Simon Gikandi


The Dangerous Supplement: Fetishism, Slavery, and the Will to be Modern

Simon Gikandi, Princeton University

In the Year 1697. my Brother Factor Mr. Nicholas Poll, (who then managed the Slave Trade for our Company at Fida) had the Diversion of a very pleasant Scene. A Hog being bitten by a Snake, in Revenge, or out of Love to God’s fetish, seiz’d and devour’d him in sight of the Negroes, who were not near enough to prevent him. Upon this the Priests all complain’d to the King; but the Hog could not defend himself, and had no Advocate; and the Priests, unreasonable enough in their Request, begg’d of the King to Publish a Royal Order, that all the Hogs in his Kingdom should be forthwith kill’d, and the Swiny Race extirpated, without so much as deliberating whether it was reasonable to destroy the Innocent with the Guilty.

The King’s Command was Publish’d all over the Country…The Slaughter went on, and nothing was heard but the dismal Sound of Kill, Kill, which cost many an honest Hog his Life that had lived with an unspotted Character to his dying Day.

(William Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea 1705)

The Negroes of the west coast of Africa, and even those of the interior of the continent as far as Nubia, the land adjacent to Egypt, have as objects of worship certain Divinities that the Europeans call Fetishes, a term coined by our traders in Senegal from the Portuguese word Fetisso, which means fairy, enchanted or divine thing or giver of oracles; this from the Latin root Fatum, Fanum, Fari.

(Charles de Brosses, Du culte des dieux fétiches, ou Parallèle de l’ancienne religion de l’Égypte avec la religion

 actuelle de Nigritie,1760)

The supplement is what neither nature nor reason can tolerate…Blindness thus produces that which is born at the same time as society: the languages, the regulated substitution of signs for things, the order of the supplement

(Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, 148-49)

European Modernity comes into being by repressing that which it both desires and fears most. And in its long history, there is no term that it finds as frightening, and yet utterly necessary, as that of the fetish. The fear of the fetish comes from its association with certain factors at odds with the culture of modernity—rationality, self-consciousness, and modes of knowledge that are stable, logical, and intelligible. But in order for the fear of the fetish to be actualized, it has to be located in a specific geography, one that can serve as the scape goat, the pharmakon, of the European will to being modern. This place goes by the name Africa. Consider this: Even before it becomes a central category in modern thinking from political economy to psychoanalysis, the fetish emerges as the mediating term in the early modern encounter between Europe and Africa; here it is associated an image of Africa which the European imagination, trying to figure out the terms of what it means to be modern, finds simultaneously attractive and repulsive. The necessity to engage in substantive trade makes Africa desirable; yet the continent repulses because it cannot shake off its image as the sign, if not embodiment, of those dark forces that imprison the mind in what leading European philosophers, seeking to institute reason as the vulgate of social life, will describe as the immaturity of the continent, its peoples, and cultures. In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1765), to quote a prominent example, Immanuel Kant claims that the fundamental difference between the Negroes of Africa and what he deems to be the superior races, a difference marked by color and mental capacity, is most manifest in their worship of fetishes: “The religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths.” Similarly, W. H. Hegel, seeking to show that the consciousness of the inhabitants of Africa has not yet reached “an awareness of any substantial and objective existence,” points to the fetish as evidence of the failure of the individual to come into being as an independent entity: “Here, in the fetish, the arbitrary will of the individual does not seem to be faced with an independent entity, but since the object in question is nothing more than the will of the individual projected into a visible form, this will in fact remains master of the image it has adopted” (Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, 180-181).

Not even Marx, the great foe of mysticism, can escape the hold of the fetish and its Africanist connotation. Writing on the relation between commodities, labor, and money, in volume 1 of Capital, Marx argues that the commodity, which appears “at first sight an extremely obvious” object turns out to be “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (163). Fetishism, the mysterious or mystical form, conceals the actual relation between classes and assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165). In order to find an analogy that can buttress the language of political economy and its inherent rationalism, Marx turns to the subliminal figure of the African fetish and uses it as the mediator of modes of thinking that are themselves concealed within the vocabularies of capitalist modernity, or, more specifically, political economy itself:

…the commodity form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities (165).

Africa is nowhere in this paragraph; indeed, it is not mentioned at all in the whole of the first volume of Capital; yet it is everywhere. Marx’s analogy relies on the received language of the fetish, of the fantastic and the “misty realm of religion,” that is intuitively associated with Africa. His readers do not need to be reminded of this fact for the narrative of the fetish already assumes an Africa that is part of the European repressed.

