Distraction Free Reading

Fetishes or Cyborgs? Religion as technology in the Afro-Atlantic space

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is part of the Thematic Series Data Swarms Revisited)

a ritual figure made of metal and wood with horns and a pitch fork

Exú, the trickster god, Axé Ilé Oba – São Paulo (photo by Giovanna Capponi)

Materiality

Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomblé, Umbanda or Xangô, are a cluster of religious practices that originated mostly in West Africa, especially in Yorubaland (Nigeria and Benin), but also in Congo and Angola. Similar to other Afro-diasporic religions (i.e. Vodou in Haity and Santeria in Cuba), Candomblé shares many elements with West African traditional religious practices, like the names and characteristics of their deities (called orixás in Brazilian Portuguese and òrìṣà in Yoruba). These deities embody elements of the natural landscape and atmospheric phenomena that are regarded as personas with their own material and spiritual agency.

However, in the whole Afro-Atlantic space the most important common trait is the presence fabricated objects. After a ritual procedure they become the bodies and the material manifestation of the deities themselves. These objects, often referred to as “fetishes,” represent the point of mediation between the material and the spiritual world (Meyer 2012: 15). Indeed, Western conception of materiality is often charged with moral implications, opposed to the pure and transcendent qualities of the spirit (Espírito Santo 2010). Conversely, in Afro-Atlantic religions, objects, elements and atmospheric phenomena are considered to be alive or to have a certain individuality, will or personality, in a way that the scientific Western thought would consider unacceptable.

During my research on Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion, the conundrum between materiality, natural elements and invisible forces became central to my understanding of ritual practices. What is the role of the “fetish” and similar “animated objects” in relation to humans and other ontologies? What is the relationship between materiality, nature, and technology in the making of these objects? And how do we subvert the Western and colonial discourse which long considered these objects as a sign of backwardness and a primitive mindset?

In this post, I show how these peculiar objects have been presented in the ethnographic literature, and I propose an alternative way to look at them. Thinking about the “fetishes” as technological devices and pairing them to cyborgs helps us to escape colonial and racialized narratives and to rethink religion and materiality in a post-humanist framework.

Fetishes

At the end of the nineteenth century a Brazilian forensic doctor, Raimundo Nina Rodrigues, conducted some of the first academic research on Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. The results of his work were published in O animismo fetichista dos negros bahianos (1900) – “The fetishist animism of the Bahian negroes” – offering detailed descriptions of ceremonies, offerings and rituals. Influenced by the theories of Sir Edward Tylor, Nina Rodrigues saw in Candomblé the traits of a primitive belief which justified the racial inferiorities of African peoples and conceived of spirit possession as a form of pathological hysteria. The first author to mention the word “fetishism” is Charles de Brosses in his Du culte des dieux fétiches (1760), who analyzed the worship of objects as a very primitive and rough form of religiosity. The word “fetish”, feitiço in the Portuguese language, means “sorcery”, “enchantment”, and originally it did not refer to a particular religious context. In fact, it was used to describe both European popular magic and exotic practices encountered overseas (Sansi-Roca 2007: 142).

The “fetish” is not only difficult to describe, but also to translate into different words that are not so charged, racialized and controversial. This is so because this object compels us to rethink and challenge our own relationship with materiality. I attempted to recover different definitions of these enchanted objects from authors who tried to explain and translate the notion of what Nina Rodrigues called “fetish”, and what, in Candomblé communities, is normally referred to as assentamento (literally “something that is seated or fixed on a spot”).

As explained by Verger (1981: 23), the assentamento or assento is a receptacle of sacred energy, a pot or a jar containing sacred stones, and it must be prepared as part of the initiation process. Johnson (2002: 116) translates it literally as “the seat of the orixá” while Capone, in the same context, defines the verb assentar as “to seat the orixá’s energy in an altar representing the initiate’s head” (2010: 263). Reginaldo Prandi describes it as “material representation of the devotee’s orixá”[1] (1995: 16) and Bastide uses the word “to fix” (fixar) in order to indicate the process for its preparation. Muniz Sodré, also talks of “symbolic foundations”, underlining the function of the assentamentos as representation (2002: 54). Juana Elbein dos Santos uses the word “to plant”, plantar (2002, ed. or. 1972: 42), while others also tell of assentamentos being enterrados, “buried” (Ribeiro dos Santos 2006). Other authors, for example Gordon, prefer to render the expression assentar o santo in a more periphrastic way: “arrange with the god for him [the god] to remain submissive” (1979: 241), describing how the spirit needs to be tamed through the process of fixing and installing it into something material.

As we can see, the words and metaphors used by ethnographers are borrowed from a variety of semantic categories: the assentamentos can be planted (like a seed) but also installed (as a mechanical component, or even a software). It can be “seated” like a human, and it is a symbol and a material representation of a human head, but it is also a way to tame different ontologies into something else. Moreover, once it is made and assembled, it needs to be “activated” and “fed” with offerings, sacrifices, animal blood and the juice extracted from leaves. In this way, these material assemblages are vivified with the life energy of the orixá, and are at that point inextricably linked with the life of the Candomblé novice who underwent the initiation process.

