at home. Now that joke is not entirely
relevant to today’s topic. It’s about subjectivity and
its encounter with the fetish. Since the Enlightenment
and through the vocabulary of fetishism, European
social theorists have defined African
religion as the antithesis of the social order to
which Europe should aspire. Yet present day scholars who
employ the theories of Marx and Freud tend to forget
that this negative trope of European social
identity arose from specific
material conditions and social positions. Those scholars who do know
something about the biographies and histories that produce
Marx’s historical materialism and Freud’s
psychoanalysis seldom know anything
about the cultures, the biographies, or the
political histories that produced the
Afro-Atlantic gods so snidely commented upon
by the term fetishism. I argue that both the
concept of fetishism and the animated things
that inspired this term reveal a certain set of social
relationships between Africans and Europeans. And that both Afro-Atlantic
gods and European theories are shaped by the
complimentary social positions of their exponents. So I’ve just finished a book
called The Fetish Revisited Volume One, Marx, Freud, and
the Gods That Black People Make. I won’t be able to say much
about volume two, which is not finished, for lack
of time, but I’d like to share with you
an outline of volume one so that if there’s
anything ridiculous in it, you catch it before
it’s set in stone. Now in this book, I
place Marx and Freud, the leading theorists
of fetishism, in dialogue with
six friends of mine, who are also priests of various
Afro-Atlantic religions– West African Yoruba religion,
Brazilian Candomble, Haitian Voodoo, and Cuban
and Cuban-American Santeria or Ocha. They are experts on ritually
animated things of the sort that Wilhelm Bussman,
[? Charles ?] [? Degras, ?] Hegel, Marx, and Freud mistook
for prototypes of disordered thought, rather than embodiments
of different thought about the proper value of things and
the proper shape of the social relationships surrounding
their production and exchange. Today we’re fortunate to have
two of these priest friends with us. Let’s see. These are our issues. Baba Steve’s issue
is among those. I just saluted him. This is a ritual call
made for me by Baba Steve. Baba Steve, would you
mind standing up a bit? This is Baba Steve Quintana
of Lynn, Massachusetts. He is a very high
ranking and elder priest of Santeria or Ocha. The Orisha Oko, or
Lord of the Farm, that he made for me is meant
to keep work in the house. In other words, that
there may always be remunerative opportunities
for the members of my family. Marie Maude is also here. Madame Marie Maude
Evans, also known as Marie Maude, who is a Mambo
Asogwe of Haitian Voodoo. And she is a priestess
of the highest rank, who has this lovely
temple in Jacmel, as well as one in
Mattapan, Massachusetts. And this is a ceremony
voodoo for my various paquet congo, embodiments
of the gods, she has made for me that
empower me in various ways, but above all, well,
among other things, protect me from the
envy of my colleagues. Now above all, in my view,
these animated beings, animated objects embody
the indelible, long term, and unbreakable
social relationships between Baba Steve and me and
between Marie Maude and me, and my relationships
with the communities of people who surround them in
Haiti and the United States. Now what, you might
ask, does all of this have to do with race? The West
post-Enlightenment efforts to excoriate Africanness
from its collective body have gone hand-in-hand
with the effort to exclude Jewish people. For example, had Marx, Freud,
Baba Steve, and Marie Maude been here during the
1920s, they would have felt decidedly unwelcome
amid the efforts of A. Lawrence Lowell, our president
at the time, to limit the number of
Jewish students admitted to the university,
and to prohibit the dwelling of
African-American students in the dormitories, where all
other students were required to live. Now these points might
be rather obvious, but today, inspired by my
last book, Stigma and Culture, I will be advancing a
less obvious observation about human responses
to racial stigma. That is, to say that one
response of the stigmatized is to band together with
their stigmatized fellows and to unite against
stigma and oppression. Another, and I think the more
common quotidian response to stigma and oppression,
is to say to the oppressor whether visibly present
or implicitly present, no, we’re not the ones who
deserve to be stigmatized and oppressed, it’s them. We’re like you. We’re an ideal version of
you, as a matter of fact. I call this phenomenon
ethnological schadenfreude. So my forthcoming book examines
many of the physical objects that Marx and Freud
appear to have animated with their ideas, which objects
also animated them with ideas, such as Marx’s pawned coats. He pawned his overcoats
multiple times in order to supply his
family with a livelihood. His piano– even in the depths
of poverty, he kept a piano and provided his daughters
with piano lessons. Of course, in addition to
two housekeepers, one of whom he impregnated. But I get ahead of myself. Freud made a great
deal of intaglio rings. These rings that bore Roman
and Greek jewels essentially that he gave to his followers
as emotionally deeply invested embodiments
of their brotherhood in psychoanalysis and of their
filial relationships to them. Cigars were also obviously
very important to him because they appear in
almost all of his portraits. However, for lack
of time today, I will limit myself to Marx’s
fetishization of the Negro slave in Capital and
