Relation vs. Possession: Responding to the Divine and Liberal Conceptions of Ayahuasca Religions

October 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

Again, and in some ways “part two” of my last post, this is a conference script for October 7, 2017. I’m posting it for attendees to better follow my sources, so it’s a temporary post. 

In yesterday’s talk, I argued that ‘Ayahuasca’ has in many ways reoccupied and carried on the notion of the fetish, especially as people argue for the recognized religious status of ayahuasca religions.  I argued, following William Pietz, that the fetish ought to be anchored within the European imagination, and that it shifted under the Protestant Reformation as slave traders rationalized the Black body as an economic commodity to be traded freely outside of any recognition of humanity.  This was a calculated rationalization and no mere “mistake” on the Europeans’ part.  As we know from papal bulls such as the 1493 Inter cetera which perpetuated the Doctrine of Discovery, the rationalization carried over into the right to claim any land not already occupied by a “Christian prince.” A drama ensued about the “Book of Nature” and “God as Author” of that book, in which Europeans and later Euro-Christian Americans claimed the ability to decide which humans existed merely in a “state of nature” and thus only had the same right of occupancy to land to other animals that might be found there.  It was in this context that the colonial missionary situation helped to spread the knowledge and use of ayahuasca out of its localized and presumably ancient use in the lower Amazon throughout all of Amazonia.  Today, the global spread of ayahuasca religions and new age ayahuasca “healing” and medical practices allows us to unpack the ways Euro-Christian Protestantism, especially in the U.S. and U.N., possesses and haunts the concept of religion as it is employed in law.  Even in its tainted form, the U.S. has now signed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which affirms “that all doctrines, policies and practices based on or advocating superiority of peoples or individuals on the basis of national origin or racial, religious, ethnic or cultural differences are racist, scientifically false, legally invalid, morally condemnable and socially unjust.”

In this paper, I want to discuss some ethical problems with respect to entheogens and liberalism in New Religious Movements (NRMs).  I argue for the recognition of cultural texture as set and setting of efforts to depart and return from liminal spaces and the persistence of cognitive architecture or apparatuses at work in efforts to “reach beyond” or to resist “what is.”  For those familiar with psychedelic theories, I am countering what I see as the naïve claim that psychedelic experiences necessarily push one beyond “culture.”  If I am right, then the diaspora of ayahuasca religions and ayahuasca tourism put indigenous cultures at risk, especially when globalizing enthusiasm riffs on a liberal past where psychedelics were associated with counterculture.  This paper focuses specifically on theories of recognizing NRMs against what I argue is the neoliberal “economic” view of thinkers like William Bainbridge and Rodney Stark.  I argue that we must theorize beyond neoliberalism to account for psychedelic NRMs.  To accomplish this, I draw on discourse of Cognitive Liberty and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s articulation of Perspectivism as it applies to Amerindian thought.

It is ethically important, whether considering institutions claiming to be ayahuasca “religions” or appealing to the legal protection of religious freedoms in order to use ayahuasca, to recognize and track how this sensibility continues to impose genocide on indigenous peoples, even while claiming to “respect them,” “tolerate them,” or, more abstractly minimizing in its construction, to “respect the wisdom of the plant medicine.”  The final clause of my last sentence is likely to either create cognitive dissonance or stir trouble outright with New Age communities.  Let me qualify this argument by contextualizing it within the recent legal gains of ayahuasca religions.  On June 5, 2017 Health Canada granted the Santo Daime church exemption status to import and distribute ayahuasca to their congregations. In their announcement, they include the following disclaimer:

While through our efforts we have made it possible, in principle, to obtain an exemption, this exemption does not mean that the use of Ayahuasca or Daime is legal as such in Canada. Each legitimate organization must apply to Health Canada for their own exemption, and for all information regarding the exemption process. Any importation or activities conducted with Ayahuasca/Daime without a Section 56 exemption from Health Canada will be considered illegal by the Canadian government.[1]

Here we see the recognition of religion qualified under biopolitical governing factors.  The situation is similar with União do Vegetal in the United States, who won a Supreme Court Case in 2006 allowing them to use the ayahuasca sacrament, but they must fix their recipes to provide standard dosages.  Exempt status for many Santo Daime communities followed soon after there as well.  While it is important to recognize these legal successes are indeed progress for these groups in terms of liberal rights, and I applaud them for that, they are not necessarily successes for indigenous groups or for the rich variety of uses of ayahuasca in the Amazon and abroad that do not qualify as “legitimate organizations.”

