Fetishism: Overview

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Fetishism: Overview

Since the seventeenth century, thought about fetishism has been concerned with four overriding questions, all of them emerging in conflicts over representation that arose at the borders between cultural and historical worlds. These four questions concern the relationship between images and their referents in religious discourse; the attribution of causality and the nature of reason; the means for assessing and representing economic value; and desire and the relationship between consciousness and the material world. Although the term fetishism had its origins in comparative religious studies, it has become mainly associated with Marxian economic analysis on the one hand and psychoanalysis on the other.

Historical and Linguistic Origins

Most historical accounts trace the word fetish to the Portuguese term feitiço and its creoloziation as fetisso. Although a transliteration of the Portuguese term dominated discussion of the religious and economic practices of non-European peoples with whom merchants traded and against whom colonial powers waged wars of domination in the modern era, most of the Romance languages and English (by virtue of its residual Anglo-Norman elements) contain numerous related terms that predate this contact. These words share a Latin root meaning fabrication (facticium ), and they are thus anchored in a historical tradition of suspicious theorizing about the human production of artifacts and artificiality. The root of fetish is to be found in words indicating enchantment or sorcery (Faé, faerie, and faee in Anglo-Norman; fechiceria in Portuguese and hechicero in Spanish). It is also contained in words meaning form or vessel, including that which contains spirit (faetel in Anglo-Norman, feitio in Portuguese). The same root is found in the Anglo-Norman and Middle English terms for plating or gilt, especially with gold (faet in this sense appears in the Anglo-Saxon saga, Beowulf ). And, related to this, it is the root of those terms meaning to artificially enrich, as when an animal is fatted (faeted ) in preparation for sacrifice.

If some dimension of fabrication was recognized in diverse economic and religious contexts and eras, fetish-worship was nonetheless a particularly modern accusation. As Marcel Mauss (18721950) observed of all magic, accusations of fetish-worship tend to be directed at religious or cultural others. Thus Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as Protestants and Catholics, traded accusations of fetish-worship and sorcery in the culturally contested space of the Iberian Peninsula, just as Portugal was about to embark on its imperial project along the Guinea Coast. It was there, in Africa, argues William Pietz (1985), that the multiplicity of meanings evoked by the term feitiço became the basis of a universalizing term, one that was not indigenous to any particular language but which seemed to travel fluidly among all. It circulated not only in the travelogues of Portuguese merchants, but also in the Dutch-and German-language reports of colonial chaplains and adventurers, wherein it was variously written as fytys, füttise, and fytysi. Apparently, the word had also entered African (especially Akan-Ashanti) vocabularies by the 1660s. Wilhelm Johann Müller's Description of the Fetu Country, 16621669 (1673) not only provided native translations for what he identified as fetishes and fetish-worship, but also references the local use of the Portuguese terms fitiso and fitisero as well as a Dutch form of the word. Müller himself theorized that residents of Fetu used the term fitisiken to refer to their "idol-worship," because they generally rendered foreign words in a diminutive form, following the Dutch pattern. His own definition of fitiso included a belief in the sacred quality of natural objects, a deity demanding sacrifice, a hereditary spirit associated with the family or lineage imagined as protector, the enforcer of law, and the instrument of an oath.

Comparative Religion, Philosophy, and Fetishism

A full and comparatively oriented theory of fetishism, modeled on the concepts of animism, pantheism, and monotheism appeared a century later, when Charles de Brosses published Du culte des dieux fétiches (1760; On the worship of divine fetishes). On the basis of historical linguistics, de Brosses gave fetishism a meaning distinct from idolatry, with which fetish-worship had previously been conflated. He described its definitive attribute as the worship of an object per se, not as a representation of another power and hence as a confusion of a divinity with its sign, but as a material incarnation and even as a real source of power. In so describing fetishism as a carnal faith, de Brosses emphasized the arbitrariness of fetish objects, which could include plants, animals, and grander natural phenomena like oceans, mountains, and rivers, when these are treated "as Gods."

De Brosses's book not only invented a term, it initiated a critical practice whereby the identification of a seemingly "primitive" habit (in this case, random substitution) becomes the starting point for an identification of comparable qualities in the heart of so-called modern societies and institutions. He compared the putative fetish-worship of snakes in Africa to the serpent of Judah in the Book of Daniel (even contrasting fetishism with the vulgar idolatry of monotheists), while also giving to fetishism the full status of a religion (it thus constituted something like an elementary form of religious life, which Émile Durkheim [18581917] identified as totemism ).

