Orientalism - to Fetish and Back Again
The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist’s work. -Edward Said, Orientalism
This isn’t really about yoga, but I’ve been invited to yoga classes a lot lately, and it makes my skin crawl. In trying to explain to my friends why I felt this way, I landed on a concept that captured the feeling evoked, while remaining broadly relatable: fetishisation.
For those with the good fortune of never having been fetishised, I’d like to take you on a journey. Imagine yourself as a mother, previously in a romantic partnership, but newly single. A friend you’ve known for years, but never been particularly close with, approaches you with an unsolicited romantic proposal. He launches into a flowery rave about how “beautiful” and “unappreciated” mothers’ bodies are, and how the “warm”, “caretaking” nature of a mother is a “great gift”.
Shocked, and taken aback by this outburst, your mind flits through various snappy retorts; you have enough “caretaking” to do already without having to worry about some snotty man-child’s feelings. He made assumptions about your body and mind, despite never having experienced pregnancy and motherhood himself. He made assumptions about how you feel about the body he assumes you to have, how society feels about it. And he made assumptions about how you would feel about his assumedly “contrasting” feelings about your assumed body. Your better judgement kicks in though, and you decide it’s unwise to start a conflict over this, so you let him down as gently as you can, and perhaps have a conversation with him sometime later, after feelings have settled, to explain why this was shitty of him, and how you actually feel.
Just as you start speaking though, he realises you aren’t going to accept his magnanimous proposal, and cuts you off. He calls you a stuck-up bitch, tells you he’s going to make all your mutual friends hate you, and that you’ll die alone like an ungrateful whore should. Well, that escalated quickly…
What’s striking to me about stories like this is that the subject of discussion, in this case a mother, is stripped of any agency to define herself. Despite being purportedly exalted, she is in reality reduced to an object, a mere vessel for the ideas of the beholder.
This is what I feel Europeans do when they talk about “yoga”.
I am constantly told by citizens and the government of the country that has become my home, that the culture I come from is uncivilised and barbaric. I’m told that I must erase every part of that culture from myself, and overwrite it whole-cloth with theirs if I am to fit in to society here. I am told that our cultures are incompatible. Yet an aspect of “my” culture is seemingly everwhere here: yoga. When they talk about yoga, suddenly the choice of adjectives describing my culture turns from “uncivilised” and “barbaric” to “enlightened” and “spiritual”. Yet who defined yoga this way? Certainly not Indians. While the Europeans are busy chanting “Om” and saying “Namaste” as if it is a deep existential treatise rather than a simple greeting, the yoga they practise is one characterised entirely by themselves. It is divorced from its cultural origins, and my thoughts on it are not welcome.
Just as the fetishist defines a mother by projecting his own desires onto her, failing to see her through his haze of conjurations, the orientalist defines yoga by projecting their desires onto it. They see only what they wish to, and fill in the gaps to match.
“Fetish” has always been a word of sinister pedigree. Discursively promiscuous and theoretically suggestive, it has always been a word with a past, forever becoming “an embarassment” to disciplines in the human sciences which seek to contain and control its sense. Yet anthropologists of primitive religion, sociologists of political economy, psychiatrists of sexual deviance, philosophers of modernist aesthetics, have never ceased using the term, even as they testify to its conceptual doubtfulness and referential uncertainty. It seems this word’s usage is always somewhat “indiscriminate”, always threatening to slide, as in Merleau-Ponty’s tentative proposition, into an impossibly general theory. And yet it is precisely in the surprising history of this word as a comprehensive theoretical term indispensible to such crucial social thinkers as Comte, Marx, and Freud that the real inter-disciplinary interest of “fetish” lies. -William Pietz, The origin of fetishism
In truth, it’s curious that “fetishism” was the concept I reached for to explain all this. Perhaps we ought to explore where that term comes from. The term “fetish” originates from Portuguese explorers on the coast of West Africa in the sixteenth century, who described human made objects to which the Africans were said to have ascribed “undue” supernatural power and value. Oh, I guess we’re back at orientalism, isn’t that funny?
The Africans go entirely unrepresented in this account, But I can only imagine them being amused at this fuss the Europeans made while ascribing supernatural value and power of their own to metal discs and wooden crosses. Unfortunately, recognising their folly doesn’t spare one having to dance to their tune, and dance we must.