The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Devil And Commodity Fetishism is a book by Michael Taussig.

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America is both a polemic about anthropology and an analysis of a set of seemingly magical beliefs held by rural and urban workers in Colombia and Bolivia. His polemic is that the principal concern of anthropology should be to critique Western (specifically, capitalist) culture. He further argues that people living in the periphery of the world capitalist economy have a critical vantage point on capitalism, and articulate their critiques of capitalism in terms of their own cultural idioms. He thus concludes that anthropologists should study peoples living on the periphery of the world capitalist economy as a way of gaining critical insight into the anthropologists´´ own culture. In short, this polemic shifts the anthropologists´ object of study from that of other cultures to that of their own, and repositions the former objects of anthropological study (e.g. indigenous peoples) as valued critical thinkers.

Taussig applies this approach to two beliefs, one based on both his own field research and that of anthropologist June Nash, the second based on his own research. The first is the belief held by semi-proletarianized peasants in Colombia (with an analogous case among Bolivian tin miners) that proletarianized sugar-cane cutters can make a contract with the devil that will cause them to make a good deal of money, but that this money can be spent only on frivolous consumer goods, and that the cutter will die an early miserable death. Taussig suggests that earlier anthropologists might have argued that this belief is a hold-over from pre-capitalist culture, or serves as a levelling mechanism (ensuring that no individual become significantly wealthier than any of his or her fellows). Taussig however argues that through the devil, peasants express their recognition that capìtalism is based on the magic belief that capital is productive, when in fact capitalism breeds poverty, disease, and death. The second belief provides another example of peasants' representing their own understanding of capitalism's claim that capital is productive: the belief that some people engineer a switch that results in a peso, rather than a baby, being baptised. The consequence is that the money, alive, will return to its original owner no matter how it is spent, and bring more money back with it.

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