Freud’s fetishization of the naked savage
in Totem and Taboo. The race of these
non-European antitheses of Marx’s and Freud’s
aspirational self identities was clear, as clear as
Marx’s and Freud’s real time racial identities were unclear. I will argue that the most
influential convictions of Marx and Freud were shaped by
these men’s racial ambiguity amid Europe’s integration into
a Circum-Atlantic politics, increasingly organized
around the disadvantages of being black or
being insufficiently different from black people. [SIDE CONVERSATION] All right in between these two
segments on Marx and Freud, I’ll be talking about a few
of the objects that are deeply embedded with ideas in the
Afro-Atlantic and particularly Yoruba-Atlantic traditions. Traditions that,
like Freud’s fetish, embody the deep social
ambiguity of their exponents and embody the deep ambivalence
of their worshippers. So the first of the
three sections of today’s talk concern the history
of the fetish concept and how it becomes
a vehicle of Marx’s own ethnological schadenfreude. William Pietz wrote a
series of three articles in the mid-80s
for Race, which is one of the museum’s
publications, that have been very influential since then. He argues that the
term fetish or fetisu originated as a description
of certain types of magic in Portugal that
were criminalized by the Inquisition. He adds that when Portuguese
mariners reached the Guinea coast or the West African
coast on the Bight of Benin, they encountered West African
animated beings, which they described as fetishes, with
the idea that arbitrary objects were being worshipped and
being credited with agency or the power to do things– that this arbitrary
attribution of agency went along with Africans
overvaluing things that the Portuguese didn’t value
very highly and undervaluing things that the
Portuguese valued highly. And selling alloys instead
of pure gold, as well as counterfeiting. So all of this to the
Portuguese was fetishism. When the Dutch later reached
the West African coast and took over many of
the Portuguese forts, they describe not only the
animated objects of the West Africans as fetishes, but
those animated objects of Roman Catholicism,
the rituals and practices of Roman
Catholicism equally as fetishism. They also had their problems
with European royalty generally, with
state authorities that imposed tariffs on them. And all of these phenomena,
they described as fetishism, analogizing it to
African religion to prove clearly
how silly it was. The use of this term
emerged in the Enlightenment as well, as a central trope
of exploitation, despotism, and overconsumption to
be opposed as Europe formed its ideal self. Heirs to this legacy of
Afro-European disagreement about the value and agency
of people and things, Hegel, Marx, and Freud too
invoked materially embodied African gods as the
universal counter-example of proper reasoning, proper
commerce, proper governance, and proper sexuality. I argue that Yoruba indigenous
religion, Cuban Santeria and Ocha, Brazilian
Candomble, and Haitian Voodoo are also heirs to the
16th and 17th century encounter of Africans and
Europeans on the Guinea coast. The push of the
inland Oyo kingdom to the Atlantic coastal ports
involved the extensive use of political delegation by wives
and white flight possession priests, as well as cavalry. Hence, the Guinea
coast encounter of European merchants with
African monarchs, merchants, and priests catalyzed
two social revolutions– one Euro-Atlantic and
one Afro-Atlantic. That Euro-Atlantic revolution
advocated the inherent equality of all white men and
their individual rights bearing autonomy
from one another. This new social
idea also gave rise to a model of the
nationalist band of brothers who overcame the royal father. The prime actor imagined in this
vision of history and society is a white man. On the other hand, the
simultaneous Yoruba-Atlantic revolution idealized the hand
in glove hierarchical connection between actors from
different families, different ethnic groups, and
indeed different continents. A hierarchical connection
modeled on royal marriage and horsemanship. The prime actor imagined in
this mode of society and history is not a son or a
brother but a royal wife. Marx’s newspaper articles were
sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. On the other hand, Marx’s
magnum opus, Capital, represents the enslaved
African or, in quotes, “the Negro slave”
not as the most abused of workers, or in the
case of the Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804 as the vanguard
of revolutionary resistance, but instead as a
mute exemplar of how a European worker like
Marx should not be treated. Marx made his point
by juxtaposing a most progressive
view of the source of the value of the commodity
with the most reactionary view of US American slaveholders
holders about the agency of the Negro slave. In Capital, the main agent of
history and object of empathy is the European wage worker,
a beleaguered European man who deserved enfranchisement
in the new nation state along with the bourgeoisie
and the aristocrats. Marx’s appeal on
behalf of the worker rests on his labor
theory of value. Now what did he mean by that? He said the value of
a commodity is not determined by its use value. That is, how we use it
and how useful it is. If it were, water would
be infinitely costly and infinitely valuable
since we use it all day long. But in fact, it’s
relatively cheap. According to Marx,
those befuddled by capitalism tend to believe
that because one can exchange say, two coats for
one chair, there must be some inherent,
