Skip to main content

The Problem of the Fetish

A groundbreaking account of the origins and history of the idea of fetishism.
In recent decades, William Pietz’s innovative history of the idea of the fetish has become a cult classic. Gathered here, for the first time, is his complete series of essays on fetishism, supplemented by three texts on Marx, blood sacrifice, and the money value of human life. Tracing the idea of the fetish from its origins in the Portuguese colonization of West Africa to its place in Enlightenment thought and beyond, Pietz reveals the violent emergence of a foundational concept for modern theories of value, belief, desire, and difference. This book cements Pietz’s legacy of engaging questions about material culture, object agency, merchant capitalism, and spiritual power, and introduces a powerful theorist to a new generation of thinkers.

272 pages | 7 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2022

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

History: African History, European History

Religion: Religion and Society


"A remarkable contribution to the anthropological, ethnographical and political literature."

Contemporary Political Theory

“Pietz’s dazzling investigation of the fetish as an enigma of power—a material artifact and a source of spiritual authority at once—binds together colonial history, merchant capital, anthropological inquiry, and group psychology. His prescient framing of the concept as establishing social value and debt is indispensable reading in our era of disaster capitalism and commodity terrorism.”

David L. Eng, University of Pennsylvania

“Assembling Pietz’s early programmatic texts and later, lesser-known ones, this book discloses the momentum and trajectory of a body of work that changed how we think about the fetish concept and so much more. As the excellent introductory essays make clear, this influence is at once profound and enigmatic, a function of the elusive phenomenon called ‘fetishism’ and of Pietz’s rigorous thinking. The book is a gift—mandatory reading for every critical thinker of the contemporary and its histories.”

Rosalind C. Morris, Columbia University

“In this groundbreaking work of interdisciplinary scholarship, Pietz provides an illuminating genealogy of fetishism, one that is also a fascinating theory of persistent misrecognition—of others and ourselves. Here, at last, the celebrated deployments of the fetish by Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Freud are put into philosophical and historical context. Fetishism was an essential ideologeme in the European colonializing of the world; this book is an essential tool in its conceptual decolonizing.”

Hal Foster, Princeton University

Table of Contents

Foreword: William Pietz in the 1980s
Francesco Pellizzi
An Introduction to the Sheer Incommensurable Togetherness of the Living Existence of the Personal Self and the Living Otherness of the Material World
Stefanos Geroulanos and Ben Kafka
Editorial Note
1. The Problem of the Fetish
   The Problem of the Fetish
   The Truth of the Fetish
   The Historical Field of the Fetish
2. The Origin of the Fetish
   Facticius in Christian Theology: Idolatry and Superstition
   Feitiçaria in Christian Law: Witchcraft and Magic
   Feitiço in Portuguese Guinea
   Fetisso: Origin of the Idea of the Fetish
3. Bosman’s Guinea and Enlightenment Discourse
   The Discourse about Fetissos on the Guinea Coast
   African “Fetish Worship” and Mercantile Ideology
4. Charles de Brosses and the Theory of Fetishism
   De Brosses’s Theory of Fetishism: The Hermeneutic of the Human Sciences and the Problem of Metaphor
   Anti-universalist Hermeneutics
   The Rhetoric of Fetish Worship in the French Enlightenment
5. Fetishism and Materialism: The Limits of Theory in Marx
   The Semiological Reading of Marx
   Marx and the Discourse about Fetishism
   Religious Fetishism and Civil Society: The Critique of Hegel
   Economic Fetishism: Marx on Capital
6. The Spirit of Civilization: Blood Sacrifice and Monetary Debt
   African Fetishism and the Spirit of Civilization
   Fetishism during the Colonial Conquest and the Problem of Human Sacrifice
   Fetishism under Colonial Law and the Problem of Fatal Accidents
   Debt, Fetishism, and Sacrifice as Concepts for Comparative Studies
7. Death of the Deodand: Accursed Objects and the Money Value of Human Life
   The Unfortunate Death of the Honourable William Huskisson
   Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Problem of the Deodand
   The Pious Use Value of Accursed Objects and the Fiscal Body of the Christian Sovereign
   The Incorporation of Capitalist Debt into the Sovereign Body
   The Abolition of Deodand: The Money Value of Human Life and Immortal Bodies without Sovereignty

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press