Role of the Fetish in Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjuring Stories.
A fetish object assumes distinct, almost superstitious power and is often associated with sexual gratification, desire, and worship. As explained in “Sexualization in the Media,” “Fetishization marks a cultural, psychological, and social technique of fetishizing things by making them appear larger than life, animate, or sexually desirable”. It is argued that this process has profoundly inﬂuenced contemporary consumer culture. Pietz asserts that the problem-idea of the fetish “arose within and remains specific to a particular type of cross-cultural experience first engaging European consciousness in ongoing situations on the West African coast after the fifteenth century.” With this in mind, fetishization within popular communication draws upon these cultural associations to create associative connections for products, brands, and organizations. Fetishization, as used in Charles Chestutt’s The Conjuring Stories, encompasses these concepts, but also refers to a broader cultural process of fetishizing objects via communicative technologies; especially in the short story Sis Becky Pickaninny, Chesnutt demonstrates the stages essential to fetishizing and the effect that it has on a person.
To paraphrase Jane Bennett, it is assumed and common to think of objects as passive and stable things, and humans as the active subjects in the world. However Bennett aims to dissolve this binary between subject and object in her work Vibrant Matter. Through her work she discusses and shows how worms, a dead rat, or a gunshot residue sample can all be ‘actants” and how they have the capacity to “animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle,” similar to the effect a fetishized object has on a person. This meaning objects are alive because of their capacities to make difference in the world, to have effects, to shape the web of interrelationships of which they are a part. This is the same effects Julius “lucky rabbit foot” has in the novel. Even though Julius story had no relevancy to the actual rabbit foot he is able to affirm that the moral, that if Sis Becky had possessed a rabbit’s foot to ward off evil, she would not have watched husband and child sold away from her. This a prime example of Bennett’s claim, because it shows how much power Julius puts into an inmate object. It is presumed that humans are in charge, and objects and materials are simply used, transformed, or set in motion by us. By emphasizing our dense interconnections and interdependencies, Bennett troubles this idea of a human-centered action in the world and with Julius fetish to the rabbits foot the idea is belied. At the end of Julius tale Annie health starts to improve that same day, and several weeks later John happens to find Uncle Julius’s rabbit’s foot among her things. With this Annie allowed an object to make psychological, mental, and physical changes within her body. She now has the belief that an object affect her health and good fortune, or she has fetishized the rabbit foot off the belief that it has good luck.
William Pietz in “The Problem of the Fetish, I” describes the characteristics of the fetish in his work and, similar to Bennett’s belief of humans allowing the connections that are made with items to turn to fetishes, he manages to display how Julius may have been able to turn a rabbit foot into a “fetish’ for Annie. The first characteristic being “the recognition that the object embodies truth,” or how Julius stated that if Sis Becky had a lucky rabbit foot none her problem would have happened. This “evidence” along with the fact that nothing bad has happened to Julius while he has had a rabbit foot is something that can’t be disproved by Annie therefore she must believe the rabbits foot holds truth. Annie is trusting this item of the stories and the belief that rabbit foots in general give off luck. This is further explained through Walter Benjamin work “The Language of Things,” where he affirms “It is therefore obvious at once that the mental entity that communicates itself in language is not language itself but something to be distinguished from it. The view that the mental essence of a thing consists precisely in its language-this view, taken as a hypothesis, is the great abyss into which all linguistic theory threatens to fall”. Through Benjamins beliefs the rabbit foot mental essence is one of luck although the foot can’t communicate this itself. This “itself” is a mental entity therefore as commutated to Annie and Julius that it is lucky and help with her fortune.
The second characteristic being “a fixed power to repeat an original event and order”. This is done through Annie’s sudden health recovery. Even though Annie has been getting progressively better during her time in Patesville, without the rabbits foot, her recent fetish to the item allows her to give acclaim to for her recent recovery to the object. It is through the belief that because nothing damaging has happened to Julius while he has had the foot and technically the same is happening to Annie, that she is able to feed into the fetish created by the rabbit foot and its origins.
This is akin to the third characteristic which is “the social value of things”. As said by Bill Ellis in “Why Is a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot Lucky? Body Parts and Fetishes” The origin of the rabbit foot and its superstitions “at one time in the past this belief was considered a Southern superstition, specifically one of strictly African-American origin. Certain features, too, suggest a distant affinity with Voodooism, or snake worship, a cult which seems to have been indigenous to tropical America. It was only the left hind foot of the rabbit that was considered lucky and the bearer had to rub it to activate the luck. In addition, it was believed that the rabbit’s foot was a source of protective magic in addition to bringing good fortune..”. This meaning the superstition of the rabbit foot dates back hundreds of years, and it social value has gained since. Additionally, although not mention in the story, the social value of a rabbit foot has always been one of luck, similar to a four leaf clover, or rainbows, it can be assumed that perhaps Annie has heard about the power of rabbit foot previously to Julius introduction of the object. However, she may not have fallen victim to the fetishism of this item until introduced by Julius.