invisible, and fungible value residing inside those
commodities that actually determines the
value of those objects. Now he described that
imagination as a fiction, comparing it to
how, in his view, Africans nonsensically
project intrinsic value and agency into fetishes. Hence, he described
the attribution of some shared, intrinsic,
invisible, and fungible value to commodities as the
fetishism of commodities. Are you with me so far? If you’re not, nod. You sure? Don’t be shy. All right, OK. Huh? I’m OK. All right. OK. So Marx described
the attribution of an intrinsic
value to a commodity as the fetishism of commodities. Now with this
demeaning metaphor, Marx accuses the
dupes of capitalism of being as unaware
as Africans that it is human labor that creates value. This fetishism allegedly hides
the real social relationships among the producers
of the goods that are being produced and exchanged. We cease to be aware that the
values derive from who made it and his or her relationship to
the people to whom it’s given, and the similarly
produced goods that are given by that other
person to him or her. And of course, society is
a much more complex network of giving and taking
among multiple parties, the social
relationships among whom are the real source of value
as far as Marx is concerned. The value of commodities
is not intrinsic in them, but in the social
relations among the producers and exchangers. Yet as I will argue
in the next section, African and African
inspired priests are highly aware
of the human role in the making of the value
attributed to sacred objects and even in the making
of gods themselves. So how does Marx think that
the value of a commodity is correctly measured? In so far as it
takes twice as long to make a coat as it
takes to make a chair, he regards a coat as
being worth half as much as a chair, and a chair
half as much as a coat. You’re with me, right? So it is timed labor
value that determines the value of commodities as
far as Marx is concerned. Now that’s a man of my heart. You were wearing your
helmet, weren’t you? That’s how I tended
to come to class. Always sweaty with my
bicycle helmet in hand. Now the question is– so
again, not to lose the point– that if it takes
twice as long to make a chair as to make a coat, then
a chair is worth twice as much as a coat. So the question is was Marx any
more correct than the people he accuses of being
as stupid as Africans? Now for example, judging by
Marx’s labor theory of value, I have to tell you this
lecture is priceless. But I have to admit to myself
that if it weren’t free, most of you all would
be at home right now. Hence Marx’s labor
theory of value is less a demonstrably
empirical observation about the value of commodities
than a moral foundation for the principled argument that
European wage workers deserve more credit, more material
benefits, and more political rights than
they were getting at the time of Marx’s
writings and efforts of labor organization. Who can blame him for that? Marx argued that the difference
between the actual price of a commodity and the actual
wage paid to the wage worker is a product of theft
by the capitalist who sold that commodity. Indeed, he added,
European wage workers accepted this expropriation
of their labor power because they had been
deprived of access to the land and other
productive resources that they would have needed
to support themselves autonomously. He also blames the
fetishism of commodities. They, like the
capitalist, had been duped into believing
that the commodity has an intrinsic value that
belongs to the capitalist, rather than a value entirely
dependent on the labor time of the worker. You still with me? Awesome. Therefore, Marx calls
for a revolution to stop the theft of the
European worker’s labor power and make the white worker
the equal of the white capitalist, just as the
French Revolution has made the white capitalist
the equal of the aristocrats. Now as an appeal for the rights
of the European proletariat, the LTV, the Labor
Theory of Value, is to me a moving argument. I especially like to recount
it to rich white people. It makes them really mad. I have a good time. But how does it look
when it’s considered from an Afro-Atlantic
point of view? Now by calling the
coercive conditions of European industrial
labor wage slavery, Marx turns the real
enslavement of Africans into a mere metaphor,
or what he calls a pedestal for the display
of what really matters, as Arthur Kleinman
might have said. Where is Arthur? That is to say,
what really matters is the undeserved suffering
and disfranchisement of European workers. Now my ancestors being turned
into a pedestal for the display of someone else’s
rights is made more annoying by Marx’s suggestion
that the literal enslavement of Africans in the Americas
was, under normal circumstances, and I kid you not, this is
his word, paternalistic. Capital describes real slavery
as essentially beneficent and a thing of the past,
non-essential to capitalism. Marx argued that it is inherent
in the logic of owning people that the owner will
treat the slave better than he treats the wage worker. It does puzzle me, however,
that Marx, in this comparison, was concerned about capitalism’s
coercion of the wage slave, but seemingly untroubled by
the even more fundamentally coercive nature
of Negro slavery, however paternalistic it might
have seemed to the slaveholders Marx was ventriloquizing. I could easily understand
the slaveholders’ motives for telling this
untruth, but Marx? I had to ask myself why. Marx’s father had
battled anti-Semitism to become a somewhat