With an ear toward this diversity, my concerns are with the liberal underwriting that grants a state the right to recognize a ‘religion’ as such.  Moreover, when it comes to regulation or deregulation, those concerned with ayahuasca must also attend to the massive amount of rhetoric appealing to the therapeutic and medical benefits of ayahuasca use, which again look to the state for an authoritative opinion.  I call the therapeutic or medical rhetoric a biopolitical rationale in the sense that it appeals to governmental control of a population in terms of its overall “health.”  In this sense, it is okay to use ayahuasca or similar substances so long as it “heals” us in some way. This language saturates the diaspora of ayahuasca religions and ayahuasca tourism, and indeed can affect and frame the set and setting of one’s ayahuasca experience.  For those seeking ayahuasca experiences, one must ask, “what exactly am I being healed from in my ayahuasca experience?”  If the answer has to do with overcoming one’s alienation, working on the “split self,” etc. there is nothing particularly liberating or progressive about this.  It is rather a reinforcing of global capitalist neocolonization itself, not a transcendent and unifying recognition of brotherhood but an emptying out of the space of sovereignty that appears at first to be transcendent and universal.  In psychedelic aesthetics more broadly, I have termed this the problem of the perennial, a tendency liberals have to seek archaic revivals, manifesting primitivism to support individualistic exploratory experiences.

The globalization of ayahuasca experiences might seem at first to be a progressively cosmopolitan move beyond the confines of the weakened nation-state.  I think this is very much part of the current vogue for it.  Olivier Roy has characterized this with respect to radical Islam and evangelical Protestantism as a declaration of “holy ignorance,” in which deterritorialized religiosities divorce themselves from culture in order to affirm something more religiously pure or essential.

Liberal attempts to use existing legal apparatuses so as to deregulate controls over psychedelic or entheogenic substances appear at first to be very useful in progressively challenging oppressive forms of governance masked in the so called “War on Drugs” and mass incarcerations that have followed from it.  Indeed, psychedelic use can appear as an ethical and even civic duty to break the law so that one might transcend the authority of the nation-state.  In the tradition of the counterculture this has certainly been seen as a mode of resistance.  But of course, we have witnessed in recent years a rhetoric of healthy-living accompanying the deregulation of controlled substances like marijuana, or what some psychedelic religious enthusiasts call, “the lesser sacrament.”  Organizations such as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies are seeing success in attempts to deregulate MDMA for therapeutic models.  All of this amounts to a biopolitical domestication of these substances, not a resistance to such regimes.

In contrast to obsequiousness to the state’s authority to “recognize” and regulate official religious status or determine public health policy, legal scholar Charlotte Walsh has argued instead for a cognitive liberationist approach to drug policy.  In doing so, she has returned to a more classical sense of liberalism where “the state should only deploy the criminal law where an individual’s actions demonstrably run a high risk of causing harm to others.”[2]  Reviewing ten years of the European Convention on Human Rights  (ECHR) and the U.K.’s 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, she argues that “that privileging the ‘sacred’ over the ‘profane’ is philosophically an untenable distinction: accordingly, the possibility exists for crafting a range of constitutional exemptions.”[3] She further argues:

Whilst judicial recognition of the impingement of the prohibition of (certain) drugs upon cognitive liberty – and, indeed, upon liberty itself – may be a distant reverie, successfully drawing upon the ECHR to win incremental gains in the spheres of drug-taking as a form of self-medication or as a religious sacrament seems more conceivable.[4]

As other scholars have done with respect to drug policies, Walsh invokes international Human Rights acts as a plea for a reassessment of legal interpretation based on ‘soft’ law.  Still, from my perspective (and from later talks by Walsh[5]), it appears that, while a cognitive liberationist approach to ayahuasca may be more ethical than the legal channels of what I call the “dogmatic” liberalism of appealing to existing legal apparatuses, especially where indigenous rights are concerned, this alone does not go far enough to protect indigenous peoples.

While I do not have the space to trace the genealogy of human rights concepts to liberalism here, I want to situate cognitive liberty within a broader history of classic liberalism.  Walsh draws on psychedelic enthusiast, Andrew Weil, to define ‘cognitive liberty’ as “the right to choose one’s own cognitive processes, to select how one will think, to recognise that the right to control thinking processes is the right of each individual person.”[6]  In a more recent article, Walsh traces the unsuccessful defense of Peter Aziz in England, who sought exemption for ayahuasca use both on the grounds that English Law was ambiguous with regard to it as a controlled substance and that it fell under his religious freedom according to ECHR, Articles 7 and 9.  As she notes, “The primary question that arises is whether or not shamanism – especially a transplanted Westernized version of such, a New Age variation – would be deemed to constitute a religion in English courts.”[7]  Importantly, she cites a Rastafarian case – Taylor (2001) – where religious use was trumped by the “public health threat” of the potential to distribute cannabis. She contrasts this with cases in the U.S. and Holland where religious status trumped health concerns. Eventually, Santo Daime had an ambiguous win in England when charges against leaders were suddenly dropped.  Suffice it to say that when it comes to legislation, one cannot easily separate either the regulative impulses of both religiosity or therapeutic use of entheogens.

