‘The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make’ by J. Lorand Matory reviewed by Cyril-Mary Pius Olatunji, Francis Kayode Fabidun

About the reviewer

Cyril-Mary Pius Olatunji teaches philosophy at Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko (cyrilmary. …


About the reviewer

Francis Fabidun is a Ph.D student of Philosophy at University of Ibadan. He is a lecturer and the …


We must begin by declaring that Matory’s text successfully grapples with its topic. Anyone interested in the topic of African culture, Marx, Freud or their confluence will find the book highly rewarding for the time spent perusing the content of the pages, which this review abysmally fails to capture in totality. Accordingly, the criticisms discussed below question the logic rather than the fundamental theoretical, practical, academic or historical essence and viability of the text.

The text makes a critical connection between two parallel cultures in a somewhat comparative critique. Marx and Freud’s theoretical visions are compared with cultural practices in Africa. In this work J. Lorand Matory weaves together themes and issues from a wide range of fields including Afro-Atlantic religious and material culture, Marxism, and Psychoanalysis. Matory employs a phenomenological approach in his writing. The text is not a collection of some external phenomena, but a constructive report of a comparative analysis of something of personal involvement, stake, and interest.

Fetishism is the central concept of the text. According to J. Lorand Matory, fetishism has for centuries been used by Europeans and their social critics as a foil to cover and deride the social logic of African attribution of values to material things, and only extended as metaphor to taunt attitudinal primitivism of individuals among Europeans.

For many contemporary scholars of philosophy, humanities and the social sciences, the theoretical positions, fashions and images of the great thinkers such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud offer irresistible attractions. In The Fetish Revisited, J. Lorand Matory both demystifies the allurement of their theories and repositions their mesmerism. The nucleus of Matory’s text is that there exists some undeniable similarities between African religious ideologies and the social theories of Europe, with special reference to Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. The text consists of three parts begins with a lengthy introductory notes, which span together over fifty pages with lengthy descriptions on African gods and how they instantiate the fundamental principles of Yoruba cosmology.
At the introductory part of the work (39), Matory provides four arguments as the logical premises for his theoretical position inferred in the text and used the four arguments as theoretical guide or thesis throughout the text. The summary of the four arguments are:

1. That theory is not made up of disembodied, universal truths but a creature dialectically related to the social environment, material surroundings, and material interests of the theorists.

2. That the term ‘fetishism’ is a useful way to show the competitive and strategic nature of meaning-making in the construction of European social theories, Afro-Atlantic gods, and numerous other socially effective stipulations about where value lies and who owes what to whom.

3. That like the most powerful and spectacular of African ‘fetishes,’ the most powerful and spectacular European social theories embody not only the social ambiguity but also the political and emotional ambivalence of their creators. In this guise, Matory means to say that 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’ given their social, cultural and economic status and environment (98). The duo of Marx and Freud were ethnic Jews in Protestant Europe; a situation which put them at a lower strata than others.

4. And that, in the making of theories and of gods, the assignment of value and agency to one party regularly entails equal devaluation and the zombification of (that is, the denial of agency to) other parties.
Matory strongly believes that a theory cannot be logically divorced from the existential situation and social environment of the theorist, and that the European social theories are borne out of the social ambiguity as well as the political and emotional ambivalence of their creators. He noted that Marx, Freud, and the Afro-Atlantic priests all invest value and agency to material things.

The author also provides a summary of what to expect in the text he articulates in three parts. According to this author, Part l argues that Marx’s labour theory of value is no more empirically demonstrable than the theories that it critiques (38). In this first part, Matory discusses the sources of Karl Marx’s concept fetish, and presents a history and appraisal of Marx’s critique of capitalism. In this section, the author maintains that the revolution championed by Karl Marx likely owes its origin to Marx’s personal misfortunes as low earner in a context of maldistribution of the proceeds of labour. However, Matory considers Marx’s reasons and arguments supporting his position to be sentimental, given the equally unrewarded roles of the labour force of African slaves in the development of his much idealised America. Matory believes that Marx, who is himself a victim of the bias of the bourgeois, should have known better how not to be biased even to other cultures.

Matory further backs up this point with the view, earlier expressed by William Pietz, that the whole idea of fetishism is the product of the biased comparison that emanated from the testimonies of early Europeans merchants and the priests who accompanied them (14). Matory also made it clear that the European thinkers of the enlightenment period were very concerned about freedom from slavery. At the same time, they employed linguistic tools to represses the bloody reality of real slavery orchestrated by Europeans, while downplaying the economic centrality of African slavery in eighteenth and nineteenth century European.

Matory believes that Marx identifies wage labour as wage slavery, thereby simplistically replacing the enslaved Africans with European workers. Matory calls it ethnological Schadenfreude (16). He argues that Karl Marx has ignored the plight of the enslaved Africans and by doing so, Marx has acted very much like the Capitalists that he criticised. Given the barbaric logic propelling such reasoning, Matory therefore christened Marx’s theory as fetish for being logically selective and, especially also for equally misattributing value to his own theoretical use (60-77).