prosperous lawyer, but he had also had to
convert to Christianity in order to remain
in the profession. Karl Marx was also
a trained lawyer. However, having fallen
afoul of the Prussian state, he kept his family afloat
only by selling his own labor power in the form of
freelance newspaper articles, by demanding early portions
of his inheritance, and by pawning his
personal property, like those coats
I told you about. When these sources fell
short, he depended on charity from his industrialist
friend Friedrich Engels. Engels ran a cotton cloth
mill, so the charity that went to Marx was
subsidized by slave labor from the southern US. So it seems to me that
Marx hid from himself an important social
relation that had produced his own
livelihood, namely slavery. Calling himself a member
of the economic plebs, Marx clearly identified with the
dependent European proletariat at a cost to the Negro slave. Hence, another
untruth that Marx told was that the labor value
of the enslaved African was fundamentally inefficient. And that is propaganda
that was told by the defenders of slavery
after abolition, especially as they tried to
re-enslave African-American through debt peonage
and convict lease labor. The fact is that slave labor
was extremely efficient and it was extremely productive. There was no more valuable
capital in the United States at the time of abolition
than those human beings. They produced enormous wealth. Moreover, Marx painted
the life of white workers in the settler
colonies as idyllic, saying that with
land of their own, they could no longer be
coerced into laboring on behalf of the capitalists. In this context, Marx seems not
to have cared about the people from whom the liberated
white proletarian had stolen this land. With thinking like
this, the last thing I would want to live
under is a dictatorship of the proletariat. In short, Marx’s model of the
true value of the commodity and his falsely favorable
comparison of wage workers productivity with that
of the Negro slave dramatize the justice
of white workers claim to the same rights as
their fellow white Bourgeois and aristocratic compatriots. However, in doing so,
Marx’s labor theory of value zombified the Negro slave,
as Marie Maude might put it, shifting the sympathy
for their suffering and the credit for
their productive agency to the European wage worker. That to me, is Marx’s
own form of [INAUDIBLE]. Now in the European
press, the Negro slave was not a faceless victim. There were many opportunities
for empathy in true proportion to the relative suffering of
the wage laborer and the Negro slave. During the mid 19th
century, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a global best seller. Marx and Frederick Douglass– I hope this thought was
going through your head at the same time– actually looked kind of alike. Marx’s mother called
him the Moore on account of his dark complexion. On the other hand,
during the 19th century, Gentiles often compared European
Jews in general to black people as a way of justifying
their oppression. Even under the conditions of
official Jewish emancipation in the 19th century, Christian
mobs, undoubtedly including some of the wage workers
championed by Marx, often visited violence upon
Jews and their property. The research for my
last book concerning ethnological
schadenfreude helps me to understand the
equal attractiveness of Marx’s sympathizing with the
Negro slave on the one hand, and on the other zombifying
that Negro slave in order to prove Marx’s own and his
fellow European workers’ worthiness of inclusion in the
European fraternal project. Now there’s much evidence
of Marx’s liberalism regarding race, but
in a pinch, like many of today’s politicians– I think you know who
I’m talking about– he did at times promote
himself to whiteness on the backs of Africans
and even of his fellow Jews. For example, in a letter to his
benefactor Friedrich Engels, Marx excoriated his most
effective rival for leadership in the labor movement, Ferdinand
Lassalle, who was also Jewish, with words equally
anti-African and anti-Jewish. And I quote, “by the
shape of his head and the growth of his hair.”–
it sounds like some craniometry that Agassiz would have done. “By the shape of his head
and the growth of his hair, Lassalle stems from
the Negroes who joined the march of
Moses out of Egypt, if his mother or grandmother
on his father’s side did not actually
mate with a nigger. Now this combination
of Jewry and Germanism with the basic Negroid
substance must bring forth a peculiar product– the pushiness of that
lad is nigger-like.” Now it should be noticed
that Marx himself was reputed to be quite pushy. [SIDE CONVERSATION] All right. Now in the next section,
this current section, I argue that the Yoruba-Atlantic
altars embody a response to the 16th and 17th century
encounter between Europeans and Africans on
the Guinea coast. Now this response is
quite different from that of the Enlightenment
and quite different from Marx’s historical
materialist amplification of that European response. Now whereas the
Enlightenment and its schemes constructed Europe’s
aspirational self as the opposite of the fetishism
that supposedly typified Africa, the merchant monarchs– Does that concern us? OK. So again, whereas the
Enlightenment and its schemes constructed at Europe’s
aspirational self as the opposite of the
fetishism that the exponents of the Enlightenment
attributed to Africa, the merchant monarchs of the
Guinea coast and their schemes introjected the
European foreigner as they created gods of
their own communities. Introject– that’s
Freudian speak for bringing it into themselves,