Following John Stuart Mill, Walsh notes the ironic imbrication of “legal moralism” in “religious puritanism,”[8] and she adds that, though unlikely to be taken seriously in legal arguments, ayahuasca use ought to be defended by appeals to cognitive liberty.[9]  In fact, she adds that, with respect to English Law and the interpretations Misuse of Drugs Act, “the prospect of exceptions being extended to those wishing to imbibe ayahuasca in the name of cognitive liberty, or simply because they want to, seems little more than a pipe dream.”[10]  Thus, any such appeals to cognitive liberty  for entheogen use must continue to appeal to broader human rights apparatuses such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

While I find Walsh’s arguments helpful, we must also go beyond the liberal roots of cognitive liberation by attending to Amerindian philosophical thought, treating it as seriously as we place Hegel in philosophical history.  Perspectivism flips the script with respect to liberally accepted notions of multiculturalism.  According to Viveiros de Castro, “perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents.”[11]  The accepted language of multiculturalism, on the other hand, assumes a static ontology with varying epistemologies, which downplays embodied notions of difference.  As Viveiros de Castro explains:

This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way.[12]

This produces a perspective that is mono-cultural but “multinatural”:

Such a difference of perspective – not a plurality of views of a single world, but a single view of different worlds – cannot derive from the soul, since the latter is the ground of being. Rather, such difference is located in the bodily difference between species, for the body and its affections [. . .] is the site and instrument of ontological differentiation and referential disjunction.[13]

We must push the idea of cognitive liberty beyond the limited and ethnocentric notions Mill ascribed to it, if we are to take it seriously on defenses of entheogen or psychedelic uses.

Recognition of cultural texture for the widely accepted notions of multiculturalism remain laudable but insufficient for the dynamic nature of twenty-first century globalization.  While the traditional liberal notion of tolerance also remains important, we must question the inherent notions of cultural superiority imbricated within liberal politics and legal frames. Referring to cognitive liberty alone is not enough, because at heart such a defense protects individuals instead of collectivities.  Counterintuitively, liberal notions of education need to move beyond merely seeking something “outside” of experience that is sought only with the intention of assimilating it into experience.  This means, in a way, a resistance to “newness” that must simultaneously be a resistance to traditionalist and nostalgic conceptions of culture.  Indigenous people have no direct link to an archaic and “forgotten” past.  They continue to exist in the face of hundreds of years of colonialist attempts to wipe them out.  If Western seekers only look to their ayahuasca experiences to form “new tribes” or to heal the alienation of liberal subjectivity through Freudian-influenced psycholitic therapy, they are not resisting but rather perpetuating Christian colonialism in its older and broadest sense.

[1] Jessica Rochester, “Important Announcement,”, June 6, 2017.

[2] Charlotte Walsh, “Psychedelics and cognitive liberty: Reimagining drug policy through the prism of human rights,” International Journal of Drug Policy 29 (2016) 80.

[3] Charlotte Walsh, “Drugs and human rights: private palliatives, sacramental freedoms and cognitive liberty,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 2010, Vol.14(3), 439.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joe Friendly, “Horizons 2015 Psychedelic Drug Policy Activism, Cognitive Liberty,”, 11 October 2015,

[6] Charlotte Walsh, “Drugs and human rights: private palliatives, sacramental freedoms and cognitive liberty,” The International Journal of Human Rights, 2010, Vol.14(3), 433.

[7] Charlotte Walsh, “Ayahuasca in the English Courts: Legal Entanglements with the Jungle Vine,” The World Ayahuasca Diaspora: Reinventions and Controversies (Vitality of Indigenous Religions), Ed. Beatriz Caiuby Labate; Clancy Cavnar; Alex K. Gearin (2016-09-01).  (Kindle Locations 6266-6267). Taylor and Francis,2016, Kindle Locations 6266-6267.

[8] Ibid., 6373.

[9] Ibid., 6476.

[10] Ibid., 6505-6507.

[11] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology,” The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Chicago: Hau Books, 2015, 59.

[12] Ibid., 59.

[13] Ibid., 58-59.


Fetishism and the Erasure of Indigeneity

October 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

This is a draft for a paper I’m delivering at the University of Denver on October 6, 2017 at the conference entitled Speaking (or not) Speaking of God. I’ve posted it for the attendees to follow along with dense quotations and to see my sources. I hope to have a published, final draft available in the near future, and this post will disappear.


Although having a Latin etymology in the verb, facere (to make), the English word, ‘fetish’ is directly derived from a colonial trading relationship with South America and the Caribbean, coming from the Portuguese word, feitiço. Drawing on the recent analyses of Charles de Brosses 1760 book, Du culte des dieux fétiches – the book that informed Marx’s conception of the fetish – this talk will attempt to distinguish a broadly “African” “spiritual” impulse spreading through the Caribbean as Voodoo but in Brazil as Candomblé and America as “hoodoo” from Amerindian traditions, particularly as described by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro with the term, “Perspectivism.”  I particularly want to note the African dimension in the Haitian revolution as contributing to the success of revolts in England and North America, and its continuity within African American forms of Christianity, but I also want to argue for more attention to Amerindian sensibilities distinguished from that.  I will echo Viveiros de Castro’s argument that Amerindian Perspectivism must be treated as seriously as Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, exploring how perspectivism reverses the multiple epistemological approach of multiculturalism and rather calling for a mono-epistemic and multiple-ontologies approach to embodiment, which blurs the creaturely status present in Western conceptions of humanity.


