Ernst Bloch: The Spirit of Utopia: Fetishes. (02/16/2001)

I am always amazed that Europeans cannot resist the temptation of commenting about the nature of "primitive" art. My amazement has two sources. First, the object of their discussion, usually the mask or totem idol, while certainly a sculpture of sorts, is not art to the person who created it. Europeans call such things art because they have no way to explain them at all otherwise and so try to deal with them in the formalized vocabulary of nineteenth and twentieth century artistic critical and/or historical discourse. My other reason for amazement is the ground on which the first is based; that is, that Europeans comprehend so little about the objects they insist on calling art. Fetishes, masks, totem idols, are not about making statements, are not about expression, are not about beauty and aesthetics, are not about any of the other categories or concepts usually associated with artistic creationism. It is, of course, possible to treat such "primitive" objects as if they were art, which seems to be the only way Europeans can accept their existence at all, since objectifying the other permits examination of it without any investment of self that might imply or lead to intimacy with it, a prospect civilized Europeans find abhorrent; but, when fetishes, masks, and totem idols are perceived as artistic, it becomes impossible to comprehend why they came into existence as artifacts (objects) crafted by human beings in the first place.

I have very little confidence in my ability to explain the difference between artistic objects and the kind of artifacts that "primitive" people create for genuine use as fetishes, masks, and totem idols. There are two reasons for this. There is a prohibition, taboo, against speaking to outsiders about the nature of these objects. Within a single tribe there are many different clans. Each clan has its own totem identity which seems to be a closely guarded secret to outward appearance, but which, in fact, is not really that at all. The prohibition or taboo is not directed at the person who might be inclined to tell someone from the outside what the clan's business is; rather, the taboo is directed at the person who might be inclined to ask someone in this or that clan about the nature of their business. No one in any native tribe would ever violate that taboo.

On a more concrete level: say the Clan of the Bear had a meeting of its members during the night of April 25, 2000 A. D. I do not belong to that clan but honor the field mouse as my ancestral totem instead. It would never occur to me in ten thousand years to approach a member of the Bear Clan on April 26 and ask him/her what they were doing on the night of April 25. Put simply: I absolutely do not want to know what they were doing. I am absolutely devoid of desire to know anything whatsoever about the business of any clan to which I do not belong. Members of the Clan of the Field Mouse have all the business we can manage to do during the course of our lives; we have more business than we can manage to do. The point is that I cannot handle my own responsibility in the Clan of the Field Mouse if I begin to wonder about the business of the people in the Clan of the Bear. I cannot afford the distraction of worrying about things that are none of my business.

Where outsiders to the tribe are concerned, Europeans, for instance, who always ask immediately on becoming aware of the meeting of the Bear Clan last night-"what were they doing?"-the problem of the prohibition against speaking about that business is vastly complicated. In the first place, the question is so rude, so outside the realm of proper decorum, even decency, that the person to whom it is addressed is generally rendered speechless by the sheer barbarity of the violation against, not the taboo, but against the basic and fundamental reality of what it means to be human. One reason no one has ever answered the question concerns the fact that we are still trying to comprehend what sort of beast Europeans are that they would not know better than to ask the question in the first place. Even animals behave better than that. The field mouse would never ask the bear what his business was.

The other reason for my lack of confidence in being able to explain the nature of the totemic fetish is that I have lived most of my life knowing what they are and have never tried to articulate the concept before because it is inconceivable to me that anyone could exist as a human being who did not already know the answer to the question. I first have to convince myself that Europeans are alive, that they are not the "walking dead." Then I must address the issue of whether or not they are human. There are almost too many doubts standing in the way of my ability to say what needs to be said here. The major stumbling block I suppose is the fact that any explanation of fetish that I can articulate fails to be a rational concept at its heart in terms of the way Europeans understand rationality. Any issue involving spirit always already stands in conflict with what Europeans know from their own experience about that subject. On the one hand, Europeans use that word to signify concepts that have nothing to do with what native and tribal people mean when they say or think the same "word." On the other hand, when any European gets to a point where he/she understands the difference between the two concepts, between what a native knows as spirit and what Europeans believe they are, they always associate the native concept with demons, devils, and Satanic monsters of various kinds. For the most part, and as far as I know, no European has ever gotten beyond that point of misunderstanding the concept.