When Denis Diderot (17131784) included the term fétiche in his Encyclopédie, he tellingly assigned the word a modern origin but defined it only as the "name that the people of Guinea in Africa give to their divinities." By contrast, de Brosses discerned fetishism everywhere, from the Americas to Egypt, from Africa to Asia (comparative religion continues to operate on this basis). This was because fetishism was beginning to bear a more general meaning, and to connote a lack of reason whose chief symptom was a confusion of aesthetic, religious, and economic functions. Europeans conflated what they perceived to be a lack of standard measures for assessing value with what they presumed to be a capricious forging of equivalences between otherwise incommensurate things, whence emerged the possibility for the inflation and overvaluation of otherwise trivial things. This was, furthermore, associated in their minds with counterfeiting, either through the dissembling of value (as through gold-plating) or through its debasement (as through the use of alloyed gold, the latter actually being referred to as fetiche gold ) (Pietz, 1988, pp. 110111).

Various European philosophers found in the idea of fetishism the ideal image of Reason's other. For Immanuel Kant (17241804), fetishism indicated lack of judgment, an aesthetic incapacity. For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), it constituted a very early if not yet fully developed form of religion within a history that he described as progressing from the perception of oneself as master of nature (associated with an unmediated magic aimed at power over single things) to the intuition of self -consciousness as the object of worship. Hegel observed in fetishism (and animal worship) the beginnings of a dialectical relationship, insofar as fetishism placed before the human being some kind of independent power. But he also emphasized the characteristics of contingency and arbitrariness of the fetish, and noted an aggressive relationship to the fetish, which could be destroyed and substituted with another fetish if it failed to function. Not incidentally, when writing notes on the 1871 study The Origin of Civilisation and the Primitive Condition of Man, by John Lubbock (18341913), Karl Marx (18181883) later reiterated this belief that fetishism is destructive of that which it venerates, when he contrasted it to idolatry as a kind of submission to objects.

The concern with substitution and (and hence, displacement) was awkwardly related to what had been an overriding interest in the affective excess posited at the heart of fetishismand Marx's Hegelian reading of the relationship as an aggressive one was never really developed. Thus the simultaneous overattachment to an object and the capacity to destroy it was read as doubly symptomatic of irrationality and excess. Ironically, it was precisely because of this excess that Auguste Comte (17981857) accorded fetishism a curative function in the hyperrationalized world of his logical positivist utopia. He deemed that the rationalization of the social world could enable freedom if its principles were fully understoodhence his effort to describe that world in terms of "social statics"but this rationalization had itself been excessive in the long but necessary development of Reason's civilization. Comte therefore advocated as corrective a "religion of Humanity." This religion would cathect people to self-sustaining values, such as an appreciation of the material and social environment, and would cultivate what he termed "universal love." It would do so through the supplementary establishment of a "Great Fetish," to which, he hoped, everyone would be spontaneously drawn. Later, Max Müller (18231900), whose own definitions led him to remark that neither has any religion been without fetishism, nor has fetishism ever constituted a religion unto itself, excluded Comte's Great Fetish from the very category of fetishism, on the grounds that it constituted a monotheistic deity.

Commodity Fetish

Comte was perhaps the only philosopher to advocate fetishism, but he was not the only one to identify its affective force. Nor was he alone in discovering an immanent and mimetic power in fetishism. Something of the latter is present in Marx's reading of the fetish character of the commodity, but in Marx's writing the fetish no longer grounds a strategic religion but is, rather, the conceptual basis of a strategy for reading both religion and the secular religion of capital. Significantly, Marx uses the term fetishism (Fetischismus ) almost exclusively in his analyses of religion, referring to the commodity in terms of an analogous fetish-character (Fetischcharakter ). This is an important distinction, and Marx's choice of words reflects his argument that economy had arisen in the place that religion had occupied in earlier periods, where it functioned as the institution from which law seemed naturally to emanate. Accordingly, Étienne Balibar (while overlooking the terminological distinction) argues that Marx's idea of commodity fetishism explains why, on the one hand "the capitalist mode of production is the mode of production in which the economy is most easily recognized as the 'motor' of history," and, on the other, it is the mode in which "the essence of this 'economy' is unrecognized in principle" (Althusser and Balibar, p. 216). Balibar and Louis Althusser invoke the works of Marxist anthropologists to argue that in nonindustrial societies the nature of social relations is thought to be determined by extra-economic factors and institutions, which seem "natural or divine," such as the church or the monarchy. By contrast, capitalism "is the mode of production in which fetishism affects the economic region par excellence " (Althusser and Balibar, p. 179). Many anthropologists have indeed argued that in societies where there is no market economy, fetishism operates by endowing products with the qualities of the social milieu, and Michael Taussig has described the conflicts that may emerge between one regime of fetishism and another in precisely this manner. Marx, however, distinguishes between fetishism proper and an economy in which commodities possess the characteristics of the fetish.