In his book Racism without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes ‘abstract liberalism’ as one of the frameworks rationalizing perpetual inequality from white, colorblind perspectives.  Christian theologian, Willie James Jennings, has argued[1] that the development of the modern concept of religion is itself intimately tied to the development of modern conceptions of race during the early modern economic explosion fueled by European enslavement of Africans.  As George “Tink” Tinker says, “Colonialism is Christianity. Christianity is colonialism. They go hand in hand so that the violence of colonialism is the violence of Christianity.”  By parsing out the European and African historical drama that produces the term “fetishism,” this essay hopes to create a critical space for understanding Indigenous perspectives that do not fit into discourse about ‘Religion,’ with the implicit assumption that when Indigenous peoples are required to defend traditional practices in Western legal frames that use the category ‘Religion’ or “religious exemptions” as concepts, those requirements enact ongoing colonial injustice and erasure.  My large assertion is that when people from Euro-Christian backgrounds praise the Indigenous qualities of hybrid “religions,” especially ayahuasca “religions,” they often mask the ideological domination of Indigenous people by both European religiosity and European-idealized African religiosity.  I will, in the end, argue that ‘ayahuasca’ has come to occupy much of what used to be termed the “fetish.” The focus at the outset must necessarily deal with European and African concepts.

Charles de Brosses’s Du culte dieux fétiches (On the Worship of Fetish Gods), originally published in 1760, was translated into English for the first time this past summer of 2017.  While William Pietz has exhaustively traced the etymology of the term ‘fetish’ within Latin Christian Theology and Law, as well as Portuguese language, de Brosses’s book coined the term, ‘fetishism,’ and was the touchstone for most major European thinkers, including Hegel, Marx and Freud.  A lesser member of the Enlightenment, de Brosses exemplifies an early comparative approach to religion, employing cultural critiques of different peoples of the world living during his own time period and then comparing them with ancient civilizations.  Although echoing both Hume’s and Rousseau’s reliance on historicized “Natural” religion, “de Brosses emphasizes the distance that separates fetishes from later, anthropocentric gods.”[2]  Rather than psychologizing fetishism, de Brosses sees the phenomenon as “a forceful reduction of all power to the material realm, creating the fetish as a tangible object that can be addressed and manipulated through a variety of actions”; or “direct worship, rendered without figuration.”[3]  Basing his analysis on linguistic observations, he sees fetishes like interjections: “just as interjections are ‘something more’ than words, fetishes are not mere signs or symbols, but rather objects of attachment.”[4]  In this way he associates fetishism with the first words of infants.  Figuration is a kind of curse.  While de Brosses historicizes religion moving from fetish to polytheism to monotheism, “The desire to obscure, idealize, or erase the origins of religious belief in primitive fetishism leads to a proliferation of new allegories that eventually enshrine reason itself as the agent of history.”[5]  Figuration “serves to enhance cultural prestige, defend the interests of the priestly classes, and legitimate colonial and imperial expansion.”

Discourse on fetishism is vast.  While it was disavowed as a useful concept in early twentieth century anthropology, it came to inform other disciplinary approaches and was even re-appropriated by postcolonial and poststructural discourses.  To exemplify, let me point to a rather dense quotation from anthropologist, Michael Taussig, on the concept of the fetish:

Like the Nation-State, the fetish has a deep investment in death – the death of the consciousness of the signifying function.  Death endows both the fetish and the Nation-State with life, a spectral life, to be sure. The fetish absorbs into itself that which it represents, erasing all traces of the represented. A clean job. In Karl Marx’s formulation of the fetishism of commodities, it is clear that the powerful phantasmagoric character of the commodity as fetish depends on the fact that socioeconomic relations of production and distribution are erased from awareness, imploded into the made object to become its phantom life-force.[6]

Taussig’s words, bound in the drama of the nation-state, mark the fact that the magic of colonial power is framed within European conceptions of power and magic that have little to do with Indigenous “American” perspectives.  In this, he is reaching back toward conceptions of magic, witchery and maleficium in Latin Christian law.