The Freudian lesson is inescapable: In his 1927 essay on fetishism, Freud makes the now infamous claim that the fetish is a substitute for the missing (woman’s or mother’s) penis and is, thus, a foundational term for repression; “the penis is no longer the same as it was before. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its substitute” (“Fetishism,” 152, 154). In its absence, the fetish always points to something else; or, Freud will put in in the Psychopathology of Everyday Life, what might appear to be an error, insincerity or distortion, is “ultimately rooted in repressed material” (281). Connected to repression, the fetish marks the desire to turn “something away from the conscious” (Freud “Repression”); it is part of the defense mechanism of the psyche. In cultural terms, the fetish is that which modern reason cannot tolerate and must therefore repress; and yet that which is repressed will be shown to an essential term for European self-understanding now projected onto other peoples and spaces.

There is still another Freudian term to consider—repetition. For while it undergoes many disguises and iterations in its long history, the African fetish always enacts the same drives (of pleasure and horror), suggesting that what appears to be its most negative elements provides European observers with the “integral and constituent parts” of their own self-understanding as modern subjects (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 17). This point can best be made by comparison to two landmark claims. In Description and Historical Account of the Gold Kingdom of Guinea (1602, one of the earliest European texts on Africa, the Dutch trader Pieter de Marees provides the following account of a market place on the Gold Coast:

In their market-place they have a square stand, about 4 foot square, with four Pillars rising Cubits above the ground; it has a flat top made of reeds. All around it they hang straw wisps or Fetissos. They put Millie with palm oil or water on it and give this to their God as food and drink, to sustain him lest he die of hunger or thirst; for they think that he eats and drinks it and lives on it, whereas in fact it is the Birds of the sky which eat the grain and drink the water. When it is finished they smear the little Altar with Oil and replenish it with food and drink, thinking that in this way they do their God a great service and sacrifice.

They also have a man whom they keep as a Vicar, or in their language Fetissero, which means as much as a Servant of their God. On their Sabbath this person comes and sits on a Stool in the middle of the Market, opposite the little Altar or scaffold where they make sacrifices to their Fetisso. The people-Men, Women and children–come and sit around and he delivers an admonition, to which they all listen (67).

Even before the establishment of the rule of reason as the defining condition of modernity, de Marees presupposes the existence of a European order of reason at odds with African superstition. Only he knows that the food left for the gods is eaten by the birds!

Significantly, the language of the fetish initiated by de Marees is repeated with slight variation in William Bosman’s better known text,  A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, published in Dutch in 1704 and translated into English in 1705:

Each particular person hath his peculiar false God, which he or she worships after their manner, on that Day of the Week on which he was born. This they call the Bossum, or in their Portuguese  Sanecte-Day, on which they drink no Palm-Wine before Sun-set: They are habited all in white, and as a Sign of Purity smeared with white Earth. Most of the Negroes, especially the Principal, have besides this another Weekly Day Santified to their fetiches’s…(153)

Here, again, the fetish is associated with a mask of falsity, which only the European observer can penetrate in the name of a singular truth. A play of repetition and difference is at work here: The repetition, which I will return to at the end of this chapter, is evident in the way the European reports assume that the fetish retains its essential character even as it is translated to respond to the dominant European terminologies or the cultural biases of the people describing it. De Marees assumes that the fetish priest is the equivalent of the Protestant vicar; Bosman reads African religious practices as seamless extensions of Portuguese Catholicism. And yet, in both cases, fetishism is what locates the African outside the emerging project of modernity, a figure of radical difference. In the end, these are not accounts about African religion but of European self-understanding in that decade—the seventeenth century—in which modernity, or, its informing mythologies, come into being. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of the archive of modernity at its moment of inception is that the difference it adduces to others—in this case the assumption that fetish worship is the key to understanding African religion—is nothing more than a projection in the Freudian sense of the word, a defense mechanism. Fetishism, notes R. S. Rattray, the official British anthropologist on the Gold Coast in the late colonial period, is “the least important feature in Ashanti religion” (Religion and Art in Ashanti, 9). So, European observers value what Africans consider either trifling or secondary to their imagination.

