On the Bewitched Object

The artist Duen Sacchi dismantles the concept of «fetish» to point out how—from the colonial order inaugurated by the West—narrative senses are built around time, also determining the production and consumption of artistic objets, bodies, and subjectivities from the gaze. Starting from the Paranaguazu fire in Brazil, Sacchi reflects on the destructive power of what has been established so far.

This is not the first time that I have changed the beginning of an article because life, in all its depth and rawness, barges in and shakes up the life of a loved one, just like the smoke from the fire which has emanated from the heart of Paraná Guazú into São Paulo. I started writing this article in the same way I always start writing, in a sort of conscious mental whispering, in which something to what I recognize as my voice writes or speaks to me.

I changed how this article starts because this fire is burning all of us. The fires a few years ago in the Gran Chaco are instructive. Collective memory sustains an ancient belief that fire kills pests and improves the soil, a memory based on forget ting our ancestral alliance with insects: insects destroyed the plague of the Karai,[1] the colonist, the soy farmers’ crops. Fire burns us. It burned my notebooks in my childhood home. It burns hammocks, sacred trees, footprints, eyes, it burns us all, it burns the insects.

In the splendor of a party, someone whispers in my ear that Milcíades Mansilla has left us.[2] We lift our arms towards the sky with our skin marked with a prayer seal: I am also a social leader. And the smoke reaches São Paulo and also Mbaporenda: I know that the Great Drought is coming. The insects rise and sing with the thun dering roar of beetles mating. A sea animal hugs my leg in desperation. At home, our small alter shines day and night; maybe this tenuous link of the common heart beat can help us stay alive. It is urgent that we resist the unflinching eye, the empty gaze that demands that we comply with the demands of being in order to be represented, observed.

I ask myself if this ocular relationship to materiality, this terror of goddesses that create the universe with the movement of their dancing feet, is not perhaps the constitutive relationship of the West: to look upon the unknown in terror. To terrorize with a glance. Fascinated by the One, by God, by the King, the Concept, the System, pristine monolingualism, totality, the universal, the Other, fire. I ask myself how we can walk away from this learned path. This way of seeing, this imperative that determines even our most radical fantasies of resistance and dissent, this belief in seeing everything. This knowing belief based on seeing. How can we disarm, in the sense of lowing our own weapons, the strict morals of transcendence? A set of simplistic morals that do not resist failure, mistakes, gaffes, sadness, clumsiness, laughter, shame, anxiety, depression, doubt; morals that demand everything of us. Morals tied to so few images; a morality of looking. Is it this moral formation of the visual that perhaps led the Portuguese settlers to refer to those objects that cannot be given a stable economic value according to their configurations of meaning as feitiço?

The word feitiço[3] (fetish) was used to refer to profane non-Christian sorcery but it could also refer to objects such as holy relics or common reliquaries, as well as to indicate certain objects made by hand whose juxtaposed parts have a use that exceeds the rational practices of value, be they economic, spiritual, or aesthetic: fetishes are objects that bewitch. At the dawn of capitalism, Western monarchies promoted slavery, fueled by human trafficking along the region of the African coast known as the Gold or Slave Coast, as the original form of mechanized labor.[4]Given the brutality of the colonial slavery regime, colonizers observed these fetishes-objects of precious metals that served aesthetic and sacred purposes, mere bodily adornments, and the very bodies on which they were worn with dread and fascination.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Museo del Oro in Cali, Colombia. It is small, like a model and dust accumulates around the edges where the rags of the woman hired to clean do not reach. Among the museum’s holdings are several famous fetishes that drove the colonists crazy: beads of hair, necklaces, anklets, enormous gold ear expanders and perforators- gold-fetishes the Portuguese would call them. They are mixed with other metals, such as tin, silver, and nickel silver. There, in the middle of the room, I remember the priests’ requirement that my brothers remove the hoops from their pierced ears, cut their hair, and that we remove all jewelry and accessories to enter the school.[5] It was a prohibition against altering my body in any way. I also remember a map seen as if in a dream state: Barcelona and its piercing and tattoo stores. I am embarrassed to have only recently come to understand what has been erased, but I am happy about the potency in the small but insistent struggles. I at last understand the Franciscan Fathers’ obsession with ripping out our jewelry, and their horror and obsession with all our fetishes. I even understand, at last, the vastness of the meaning of the word fetish. But is the reaffirmation of the fetish a possible political affirmation of anti-colonial resistance? I do not think so. Materiality is not so resistant if it is not stored in a modern museum. That is where resistant materiality resides in objects as evidence not only of pillage and dispossession, but with its own formation as fetish.

