a god, a fetish, a thing

I often find myself thinking about the worship of fetishes.  By definition, a fetish is an artificial or made thing (feitiço, facere, making).  At the same time, it is a deity.  What is a deity if it is itself a created object?  What is an object if it can function as a deity?  When I’m thinking about fetishes, I often think of Legba, a trickster deity and fetish in the African diaspora religion of Vodu (Vodun, Voudoun, Voodoo).

As one story puts it, Legba wasn’t always a deity (a vodu).  He was a magician and pharmacist that got in trouble.  The gods (specifically Mawu) did not appreciate him disseminating his magic and drugs to other people, so they turned Legba into a vodu so that he would be invisible, thus making it harder for people to make contact with Legba’s charms, spells, herbs, and potions.

In any culture of Vodu practitioners, Legba can be found guarding all sorts of crossroads and thresholds, especially entrances to towns, villages, and houses.  There are thus many Legbas.  In Haitian Voudoun, the crossroads are represented in mirrors and in the pole around which ritual trance dances take place.  Songs for Legba often open and/or close ritual dances.  At crossroads, boundaries, and edges marked by Legba, the worlds of the visible and the invisible conjoin.  Legba can be placed at any crossroads or limit, thus joining together that which is limited and holding it in the place of one thing, one fetish. 

This joining of the visible and the invisible is evident in the way a clay Legba appears visually.  The outward manifestation of Legba’s appearance is a simple shape.  It is anthropomorphic but sometimes amorphous, similar to Hermes for the Ancient Greeks or the lingam (Shiva) for Hindus.  But this shape is the exterior of a clay object that also has an interior filled with herbs, animal parts, and other things.  Legba cannot be reduced to his outward appearance or to his inward contents.  The outward manifestation and inward contents of Legba are parts of the visible world, which Legba holds together with the invisible world.  In other words, Legba as a visible fetish is always already held together with Legba as an invisible vodu.   

The visibility of the fetish opens it up for exploration from innumerable and inexhaustible perspectives.  The real power whereby the fetish grants such exploration, grants an apparent outside and a hidden inside, does not itself appear.  It beckons at the limit of sense.  Thus, the visibility of the Legba-object is precisely the visibility of some powerful depth, of an invisible force that never reaches the visible.  The unfathomable invisibility of Legba does not appear, yet Vodu practitioners can contact it indirectly through their relationship with the visible fetish.

This visible/invisible tension could also be described in terms of surface/depth.  The visibility of the fetish has a thickness.  The very color of its surface has a depth.  As the different visible aspects of the fetish are explored in different lighting and various surroundings, one notices different adumbrations of the fetish’s color that were previously invisible.  The color reflected to any one perspective is the nearness (i.e., the surface) of a visibility that can reflect numerous aspects of itself as its depth is interrogated, including its very power to appear colored at all.  Although Legba is near to us as we see his visible surface, this nearness does not merely bring the surface of the fetish near.  Nearness brings near the profoundly distant power of the invisible, its power to be.  One cannot get closer to the real (distant, invisible) power of Legba.  Practitioners contact Lega by building relationships with the nearness of his manifestations, indirectly feeling Legba’s hidden power in different ways depending upon the circumstances of the contact. 

I suppose my point here is that Legbas are “things” in Heidegger’s sense of “things” (Dingen) from his essay “The Thing”: “Nearness preserves farness.  Preserving farness, nearness presences nearness in nearing that farness.  Bringing near in this way, nearness conceals its own self and remains, in its own way, nearest of all.”  (I’ll have more to say later about Heideggerian explorations of African diaspora traditions.)

As the surface of a clay Legba reflects its color, it indirectly reflects the distant power of this invisible deity (vodu) to become manifest in living color.  The presence of a Legba does not exhaust, but in fact, implies Legba’s power to appear in other ways and distant places (in other fetishes, other Legbas).  A visible Legba signifies that the trickster is afoot and anything can happen.  The distant invisibility of Legba can be continually expressed and reiterated.  There are a lot of Legbas made around the world. 

Where is Legba if people don’t make the fetish?  Nowhere.  Practitioners consider this to be a problem of the death of gods.  Practices of making fetishes (or becoming possessed) are necessary for the existence of these gods.  Perhaps, though, they don’t simply die.  Maybe in death they still have some dormant reality that can be reactivated.  This is a very real problem for contemporary practitioners, as these diaspora traditions are undergoing constant transformation in the face of globalization.  Some gods are dying.  If Legba were to die, what would happen to his trickster powers, his magic, his pharmacological knowledge?  Of course, the Christianized world has its own dead god problem.  What should we do when gods are dying?  Make more!  This reminds me of Bergson’s remark that the cosmos is a machine for making gods.  Latour’s factish gods are around here somewhere, too, as is Cusa’s vision of all things as created gods.

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