ABSTRACT

In the first epigraph above, Francis Bacon compares the metaphoric theatre of philosophical idolatry to the theatre of the poets and stories invented for the stage in order to illustrate how abstraction and idealization facilitate both theatrical representations of history and idolatrous superstitions alike. Bacon reasons that, like the plays being written by poets for the early modern English stage, false philosophies are insidious precisely because they create pleasant illusion: their compact and elegant simplicity, elimination of complexity and contradiction, and aesthetic beauty all offer an escape from reality that indulges the audience’s collective fantasies while masking the fears and anxieties that subtend those desires.1 Tragedy, for example, lends formal elegance, coherence, and meaning to suffering, isolation, and death. Early modern anti-theatricalists routinely associated stage playing with idolatry as related forms of abuse, but, for Bacon and his seventeenth-century English readership, idols and idolatry-the methods by which false gods ostensibly imposed themselves on human reason, the processes

of abstraction and idealization that enabled such impressions, and the modes through which foreign philosophies were imported-were strongly associated with contemporary accounts of the fetish.2 To early modern sensibilities, fetishism and idolatry were alike in their being products of putatively false religions ignorant to the truth of Christianity; moreover, both idolatry and fetishism relied on attributing human or even supernatural powers to merely material objects. Bacon equates the reification of false philosophies to pagan idol worship and superstitious ignorance, all of which, he suggests, are facilitated by alluring theatrical spectacle, pleasantly elegant and deceptively simple concoctions that discourage further scrutiny by appealing to notions of unity, simplicity, and ordered elegance. I contend that it is precisely this gratifying semblance of coherence, concordance, and natural order, that fetish enables and upon which it relies for its own efficacy. Seemingly synthesizing the discrete values attributed to objects, parts, and practices that signify in multiple, competing, and even contradictory registers, fetish enables the illusion of a singular, legible, logical dominant discourse that facilitates the fetishist’s disavowal of fracture, fragmentation, and lack.