Race and Racism in Social Philosophy and Theory Across the Disciplines

10 November 2020
By Lori Pearson, Professor of Religion

What should scholars and teachers do about the racism regularly encountered in the ideas, writings, and theories of intellectuals who are largely regarded as the founders of our disciplines in the humanities and social sciences? Do we overlook racist images, claims, and categories in writings by Hume, Kant, Hegel, or Durkheim, for example, in order to salvage their insights about perception, authoritative knowledge, history, ritual, human relationships, or social institutions that can be useful for analyzing and understanding the questions we pose in our work? Or are their theories rendered irretrievable by these expressions and legacies of colonialism, racism, and cultural imperialism?

J. Lorand Matory has written a book, The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make, that takes up some of these questions in a unique and provocative way. By centering the experiences, cultures, and subjectivities of the Afro-Atlantic, Matory offers a new interpretation of the ambivalent legacy of race and theories of the fetish in the work of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. He does so by reading these two generative, but ultimately Eurocentric, thinkers in a way that pays attention to their own ambiguous status among intellectuals in their own day, and considers how their racial, religious, and class identities shaped their theories of the fetish.

Matory chooses his subjects quite intentionally. Among European social theorists, Marx and Freud are widely regarded as heroes not only for the merit and influence of their work, but precisely because their theories have been especially influential for progressive politics and anti-colonialist scholarly projects. To explore racialized dimensions in their work is to ask how they can and should be used in analyses of race, exploitation, and power today.

Charisse Burden-Stelly and I created a Summer Research Circle to explore the relevance and implications of his new work for our teaching and research projects. Some of the topics we explored in our discussions can usefully be organized around the question of what Matory intends to do by revisiting the fetish. Why revisit it, and to what ends?

First, in line with the methodological emphases of many scholars of the Black Atlantic (e.g., John Thornton, 1992), Matory re-visits the fetish in order to demonstrate or remind his readers (following William Pietz, 1985) that “the concept of the fetish originated on the 16th– and 17th-century West African coast, where Europeans condemned Africans’ manner of attributing value and agency to material things” (14). Matory locates the roots of European social theory in this moment of encounter and the theories of normative human nature that were generated and developed in Enlightenment philosophies that defined the “normal historical agent” over against the trope of the “enslaved African” (42).

Yet, by emphasizing this origin in the Black Atlantic, Matory wants to argue not just that European intellectuals demeaned Africans by means of the theory of the fetish, but that “African and European traders disagreed about the value and agency of people and things” (xvi). This was a relational, two-way encounter, exposing conflicting ideas about what is ultimately real, socially valid, and morally required among persons in relationship. Matory explains the importance of this in part by saying that he wishes to resist Eurocentric modes of self-understanding wherein European intellectuals are viewed only in relation to their abstract ideas and not as historical, socially positioned actors. Similarly, he does not want to ignore the agency and participation of West African merchant-monarchs and priests whose competing understandings of social relationships and material things were part of this history of exchange, survival, and disagreement (xvii, 14). 

Locating the origin of social theory on the West African coast clarifies the extent to which the intellectual categories of European thinkers have repeated this racist history and participated in colonialist ambitions. It also brings into sharp relief the centuries-long project in which European (Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment) notions of humanity have been defined over against the black person as the opposite of what the white citizen should be (xiii, 54). With respect to Marx and Freud, however, Matory places their work in the context of the “ambivalent responses” that “middling populations” have had to that encounter for the past 500 years (xvi).

Although aspects of Matory’s methods for reading and interpreting Marx and Freud raised problems for both of us, insofar as Matory leaned heavily on a small number of biographical sources and in the case of Marx did not consider his writings on American slavery and the Civil War, the idea of “ethnological Schadenfreude” was a helpful and fruitful tool, especially for Charisse’s work. Matory defines this term as “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 power” (16). He argues that this is a helpful concept for understanding the anti-African theories of the fetish that are found in Marx and Freud’s work. That is, their use of the fetish reflects their own insecure and ambiguous status in relation to elite Europeans (103).

Also interesting is Matory’s suggestion that Marx and Freud created their own fetishes, specifically in their notions of historical materialism and psychoanalysis, respectively. To use Matory’s reading of Freud as an example, Matory argues that Freud makes a fetish of psychoanalysis itself: “Like other fetishes, I will argue, Freud’s psychoanalysis is best understood not as an ethereal idea or disembodied philosophy but as a historically and culturally specific network of people, things, idea-images, conventions, and relationships that enhanced some people’s forms of agency and value production at the expense of others’” (105).

This leads to a second major aspect of Matory’s revisiting of the fetish, and to something that we discussed in our meetings. In re-visiting the fetish, Matory wishes not only to contribute more insight into its racist heritage, but also to suggest that fetishizing is an abiding and shared human activity. Fetishes reflect claims and disagreements about what is real, what should be valued, and what people owe to each other in human community; they emerge in spaces of ambivalence over questions of hierarchy and social organization. Fetishes, in Matory’s view, are contested proposals for how people should organize themselves (xi) and are used for the “negotiation of social priorities, resources, and rewards” (xi). They are, therefore, common human tendencies among European social theorists and among practitioners of Afro-Atlantic religions. By pointing once again to this shared, relational history and context of European-African encounter, Matory simultaneously rejects the notion that European social theory is a “disembodied” and “socially-neutral articulation of truths about all times and all places” (xvii) and argues that contemporary priests of Afro-Atlantic “traditional” religions “are not the bearers of some primordial, history-less tradition but heirs to the same…semantic and moral conflict on the ‘Guinea Coast’ that inspired the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment discourse of the fetish in Europe” (xvii).

For my (Lori’s) research and teaching, Matory’s book offered insightful suggestions about the racialized dimensions of theories of religion and modernity among European intellectuals. For Charisse’s scholarly projects, Matory’s notion of ethnological Schadenfreude emerged as a promising tool for her analyses of the history of U.S. racial capitalism.

For scholars in the humanities and social sciences, Matory’s book might prompt such broad questions as: What is the job of social theory, and how do our own embodied subjectivities and our own ambitions and ethical ideals shape how we analyze and name shared realities? How can we use the teaching of social theory as an opportunity for our students to grapple with questions about proper social order and notions of obligation and authority, and to question ideals of disembodied truth?

Our conversations covered much more ground than can be accounted for here, including questions about the uses of evidence in Matory’s text, the purpose of social theory, the diversity of Marxism as a tradition, and the meanings of exploitation and how best to interpret it. Overall, we benefitted greatly from the opportunity for interdisciplinary conversation about the legacies of Hegel, Marx, and Freud for projects in European Studies, Black Studies, and social theory today.

Citations are from: Matory, J. Lorand. The Fetish Revisited: Marx, Freud, and the Gods Black People Make. Duke University Press, 2018.