internalizing it in themselves. However, like Marx’s treatment
of the commodity and the Negro slave, Yoruba-Atlantic
gods embody an intermediary social status
of the West African merchant monarchs. If Marx was motivated by
the drive toward equality among his fellow Europeans
in shared contrast to blacks, the greatest advantage for
the 16th and 17th century African merchant
monarchs and priests lay in establishing the
efficacy of their own conduits to foreign resources and
powers, redistributing them in the creation of hierarchical
African communities. I argue that these class
specific priorities remain alive in
priestly testimony and implicit in the contents of
West African Yoruba, Santeria Ocha, and Candomble altars. So let’s look at some
of the key objects that Yoruba-Atlantic priests
animate with value and agency. So this is a pot from a West
African shrine, a Yoruba shrine consecrated to Yemoja. Note that it looks
sort of like a head. Pots and similar
vessels are regularly understood to embody the
god and to be analogous to the heads of
possession priests and to the wombs of the most
important agents of Yoruba society and history. That is, mothers. These are two altars found
in a shrine in Igboho, where I did the lion’s
share of my field research in Nigeria on Yoruba religion. These two pots contain Yemoja. And the clay pot– excuse me, these
are two calabashes. They contain Yemoja, who is
a goddess of the river Ogun. And the pot on the right
contains Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. What do you think that is? I guess I told you already. That’s a soup tureen. But the typical vessel used
in Candomble and in Santeria to house the gods
and to mime what’s being done to the heads of
potential possession priests and those who will embody
the gods are soup tureens. I think the biggest market
for soup tureens in the world now is the
Afro-Atlantic priests. And this is a soup
tureen for Yemoja whose emblematic color is blue. Now one of the
implications of such pots is that multiple
beings occupy the head and by extension the body
of the ideal social actor. So some are born within the
person, namely the head, the spirit of the head– the
immaterial embodiment of one’s fate, one’s destiny, one’s
awareness, one’s self-defense, and one’s love of other people. One’s One’s mother’s
head can protect one, but normally it dwells
within the skull of her own physical head. This object is used
to worship the head. So that object
inside called Ibori is an embodiment of
the inner head, housed within an elaborated
facsimile of the outer head. And an offering food to it in
the morning, chanting to it enhances its power in the
vessel as in one’s own head. Other spirits dwell within
the body, such as ese. That is literally the leg. It’s not even a
good translation. Yoruba people don’t have legs. Yoruba people have a unit
from the knee to the toe. That’s called ese. And they have a
unit from the knee to the hip, which
is called itan. They don’t have arms and legs. [INAUDIBLE] I think it’s
funny but it’s true. People look at
the same realities and see them in
very different ways. Anyhow, ese, the
spirit of this unit, embodies one’s progress in life. Whatever your
destiny is, there’s no way for you to
fulfill it unless you have the spirit of the
leg to move you forward. Likewise, the spirit of
ancestors are present. Spirits of ancestors
are present in the body. Certain children
who are born soon after the death of a
grandmother or a grandfather are called Yetunde, which
means mother returns, or Babatunde, father returns. Other spirits like gods
from long ago and far away have to be installed by priestly
action, by ritual action, such as Yemoja. Each of these beings affects
the consciousness of and conduct of the human vessel. And at times, those
spirits take full control of the human vessel. Mrs. Jones is no
longer Mrs. Jones. She’s Yemoja. What comes out of her
mouth, her gestures, her powers are
attributed to Yemoja. She is Yemoja. The most dramatic moments
are spirit possession. Now with respect to
their understanding of the multiplicity
of beings or spirits who occupy the human body, and
in fact the rivalry among them, the tension among them, the
struggle among them at times, the Afro-Atlantic priests
are highly similar to Freud. Or in fact, Freud’s
very similar to them. You’ll recall that Freud
understands all of us to be born with an
id, an inner drive toward libido, sexual
gratification, oral and physical gratification,
that’s sometimes predatory upon other people. But then there’s also the
super-ego present in our head. That is the personification of
our parents, our conscience, that also inhibits our
behavior in certain ways or propels us to
behave in certain ways. And there’s the ego. That is, the being in there
that’s trying to control it all and keep it under control. However, for practitioners of
the Afro-Atlantic religions, the spirits in the body
vastly outnumber those three and they embody a network of
relationships much broader and much historically deeper. So consequently many of
the objects and substances used in the making and
empowerment of gods in the Yoruba-Atlantic
religions come from the wilderness, such as
herbs, feathers, and stones. Or are imported
from distant places, such as Bohemian, Venetian and
Indian beads, Dutch schnapps, French perfumes, cowrie
shells, mirrors, satin, Velvet, sequins, and soup tureens, of
course, from China and Europe. Now the most common
of these contents are cowrie shells and beads. Now most people don’t
know it, but the type of cowrie shells that are used
