macgaffey - 1994 - african objects and the idea of fetish

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Wyatt MacGaffey




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African objects and the idea of fetish


William Pietz has written a series of provocative and wideranging articles on the origin of the idea of fetishism and the role of that idea in European social thought, particularly in the last century (Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988, 1991). Currently we are ashamed to apply nineteenthcentury labels and explanations to African culture without some attempt at modification, but in some areas we have not really developed any strong substitutes. In an attempt to move in that direction, this article makes use of the outline of Pietzs argument as a framework for describing some aspects of the religion of the BaKongo of western Zaire.


Pietz distinguishes between, on the one hand, actual African objects that may be called fetishes in Europe, together with the indigenous theories of them, and on the other hand, fetish, an idea, and an idea of a kind of object, which as he says originated in the cross-cultural spaces of the coast of West Africa during the 16th and 17th centuries (1985:5). In these cross-cultural spaces Europeans were challenged to rethink the capacity of the material object to embody religious, commercial, aesthetic, and sexual values. What was originally a problem in understanding African culture became, in the work of such thinkers as Marx and Freud, a perspective, or group of perspectives, on European culture.

Pietz says, Fetish could originate only in conjunction with the emergent articulation of the commodity form that defined itself within and against the social values and religious ideologies of two different types of noncapitalist society (1985:7). The two types are European feudalism, with the Catholic theological tradition, and African societies. The third factor operating in the intercultural, coastal space was Dutch capitalism, which is closely related to Calvinist theology and the Protestant ethic. The components of [123b] fetish that emerged from the interaction of these three are identified by Pietz as follows:

1. The fetish is irreducibly materialunlike an idol, which represents an immaterial something located elsewhere.

2. The fetish is the fixation of a unique originating event that has brought together previously heterogeneous elements into a novel identity. Desires and beliefs and narrative structures also fixed by the fetish, whose power is to repeat its originating act of rearticulating these heterogeneous elements. In this respect also, fetishism contrasts with idolatry, which was understood by European thinkers as a [rational] principle of social order; the fetish idea labeled a social order that seemed to have been generated paradoxically, by natural and lawless contingency.

3. Fetishism embodied the problem of the nonuniversality and social constructed ness of value. Early travelers to West Africa were puzzled because gold was valued by West Africans and yet exchanged by them for articles that the Europeans considered worthless.

4. The material fetish as an object established an intense relation with, and exerted power over, the desires, actions, health, and selfidentity of individuals whose personhood was conceived as inseparable from their bodies: the human body (as the material locus of action and desire) was subjected to the influence of amulets and the like that, although cut off from the body, functioned as its controlling organs at certain moments; for example, for healing. The alienness of African culture, in particular its resistance to rational trade relations, was explained (especially by Protestant traders) in terms of the Africans supposed irrational propensity to personify material objects, which seemed to reveal a false understanding of natural causality. Africans also attributed causal relations to random association. They seemed to confuse the religious and the material, which Europeans had recently begun to think of as quite separate, and not to value properly material objects, such as gold. So it became conventional to describe Africans as worshipers of trifles. The false religious [124]

Figure 1. Male figure (nkisi). Kongo peoples, Congo and Zaire. Wood, glass, iron, and other materials,43.2 cm. Gift of Helen and Dr. Robert Kuhn, 91-22-1. Photo: Franko Khoury, Courtesy of National Museumof African Art, Eliot Elisofon Archives, Smithsonian Institution. [125a]

values of Africans explained their irrational economic values and their allegedly superstitious response to European technology. The Dutch idea of African irrationality was turned into a fullfledged evolutionary theory by Enlightenment intellectuals and consecrated by Hegel. According to Hegel, Africans lacked the category of universality; they worshiped the first thing that came their way.