An example of what I mean by these statements arises in Ernst Bloch's (The Spirit of Utopia) attempt to describe the concept of the mask in African culture. He says that

"The Negroes have until now kept their gods of life carved according to the wood, transmitting its vitality through handles, rattles, beams, thrones, and idols. Their magical volition, their need to transform themselves, to push into the upper circles of procreation, brought about by the mask above all, which elevates them demonically to the animal ancestor, to the always abstractly organic totem and taboo; it bears the likeness of our remote countenance, but Christ does not yet shine; only the blazing demon of life dominates these dream progeny, these dark, plastic systems of fertility and power, and then only indefinitely." (23)

My problem with this statement is that I have absolutely no idea what Bloch is talking about. Whatever it is he says here, and I cannot even begin to paraphrase it, much less interpret its meaning, I am absolutely certain its has nothing whatsoever to do with the native or tribal conceptualization of fetish. A first problem here can be traced back to everyone's favorite obsessive/compulsive Dutch-uncle of Eurocentric perceptions of human reality-Sigmund Freud-who believed that all human behavior, not only could be, but must be, defined by sexuality ("fertility"), and not normal sexuality either, but by Oedipal sexuality especially. Freud, at some point in his life, came into possession of a native fetish, probably African, and decided, on the basis of nothing at all except his own obsession with sex, that it must be a fertility fetish. From there he reasoned (Ha! Ha!) that all fetishes must be sexual. At the time, after 1850 or there abouts, everyone in Europe knew with absolute certainty, even obsessively, that African males were vastly more sexually potent than European males were, or could ever hope to be, and that there must be a reason why that was infallibly, inescapably true. Freud fixated on his fetish, believing that it must be the reason Africans were more sexually inclined than northern Europeans were. This is a fairy tale. It is also incredibly stupid.

Native Africans are not more sexually potent than Europeans. At the same time, however, native people have not been told every day of their lives that sex is evil, that sex is original sin, that if you willingly and joyfully commit an act of sexual congress you will be condemned to eternal hell. If that is your heritage, you're going to need a lot more than a wooden fertility fetish to get over it, even if you could actually find one. Talk about hens teeth. Freud's only lasting contribution to human civilization, and I certainly exclude Europeans from that category because they (you) will never get over Freud's obsessive/compulsive idiocy, is defining exactly and precisely what a fetish is not, what it has never been, what it can never become. Fetishes have absolutely nothing to do with sexuality. Fetishes have everything to do with fertility. Freud's problem was that he could not distinguish one from the other. Those who follow him cannot do that either.

Fertility is about having enough to eat tomorrow, next week, next year. Fertility is not about having sex.

Go back and read Bloch's statement. Contemplate what it says. Then explain to me what he means when he says that the mask (fetish) satisfies the "Negroes" need "to push into the upper circles of procreation" so that he/she/it/they can elevate themselves "demonically to the animal ancestor." That perception, apart from being essentially racist, is incomprehensible. With the reference to Christ's absence from the scene of "Negro" behavior, I tend to assume that the "upper circles of procreation" have something to do with feeling originally sinful every time you have sex without thinking first, even always, of the Virgin Mary. If you pretend, fantasize, imagine, that your sex-partner is the Virgin Mary, then the progeny of that act of procreation will be like God. If not, then the progeny will be unlike God. I realize, of course, that I am treading on dangerous and offensive ground here. I do not mean to be offensive but you must understand something important here-when Bloch suggests that native people are trying to "push" up to the higher level of demonic coupling with an animal ancestor, he is being as offensive to me as I might be to those who are Christian when I suggest that they must pretend sexual coupling with the Virgin Mary to elevate the level of their own procreative acts.