William Pietz, the great scholar of the intellectual history of the fetish, notes:

Derridean post-Marxists would locate the fetish in semantic indeterminacy and the ambivalent oscillation (hence no dialectical resolution) between contrary determinations, a ‘space’ where codes and their logics break down in a materiality that is conceived in terms of pure difference, contingency, and chance.[7]

Glossing a complex discourse here, one might claim that the postructural tendency was to note how the idea itself can become the fetish object in a very real inversion of common metaphysical descriptions of reality.  In a postmodern way, this hypereality would become reality itself in the same way that the notion of transcendent reason had been psychologized by the Protestant underwriting of Kantianism to produce a kind of rational transcendence that would be a zero-degree for Euro-centric claims to the neutrality of “civilized” space.  As Pietz notes, for de Brosses, “the fetish the was essentially a material, terrestrial entity; [and] fetishism was thus to be distinguished from cults of celestial bodies (whose truth might be a sort of proto-Deist intimation of the rational order of nature rather than a direct worship of natural bodies themselves).”[8]

In Hegel’s conception, the fetish resists entrance into History and Aufhebung, a resistance to sublation picked up by Marxism, modern art, and psychoanalysis – but also appearing, according to Pietz, in Deleuze’s schizo-analysis:

The fetish is, then, first of all, something intensely personal, whose truth is experienced as a substantial movement from “inside” the self (the self as totalized through an impassioned body, a “body without organs”) into the self-limited morphology of a material object situated in space “outside.”[9]

Pietz notes that for Deleuze, “The fetish is the natural object of social consciousness as common sense or recognition values,” in other words as repetition in Difference and Repetition.[10] I want to go further and connect this to the abstract liberalism, which Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes as a feature of whiteness and colorblind ideology.

Although I must constantly emphasize that the fetish is the product of European imagination, the taking-up of the concept by postcolonial thinking potentially informs important ways to think about race and religion.  Let me take the Haitian revolution as an example.

The flight of the runaway slave, as Ruby Sales noted earlier this year, is a revolutionary movement. Carolyn Fick’s The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below points out that the 1791 insurrection was not spontaneous, but rather carefully planned by slaves.[11]  Fick notes that most sources point to a particular voodoo ceremony performed a week before the event, which has since transformed into legend.  The secret ceremony, which involved sacrificing a pig and passing its blood around, was apparently performed during a storm by an unnamed “high priestess” and Boukman Dutty, an early leader in the revolt.  In one account, Boukman is reported to have proclaimed, “Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us.”[12]  While the story has historically taken on the amplifications of lore, and scholars debate its accuracy, Fick notes:

The “Eh! eh! Mbumba” voodoo invocation dated back to at least the mid-eighteenth century in colonial Saint Domingue, when, as part of the initiation ceremony for a neophyte, it was a call for protection against the dreaded forces of those who had enslaved them and, as such, a form of cultural and spiritual protest against the horrors of the New World environment. On the eve of the slave insurrection, however, in the midst of what would be a difficult and dangerous liberation struggle to actually rid themselves of their enslavers, the incantation must have taken on a more specific, a more political, if still fetishistic, meaning; for the individual rebel would need now, more than ever before, a great deal of protection and, perhaps even more, luck in the annihilative measures that lay ahead.[13]

Fick’s use of the phrase ‘still fethistic’ stands out to me, like Hegel’s conception of the fetish existing in the moment just preceding History.  When we compare Fick’s work with Rachel Harding’s work on alternative spaces of Blackness in Brazil, or perhaps more recently, in Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús’s Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, it is easy to see the persistence of spiritual revolt and the use of “dark forces” against oppression.  For example, Beliso-De Jesús argues that in Cuba, “Afro-Monteceros […] are produced through a complex historical interaction between self and cityscape.”  Much like gradients between Hoodoo, Voodoo and Santería in the U.S., which move toward more intense uses of “dark magic,” Mantanzas Santería “darkens” with its geontological relationship to slave resistance and revolt.[14]  Additionally, she continues, “[o]ne might say that ‘trance’ of copresences renders Santería’s transnationalism as possessed by multiple interconnected assemblages of power.”[15]

Beliso-De Jesús’s term, ‘copresencing,’ offers another way of conceiving fetishism in the trajectory of Deleuze to which Pietz points.  Beliso-De Jesús argues for attention to copresences, not only in the sense that an anthropologist ought to leave room for the phenomenological experiences of devotees who perform rituals to question the dominance of rationality and objectivity, “but also to emphasize how these spheres are interrelated.”[16]  She goes on:

Among the spirits of the dead slaves, Santería priests, and ethnographers, what has been written also haunts us.  Reading Santería copresence through ethnographic diffraction, then, might allow us to see that anthropology is also constructed through muertos.  Indeed, even the spirits of anthropology might be conceived of as possessing us similar to the electrifying oricha who mount the bodies of practitioners.[17]

This thesis, grounded in the discipline of anthropology, also speaks to both the larger field of Religious Studies and western academic methodology in general, echoing in resonance with Luis Leon’s work on religious poetics, anthropologists such as Michael Taussig and Elizabeth Povinelli, and affect theorists such as Lauren Berlant.  What it adds is the deathspace of the past, of which academic work plays a part.  Beliso-De Jesús’s method in support of this thesis relies on anthropology “of the body and phenomenological theories of race and sexuality [which] are helpful in decentering particular forms of Cartesian consciousness by shifting elemental awareness and attending to bodies as primary locus of experience.”[18]  When combined with the historical persistence of the fetish in Fick and Harding, we can resist any facile claims that the attention Beliso-De-Jesús gives to phenomenological method is merely subjective.