Marx's first sustained published references to fetishism appear in his 1842 response to Karl Heinrich Hermes's newspaper article defending the Prussian state on religious grounds. In his own article, Hermes had followed Hegel in referring to fetishism as the "crudest form of religion." Marx ridiculed this argument, and Hermes's description of religion as that which raises man "above sensuous appetites." Instead, he said, fetishism is "the religion of sensuous appetites " (die Religion der sinnlichen Begierde ), adding that "the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an 'inanimate object' will give up its natural character to gratify his desires. The crude appetite of the fetish worshiper therefore smashes the fetish when the latter ceases to be its most devoted servant" (Marx, 1993, p. 22).

In the same year, Marx read several works on comparative religion, including a German translation (by Pistorius) of de Brosses's book. His investigations on the topic continued until the end of his life, and the posthumously published Ethnological Notebooks include several sustained passages on the topic. Nonetheless, it is the analysis of the fetish-character of commodities that has made Marx the most important single theorist of "fetishism." In Capital, Marx's reading of the commodity's fetish-character discloses a double substitution. First, the commodity form substitutes the objective characteristics of the products of labor for social characteristics of human labor; people are dehumanized at the same time as things appear to take on animate power and social relations are transferred from people to things. Second, the commodity form is the means by which an abstract equivalence can be posited between otherwise sensuously different objects. In this case, material difference is momentarily effaced in the fantastical image of secular transubstantiation (money appears to be capable of assuming any form) and this makes it possible for one object to substitute for another.

Marx's analysis clearly states that the fetish character of commodities arises from the social nature of production, and, at the same time, that commodities become the exclusive means by which the social character of private labor can appear. Hence, commodities seem to make possible a socialization that, in actuality, already exists by virtue of the division of labor. Thus, what reveals the social is also what hides it. Hence the fetish in Marx's analysis is what requires reading, but it is also what makes reading difficult, for it structures consciousness at a primary level. In this sense, Marxian analysis understands fetishism to be something more than excessive valorization, or overinvestment, although these attributes are not alien to it. Rather, the "the fetish-character [ Fetischcharakter ] which attaches itself to the products of labor as soon as they are produced as commodities is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities " (1976, p. 165, my emphasis, translation modified). As Theodor Adorno (19031969) later summarized the point (in a dialogue with Walter Benjamin [18921940]), "the fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness, but dialectic in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness" (Buck-Morss, p. 121).

It is, however, when discussing the money form that Marx discerns the relationship between a misrepresentation and an overvaluation. For when money can function as the seemingly magical means by which difference can be transcended (anything can be converted into money and vice versa), and through which anything can be rendered as private property, money becomes the object of a wild desire. This desire initially fixates on money's earliest metallic forms, namely gold and silver, which leads to an aesthetic valorization of precious metals. However, in its truly abstract form (paper money, credit), the commodity makes possible an "unrestricted" desire, which Marx, in the Grundrisse, had specified as "greed." This greed is always greed for moneyfor that which can become, by purchasing, anything. Ironically, however, it is through hoarding, in which the "hoarder sacrifices the lusts of his flesh to the fetish of gold" that reserves are created and money flows regulated (Marx, 1976, p. 231). Hence, it is in the libidinous desire of the hoarder of money that capital has its origins. Fetishistic desire therefore enters Marx's analysis not as the origin but as the transformative element, the al-chemical principle in capitalism's history. In a further development of this argument, Slavoj Zizek has suggested that a new stage in commodity fetishism should be recognized, namely that in which the fetish, that ostensibly sensuous object through which abstraction is made real, has been dematerialized. He identifies electronic money as the source of this dematerialization, which, he nonetheless argues, strengthens the commodity form's claims to universalizability.