A first point to take here is that Bloch's assumption that "animal ancestors" exist on a higher plane than human beings do is erroneous. The fact that animistic people divide the universe into three layers (lower, middle, and upper worlds) does not mean, as it certainly does in Eurocentric discourse, that there is a difference in quality (good, better, best) between or among them. The lower world is not Hell any more than the upper world is Heaven. Those kinds of hierarchical, judgmental, and moralistic, concepts have no purchase whatsoever in animistic philosophy. They simply do not apply.

Secondly, for the most part but not universally, clan affiliations are not hereditary. They cannot be, and are not, passed from generation to generation through procreative sex. Rather, a person is chosen to be a member of the Clan of the Field Mouse by the spirit of that animal at some early point in his/her life. After that person is initiated into the Clan, the Field Mouse becomes his/her animal ancestor. What this means is that a person becomes related to all previous members of the Clan of the Field Mouse, as if he/she were actually the child of someone who belonged to that clan in a pervious generation, where, in fact, that person becomes the child of the spirit of the whole clan's animal ancestor. In this way, it is virtually impossible for living blood-relatives to belong to the same clan. This is what anthropologists are actually referring to when they talk about the incest taboo in tribal and clan societies, even if they do not know that themselves. That has nothing to do with Freud's obsession over Oedipal sex. The reason this structure exists concerns the fact that sharing clan business with an actual member of your blood family is a condition of intimacy that most native people would find embarrassing to the point of abhorrence. Spirit concerns and affairs are absolutely private and can only be tolerated in shared communal life after steps are taken to bind members of the clan together (initiation) in ways that obviate the intimacy of shared sacral knowledge. Members of the same clan do not marry because that would be redundant. There would also be a tendency for married people to discuss clan business in a context that would be completely inappropriate.

What this last statement implies, of course, is that an absolute division exist between the spirit world and the one people occupy. Ordinary daily life does not take place in the spirit world. The idea that a person, male or female, could have sex with a spirit is insane. While it might be true that Europeans believe such nonsense, and have even been known to base an entire religious ideology on that fantasy, native and tribal people have never fallen victim to that baseless illusion. Animistic people do not have sex with animals. Animistic people do not believe that people can be impregnated by animals and do not believe that animals can have "human" children. Only Europeans, as far as I know, entertain notions that extreme and absurd and ridiculous.

Finding the heart of expressing the difference between European perceptions of art and what native and tribal people create when they fashion or craft a fetish is a difficult task. Bloch manages, inadvertently, to give a partial ground for such a digression:

"This is a particular world, and it led us increasingly outside, from the expression of something inward toward the subjectively alien material. In the earliest carvings, our inner dimensions still interfere, magnifying the legs, the eyes according to the importance which we had given them, and the magical volition pushing upward already lent these masks our remote countenance." (18)

Here two things stand out: first, that the "inner dimensions" of the human psyche interfere with artistic creation, with self-expression, by causing the sculptor to exaggerate this or that feature of the countenance being rendered in the wood so that the final product becomes only remotely like the original one being depicted. This is inevitable, according to Bloch, because the wood itself is a "subjectively alien material" to the one that embodies, contains, and expresses, the original countenance. Because flesh is not wood, it is necessary for the sculptor to impose his subjective will on the piece of wood or stone he is carving in order to make it conform to the countenance he is using as his model and inevitably he exaggerates this or that feature of the original according to how he perceives its significance. This is a perfectly acceptable description of the process involved in producing what Europeans refer to when they call a crafted object artistic.

