The writing below outlines thoughts around ideas such as; How can W.J.T Mitchell’s notion of double consciousness relate to both Western and Primitive African people in relation to the fetish object?
‘How is it…that people are able to maintain a “double consciousness” towards images, pictures and representations in a variety of media, vacillating between magical beliefs and sceptical doubts, naïve animism and hard-headed materialism, mystical and critical attitudes?’ W.J.T Mitchell What Do Pictures Want (2005)
The video clip below of artist David McDermott demonstrates Mitchell’s idea of double consciousness
McDermott explains that he has befriended his banal household objects rejecting human contact because the objects provide him with the discourse he needs, yet further on in the clip refers to them as inanimate objects. This shows a fantastical and logical brain working in unison. A need for connection, outlined in Maslow’s 3rd tier in the hierarchy of human needs, is similar to Tom Hanks character’s relationship with Wilson the basketball in the movie Castaway. We see humans need for connection is so crucial that they will inject a sense of animism into usually lifeless objects even while knowing that it is illogical.
In the tragic novel Room by Emma Donaghue, the story of a mother and her 5 year old son held captive inside four walls for many years, the boy grows up routinely wishing the few objects they own goodnight and greeting them good morning as though they were his friends. Due to his age, this double consciousness may not be present, he is invested in the reality that, for example, his lamp has a consciousness and has yet to be conditioned that they are lifeless forms.
I will take this concept of reverence for an object to the idea of the fetish. According to intellectual historian William Pietz in Critical terms for Art History, ‘fetish is a familiar word for exotic thing…an object of irrational fascination…even though that same person may know very well intellectually that such feelings are unjustifiably excessive’. This echo’s Mitchell’s idea of double consciousness
However, during the age of the African slave trade, this lack of double consciousness, lack of the ‘rational, intellectual thought, is how the early philosophers such as Kant, Hegel and the European intellectual culture saw the ‘noble savage’ with his infantile, backward approach to life and their worship of fetish objects. Like Donaghue’s fictional boy locked in the room, the theorists believed only one consciousness was dominating when it came to the interaction with fetish objects, as they witnessed minds absence of intellectual thought. Rational thought, as the European Intellectuals understood it was not suspended when it came to fetish objects, it never existed.
To clarify the the idea of the fetish objects magical powers I will refer to John Macks article Fetish? Magical Figures in Central Africa in which he points out that it is not the object itself that contains magical powers but the substances that the container held. These could be such elements as chalk, earth, seeds, resin and at the activation of the priests command could have a range of activities. For example they could promote healing, identify thieves or be used as an oath taking device. Without the substances the object was nuetralised. Therefore there was a lot more going on than a group of people worshipping an odd looking object, there was the devotion to to priests abilities and also the substance inside the vessel that comes into play.
Many philosophers and intellectuals since the Enlightenment period, have theorised about the fetish and I wonder how they began to understand a perhaps more emotional and transcendental experience whose intelligence may not be located in the mind by using mind based theories. I would guess that the noble savages did not respond to these objects through thinking, through language based thoughts and that perhaps the interaction with these objects of worship was a more physical, intuitive process, an act of faith, these objects worked because the people believed in them. Can language understand and express why people believed in their magic ?
Maybe language was the key to understanding the worshippers of fetish objects but it wasn’t western language. In The New Yorker (May 21, 2016), Emily Anthes writes of Tom Lomas’ Positive Lexicography Project, an online glossary of untranslatable words.
” Those who believe in linguistic determinism, the strictest version, might argue that a culture that lacks a term for a certain emotion—a particular shade of joy or flavour of love—cannot recognize or experience it at all.
This implies that culture shapes our emotional range, are we born a blank slate? Is there an emotion or feeling that accompanies the interaction with a fetish object but we are not privy to it because it is not our culture?
I think not in the case of belief of the supernatural because we witness Westerners putting their faith in their own kinds of priests and suspend their belief in the same manner that the primitive people did with fetish objects. They worship an invisible man that lives in the sky and has commands that if you obey get you a place in paradise after death or if disobeyed send you to damnation in hell below.
Is it all just a question of faith? Is it not the same suspension of disbelief that ensures the success of a church and a fetish object? And is this faith a mind based activity? A Christian will tell you god lives in their heart, not in their mind, where does the belief in a fetish object live? where do they feel its presence?
Perhaps there is not always a double consciousness maintained. I imagine that Christians and primitive African people will both tell you that their faith does not waiver, that the image of Jesus on a cross or similarly a fetish object will hold a place in their being that is unshakable to rational thought. Who then is Mitchell referring to when the majority of people in the world believe in a faith.
Mitchell, W.J.T What Do Pictures Want (2005)
The strange world of David McDermott by Bryan O’Brien, VIMEO.COM/189790173,
Donaghue, Emma Room, MacMillan Publishers, 2010
Nelson R & Shiif R, Critical terms for Art History, University of Chicago Press, 1996, William Pietz, Fetish Chapter
Barad, Karen (Spring 2003). ‘”Posthumanist performativity: Toward understanding how matter comes to matter, University of Chicago
Emily Anthes, The Glossary of Happiness, The New Yorker, May 21, 2016