Totemism, Fetishism, Idolatry

The following quote is from the book what do pictures want? (the lives and loves of images) by W.J.T. Mitchell. This text is highly relevant, perhaps even key, to both the theoretical and studio inquiry of my art practice. The text is part of a reflection on the categories of totemism, fetishism, and idolatry – a preliminary overview of their conceptual and historical relations.

First, just to reinforce a few key claims: totemism, fetishism, and idolatry are not to be regarded as discrete, essential categories of objects, as if one could provide a description that would allow one to sort images and works of art into three different bins on the basis of their visual, semiotic, or material features. They are rather to be understood as the names of three different relations to things, three forms of “object relations,” if you will, that we can form with an infinite variety of concrete entities (including works and concepts) in our experience. It is therefore important to stress that one and the same object (a golden calf, for instance) could function as a totem, fetish, or idol depending on the social practices and narratives that surround it. Thus, when the calf is seen as a miraculous image of God it is an idol; when it is seen as a self-consciously produced image of the tribe or nation (“society,” in Durkheim’s terms), it is a totem; when it’s materiality is stressed, and it is seen as a molten conglomerate of private “part-objects,” the earrings and gold jewellery that the Israelites brought out of Egypt, it becomes a collective fetish. The biblical references to the golden calf as a “molten calf” reflect this sense that it is a fluid, multistable image, a highly charged duck-rabbit. The object relations into which this image enters, then, are the Wittgenstein’s “seeing-as” or “aspect seeing”; the calf is a shape-shifting chimera that changes with the subject’s perceptual schematism. Unlike Wittgenstein’s multistable images, however, it is not the cognitive or perceptual features of the image that shift (no one claims to see the calf as a camel) but its value, status, power, and vitality. The totem-fetish-idol distinction, then, is not necessarily a visible difference, but can only be apprehended through a sounding of the image, an inquiry into what it says and does, what rituals and myths circulate around it. (Mitchell, 2005,p.188-189)

Poussin’s painting of The Adoration of the Golden Calf is a good example of golden calf as totem (a self-consciously produced image).


Poussin, N. (1633-34) The Adoration of the Golden Calf [oil on canvas]. London: National Gallery

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