A fetish, on the other hand, is a completely different sort of thing. What is absent in native or tribal sculpture is the idea that the craftsman must impose his will on the piece of wood he is sculpting. Native artisans do not attempt to dominate their material because they do not see it as a "subjectively alien" substance. The difference between flesh and wood, according to Europeans, is that flesh is a living substance, itself a "mask" that always already conceals or embodies a subjective entity, a soul; whereas, wood is nothing more than an objective material so utterly without life that any given piece of it is a priori just as useful as fuel for a fire as it is valuable as a potential material for artistic creation. Europeans, given any piece of wood, are just as likely to burn it as they are to sculpt it. Put simply: Europeans have no reverence for "subjectively alien material," believe their own will has a natural, God-given dominance over every other substance on the face of the earth, and that they are free to hack it into any shape they desire.

Native people do not view wood, or any other natural substance, as inanimate. The very meaning of the word "animistic," as a term that defines the nature of "primitive" tribal belief, maintains that everything on the face of the earth is animated by spirit power. Europeans view this belief as superstition and give it no credibility whatsoever, except to say that spirits are the same as demonic forces controlled and manipulated by evil people in the service of Satan. Wood is especially significant in animistic belief as a material suitable for the creation of fetishes because of its essential connection to the World Tree. When a person or an animal dies, and nothing in the world view of animistic people is considered to be immortal or eternal, the spirit that animates that person or animal enters the underworld, which is nothing at all like Hell, where it is eventually taken up by the roots of the World Tree. This spirit, which is only one of the four or five spirits that people and animals possess, draw to themselves during the course of their lives, then begins its journey through the living flesh of the Tree, through roots, trunk, and branches, until it reaches the upper world, which is nothing like Heaven either, where it then waits for a suitable opportunity to be reborn, reincarnated into the living flesh of another person or animal who comes into existence in the middle world. Since this spirit-journey moves from lower to upper world through the body of the World Tree, it necessarily spends some of its existence in the middle world where actual living people and animals live. The middle section of the World Tree, the section of it that passes through the world where people and animals live, is embodied by every tree that exists anywhere on the face of the earth. Hence, every piece of wood that exists at any given time anywhere on the face of the earth contains spirits that are moving upward through the flesh of the World Tree toward the place from which they will be reincarnated as living members of the clan-community where every person and animal lives.

Part of the business of every clan in the tribe concerns the necessity of demonstrating proper respect, through ritual observances ("what were the members of the Bear Clan doing last night?"), for interrupting the journey of this or that spirit through the body of the World Tree when it becomes necessary for ordinary people to use wood for purposes of sustaining life in the middle world. We need wood to build shelters, to create tools, to keep warm, to cook food, to boil water. The spirits in the wood we use must be thanked and respected for allowing us to interrupt their journey to the top of the World Tree. When wood is burned, taken from the living flesh of the World Tree for any purpose at all, from any tree at all, the journey of the spirits in it is cut short. When the wood disintegrates afterwards, when it returns to ash in the fire, the spirit is freed from its "body," reenters the under world and the roots of the World Tree to begin its journey upward again. That disruption is never taken lightly.

Europeans see our respect for spirits as a sign that we are terrified of them. That is absurd. Why would I be afraid of the spirit that animated my grandfather and will some day return to the middle world to animate someone else? If, on the other hand, I show disrespect for any spirit as it travels through the world where I live, which I would never do, I would have reason to fear the return of that spirit. Europeans associate spirits with Satanic demons only because they have no respect whatsoever for any living thing. They have reason to be afraid. Native people do not share that burden of guilt.

By way of introduction to the next part of this discourse about fetishes: when a European has finished carving a piece of wood, there is bound to be more wood discarded as worthless debris than there is to be kept as an object of art. Conversely, when a native sculptor finishes his/her task, there may not be any wood to discard at all. This is true because we never force our will on the material body of the spirit that inhabits the wood. We remove only that which brings the spirit out of the wood. We never remove anything else, anything more than what is absolutely necessary to accomplish that task. This has nothing to do with art. Art, as Bloch insists, is an act in which the sculptor imposes his will on a "subjectively alien material." In the view of any native person, wood cannot be anything at all related to alien, subjective or otherwise.