Pietz says he is not concerned with the relation of the fetish idea to the actual conceptions of West African culture. Here, I will attempt to do the same thing, at least with respect to the ritual practice of the BaKongo, a people of western Zaire and northern Angola whom the Dutch knew relatively well, and for whose culture there exists a unique volume of indigenous documentation. What follows is a restatement of the elements of the fetish idea, and an examination of the extent to which they describe the kind of object the BaKongo call minkisi (fig. 1).

1. The irreducible materiality of the nkisi: it does not represent an immaterial something, a spirit, located elsewhere.

Two indigenous texts, dating from about 1915, describe certain spiritual entities and their material manifestations in the form of minkisi:

Funza is like a man, but invisible. Also he is like a large pot in a wellmade basket that has twisted driftwood in it and stones from the water, in which he placed his human body (Momo kakitudila lunitu lwandi lwa kimuntu). He lives in the water, but his servants have houses built for them in the same kind of grass in which the first couple is said to have built. These houses are placed at the end of the village, on account of looking after people who make sacrifices to them, which they take back to Funza, where he lives alone, so that he can oversee everybody. Sometimes he appears in dreams, telling someone compose me. The person then sets up an nkisi to BUNZI or KINKITA or MUTINU, the three servants of Funza, sent by him to help man set limits to death sent by God, the eater of men).

Cahier 138:7

Nkisi Mbola is called Mbola because it comes from rotting and it rots (bola) living things. Its origin is as follows. Once upon a time there was a man who lived to a [125b] very great age. He died and was buried in his grave. After his burial he lived for a long time in the land of the dead and grew old there. He died once again, but found himself no closer to his relatives there in the land of the dead, so he thought, What am I to do in this second death? I should become an nkisi. So he betook himself to a stream. When he got there he met a man crossing, so he began to bob about on the surface of the water. The mans eyes opened wide, he plucked a leaf and popped it three times on his hand [in salutation). Then he took up [the thing he saw in the water], brought it to the village and put it in his house. Night fell, and the man went to sleep. [The ghost] then revealed his name to the man in his sleep, saying: I am one who formerly lived on earth and have died the second death; take me and keep me to be your nkisi. My name will be Mbola, because I rotted twice. You will make me a mpidi basket and a lukobe box, that I may live inside the box, but have a statue carved that I may be put in it. So he came with his sharp knives, his adze, his hatchet and his other tools.

The actual procedure for constituting this nkisi Mbola includes the following:

Then they go to the cemetery to wherever lies buried a man who was exceptionally strong and virile. They take him and put him in Mbola, they take earth from the grave and rub it on the statue. Then they return to the grave and sacrifice a chicken and drip (the blood] on the nkisi, singing: Where the chicken died, may a man die, chop! the bracelets of the master nganga. After the invocation they install the spirits in the basket and the box, singing: 1 took it, I put it. Eh yaya, I took it, I put it in the basket.

Cahier 390

From such accounts it is clear that an nkisi was a spiritual entity, a personality from the land of the dead, present in a material body, by its own choice or otherwise, but not restricted to that body. The material object did not represent such a spiritual personality but provided a local habitation for it. Though some Kongo minkisi may always have been anthropomorphic, they were probably much less realistic before the midnineteenth century, when European influence intensified. The celebrated naturalism of Kongo figures is much more marked in coastal areas than inland. [126a]

Although nkisi cannot be invoked except in its material form, Kongo theory is clearly inconsistent with the view that a fetish is irreducibly a material entity. Is it therefore an idol? A complicating factor is that Europeans tend to think of spirits as necessarily objects of worship. The idea of an idol, as understood by the Fathers of the Church, depended on a concept of worship, a form of observance proper only to the true God, which became idolatry when addressed to false gods. A number of observers at the end of the last century, protesting against an idea of African culture that had already been found unsatisfactory in the sixteenth century, insisted that minkisi were not worshiped and thus were not idols. One of them wrote that belief in charms (minkisi) was universal, but that no worship, prayer, or adulation was offered them. The keeper of a charm in its house might send for local