The Fetish Revisited

Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make

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J. Lorand Matory
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , November
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make is an ambitious text. Throughout, J. Lorand Matory deftly weaves together themes and issues from a wide range of fields including Afro-Atlantic religious and material culture, Marxian economic theory, and Freudian psychoanalysis. In it, Matory takes on two giants of the Western philosophical canon: Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. His contention with them is that while their respective analyses of the “fetish” are illuminating, they also misrepresent African and Afro-Atlantic human-made gods. For these theorists, human-made gods were fetishes inasmuch as they misattributed value. In Matory’s analysis, what came to be understood as “the fetish” was really an attempt to augment their ambivalent ethno-racialization by offering a caricature of Africans and Black people and their religious practices.

The crux of Matory’s argument lies in unearthing what he calls “ethnological Schadenfreude,” which he uses to describe how people with ambivalent social identities project the negative parts of these identities onto those below them in societal hierarchies in order to advance themselves, and prove they are just like the dominant group. Specifically, in the case of Marx and Freud, the problem was their ambiguous racial status as ethnic Jews in Protestant Europe. In the 19th-century, Jews and other European minorities were known as “the negroes of Europe,” and frequently called “‘blacks,’ ‘Africans,’ [and] ‘primitives’” (99). As Matory writes, “Marx and Freud were assimilated Jewish men facing sometimes fatal questions about their belonging and right to a livelihood in the emerging nation-states of central Europe” (98). Positioned as the racial and religious Other, Marx and Freud both displaced their ambiguity by re-orienting the social problems they experienced onto their African, Black—and female, in the case of Freud—counterparts via the fetish. Their theories, therefore, are not disinterested analyses of the human world, but were motivated by an urge to both prove themselves as “the same” and reiterate their distinction from the supposedly truly primitive.

This book is divided into three major parts, each in turn dedicated to Marx, Freud, and Afro-Atlantic gods, respectively. Matory traces this ethnological Schadenfreude in the first two sections of the text. The last section of the book is dedicated to tracing the way in which agency is attributed to human-made gods in ways that are expressly different than those of Marx and Freud, but are not less reasonable. In a sense, then, the last section is about the recovery of the Afro-Atlantic gods as a method of critical analysis.

Part 1 is a history and critique of Marx’s critique of capitalism. Matory traces the erasure of enslaved Africans in Marx’s historical materialism. By erasure, Matory argues that Marx did not consider the role of enslavement in his analysis of labor; for Marx, the real problem is wage labor, or what he calls “wage slavery” (64). Matory argues that “[Marx] shifted credit for the value production of the enslaved and sympathy for his or her suffering away from the enslaved to the European workers like himself” (60). Important to note here is Matory’s argument that Marx’s desire to replace the enslaved African for the European worker is ethnological Schadenfreude—the implicit desire to simultaneously displace societal judgments, and to prove one’s value under that same system. With ethnological Schadenfreude working in the background, Marx ignores the plight of the enslaved African. By erasing them, Matory argues that Marx is attempting to show that he, and the proletariat he represents, are just like their European capitalist counterparts—“modern, productive, efficient” (66). This shift is exactly what Marx argues that capitalism does when it shifts credit away from the work. In Marx’s own language, a “fetish.” Thus, Matory argues that by ignoring the enslaved, Marx’s historical materialism is a fetish, a misattribution of value.

In part 2, we encounter a similar reading of Freud. While I call the text as a whole ambitious, this section is especially formidable. This section alone deserves a dedicated monograph as Matory shifts between foci repeatedly and quickly. Overall, however, he calls attention to Freud’s historical setting as the reason for the displacement of value. On the one hand, psychoanalysis was an attempt to understand the human self. On the other hand, though, it was also “Freud’s self-aware attempt to … achieve respect as an assimilated Jewish man in an era of rising antisemitism” (105). An example of this is the way that Freud refers to his patients as “negroes” (141). Matory reads this as an attempt to distance himself from them. If they are the negro, he is the civilized, the author argues. In searching to demonstrate intellectual ability vis-à-vis “the negro,” Freud is also attempting to show cultural competence. The complement to this competency, though, is the attempt to show how “the Negro” is not competent. The Negro develops fetishes that displace value.

As parts 1 and 2 focus on the historical situating of theorists, in the concluding section, Matory turns his attention to the historical setting of human-made gods in the Afro-Atlantic world. In contrast to Marx and Freud, however, Matory argues that Africans know exactly what they are doing when they construct gods and thus, what is read as a misappropriation of value is, in fact, a misreading of religious material culture. Fundamentally, the problem that Marx and Freud represent in this text is a misunderstanding of the relationship that a manufactured god has with their human devotees. As Matory writes, “it is seldom clear whether [a god’s] visual form is intended to represent the god, or alternatively, a worshipper of the god” (179). The gods are fed, bathed, and prepared in the same ways that the initiate is. In that sense, what is seen as displacement of value from the “reality” of the god onto a visual representation of the god is to misunderstand how the gods are used, and the degree to which the gods and humans share identities.

Overall, Matory’s The Fetish Revisited is meticulously researched, provocative, artfully written, and compelling. There are very few endnotes and thus, much of what one would typically find in an appendix is found directly in the text. This makes the text rich but also dense. While certainly aimed at students of Marx and Freud, Matory’s text will certainly serve as an important marker for the field of religious studies and anthropology at-large.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Alejandro Stephano Escalante is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
September 25, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Lorand Matory is Lawrence Richardson Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Director of the Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic Project at Duke University. He is the author of Stigma and Culture: Last-Place Anxiety in Black America; Black Atlantic Religion: Tradition, Transnationalism, and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé; and Sex and the Empire That Is No More: Gender and the Politics of Metaphor in Oyo Yoruba Religion.


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