Fetishism in Literature and Cultural Studies

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Fetishism in Literature and Cultural Studies

Fetishism is a term widely disseminated in literary and cultural studies. It carries a variety of generic meanings. Most of these derive to some degree from Marxist and psychoanalytic discourses, where the term fetishism has technical significance.

Commodity Fetishism

Karl Marx (18181883) explains his concept of fetishism in Capital I, where he argues that when it comes to the exchange of commodities in capitalism, a social relation between people assumes the form of a relation between things. Material objects circulated as commodities, in other words, seem to embody inherently certain characteristics that, in fact, derive from social relations. He argues that commodity fetishism originates in the social character of labor: how labor becomes value when added to what is produced by that labor. Thus work is objectified in the commodity, becoming a property of the commodity itself: its value. Marx explains the analogy with anthropological uses of the term fetishism in the following manner: "In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There, the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race" (p. 165). Thus Marx associates fetishismwhich he takes from a German translation of Charles de Brosses's eighteenth-century work on the cult of fetish-godswith a religious practice that consists in anthropomorphizing objects, animating or personifying them. This is not, however, a matter of belief; it is not a matter of willfully dispelling the "mist" to which he refers. Rather, for valuethe product of laborto be understood as social and not as an objective property of products themselves, the mode of production would have to change.

History of the Fetish

According to William Pietz, who provides a historical study of the concept of the fetish that situates its use in Marx and Sigmund Freud (18561939), both the term and the idea of the fetish achieve new meaning and define a new problem in the cross-cultural spaces of the West African coast in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He argues that the fetish comes into being at the moment of the cultural encounter between emergent capitalist modes of production and multiple noncapitalist ideologies and societies (1985, 1987); the pidgin word Fetisso, from the Portuguese feitiço (meaning, in the Middle Ages, "magical practice" or "witchcraft"), came to describe a material object that could embody a set of disparate values: religious, commercial, aesthetic, and sexual. Thus the fetish as a term comes to designate precisely the problem of valueon the contradictory cusp between materiality and abstractionas relative and differential in circuits of exchange.

Fetishism in Psychoanalysis

As the modern European sexual perversion best known perhaps from the writings of Freud, fetishism makes its appearance in continental fin-de-siècle literary texts and in medical and psychiatric discourses of the 1880s and 1890s known as sexology. Freud's most extended treatment of the topic is in a relatively late essay entitled "Fetishism" (1927). Here Freud describes fetishism as a response to the refusal to acknowledge, on the part of the male child, the absence of a penis on the mother's body. This refusal occurs because to recognize its absence suggests the possibility of castration for the little boy, the possibility, in other words, that he too might lose his penis. He therefore substitutes a presence for the absence that he finds; the substitute object is often metonymically related to the area of the body where the traumatic realization would have otherwise taken place. Freud mentions that it is often the last thing seen before this moment.

Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis note that in this essay Freud seems to hesitate between two structures to describe fetishism: on the one hand, he discusses it in connection with repression; on the otherand this is the fetishistic dynamic that proves most productive as a concept in other fieldsfetishism is the result of a splitting, the simultaneous denial and recognition of the absence of the woman's penis. This is the meaning of disavowal, an oscillation between two logically incompatible beliefs, captured nicely in the words of psychoanalyist Octave Mannoni's (18991989) patient, "I know very well, but nevertheless."

Fetishism in Feminism

According to Freud, and for obvious reasons, fetishism is a perversion restricted to men alone; however, feminist psychoanalytic and cultural theorists have also theorized the concept's broader applicability. Naomi Schor coins the term for feminism in her studies of textual instances of fetishism in the writing of Georges Sand. For Emily Apter, the combined commodity and sexual fetishism of Marx and Freud can be seen to be pastiched, parodied, and more generally deployed as a feminine phenomenon, where objects are substituted for absences and endowed with perverse, specific, "valueless" value, as illustrated in the collection of memorabilia in, for example, the artist Mary Kelly's installation Post-Partum Document (1976). Elizabeth Grosz, Teresa de Lauretis, and Judith Butler have argued the applicability of notions of fetishism and the fetish for descriptions of lesbian "perverse" desire. Grosz proposes that, for women, it is not the mother's but the daughter's castration that may be disavowed (that is to say, their own). According to Grosz, in Freudian theory there are three possibilities for female fetishism. Femininity itself can be seen to be a fetish, the substitution of material signs on the woman's own body for the "missing" phallus, thereby remaking the entire body into the phallus through narcissistic self-investment. The hysteric, by contrast, invests a part of her own body with displaced sexuality. Finally, Freud's "masculinity complex" in women most closely illustrates the disavowal proper to fetishism through the substitution of an object outside of the woman (another woman's body), rather than her own or part of her own. Butler's "lesbian phallus" illustrates the potential detachability of the phallus as an idealized signifier of desire in Freudian and Lacanian theory; thus it can be transferred to and reappropriated by other kinds of bodies and subjects. De Lauretis definitively frees fetishism from its moorings in phallocentric theories (the positing of the fetish as penis or phallus substitute, the explanation of fetishism as related to horror at the sight of female genitals) by arguing that the fetishas Sarah Kofman notedis not the substitution for a "real" lack but is, as it were, the fetish of a fetish, the material sign of a desiring fantasy that marks both an "object" and its absence. Thus what is fetishized in lesbian desire, de Lauretis argues, is the female body itself or something that is metonymically related to it. These revisions allow feminist theorists to theorize forms of feminine desireand especially lesbian desirethat do not correspond to heteronormative and phallocentric theories of sexuality.