Whether or not electronification does away with the sensuousness of the money fetish, much recent work shares a sense that, in the postindustrial era, commodity desire is itself productive of value and is a major stimulus for money's circulation. These analyses are often indebted to the insights of Walter Benjamin, who first argued that display value was coming to displace both exchange value and use value in the marketplace of desire. Benjamin associated the emergence of a purely representational value in the era of shopping arcades with new ideological potency, as people became enthralled with what they could never possess, and were overrun by desire. Moreover, he identified this emergence with a new valuation of newness (and a corollary commodification of history), manifest most visibly in the fashion world. "Fashion prescribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish wishes to be worshiped," he wrote (p. 153). Because fashion is also the institution in which sexual difference is deployed and cultivated, the analysis of commodity fetishism in fashion has been a staple of much feminist cultural criticism. However, this has been possible only because psychoanalysis has allowed us to see that the concept of fetishism is itself part of the organization of sexual difference, an organization that takes place in language but that is felt as an irreducibly material fact.

Psychoanalytic Interventions

Not incidentally, Sigmund Freud's (18561939) concept of the fetish also takes as its starting point the phenomenon of substitution. In his most direct address to the topic, the 1927 essay, "Fetishism," he argues that a fetish is a special form of penis substitute. For the boy who apprehends his mother's (and other women's) "lack" of a penis as the representation of his own possible castration, the woman's genitalia generate a "fright" (p. 154), which, Freud surmised, is universal. The woman's genitalia are henceforth an object of horror and fear for the boy, although the "normal" adult man learns to transform it into an object of desire. For some individuals, such adjustment is impossible, the trauma is too great; in the effort to overcome it, the male psyche finds a substitute, which then constitutes a "permanent memorial" to the boy's initial experience of horror. The language of memorialization is significant, and the structure of substitution as the normal (and normative) mechanism for overcoming loss recurs throughout Freud's writing. In the essay on fetishism, this substitute is the fetish: both a "token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it" (p. 154, my emphasis).

At the end of the 1927 essay, Freud remarks the doubleness as well as the seeming contradictoriness of the fetish as substitute, which both "disavow[s] and affirm[s]" the castration of women (p. 156). Indeed, Freud describes fetishism as a special kind of split within the subject, one that allows the male to sustain two "incompatible assertions" (p. 157). Much feminist criticism has attempted to repudiate Freud's claim that the boy naturally perceives his mother as the lacking body and as the representation of his own possible injury. Feminists have also criticized the presumption that the woman's genitalia are always already legible to the masculine subject only as lack, the negative mirroring of masculine presence. And they have suggested, in a vein ironically opened up by Jacques Lacan (19011981), that normative masculinity works analogously, as the substitution of the phallic symbol for the penisnot in a way that posits lack in the boy but in a manner that allows the male subject to have and to use his penis, as though by right.

Lacan had insisted that the maternal figure is phallic for the boy (she has power over him). This is possible, he says, precisely because she has no penis. For male subjects, the movement between having a penis, which is present, to the realm of having power can only occur in and through language, from which the Real (and hence any actual penis) is always exiled. Hence, fetishism (which is also a mode of accessing power) is a function of language, but it occurs when language is simultaneously literalized and its fully symbolic dimensions are denied. More important, it occurs as the sexual expression of a displacement made possible by this rendering of language as image (Lacan and Granoff, p. 272). Lacan makes this argument by remarking that the story on which Freud based his initial analysis, that of the young man who has an extreme and arousing affection for shiny noses, emerges from the boy's movement between languages, namely German and English. Thus, "glance on the nose" in English is linked to "Glanz auf der Nase " (the shine on the nose; p. 267). Here, language and, more specifically mistranslation, is the context for a substitution or "displacement," one that moves from meaning to image. Lacan and Granoff describe this displacement as one in which a person attempts to "give reality to an image" (p. 269). The resulting interstitial condition, which they believe emerges when the anxiety born of loss is linked to the guilt that is called forth by law, is one characterized by an incapacity to fully enter social relationshipsthose relationships mediated by the presence of another, and more particularly, a sexual other (pp. 272273). Thus stranded, and consequently mute, "frozen in the permanent memorial" which is the fetish, the fetishist is able to find satisfaction in substitutional images. For the psychoanalytic theorist, fetishism is less an image than a kind of tableau vivant in which, as Lacan and Granoff wrote, one can find evidence for the existence of those very categories that explain fetishism as a pathology of vacillation or permanent liminality: the "symbolic, the imaginary and the real" (p. 275).