As Carolyn Fick’s work hints and Beliso-De Jesús’s expands, intertextual experiences come to not only shape subjectivities, but also to persist over time.  Rachel Harding notes something similar in A Refuge in Thunder when she connects the orixá Exú and the “Devil of the mines.”  In 19th century Brazil, she writes: “For Exú, the streets and crossroads of Bahia become the sacred spaces in which slaves and others act out their apperception of the insecurity of their social position and make gestures toward the resolution of circumstances in their own circumstances.”[19] Indeed, the street and especially a crossroads became the ideal place for offerings to Exú.  If the fetish is the “still present” enchantment that Fick notes with respect to the ceremony that initiated the first Haitian revolt, then it is arguably the Black spaces and the crossroads work with Exú that Harding describes as spaces of resistance that evokes the revolutionary power of the fetish, over and against white, abstract liberalism.

In this reading, concerning revolutions, the fetish would be a persistent core, not a lingering or “leftover” form of superstitious enchantment; nor would it be simply a “spell,” feitiço.  The process and the fetish itself cannot be divorced from one another; it is the very making of poiesis as in León’s concept of religious poetics. Speaking, like Beliso-De-Jesús, in terms of anthropology, Michael Taussig closes his book, The Magic of the State with a meditation on pilgrimage, predicting:

For the task of cultural anthropology, no less than of certain branches of historiography, has been, and will increasingly continue to be, the storing in modernity of what are taken to be pre-modern practices such as spirit possession and magic, thereby contributing, for good or bad, to the reservoir of authoritative, estranging, literalities on which so much of our contemporary language is based in its conjuring of the back-then and the over-there for contemporary purpose if not profane illumination.[20]

With respect to the diaspora of African spiritualities during the colonial era, Rachel Harding’s study of nineteenth-century Brazil, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, has amplified the revolutionary power of the fetish by building on Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism and the work of William Pietz.  She writes: “For Pietz, ‘fetish’ originated from, and as a term remains specific to, the problem of the constructed social value of material objects ‘as revealed in the situations formed by the encounter of radically heterogeneous social systems.’”[21] Harding then applies this to the bolsa de mandinga, which, “like the original concept of the fetish is a ‘crossroads’ object with a meaning that encases and expresses the tensions and values of its interstitial location.”[22] Although Harding is writing about Brazil, African-inspired religious textures in north America, such as hoodoo, conjure, or rootworking, often focus on the material presencing in mandingas as well:

At the level of materiality, the meaning of the mandinga is contained in the object itself. It is not a representation of a transcendent reality; rather, its value, function, and meaning are present in its construction from elements which speak to the perils of slave life and attempt to provide magico-religious efficacy in negotiating freedom, or at least a form of refuge or defense.[23]

 The mandinga, like crossroads work, presents a renegotiation and an inversion, the out-fetishizing work of the maleficium.  Taussig says of “Maleficium; the bad-making”:

The maleficio, in other words, brings out the sacred sheen of the secular, the magical underbelly of nature, and this is especially germane to an inquiry into State fetishism in that […] the pure and the impure sacred are violently at odds and passionately interlocked at one and the same time.  It is to this ability to draw out the sacred quality of State power, and to out-fetishize its fetish quality, that the maleficium – as I use it – speaks.[24]

The malady, the evil-eye of the inversion impulse, the perversion of the revolt in its overturning impulse is importantly an upturning of soil.  What is at work is not so much a cleansing as a tilling of the soil that allows it to breathe.

The fetish concept as it arises from the Euro-Afro encounter is different, however, than that mixing of blood and breath, as Barbara Mann describes it with respect to Native American cosmology in her recent book, Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath.[25]  In Mann’s description of Turtle Island cosmology, sustaining balance between blood and breath is central, rather than a fetish of state power or ‘Religion’ as itself a fetish-concept.  To the extent that current ecological millennialism attaches itself to Indigenous movements, such as those against the Dakota Access Pipeline last year, an Indigenous perspective might claim that “Western” activists need to divest in Euro-Christian trappings that inform “revolutionary” sensibilities.  It is fundamentally not about the fetish, but the fascination with the fetish continues to tint the perspective of those who gaze upon Indigeneity, especially in terms of spirituality and ‘religion.’