When I was born, the future had been abolished. I grew up in a place with no future. At the time, I probably did not have a good sense of what a future could mean,but the constant affirmation of its impossibility got beneath my skin, so much sothat its thrust seemed to drive my hair towards the sun. My hair, like the earth when drought comes in the tropics, split and sweat relentlessly. Adults in town repeated endlessly that we had no future other than alcohol. It didn’t matter if it was chicha or industrial beer, they saw nothing in our eyes, they saw eyes without an echo. It was affirmed when our older siblings brought glasses to their mouths, and when the youngest of us tasted bitterness and dizziness. There was no future. Some too young to remember, others too old to escape from fear, we were stuck there in a dusty limbo. Some of us tried to show that we weren’t subservient to alcohol by following the usual rituals of dance, mating, and academic instruction. The future had abandoned us, memory too. All of that was thousands of miles away in a place where something called “culture and civilization” flourished. To reach the future, we had to leave. I looked at the streets of my town, wide, covered with sand and clay dust that burned beneath my bare feet, I lifted my head and looked up at the trees, whose trunks were two or three times as thick as the stem of my body, I looked at my woven bag, at the faces around me, I heard the music coming from bodies and windows. There is no future here. There is no future here?

The fetish and fetishism are Western practices of dispossession, resymbolization and pathologization, they are visual practices for the construction of a sense of the world, of one world.

Then the future arrived, as the fire has now arrived. They tore down a wall of the municipal building and the flashing neon light with the name of the bank owned by one of the richest families in the country would never be turned off. When the future arrived, we, the drunk kids without a future, had already started to leave. Much later, in the halls of a ramshackle tropical university, I would remember those moments of drunkenness and the promise of the future while a professor lectured on that fantastic trio of fetishism: Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche—the sexual fetish, the fetish of the commodity, and the fetish of language.

The fetish, we could say, is a political fiction, although I would like to set out a few doubts about the notion of fiction, of the story, in the sense that the theoretical constructions related to these concepts comes from the hegemonic centers of Western knowledge production. What are the implications and possibilities implied (from these places of enunciation) in terms of the historical processes and multiple effects produced by the epistemological, aesthetic, political, and scientific practices of using the term fetish, when these are referred to as “fictions”? Are the effects of knowledge and power suspended when they are deemed fictions? Of course not. And are these processes called into question because they come from the Western centers of knowledge and power? No. Is the obsession with fetishism, sacrifice, and totems that begins in the nineteenth century perhaps a question about the construction of the self and not of the supposed other through the gaze? Perhaps one other question has come to light: How have we been able to sacrifice and fetichize to become Western? Were we not perhaps terrified of being called fetishists? Is the conceptual continuity between sexual pathology, commodities, and language in relation to the notion of the fetish and fetishism not suspicious?

I am not interested in defending the fetish, proposing an anti-fetish, or a fetishization of nothing. I refuse to use a word and a concept like a hammer, like a genocide. I am not interested in appropriating or reappropriating it and I am not at all interested in pointing out the changes over time that can be expressed with the word because I am not interested in erasing the devastating effects of the creation of the West. Fetish is a way of understanding the world for the West. Fetish is a Western visual regime. It is colonial. How could it be anything else? There is no way to move outside coloniality for current visual regimes; the fact that Foucault ignored colonialism is an effect of his own power.[6] He did not choose to ignore it, he could not but ignore it.

The analysis of Marx (Capital, 1872), Nietzsche (Twilight of the Idols, 1888), and Freud (Fetishism, 1927) as well as that of Bataille, Benjamin, Binet, Brosses, and Hegel among others on the fetish and fetishism has not been interpreted as part of a discursive formation from a specific era. [7] Although the Victorian era in Europe grew out of and sustained itself on the successful implementation of the modern colonial order through its institutions in our territories, the fetish has nonetheless always been considered in terms of the episodes of different modulations of a concept of colonial origin. And worse, its colonial origins justify the fact that its multiple meanings allude to some type of inferior, misguided, primitive form of value, some type of extra value, some type of hoax, some type of fixation, and then a metaphorization or resemantization of materiality as evil or sacred. As the colonial variable has been hidden in its different formulations in Western thought since the fifteenth century (it was not just Foucault who could not see it) and specifically due to the failure to name the transoceanic trafficking of people for economic production as well as the transcontinental organization of territories and people through different forms of slavery, massacres, and dispossession, the fetish and fetishism have been referred to almost as anecdotal, symbolic evidence with no historic charge in the conceptual projects of philosophers, for example, the aforementioned fathers of the school of suspicion. If we ask ourselves which discursive formations of the modern project justified and concealed colonial violence since the fifteenth century, by following the clues of its material, economic, symbolic, visual, and social effects, we find that fetishism cloaks the plundering that invented the West.