in West African adornments and jewelry and sacred
altars are typically not indigenous to West Africa. They were the money
of the slave trade. They came back from the Maldive
islands in the holds of ships of Portuguese, Dutch, and
English mariners, usually as ballast so that when
they were empty of cargo, they wouldn’t rise up too
high and list in the water. So because they were of
limited supply in West Africa and they were distinctive and
could be arrayed and strung in countable units, they were
highly useful as currency. But they embody value,
partly because of their use and exchange and their
embodiment of exchange with long distance places. As do beads. Beads are long lasting, color
coded, and very powerful emblems of relationship with
distant places and people far back in time because of
their long lasting nature. Their multiple colors are
used to reveal the identity of the god that they emblemize. So for example,
this is a staff– this is a doll
representing the authority of a high ranking female
priestess of the herbal god called Osayin. And the red stands for
the soil, according to [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. And the green stands
for the leaves. But this variety
of colors of beads and the numerous
count of these beads suggest the wealth
of this priestess and the number of her
long distance connections. There are stone beads
at the top, which are an indigenous African type
of bead, but all of the rest are imported. There are even
certain plastic beads. I’ve forgotten the name
of that plastic that was very popular in the 1950s. Is it bakelite? Yeah, there are bakelite
beads at the bottom as well. Now what also enhances
the value of these beads is their identification with
inheritance and with gifting. So for example, the beads
that I’m wearing now were strung by the members of
Baba Steve’s sacred community. All of them gather together
to string the beads, placing their ase or their
power into these objects to protect me and identify
him with that community. And Baba Steve is always telling
me about his latest initiates and who they are and
where they came from and their professions. So the long distance connections
and multiple social links come to be part of the
person’s adornment and personal identity. And these objects
and ritual processes bear a further
corrective to Marx. Contrary to Marx’s
demeaning metaphor, Afro-Atlantic
priests typically do recognize that it is
people who make gods. In Yoruba, in Spanish, in
Portuguese, very similar terms are used. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] to make
the [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]
to make the holy being. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] to make the
Saint, to make the holy being. This is how initiation is
described, an initiation that plants a new being in the head,
but also creates a vessel that embodies the power of
that god and regularly is described as that god. In the making of these
Afro-Atlantic gods, the priests are recreating
the social relationships of the person at the
same time that they are remaking the person. Hence, a person being initiated
in the service of the gods is called in Yoruba,
[YORUBA] which means wife, whether you’re male or female. And likewise, [CUBAN SPANISH]
in Cuban Spanish or [BRAZILIAN PORTUGUESE]
in Brazilian Portuguese. Now both the sacred
wife and his or her pots are now vessels of a being
made by a team of people who cooperate in the
making of that spirit. Possession is described
as the gods mounting the person in the same
sense that a rider mounts a horse, that a male being
mounts a female being sexually. And in the same sense, a god
occupies the body of a priest or gets on top of a priest. Now much of this recalls the
history of the Oyo empire that I alluded to earlier. The importance of cavalry– horses imported from the
north enabling conquest toward the south and trade with
the Europeans on the coast. Likewise, wives were used. Regularly, the literal
wives of the monarch, the wives of his or
her predecessors, and people ritually prepared
as possession priests of either the royal god Shango
or of the will of the king or queen, him or
herself, were embedded in the head of the possession
priest using this technology. Now you might justifiably
call this phenomenon fetishism too in the sense that the agency
of the horse or the possession priest has been displaced
by that of the royal palace so that relatives of the King– [SIDE CONVERSATION] So that the relatives of the
King could not assume powers that would enable them
to usurp the throne. The monarch could usurp
the bodies of others, displacing their consciousness
and will with his own in political delegation. I wanted to add further that
much like the fetishes of Freud and his patients, the animated
objects of Yoruba-Atlantic religions embody a
deep ambivalence. Not only an ambivalence
related directly to the merchant monarchs’ trade
with Europeans and Africans, which I will discuss
more in detail, but manifest in multiple forms. So for example, this is
an [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]. That is, a staff of
fate that embodies the uprightness and progress
of a person in life. When it lies down in a
gesture akin to death, it causes a lot of trouble. So its uprightness
is very important. Notice that it features
many birds, representations of birds. Birds allude to people I have
to speak about very cautiously. One must always
speak very nicely of these lovely ladies who
have a power in them that is birdlike. And when they like you,
your life goes very well. The ladies in Igboho