Film theorists such as Metz have used the scopic specificity of the fetishthe fact that it arises in the context of a visual moment of recognition and misrecognitionto describe the workings of cinema as a medium, while feminist film theorists such as Laura Mulvey focus particularly on the fetishization of the woman's body in film (especially classic Hollywood cinema) as a way to critique the pleasures produced by narrative film for the masculine viewing subject.

Fetishism and Ideology

Combining Marx and Freudian notions of fetishism via Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Zizek has argued that ideological fantasies function according to the logic of disavowal. His studies focus on capitalism and thus on metropolitan political economies, the United States in particular. His insight is to point out that the misrecognition involved in commodity fetishism is not on the level of knowledgethat people do not know that economic exchanges are the reification of social relationsbut that it is on the level of practice itself. Thus, paraphrasing Mannoni's patient's declaration, Zizek argues that individuals know very well that relations between people are behind relations between things but that they act nevertheless as though commodities embody value and thus produce social reality as fetishistic "illusion." Social reality, Zizek argues, is thus structured by an unconscious illusion that he calls ideological fantasy. This revision of Marx's commodity fetishism, combined with psychoanalytic notions of disavowal, allows Zizek to explain some of the new forms ideology takesincluding cynical reason, or the perception that society is "postideological"in postmodernity.

Fetishism and Postcolonial Studies

Following on the work of the Martinican psychoanalyst and revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon (19251961), whose work sought to understand the fantasies that produce racist colonial stereotypes, postcolonial and critical race theorists use the ambivalent oscillation of fetishistic disavowal to describe how racial difference works fetishistically in colonial encounters. For Homi Bhabha, the colonial stereotype is not a static entity but a scenario that has to be continually (and anxiously) restaged as a defense and that moves between the contradictory poles of recognition and refusal of racial, cultural, and historical difference. Thus the notion of fetishism allows colonial relations to be understood as always under construction, ever ambivalent, and thus potentially open to rearticulation, resignification, and change. Anne McClintock combines the anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic histories of the concept to argue that fetishism is a way to think through the displacement of social contradictions onto "impassioned objects" (p. 184) and thus that it can be usefully dislodged from Freud's Eurocentric family romance to describe the meeting points of public imperial projects and private domesticities, desire and commodity fetishism, and psychoanalysis and social history. In bringing together in a dynamically ambivalent configuration the racial and the sexual, the social and the individual, the economic and the psychicall elements that are part of the rich historical genealogy of the conceptfetishism has proven an extraordinarily productive notion for understanding the investment of desire in objects.

See also Body, The ; Cultural Studies ; Psychoanalysis .


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Apter, Emily, and William Pietz, eds. Fetishism as Cultural Discourse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

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Grosz, Elizabeth. "Lesbian Fetishism?" Differences 3, no. 2 (1991): 3954.

Laplanche, J., and J.-B. Pontalis. The Language of Psycho-Analysis. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Norton, 1973.

Mannoni, Octave. "'Je sais bien, mais quand même '" In Clefs pour l'imaginaire; ou L'autre scène, 933. Paris: Seuil, 1969.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage, 1977.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Metz, Christian. Le significant imaginaire: psychanalyse et cinéma. Paris: Union généale d'éditions, 1977.

Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1988.

Nye, Robert A. "The Medical Origins of Sexual Fetishism." In Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, edited by Emily Apter and William Pietz. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Pietz, William. "The Problem of the Fetish, I." RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 9 (1985): 517.

. "The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish." RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 13 (1987): 2345.

Schor, Naomi. "Fetishism." In Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, edited by Elizabeth Wright. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.

Carla Freccero