Fetish in this sense not only shapes the symbolic and poetic aspects of what comes to be considered an art object, it also becomes a prolific discursive formation in the production of bodies—animal or transcendental or human, anatomical or imagined—and in the creation of aesthetic images and objects, especially in the experience of the relationship between desire, the sacred, and the commodity. In this sense, fetishism also comes to codify our understanding of a whole range of figures in the Western visual regime.

I understand mestizaje as a racial, sexual, and economic regime of visual production of parts of the Indies. In this sense, fetish-fetishism is undoubtedly part of this whole framework, as demonstrated by its use in both the political and clinical theory from the era of nineteenth-century colonial expansion. Fetishism is tied to the often-mentioned reflection on the difference between nature and culture. The very description of fixation in one part of the body to explain sexual desire and trauma depends on an understanding that there is a natural body and that fixation exists due to a shift in the natural order of the parts of the Western body. Keeping in mind that anatomical sexual difference was established as a clinical and visual regime in the eighteenth century, it is not difficult to understand that any shift in “the natural order of the relationship between parts of the body and desire”[8] could be understood as a displacement of the natural order. Although this would obviously imply that there is no anatomical space for the object of desire—nor for desire. The invention of the body in the Indies—especially bodies classified as black and indigenous—can be understood as something outside of the natural order.

Colonial blindness is brutal: There is no capitalism without coloniality. There is no capitalism without slavery. There is no capitalism without indigenization. The colonial narrative disrupts time: it sends entire regions to an endless past. This is held up as the only possibility. The fetish and fetishism are Western practices of dispossession, resymbolization and pathologization, they are visual practices for the construction of a sense of the world, of one world.

The Spanish Friar Bartolomé de las Casas wrote that when the Indians realized that the Spanish worshipped gold like a god, they gathered all the gold they could, put it in a basket, and threw it into the sea, hoping that the Spanish would follow in its wake. The image of throwing what is believed to be the object of desire and the origin of destruction into the sea is powerful; it serves to explain how fetishism functions as a Western discursive formation and covers up the material effects of colonial dispossession. Did we think we had fetishes, when we were only being fetishized? Thrown to sea, trafficked, turned into metaphors, represented, placed in museums, erased from the past by the magic power of the fetish. Thrown into the Western Future.

I was going to start this text writing about clay. I wanted to write about the constancy of building objects with an aesthetic function that is not necessarily sacred,but rather based on delight at mere representation, on the pleasure evoked by objects in our ancestral communities in Abya Yala. I wanted to write about the idea thatall aesthetic practice is political practice in a broad sense, and that it therefore implies a practice of spiritual transformation. I wanted to write about how it was always possible for me to make three-dimensional objects without academic expertise, about how practices with clay, with lines, with the production of images, all of which have multiple functions in sustaining the life of my ancestral communities, have resisted dematerialization and fetishism in the anti-heroic sense because dematerialization and fetishism have been conjugated as the face of dispossession[9] that is at once epistemic, symbolic, and material. But instead I have preferred to write about the fire and the possibility of the end of the future as I sway softly in my hammock, far enough above the ground to know that my body has another possible past, one that I feel in the support of the hands that dreamt up this technology of life.


  1. Karai is a term in Brazil that refers to white settlers.

  2. On August 16, 2019, Milcíades Mansilla died. Mansilla was a Qom leader from Pampa del Indio, an important figure for the Pampa del Indio Land Zoning Commission in the struggle against the dispossession of land in the Chaco region.

  3. For a complete history of the word, William Pietz has carried out extensive work on the term, see “The Problem of the Fetish, I” in Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics, No. 9, Spring 1985, p. 10.

  4. Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill; London, 1994). (Originally published in 1944).

  5. Between 1914 and 1944, several Anglican missions were created under the auspices of the colonial project in the Chaco in Central and Western Argentina with the goal of converting indigenous peoples, primarily the Wichi, but also the Toba, Nivaclé, Chorote, and Pilagá.

  6. I am following the thinking of María Lugones, Aníbal Quijano, and Aimé Césaire concerning coloniality and colonialism, among others.

  7. Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge (New Yotk: Tavistock Publications Limited, 1972). A discursive formation “is a body of anonymous, historical rules, always determined in the time and space that have defined a given period, and for a given social, economic, geographical, or linguistic area, the conditions of operation of the enunciative function” (Foucault, 117).

  8. Duen Sacchi, Ficciones Patógenas (Madrid: Brumaria, 2018).

  9. Here, I am following Aura Cumes in using the concept of dispossession (despojo) rather than pillage (expolio) or other similar terms in order to emphasize the impact of colonialism and coloniality.

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