The assentamento is made and fabricated in order to create a privileged channel of communication between the humans and the gods, but also the environment and the landscape. The assentamento is not just a deity per se, but also an oral cavity which speaks, eats, and channels spiritual energy. The Yoruba name of the assentamento is igbá, which indicates a calabash gourd, typically used as a container for all sort of things. Therefore, we can assume that this strange object is, first of all, a receptacle for something. The immaterial force that needs to be contained – physically and figuratively – is normally represented by a stone, called otã, that needs to be collected from the same environment of the orixá that is going to be fixed in it (from the river, the ocean, the forest and so on). Roger Sansi-Roca elaborated extensively on the meaning of this ritual act of finding the right stone, the right inert “body” to be infused with life energy. Here we can note that such objects play an active role in being found and prepared, as they are not only going to be symbols but also physical extensions of the environment from which they come (Sansi-Roca 2005).

Cyborgs

Here we encounter a peculiar hybrid: installed and planted, made of organic and non-organic material, considered to be a body or just a mouth, an extension of the natural landscape but also a powerful “stargate”, the assentamento is both a mere receptacle and a social member of the religious community. Being the connection between the immaterial energy and the initiate, the assentamento condenses different places, individuals and realms in the same spot. In a sense it reminds us of Donna Haraway’s figure of the “cyborg” as a creature that overtakes the great divides: nature and culture, human and animal, animate and inanimate, organic and non-organic, symbolic and real.

The U.S philosopher and biologist was using the image of the cyborg as a “myth of political identity” for a utopian socialist-feminist world. I am willing to take this image out of its original context and test it as a tool to better understand objects, beings, and practices that transcend Western dichotomic categories. These hybrids are described as “creatures simultaneously animals and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and crafted” (Haraway 1991: 149). They do not reproduce organically, and they share both human and animal features. Moreover, cyborgs are not entirely organic nor entirely artificial: they retain life, agency and organic tissues in hi-tech constructed bodies. Most importantly, as modern technology becomes more embedded, subtle, hardware-less, it manifests in the form of invisible energy, waves and signals that blur the line between the physical and the non-physical, acquiring almost spiritual characteristics.

It can be observed how also the assentamentos challenge many of these same dichotomies. They are made through the assemblage of objects that are found in nature (like the otã) but also crafted (the receptacle). They are brought to life through vivifying substances that include animal blood from the sacrifices and vegetable chlorophyll. They are, simultaneously, communication devices, symbols and physical bodies of an immaterial, invisible and divine force, and once “planted” they need to be regularly fed and refreshed. Indeed, the orixás can be said to have multiple physical bodies: the assentamento, their particular natural element and the body of the novice during trance possession, where humans become mere objects and receptacles themselves.

Both the cyborgs and the assentamentos compel us to problematise the notion of agency. Bruno Latour echoes De Brosses’ title with his work On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (2011), where he highlights the ambiguity of this word with a little pun: factish, indeed reproduces the original etymology of feitiço, from the Portugues feito, “made”, “fabricated”, but also “enchanted”, as in the Latin term factura, which means “spell” or “charm” and refers to something that is created, from facere, “to make”. Latour hypothesises a cultural misunderstanding between the Portuguese sailors and the indigenous population of Guinea. In this imagined dialogue, the Portuguese ask how it is possible for the gods to be made and built by human hands and at the same time to be “real” and “alive”, with their own agency over humans (2011: 15-19). In the eyes of the West African interlocutors, this action does not constitute a contradiction: the factishes are “made”, and therefore, they have power.

Latour’s neologism helps us to define the factish as a new kind of technological device that goes beyond the control of human authority. Similarly, the assentamento-cyborg, made and crafted by humans and composed by animal and vegetable blood, but also by elements of the natural landscapes, acquires its own agency and individuality. Using the cyborg as a metaphor helps us to rethink religion as technology rather than as opposed to it. Here the assentamento is not only presented as an inanimate piece of forgery but a living organism, a social actor or a device of communication and reciprocity between humans and invisible beings (Goldman 2009).

Moreover, the assentamentos compel us to rethink not only materiality, but also nature as a conjunction of human and non-human, inert and alive, symbolic and ontological, individual and collective landscapes in which humans no longer stand at the center.

Read more of the Data Swarms Series:

Data Swarms Revisited – New Modes of Being by Christoph Lange

Human as the Ultimate Authority in Control by Anna Lukina

Angelology and Technoscience by Massimiliano Simons

Multiple Modes of Being Human by Johannes Schick

Swarming Syphilis: On the Reality of Data by Eduardo Zanella

On Drones and Ectoplasms: Breath of Gaia by Angeliki Malakasioti


Notes

[1]representação material do orixá”

References

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Capone S. 2010. Searching for Africa in Brazil. Power and Tradition in Candomblé. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Espírito Santo D. 2010. “Spiritist Boundary-Work and the Morality of Materiality in Afro-Cuban Religion”, in Journal of Material Culture, 15(1), pp. 64-82.

Goldman M. 2009. “Histórias, devires e fetiches das religiões afro-brasileiras: ensaio de simetrização antropológica” in Análise Social 190: pp. 105-137.

Gordon J. U. 1979. “Yoruba Cosmology and Culture in Brazil: a study of African survivals in the New World”, in Journal of Black Studies, 10 (2), pp. 231-24.

 

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Sansi-Roca R. 2007. “Intenció i atzar en la historia del fetitxe”, in Quaderns de l’Institut Català d’Antropologia, 23, pp. 139-158.

dos Santos J. E. 2002 [1972]. Os Nagô e a morte: pàde, àsèsè e o culto égun na Bahia. Petrópolis, Vozes.

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Verger P. 1981. Orixás: deuses iorubás na África e no Novo Mundo. Salvador: Corrupio.

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