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Centre of African Studies: Events


Fetishes and Therapeutic Markets in Equatorial Africa

Fetishes and Therapeutic Markets in Equatorial Africa
Speaker: Florence Bernault # Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Please choose: TBC # TBC
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Date and Time
30th Oct 2013 16:00 - 30th Oct 2013 18:00
Ground Floor, Seminar room 2, CMB, 15a George Square

This paper proposes to look at the commodity life of magical charms - otherwise known as “fetishes” in Gabon.  At the end of the nineteenth century, ritual specialists composed and exchanged power-objects understood both as material containers of spiritual agency and complexes of power and healing (McGaffey 2000a).  Contrary to the dichotomy drawn by Europeans between commodities and fetishes since the 15th century (Pietz 1985, 1987, 1988) and revived by recent anthropological theories of exchange, historical evidence suggests that these objects circulated through various markets that were not necessarily confined to a closed sphere of ritual or social transactions.  Moreover, the fluidity of exchange networks in ritual objects did not seem to derive from the commodifying pressure of the Atlantic trade, nor the intensifying of global market forces in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Instead, ritual experts and ordinary Gabonese traded in magical charms alongside commodities probably before the 15th century.  The paper uses this empirical evidence to to refine the history of material culture in the region, and to revisit the long-term transformation of local technologies of the sacred.  It also interrogates current anthropological emphasis on the “aura,” “density,” and “stickiness” of certain inalienable or non-exchangeable objects (Weiner 1992, Godelier 1996, MacGaffey 2001, Warnier 2008 and 2012), both in Africa and in other places.