There must, in other words, be another way of approaching being in the world than Hegel’s Aufhebung, either in its sense of uplifting – what Heidegger might later on call “enframing” [Gestell] – or in its sense of sublation or negation.  This other way is best addressed (for the moment) in terms of what Eduardo Viveiros de Castro calls Amerindian Perspectivism.  According to Viveiros de Castro, “perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents.”[26]  In contrast to the accepted language of multiculturalism, Perspectivism assumes a static ontology with varying epistemologies, which downplays embodied notions of difference.  As Viveiros de Castro explains:

This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way.[27]

This produces a perspective that is mono-cultural but “multinatural”:

Such a difference of perspective – not a plurality of views of a single world, but a single view of different worlds – cannot derive the soul, since the latter is the ground of being. Rather, such difference is located in the bodily difference between species, for the body and its affections [. . .] is the site and instrument of ontological differentiation and referential disjunction.[28]

Rather than occupying a “zero degree,” a liminal space between subject and object, conscious and unconscious, immanent and transcendent, etc., perspectivism advances an interspecies recognition of personhood.[29]  This does not mean that Amerindians are somehow incapable of noticing differences in species.  This is emphasized by Viveiros de Castro’s description of the work of the so-called “shaman”:[30]

Amerindian shamanism could be defined as the authorization of certain individuals to cross the corporeal barriers between species, adopt exospecific subjective perspective, and administer the relations between those species and humans.  By seeing nonhumans as they see themselves (again as humans) shamans become capable of playing the role of active interlocutors in the trans-specific dialogue and, even more importantly, of returning from their travels to recount them; something the “laity” can only do with difficulty.[31]

While I remain suspicious of the Eliade-esque language of journey and return here, the example elucidates my point concerning the constant epistemology and varying ontologies.  As Michael Taussig’s work has long argued, the idea of the shaman as “wild man” owes more to the attitudes of Romans well before contact with Amerindians than to anything culturally specific to them.  We must, however, add the concept of the fetish to that very same history, as Pietz does, while duly noting Pietz’s work on the entanglement between African and European that produces the fetish in its modern form.

One important place to note the premodern history of the term is in the development of the Christian concept of the soul.  Pietz points to this through Tertullian, Augustine and the development of the Theodosian code.  Augustine’s discussion of eunuchism distinguishes between facticium – “he who was made a eunuch by men” – and voluntarium – “he who had made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven” out of free will.[32]  In contrast to Manichaeanism, Augustine argued that the soul was created ex nihilo by God and therefore was neither of the same substance as God, nor was it of the same substance as the body: “in the Cristian worldview, plants and animals do not have immortal souls: being animate, they must have souls, but the substance of these souls is corporeal rather than spiritual.[33]  Viveiros de Castro’s conception of Perspectivism, while certainly intriguing, needs to be read critically with this Christian metaphysical history in mind.

Pietz goes on to note that the original conception of idolatry had to do with religious practice as opposed to inner faith.  Superstitio, on the other hand, dealt with “improper religious attitudes.”[34] Religio “referred to a person’s sense of how rightly to achieve a true bond with divine power, the fundamental definition of superstitio” and thus Lactantius noted, “religio, very cultus est, superstitio falsi (“religion is the cult of the true [God], superstition that of the false”).  Pietz also notes that the use of relics and saints were accepted without being considered idolatrous.  Pope Gregory I “authorized the use of art for anagogic value,”  which then created the need for “a clear theory regarding true and false sacramental objects.”[35]  Later in the Middle Ages, under Christian law as opposed to Christian theology, a conflation of idolatry with superstition occupied was superimposed onto the term feitiçaria and the heresy of witchcraft.[36]  But whereas Theodosian code (438 c.e.) were developed to penalize paganism of Roman senators resisting Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, this concept of feitiçaria was “minimal” in West African because the law’s initial concern was to preserve the State against “divination” or “evil deeds” – maleficia, which threatened it.  Initially speaking, West Africa was not seen as under the jurisdiction of a Portuguese state, so maleficium would have made no sense.  It would only come to make sense under colonization when, as “a legal category, maleficia entailed the religious crime of sacrilege.”[37]  Jerome’s Vulgate conflates venificium (poison, sorcery) with maleficium (divination) and King James’s Bible translates both as witchcraft.[38] While this later, Protestant conception appears in Charles de Brosses’s denigration of figurism, it was, according to Pietz, the emerging economic conception of the fetish object in the context of maritime trade that loosened the hold the pope had on material goods.

We can see the commodification of African “fetishes” as concurrent with the idea that Africans had “no organized religion”[39] as part of the “lifting up” of the Black body itself into the commodity par excellence of the slave trade.  It was that they neither belonged to the Pope as Christian subjects – and thus lacked humanity – nor did they as commercial objects need to be shared with the Pope.  They could be therefore uprooted as if “naturally.”  Pietz goes so far as to note that by the 1640s, when the Protestant Dutch had ousted the Portuguese Catholics from African coasts, Akan fetissos were described as Catholic “paternosters.[40]  According to the emergent Protestant perspective, “African fetish worship (and hence African society) was thus revealed to be based on the principles of chance encounter and the arbitrary fancy of imagination conjoined with desire.”[41]

What this drama obscures in its conflation of witchcraft and divination is the theology of the soul by which “true religion” might be distinguished from “superstition,” a question of inner faith and external practice of idolatry.  This became an obscure distinction between facere (“to make”) and voluntarism in which external making either fused (and therefore evidenced) external work with internal election or dichotomized external fetishism (and therefore evidenced) lack of internal faith.