This connects to the final characteristic, which is a “personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object”. John finds the rabbits foot two weeks later among Annie things, displaying that she has been with and held on to the rabbits for days after her introduction to the item. Comparable to how Julius kept the foot with him Annie is following that same. In Vibrant Matters Bennett says, “while the smallest or simplest body or bit may indeed express a vital impetus, conatus, or clinamen, an actant never really acts alone. Its efficacy or agency always depends on the collaboration, cooperation, or interactive interference of many bodies and forces”. This meaning that human and nonhuman elements are always capable of affecting the bevy of processes of which they’re a part. This can include a new phone, clothing, belief system, dance, or in Annie case keeping a dead rabbit foot amongst her belongings.
One could argue back that Annie and Julius may not be fetishizing the rabbit foot, but may like the idea of the luck it can bring, or that the two can’t make a connection with an appendage or thing. This would be the case if Julius thought of the rabbits foot from Bennett’s ideology. Bennett’s theory is that people should rethink “objects” as (lively) “things,” unlike Annie and Julius, who see it as an object of magic, energy, and expected prosperity, rather an appendage from a dead rabbit. Flore Chevaillier discusses in his work, “Reading Pierre Bourdieu after William Pietz a,” a fetish is usually worn on the body and is used to achieve tangible effects, like healing, on the user or for the user. The fetish acts on the body and shares a phenomenology relationship with the wearer. If Annie was to internalize the rabbit foot as an actual thing, feelings of empathy and disgust would surface over her fetish. It is from Bennett’s proposal that she makes humans and objects considerably equal, therefore Annie and Julius would look at the rabbits foot as if a rabbit could hold their foot as a luck charm and it would be the same. This would complicate the fetishization because Annie and Julius could no long create a “personal connection with the object so that personhood is inseparable from the object,” therefore discrediting Pietz last characteristic of a fetish. To create a personal connection with an appendage or in Bennett’s world an actual “thing” would mean Annie or Julius would think of the rabbits emotions as their own and even the rabbits foot as if it could be their foot, therefore disenchanting them fetishizing the rabbits foot or “thing”. Furthermore, it would complicate the belief that the rabbits foot holds magic or can bring good fortune. Being that the rabbit foot or “thing” it is a severed foot, one could speculate that a human foot is good luck or any “thing” could be good luck. Rather, Annie and Julius see the rabbits foot as a powerful object, one that is tangible and that they can make connection with, because it is not a thing, or just an idea. It is instead an object they can use to bring them luck and or use to better their lives, as most objects do.
This shows that Annie and Julius are so immersed in that which is being fetishized that they do not realize they affected by it or that they are affecting something. Nothing acts alone and as Bennett goes on to say, “Any action is always a trans-action, and any act is really but an initiative that gives birth to a cascade of legitimate and bastard progeny,” Julius and Annie did not know they were adding to the fetish and power of a rabbits foot and its “lucky powers”. Nor do they realize they are fetishizing this foot and allowing it to affect their lives and the lives of those who might have not believed in the rabbit foot previously. As Pietz mentions the social value of things is a characteristic of a fetish, and both Annie and Julius feed into that, not to mention even Chesnutt does as he tell this tale for others to read.
John however, does not feed into the rabbit foots fetish, yet through his narration’s the reader is able to see the forming of his power fetish. Being that the novel is narrated through John it is difficult to tell how much of Julius’s apparent relish is based on John’s stereotyped expectations, or how much is a calculated performance by Julius to get what he wants by exploiting John’s expectations. However, through John’s calculated view of the world the reader can see exactly what Bennett’s theory is trying to argue. John views most things as items and opportunities. John looks at the world in a “human-centered” view therefore cannot understand Annie or Julius fetish to the rabbit foot. He looks at items and even “things,” as Bennett would call them, as tools and stuff to be used to further him in life. An example of this would be, John and Annie’s reasoning behind moving to Patesville. The couple moved, yes because Annie need to come for her health, but mainly for Johns business purposes. Even Annie, who is a human, is still treated as an object to better John’s live or an excuse to further his business and power. Through Bennett’s theory the reader can see why Bennett’s feel as if everything should be either treated as an object or a thing. Through Johns character the reader see the illegitimate authority the John gives to himself, and according to Bennett it is the same authority we give to humans over things. With this the read can see John’s fetish of power. He shows it over Annie, Julius, and anything he can use to further himself into success.
Whether a power fetish or an object fetish, Chesnutt’s characters distinctly mirror how most human in the world function around objects. After hearing one irrelevant story by Julius, Annie immediately took to the rabbits foot as an object of health and benefit, fetishizing over it because of the belief it can bring her good fortune. John spent the entire novel focused on business and inflicting power over the people in his life, no matter how many time Julius tries to distract him of his ways. This proving that when a fetish is formed, it overcomes and effect a persons way for thinking and acting. Charles Chesnutt displayed this through multiple stories, but especially in Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninn.
Ellis, Bill (2002). Why Is a Lucky Rabbit’s Foot Lucky? Body Parts and Fetishes. Indiana : Indiana University Press.
Chevaillier, Flore (2015) Reading Pierre Bourdieu after William Pietz: Central State University.
Morgan, Florence A. H. “Novel Notes: ‘The Conjure Woman’.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale. Literature Resource Center.
Bennett, Jane, 1957-. Vibrant Matter : a Political Ecology of Things. Durham :Duke University Press, 2010.
William Pietz , “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” Res: Anthropology and aesthetics 9, no. (Spring 1985): 5-17.
Benjamin, Walter. The Language of Things, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England: The Belknap press of Harvard University Press.
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