My interest, however, is not the effect of unequal power relations or the absence of the voices of the other in the discourse of modernity; rather, I’m keen to probe the interpretative claims made on behalf of the other as part of the constitution—and consolidation—of a unified European identity and, especially, of the anxieties that create the need for this secular identity. For what unites the European traders de Marees and Bosman on the West African coast and the high priest of European culture—Kant, Hegel, and Marx—is a deep anxiety about how to explain a time that is, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet would say, out of joint. For if we consider the early seventeenth century to be a conceptual caesura, a moment of doubt about a past rooted in the authority of religion belief and the creeping demand for reason, fetishism, the quintessential figure of the irrational, is invoked in order to clarify the terms of a modern will to being. The genealogy of the term, from its inception as a figure of radical difference in the early modern period to its later incarnation in modernism as a sign of repression, can hence be read both as the sign of the anxiety that the culture of modernity generates, in its inception, as part of its will to being other than its imagined antecedents (medieval or early modern) and, later, as the primitivist counter to civilization and its discontents (Freud). In both cases, I will argue, European observers and intellectuals use fetishism as an instrument of what Mary Douglas would call an “energetic organising principle” (Purity and Danger, 4-5), a transcendental signifier that endows African cultures with a semblance of order. But to what ends? To enable a discourse of the modern European subject or to rationalize the de-subjectification of the African in enslavement? My thesis is that the fetish is invented on the West Africa to serve both purposes, separately at first, and together at last.

I work with a basic premise: The fetish is a figural caesura located at the intersection of modernity and everything that it designates as its unmodern other. Beginning in the early eighteenth century and ending with the late nineteenth century, the fetish becomes the site for reflecting on both what attracts and repulses the modern from the unmodern, of the rational and the irrational, of form to formlessness, and later of the free and enslaved.  The fetish is, however, a form that is formless; for this reason it has come to be described by William Pietz, perhaps the most authoritative scholar of the genealogy of the fetishism, as a sinister figure, “the logical mistake of a hypostasis,” and a sign of the breakdown in understanding Christian idolatry (“Problem of the Fetish I, 6). For Jean Baudrillard, a new, modern, fetishism “has become the icing on the cake of contemporary analysis”, but the figure is dangerous both because it perpetuates the “Christian and humanistic ideology” orchestrated by colonialists, ethnologists and missionaries” and creates, under the guises of accounting for the cultural practices of others, a language that buries critical analysis  within the trap of rationalism (For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, 88). The result is a two-step dance: The culture of commodity fetishism and the worship of exchange is analogous to the magical thinking of the primitive; it is the danger that we try to avoid in order to be modern; yet, it is in the world of the other that we seek “the existence of a non-alienated consciousness of an object in some ‘true,’ objective state” (89). I read the negativity of the fetish as the other side of what Michel Foucault writing in The Order of Things would call a historical a priori; it is the enabler of the “formal identities, thematic continuities, translation of concepts, and polemic interchanges” that make a discourse of modernity possible (127).

I will take this argument even further and show that that which seems to be mysterious and mystical is intimately connected to the politics of trade in general and slavery in particular. If fetishism seems promiscuous in the archive of slavery, then, it is because it mediates the relationship between emergent trade practices, which, are in interlaced with debates in a range of fields including religion, philosophy, political economy, and psychoanalysis. As a mode of exchange, in its play of repletion and difference, slavery is a commodity fetish at the primal scene of modernity.


Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

The underlying theme of my work is the narrative of modernity from below, that is outside its assumed European constellations. I’m interested in how some central
concepts in the narrative of modernity—exchange and regimes of value, the idea of the subject, and the organization of space—evolved against the pressures of the periphery, more specifically Africa in the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Provisional sketch of essay:

The Dangerous Supplement: Fetishism and the Modern Regime of Value

Modernity comes into being by repressing that which it fears. And in its long history, there is no term that it finds as frightening, and yet utterly necessary, as that of the fetish. The danger of the fetish comes from its association with certain factors at odds with the culture of modernity—rationality, self-consciousness, and, modes of knowledge that are stable, logical, and intelligible. Associated with the danger of Africa at the beginning of the contact between the continent and Europe in the early modern period, the fetish becomes the embodiment of those dark forces that naturally imprison the African mind in what leading European philosophers from Immanuel Kant and W. H. Hegel would call its immaturity, but it makes its presence felt in an unpredictable and threatening manner. Why does modernity need that which seems to be at odds with its own desires? How and why is the “unmodern’ located in Africa at the era of the slave trade?