Part ll describes how Freud’s insecurities about his race and his sexual orientation shaped psychoanalysis and inspired divinations about the human personality that eerily resemble underdeveloped versions of the Afro-Atlantic religions (38). Accordingly, in this second part, Matory takes on Sigmund Freud, presenting a historical analysis of Psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis was propounded by Sigmund Freud as a science of human nature. Freud, in Matory’s opinion, identified the Id as the savage of human nature and conceives of the Greco-Roman world as the apex of human civilisations that have control over the Id (145-160).

Matory brings attention to Freud’s historical setting as the reason for the displacement of value. Although psychoanalysis was an attempt to understand the human self, Freud also used it as an attempt to ‘achieve respect as an assimilated Jewish man in an era of rising antisemitism’ (105). This is seen clearly in the way Freud refers to his patients as ‘negroes’ (141) thereby creating a gulf between himself and the African, identically romanticising his own psychological compensation from repressed inferiority. Freud, in trying to show cultural competence, holds that Africans displace values and are as such culturally incompetent. In doing so he identifies himself as civilised while ‘the other’ were the uncivilised Africans.

In the third part, Matory focuses on the historical setting of human-made gods in the AfroAtlantic world (38-9). Matory argues here that Africans know exactly what they are doing when they invest value to material things and do not qualify this to be termed Fetish, as Marx and Freud called this. Matory argues that this attribution of fetishism, with Afro-Atlantic religions, is simply a misreading of religious material culture. By implication, Marx and Freud simply misunderstand the relationship that a manufactured god has with his or her devotees and this is what constitutes the problem (183-284).

Matory makes a mastery application of material symbols such as the coat, the piano, the factory, rug-draped couch, beads drums, the trinkets just as he drives home his point of the mis-labeling of the Afro-Atlantic religions as fetish. Matory notes that he has not been initiated into any of the Afro-Atlantic religion due to his aversion for the class divisions there not totally accrediting the Afro-Atlantic religion as fostering equality amongst men. As such the major argument of his text is not towards a dominance of the social strata pedestal but an illumination of the illogicality in the denigration of the African religions with the use of theories that themselves very much fall into the same errors.

In sum, through field work experiences, and critical and pictorial analyses of selected major Afro-Atlantic religions, Matory brings attention to the equally fetishistic nature of the much revered theories of the two assimilated Jews. The work clearly achieves the aim of the author to demonstrate that Afro-Atlantic gods have a social structure of their own that is materially embodied and which is no less rational than the social theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. In the process, Matory employs examples of different Afro-Atlantic religions in Spain, Brazil, Cuba Nigerian Yoruba and other parts of the world. The four arguments (stated above) were cleverly weaved together employing languages that appeal to thoroughbred academics and non-specialist readers toward the conclusions that, like all other European theories, those of Marx and Freud are socially determined proposals for the resolution of culturally informed and historically specific political and psychological dilemmas. Matory insists that, like the Afro-Atlantic religions, those theories are not to be seen as abstract statements of truth neutrally applicable to the interpretation of all times and places (285). The author sees the situation of the 16th, 17th and post-17th century Europe as ‘ethnological Schadenfreude.’ By this he means the strategy of middling status groups to seek membership in higher status groups by assenting to, and indeed proclaiming, the inferiority of a third, more vulnerable party’ (144).

Logically, Matory struck on a major distinguishing feature between Western and African thinking, which perhaps in order to avoid distractions from his main focus, he refuses to explicate further. Matory insists that just as dreams were for Freud the ‘royal road to the unconscious,’ they are, for the adherents of many Afro-Atlantic religions, windows on the Other world and possibly revelations of the future. He notes however that while the Enlightenment strove to establish a clear distinction between subject and object, and between the European self and the African Other, perhaps in the name of making clear analytic distinctions (gradually maturing into ideological othernism, racism and theorism), the Afro-Atlantic religions simultaneously strove to clarify the mutually constituting relationship between the person and the universe, between the inner world and the outer, and between local populations and distant ones (which is perhaps also misunderstood to be mark of primitivism, illogicalism, and mental inadequacies)(4). Whether or not these properly picture the mind of Matory will depend on writings.
Finally, Matory can hardly be faulted in the style or in the themes of his text. The most visible weakness of Matory’s text lies in the logic. Matory does not seem to imagine the consequence of concluding that his own choice of analysis, method and conclusions, like those he criticised in Marx and Freud, have also been determined by his own social and existential conditions of being a stakeholder in the fate of African people rather than reliable and true state of affairs. He may be as vulnerable as Marx and Freud whose works, he claims, were propelled by their experience within peculiar history. Hence, if every theory is determined by human conditions as Matory has argued, rather than socially neutral articulation of truth, then, could Matory’s theoretical position be an exception? Can Matory actually contend with the traps of such a naughty logic?

Overall, Matory’s The Fetish Revisited is a well-researched and provocative work that combines academic research with a deep intellectual reflection in a work mainly directed to the disciples of Freud and Marx, but amazingly insightful into the fields of religious studies, anthropology, ethnology and meta-theory.

7 September 2020

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