The attempted erasure of Amerindians within the colonizing consciousness, whether Protestant or Catholic, owes much to the history of fetishism itself, but that history needs to be, as William Pietz has argued, placed within the drama of the early slave trade on the west coast of Africa, before contact with Amerindian populations.  Conceptually, it ought to be placed with Michael Taussig’s descriptions of shamanism and the wild man as existing within the fantasies of the “old world.”  Closely related, Taussig’s connection of ‘fetish’ to ‘maleficium’ in works such as The Magic of the State and The Nervous System remains appropriate historically insofar as it is dealing with the “health” of the State.  But properly speaking, neither the ‘fetish’ nor the ‘shaman’ appropriately describe Amerindian thought and therefore risk the perpetuation of Euro-Christian colonization.  Viveiros de Castro’s articulation of Amerindian Perspectivism has potential as an analytic concept by which Euro-Westerners (Amerindians don’t need to be told how they think) might recognize the limitations of their own thinking.  However, critical attention between perspectival multinaturalism and Christian traditions which either deny Indigenous peoples full human participation by relegating them to a “state of nature” – as in the 1823 U.S. legal decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh, does – or grant them souls only to exterminate their bodies and send them right on to “heaven” – as Junípero Serra, among others, did.  The odd rationalization that Indians were a “lost tribe” of Jews merely grounded the longstanding idea that they are people who ought to be relegated to “the past.”

Perhaps the most prominent example of the perpetuation of the ‘fetish’ for Amazonian Indigenous cultures is the growing interest and diaspora of ayahuasca and ayahuasca “religions,” which often vie for recognition on the basis of Indigenous and “traditional” use.  In the fecund iterations of the term ‘ayahuasca,’ whether as religion, as “healing,” or as tourism, there is a constant reduction of diverse practices, recipes, plant-combinations, and gendered attributions of spirits.  The economy in Iquitos, Peru has embraced western infatuation with the ‘ayahuasca experience’ as a kind of nationalist updating of indigenismo that has little to do with the plights that Indigenous peoples face.  As Westerners are enticed into pondering the Indigenous “authenticity” of their experiences and seeking traditional knowledges as vocational self-buffering and “enlightenment” – at times with a sincere disgust at the emptiness of capitalist life – ‘ayahuasca’ comes to signify both resistance and re-ordering, a kind of reset button for mass consciousness.  Ayahuasca, comes to occupy and signify the contemporary incarnation of the fetish itself.  As the veneficium of its questionable legal status combines with its New Age embracement of liberal capitalism and the deterritorializing seekers who wish to escape capitalism signal a kind of maleficium, caught up in the tremendous inequities that south Americas suffer under American Empire, there is a collapsing and condensing of what ‘it’ is.  Ayahuasca is the true meeting between what William Burroughs called ‘junk’ and ‘soma.’  Ayahuasca is the fetish, and despite any ancient roots of practices with multiple varieties of the vine and numerous other plants, little of the fetish has anything to do with Amerindian perspectives; indeed, the fascination perpetuates the erasure of Amerindians.

[1] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.

[2] Daniel H. Leonard, “Fetishism, Figurism, and Myths,” The Returns of Fetishism: Charles de Brosses and the Afterlives of an Idea, Ed. Rosalind C Morris and Daniel H. Leonard, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 30.

[3] Ibid., 32.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Ibid., 37.

[6] Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 138.

[7] William Pietz, “Fetishism and Materialism,” Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Ed. Emily Apter & William Pietz, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993.

[8] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I, RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (Spring, 1985), 7.

[9] Ibid., 11.

[10] Ibid., 13

[11] Carolyn Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990, 91.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 104-105.

[14] Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, Ibid. 118-119.

[15] Ibid., 220.

[16] Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús, Electric Santería: Racial and Sexual Assemblages of Transnational Religion, New York: Columbia University Press, 2015, 28.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 29.

[19] Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 62.


[20] Michael Taussig, The Magic of the State, New York: Routledge, 1997, 199.

[21] Rachel Harding, A Refuge in Thunder: Candomblé and Alternative Spaces of Blackness, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 29.


[22] Ibid., 30.


[23] Ibid., 31.


[24] Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 129.


[25] See Barbara Alice Mann, Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath: The Twinned Cosmos of Indigenous America, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.


[26] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology,” The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds, Chicago: Hau Books, 2015, 59.


[27] Ibid., 59.

[28] Ibid., 58-59.


[29] Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectivism,” Cannibal Metaphysics, Ed. And Trans. Peter Skafish, Minneapolis, Univocal, 2014, 57.

[30] This problematic term is used in general in work on Amazonian Indians.  I am following Viveiros de Castro’s language here.


[31] Ibid., 60.


[32] William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish,” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics, no. 9 (Spring, 1987), 27-28.

[33] Ibid., 29.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., 30.

[36] Ibid., 31.

[37] Ibid., 32.

[38] Ibid., 33.

[39] Ibid., 37

[40] Ibid., 39.

[41] Ibid., 43.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for October, 2017 at