Feminist Criticism and Poststructuralist Readings

As a symptom, fetishism reveals not only the substitution through language (and its misrecognition) of one object for another, and of an object for a subject, but also the emergence of a new theory of language, one that presumes the arbitrary and unmotivated nature of the sign. However, as feminist scholars have observed, the phallus may be a signifer (or standard bearer), and even a signifer pretending to universality, but it functions by virtue of a conflation between the signifier and a material reality, to which it cannot cease referring. Jean Baudrillard links the Marxian and the Freudian analyses in order to make this point. To the extent that the money form is absolutely abstracted, its form dematerialized, it becomes a sign, operating within a code whose general principles are those of binary opposition. But this fact determines a sexual politics. Marxism fails, he suggests, because it refuses to recognize the "imposition of the law of value in the sexual domain," by which he means "the imposition of the phallus, the masculine, as the general sexual equivalent" (p. 136).

Other psychoanalytic theorists have attempted to expand the category of fetishism as part of an effort to separate the phallic from the anatomical penis. Thus, Alan Bass rereads Freud's later work and emphasizes his belief that the splitting of the ego, which fetishism incarnated and dramatized, was a general principle of all psychopathology and not just the sexual perversion of fetishism. Bass then suggests that fetishism be understood, in general, as the problem of providing "substitutes for a disturbing reality" (p. 48) and he observes that it does so in a manner that gives to consciousness a consoling concreteness while keeping unconscious what has been registered but is, nonetheless, disavowed or "defended against" (p. 51). On this ground, he goes much further than Freud to suggest that any concrete object that functions as a transitional phenomenon, as a concrete substitute for a "magical, relieving object" can provide the basis of "fetishistic formations" (pp. 207208). The mother's breast, as much as the maternal phallus, can thus be fetishized.

This expansion of the category of fetishism may not achieve the full radicality of what Baudrillard imagined, but it addresses many feminist concerns about the tendency of the discourse on fetishism to reinscribe patriarchal narratives of phallic domination and especially those that naturalize the phallus in male anatomy. There is, of course, no single feminist analysis of fetishism. Feminist critiques have, variously, argued that sexual perversions, including fetishism, are symptoms of a conflicted effort to conform to gender stereotypes; they have noted the logical impossibility of female fetishism but also used it as a means of understanding women's and especially lesbian desire; and they have even called for a politics of fetishistic undecidability as a means of repudiating the primacy of phallic order. Such criticism has perhaps been most successful when applied to the reading of those institutional and cultural forms wherein the law of desire and the law of value, as Baudrillard would have it, are operative and mutually sustaining, namely in cinema and mass culture. Feminist film criticism, in particular, has taken up the question of cinematic spectacle, in which the woman's body is made to function as both the object of desire and of a powerful aggressivity. Laura Mulvey summarizes this long, sometimes Marxian, sometimes Freudian, analytic trajectory by identifying the "homology of structure" that allows the intensified image of the woman to cover over both the mechanics of cinematic production, and, in a double displacement, "disguises the collapse of industrial production itself" (p. 13). She asserts that the slide of signifiers characteristic of fetishism not only allows the material relations of production (and causality) to be concealed, but also it permits the tendency to conceal these relations to be itself hidden. In this process, she argues, historical analysis is lost.

Readings of fetishism are frequently, as Mulvey suggests, efforts to restore a recognition of historical materiality by attending to the ways that a seeming investment in material objects and sensuous pleasures displaces (often only partially) a true recognition of real material causes. It can, however, also entail the opposite move, namely the reading of such material investments as substitutions for the recognition of a more primary absence. Thus, Michael Taussig describes state fetishism as the conjuring of a social force that exceeds the sum powers of the individuals who constitute the social body, thereby installing a power to which people submit, and which they adore, but which exists only by virtue of such submission and adoration. Here, an object not only substitutes for a subject, it also subjects people. If there is continuity between the notion of fetishism as used by the old comparativists of religion, from de Brosses forward; the Marxian analysts of economy; the psychoanalytic descriptions of sexual perversion; and feminist critiques, then it is the sense that fetishism demands reading. This reading must entail a translation, and a recognition that, whether primitive or modern (or, as Pietz says, the product of intercultural contact in the process of modernizing colonialism), fetishism is a discourse of substitution through which the economic, erotic, and political provenance are made to converge. It is, perhaps, what the anthropologists, referring to archaic institutions of exchange, would call a "total social fact." As a modern artifact, however, it perhaps substitutes for the recognition that total social facts are no longer possible.

See also Anthropology ; Fetishism: Fetishism in Literature and Cultural Studies ; Gender Studies: Anthropology ; Psychoanalysis .


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