The matter of the unfetish: Hoarding and the spirit of possessions

Sasha Newell


In this article, I employ West African ideas of spirited materiality to rethink the semiosis of possession in North Atlantic societies. I investigate this ethnographically through the lens of storage—those things kept out of sight and unused in US attics, basements, closets, and storage units. Things contained in storage form a residual category of animated detritus that US society often pathologizes as "hoarding" when it makes public appearances in the visible space of the home or the television set. Arguing that the concept of fetishism is hopelessly tied to the "naturalist" divide of Western rationality and the dichotomy between persons and things, I argue that objects typically labeled as fetishes are not fetishized, but rather reflect a cosmology of material entities as containers for spirit. By constructing an ethnographic model of the unfetish in West Africa, I explore the sociality of possessions as belongings that truly belong. 

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14318/hau4.3.013