really like me, but if you are disrespectful to
them or speak unkindly of them, they can be very harmful to you. Those of you who are Africanness
know what I’m talking about. The rest of you, figure
it out among yourselves. Now these beings embody the
type of spirit inside the body as a container that is
typical of the conception of the self in these religions. And the center
bird here suggests that one bird will corral them
all, will be the leader of them all so that their
activities are not anti-social but contributory
to your own well-being. You yourself will be
the center of them coming around and gathering
to be kind to you, rather than disorder prevailing. So the threat of
the bird is there, but also the protection
of the bird is there. This is a frequent
understanding of authority in Sub-Saharan African
society, that those who rule us are a danger to us, in so
far as they are powerful, but it’s that very power
that can harm us that enables them to protect us. Likewise, this is
an Hacha de Chango. The preeminent symbol of
the god I’ve referred to– Shango in West Africa Chango
in Cuba, Xango in Brazil. His typical symbol
is the double axe. That doubleness already
hints at the ambivalence. The doubleness of colors– his colors tend to
be red and black. Red for fire, white for
the coolness and peace of his companion god, Obatala
in Nigeria, Obatala in Cuba. The story of his origin
that Baba Steve tells me is that Ogun, who is
a god of war and iron, a god closely associated in West
Africa with empire building, but likewise associated with
the importation of fire arms, raped the mother goddess Yemoja,
Yemaya in the Cuban tradition, whose pots you saw earlier. She’s a goddess of the
river or a mother goddess. The issue of that
violent mating was Chango, the god of
thunder and lightning, the god embodied in this symbol. He’s a mulatto. He’s an in-between creature. Not only was he
the emperor of Oyo that traded in slaves, secured
guns, used horses to conquer, but also to defend
its community. But across the
Atlantic, still he is understood, in the places
where the subjects of Oyo went in Cuba and
Brazil, he is understood as a god of thunder
and lightning. A macho man, a mulatto. More in Cuba than in Brazil,
but in Brazil as well. Seemingly a product
of the convergence between Europe and Africa. And he is mad as
hell at his father, very angry at his father Ogun. So he embodies
seemingly the allegory of the Afro-European encounter
that produced powerful empires, but also produces
a powerful threat. Just as electricity
illuminates this room, it can strike us like
lightning and kill us. [SIDE CONVERSATION] This third section concerns
Sigismund Schlomo Freud, who was born on May
6, 1856 in a part of the Austro-Hungarian
empire called Moravia in a town called Freiberg. Now Freiberg was
then a provincial and economically dying town. Freiberg was then a provincial
and economically dying town, where Czech
nationalists scapegoated Jews. In 1860, perhaps
for this reason, Freud’s family moved to
Vienna, where his wool merchant father faltered economically. Freud’s biographers report
the influence of his father’s suffering upon the son. And here comes another
physical object embodied with great
significance by Freud– his father’s fur hat. His father reportedly told
him the story of walking down the wood plank
sidewalk in Freiberg, and a Gentile pushed
him off the sidewalk, saying, get off
the sidewalk, Jew, and knocked his hat
off into the mud. And Freud asked his father,
what did you do then? And his father said, nothing. And it made a profound
impression on Freud. From an early age, Freud
is said to have felt driven to make a mark on the West,
whose civilization he admired, but whose anti-Semitism
he feared. He faced discrimination
in the medical profession, but made his mark on the
field through the invention of psychoanalysis. Yet he feared that his
science of the unconscious would be dismissed as a
merely Jewish science. For that reason, Freud worked
hard to enlist his Gentile acolyte Carl Jung to succeed him
as the leader of the movement, much to the chagrin of Freud’s
mostly Jewish followers. On account of his very
dark eyes and hair, Freud’s mother also called
him her little blackamoor. Now recall that Marx’s
mother had called him too the Moore, suggesting a
pattern of identification with Africans by this class of
assimilated Central European Jews. However, with a very
different intent, Central Europeans
also frequently called Jews and other European
minorities blacks, Africans, primitives, kaffirs,
an insulting term that Freud chose to adopt
in reference to Zulus in South Africa. In Europe, Jews were
called black and ugly, according to Sander Gilman,
as well as prognathis. That’s another aspect
of that craniometry that Harvard used
to do so well at, that if your skull– if your
facial angle slants forward, it was associated with not
only Africanness, but allegedly simian unintelligence. And Jews were
described in such terms as well, such craniologic,
craniometric terms. Now like African
religion, Jewish religion was characterized by such
Central European Gentiles as superstitious, illogical,
and sophistry no less than African religions. Hence, for European Jews
and similarly marked European populations,
disambiguation– that is, the demonstration
of their difference from and superiority to Africans has
been one long running reaction to intra-european racism. It’s very common in
Eastern Europe now. The sorts of violence
that are heaped upon African and dark visitors
and South Asian visitors in Eastern Europe these
days are just horrific. Freud’s narrative voice
