Sephora starter witch kits and the reorientation of fetishes

Christian Patterson
2018-10-12
Underground Mall

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At the beginning of September, the makeup company Sephora announced they would release starter witch kits. Due to strong objection from people who practice witchcraft, the product was cancelled. It’s been over a month since this happened but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. My thoughts on it have a evergreen application, so I’ll still analyze this situation, but it’s applicable in other situations.

The key to understanding the witch kits revolves around Marxist analysis of fetishes. However, in everyday, contemporary language, we usually talk about sexual fetishes, and that’s not how Marx used it.

Traditionally, fetishism is a religious or spiritual practice where an object has the metaphysical ability to effect/impress the world. Or in simpler terms, it’s when people believe things have supernatural powers. To give examples, think of idols, totems, “voodoo” dolls, etc. Another example would be Eucharist (communion) in the Catholic church. Protestants see the “bread and the wine” as a symbol for Jesus’s last supper. Catholics, on the other hand, see Jesus as actually present in the bread and wine, which would make the Eucharist a fetish.

Everything in the witch starter kit has something like a fetishistic property. Some spiritual practitioners might reject calling tarot or sage fetishistic, because the kit uses more “advanced” spiritual ritualism than your typical fetish. In a sense, they’re right, but in context, it’s applicable. For example, sage in itself isn’t a fetish, but using sage in a smudging ritual is effectively using an object’s property change (from solid to gas) as a fetish, in that, in changing from solid sage to smoke, that transformation is imprinting on the world.

Similarly, people don’t think tarot cards are physically imbued with an immanent entity. Instead, we understand tarot similarly to how we think of Ouija Boards (usually): they aren’t in themselves imbued with a spirit. There’s no immanence (ie there’s nothing metaphysical within the object), but there’s transcendent interference, where a spiritual entity guides the cards, or guides the dial of the Ouija.

The impact of this is that the ritualistic elements in this kit aren’t traditionally fetishes, but they follow the track of spiritual-object development. In the case of tarot, they’re the form of fetishism that develops after the spread of Abrahamic religions, and especially after Kant. After these developments, it became seen as “primitive” to see objects as being infused with a metaphysical presence. Instead, the metaphysics were given an “outsideness”. It’s seen as from another realm or dimension, interfering with ours. Crystals and sage aren’t from the western tradition (maybe crystals are, I don’t know), but at the very least, they’re appropriated into western culture in a similar metaphysical mode as tarot.

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This brings us to Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism. Let me take you on a short walk, and then hopefully the idea makes sense. It can be hard to grasp Marx’s idea because it relies on a lot of conceptual levels.

Probably the most essential process of capitalism is expressed like ” M–>C–>M’ “. M means money, which is converted into a commodity, which is then sold and converted back into more money. M’ signifies more money, and the apostrophe signifies Capital, which is surplus value.

The magic of capitalism (and I don’t mean magic in a positive way) is that by changing states or forms, it generates more value. It’s alchemy. It doesn’t even matter what the commodity is. The capitalist class will sell us any commodity, as long as it will generate more money for them. A capitalist economy works on two, disparate, contradictory tracts: the capitalists are only self-interested in generating capital. In order to do that, they must convert money into commodity form, because, the workers are interested in fulfilling their needs with commodities. So the capitalists leech onto the exchanges that workers do amongst themselves, and use this as their method of generating capital.

This process is what makes a commodity a fetish. Think about it: a “voodoo” doll is a fetish because we believe there’s metaphysical property, where the object both A) physically exists but also B) can effect the world in a non-physical way, supernaturally. A commodity is both a physical object that we use in accordance with its use value, AND, its a mechanism for turning value that exists elsewhere into more value. This second function of commodity simulates supernatural experience, because Capital is a non-physical, politico-economic concept, not a physical thing.

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So, what is the impact of all this, and how does it tie into the Sephora Witchcraft kit?

Well, the main criticisms leveled against the Witchcraft kit came from a tumblr, identity politics perspective. A lot of accusations were made about this being cultural appropriation. And those accusations are right, it is cultural appropriation. But that’s not new, as witchcraft in the United States, aside from few, very niche communities, is appropriative on some level.

Even American POC, who have a racial connection to people who practiced witchcraft, practice a readapted version of witchcraft for a different cultural context. This always happens when older religious practices are readapted to a modern context. It happens, obviously, with neopagans interested in Norse mythology. This is especially clear with neopagans who use their religious beliefs to reinforce their white supremacy, which would mean nothing in pagan Europe. But the religious beliefs must be amended in some ways, even without the white supremacy. Another great example is Korean shamanism. Korean shamanism was readapted after the Japanese colonization of Korea, as a way of expressing Korean national identity. But the very concept of national identity was much newer than shamanism, and has no inherent application with shamanism.

The other major argument I saw against the witch kits is that they just open the floodgates of witchcraft to anyone. It lowers the bar of accessibility, and these witches have been persecuted and oppressed for their practice, while basic-ass mall patrons can make one transaction and have it all, carefree. Personally, I know witches have been persecuted in the past, and totally get that. I also believe some purse-clutching conservatives would go into moral panic mode learning someone practices witchcraft. But honestly, I don’t believe contemporary witches face any material oppression. I don’t want to sound too dismissive, but, I think this criticism is just good old fashioned religious gatekeeping, something that’s absolutely not new. This was the cause for the Reformation after all.

That’s not to say the corporation Sephora® is the Martin Luther of Witchcraft. Not at all. I’m saying people who practice witchcraft have a right to be mad at Sephora‎, but in my opinion, the reasons they give for their anger is misapplied. I don’t think gatekeeping, or cheapening witchcraft, or opening it up to people who would otherwise oppose witchcraft, is the real reason these people were so opposed.

The real issue is commodification. The traditional fetishistic element of witchcraft is in the act of using the fetishes themselves. The ritual is what activated the fetishistic properties. However, once an object becomes a commodity, the fetishistic properties become reterritorialized. Now, the simple fact that the witchcraft kit was produced by capitalists, to sell, and generate capital, makes it a fetish at the point of transaction.

A commodity can’t be a metaphysical fetish, it can only be a capital-generating one. Once a commodity already goes through its fetishistic property change, it cheapens any perceived fetishistic property change after. Capital not only has pseudo-magical properties, but it claims the magical properties of anything that may otherwise have magical properties.

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