Reification and Fetishism: Processes of Transformation

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Theory, Culture & Society








Reification, fetishism, alienation, mastery, and control – these are some of the key concepts of modernity that have been battered and beaten by postmoderns and nonmoderns alike, with Bruno Latour, a nonmodern, discarding them most recently. Critical of this approach, which creates a rift between moderns and nonmoderns, the author engages in dialogue with modern thinkers – particularly Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann and Stanley Pullberg – with a view to recycling and redefining the concept of reification from a nonmodern perspective. Marxian scholars associate reification with an attitude of detachment and passivity. Drawing on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in a Luvale-speaking region of northwest Zambia, Africa, the author seeks to convert the negative and asymmetrical Marxian reading of reification, which places subjects above objects, to a positive symmetry. Marx explained the capitalist economy through the lens of religion. Reversing the direction of symmetrical comparison, the author considers the northwestern Zambian universe of ancestors and their different mahamba manifestations in the form of spiritual beings, diseased bodies and material objects through the lens of Marxian concepts, mainly reification and fetishism. Three aspects of reification understood as a human universal come to light: first, reification and animation entail each other both in the realms of materiality (human bodies and material objects) and immateriality (concepts and spirits), being best perceived as a form of fetishism. Reifacts are fetishes and fetishes are reifacts. Second, because fetishes are animated and do things, reification is a form of engagement with the world, a means to action and a tool for transformation. Third and last, and without contradiction, reification entails engagement and detachment, action and withdrawal, control and surrender. There is much to gain from recycling the old concept of reification. In a non-partisan symmetrical perspective, the redefinition of reification as fetishism yields a new, positive understanding of the place of material and immaterial things in social life and the ways in which we humans apprehend the world and implicate those things in our projects and struggles. Reification is not an impediment to action but a condition for action.


animation, fetish, materiality and immateriality, reification, subject and object, symmetrical anthropology, transformation