in Totem and Taboo exemplifies an effort
at disambiguation. From the opening
paragraphs of the book, Freud establishes a
dichotomy between two classes of humanity, which may be
the subliminal and therefore the most powerful message of the
book, to his intended audience. While they may laugh
at the cleverness or be distracted
by the flimsiness of any particular evidence-based
argument in the book, readers are rhetorically
seduced into embracing the unarguable postulate that
brown and black people are like the ancestors, the
children, and the mentally ill neighbors of
contemporary white Europeans, as well as the premise that
the assimilated Jewish male narrator belongs to an us. The pronoun repeated
is we, we, we, and us that is defined by
whiteness, civilization, and likeness to the intended
German speaking Gentile audience. Indeed, Freud’s comparison
of black and brown savages to children and
mentally ill Westerners had been an old
rationale for slavery. I had a snippet to read
from you about a debate between a pro-slaver and
anti-slaver in the class of, I believe it was
1763 at Harvard, but don’t have time to read it. A further instance
of an apparent effort at disambiguation
emerges in a joke that apparently Freud told
his followers multiple times over the years. And the joke alludes
to an 1886 cartoon depicting a yawning lion
sitting on an African escarpment and Freud laughingly mimed the
predator’s impatient words– 12 o’clock already
and no Negro yet? Against the backdrop of Europe’s
predatory colonial relationship with the Negro, Freud
clearly delighted in being able to identify
with the predator and the colonialist. In sum, I argue that the
anti-African fetishes of Marx’s Negro slave
and Freud’s savage were products of efforts by
two assimilated Jewish men to disambiguate themselves. In this way, they appealed
for the citizenship of assimilated Jewish
men, displacing the stigma suffered by Jewish
men, not only onto black people but also onto unassimilated
Jews, and in Freud’s case, on to women as well. Freud assimilated women
famously to the colonized by likening their psychology
to the dark continent. Freud’s 1927
article on fetishism argues that the most enduring
and powerful fetishes embody the perspectives
of both the castrator and the castrated. I argue that Freud’s
own construction of the brown or black
savage was supercharged by this very ambivalence. On the one hand, adopting
the voice of the Gentile European colonizer,
Freud accused the black and brown
savage of being driven by stronger sexual impulses
toward misdeeds than we civilized people are. And surely he knew
that at this time such reasoning was getting
thousands of African-Americans lynched from trees. On the other hand, adopting
the voice and perspective of the fellow oppressed,
Freud’s psychoanalysis reminds the Gentile
oppressor that underneath the veneer
of civilization, even civilized white
people unconsciously have the savage fetishist within. Now I focus on Marx
and Freud not simply because their racially
stigmatizing use of the term fetishism was more influential
than anyone else’s, but also because their
own social ambiguity as assimilated Jewish men in an
anti-Semitic Europe and as men in threatened class
positions, illustrates the social conditions
that I suspect generate the most highly charged
accusations of fetishism, as well as the deepest insights
about the semiotic ambiguity of things. Please note that there’s
nothing historically inevitable about Marx’s and
Freud’s stigmatizing Africans in their day. For example, many of Marx’s and
Freud’s fellow German speaking contemporaries, like Felix
von Luschan, Leo Frobenius, and Franz Boas, who
was also Jewish, showed a great
respect for Africa and the sacred
objects of Africa. So did Freud’s contemporaries,
the Fauvists and the Cubists. On the other hand, the
late Hegel’s contempt for Africa on the grounds
of its alleged fetishism calls attention to
the similarities between his social position
and that of Marx and Freud. Hegel was a German
speaking Burgher. That is, a middle class
non-aristocratic person living among a set
of principalities where the people who ruled
were French speakers. They were people of
the land, but who felt that civilization was
defined by its Frenchness and had contempt for German
language and German culture. So part of Hegel’s project of
democratization and inclusion was the Bourgeois revolution. That is, to lift
the non-aristocrats into a democratic
project of statecraft from which they
had been excluded and from which German speakers
like himself had been excluded. So I conclude with just
a few observations. What is the point? Allow me three. So first, theory is not a
disembodied universal truth, but a creature
dialectically related to the social environment,
material surroundings, and political interests
of the theorists. Second, in the making
of theories and of gods, the assignment of agency and
value to one social position regularly entails
the disfranchisement and devaluation of
another social position. And there’s no reason to think
that Marx’s and Freud’s choices of where to shift
agency and value are any more right or wrong
than those of the Afro-Atlantic priests. Third, like the most spectacular
and attractive of African gods, the most powerful
and spectacular of European social
theories are ambivalent, at least because they
embody the social ambiguity of their creators. And I believe
Hegel, Marx, Freud, and the gods black people make
richly illustrate that point. And that’s it. What do you think?

Maurice Vega

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