Fetishizing the Fetish
Issue #41, December 1998
When I was about 8 years old, I read with excitement an advertisement for a pair of x-ray glasses in the back of Boy's Life magazine. You know the ad I'm talking about. It promised to open up the whole of the hidden world to me, to reveal all that was secret and concealed, to bring into view the invisible and expose the undisclosed. This ad was particularly effective on me, because just a year before I had gotten glasses to correct my nearsightedness. When the optometrist placed those geeky new glasses over my eyes, everything around me snapped into focus and the fuzzy world of blurry lines and bleeding colors disappeared. As I read the ad for these special x-ray glasses, I recalled how thrilling it had been to be able to see everything so sharply, so clearly, for the first time in my life. Everything seemed to shimmer with intensity and brilliant, reflected light. The eye doctor asked me to read the license plate of a car across the street and I did so, flawlessly. My parents smiled at me and I could see their shining teeth from across the room. As I sat there, I imagined that maybe the car belonged to some bad guys, and I noted the license plate number again, committing it to memory. I fantasized that If they were bad, I could tell the police — I'd be a little hero! I'd do the right thing and everyone would know what I had seen with my nerdy new eyes. I felt like someone had gifted me with superpowers of sight. It was an unforgettable, supercharged moment for me.
If these new glasses could give me that special moment again, then I wanted those x-ray glasses! You might even say I developed a little fetish for them, since by having them, I'd have some special power or status I didn't have before. But I knew my mom would never approve — the glasses were kind of pricey and, after all, the ad showed a guy looking through a woman's dress, his eyes all bugged out. I knew I'd never get those glasses, but that only seemed to make me want them all the more. My desire finally waned when I showed my older brother the ad. He laughed in my face. "Don't be an idiot," he chided, "Those things don't work!" I took in this news with a bit of disappointment and despaired of ever having that feeling again. My fetish for x-ray glasses was potent, but short-lived.
If today's critical theorists have a fetish, it is probably fetishism itself. Clearly, we derive a certain perverse pleasure from using the term, enjoying its cachet and the way it wryly suggests a sexual, libidinal energy at work in everything from shopping to sport, from celebrity worship to public humiliations. For these reasons and others I'll explain in a moment, fetishism as an analytical concept has enjoyed great favor among cultural critics. It is generally understood as a potent — I'm tempted to say magical — weapon of analysis for a wide range of culturally informed activities, most of them having to do with how we learn to want stuff, how we come to desire objects and things.
But, like any term that enjoys great popularity, it has been so widely used and abused that it has come to mean quite different things to many different people. For the purposes of keeping this essay brief, I want to focus on just three different meanings of the word as it is used in different arenas: in everyday speech, in the psycho-sexual realm, and in the economic, material realm
Fetish. What does the word mean to you? Popular meanings of words are notoriously difficult to get at — they are so context-specific, so changeable and unstable. But standard dictionaries are of some help here, since they offer the most common definitions. Webster's gives us three choices:
- Any object believed by superstitious people to have magical power
- Any thing or activity to which one is irrationally devoted
- Any non-sexual object, such as a foot or glove, that abnormally excites erotic feelings
The first definition offered above is the oldest and perhaps original sense of the word. Anthropologists and historians of religion noted that the 'primitives' they studied often carried with them everywhere and at all times little objects: carvings, stones, herbs, feathers and bones which acted as little charms, a means for warding off evil spirits, unpleasant dreams, or bad luck. To European observers, they represented a kind of magical thinking, a superstition common to the "less developed races."
We rarely seem to use this meaning of fetish as a charm very much anymore. My sense is that the second definition is the one most of use in everyday speech — it's broad generality helps us convey a wide range of meanings across a full range of human activities. People are said to make a fetish of sports, serious collectors are said to fetishize the objects they collect, and a parent might fetishize the lock of hair or the baby shoes of a lost child. The common denominator is that for the person who does not share the fetish, the devotion seems to be completely wacky and weird, inexplicable in an utterly confounding, and sometimes disturbing way. Even though we don't really think of fetishes as magical charms in the old-fashioned sense, we do nonetheless recognize that there is something irrational, unenlightened, and superstitious about the behaviors associated with them. They still represent to us a kind of "magical thinking."
It's also my sense that we often imbue this general sense of the word — that fetishes are irrational and kind of weird — with some hints of definition #3 — that is, when we speak of fetishes in a general way, we often mean to imply that we suspect there is some strange or unusual erotic force at work. And, as sex and sexuality becomes more and more a topic for polite public discourse, this is increasingly so. We owe this definitional strand of the fetish as sexually determined to psychology — most famously to Freud.
Psychologists have made liberal use of the term ever since 1887 when Alfred Binet first applied it to describe certain kinds of unusual male sexual activity. The term was picked up and popularized by Krafft-Ebing, the sexologist who, in the medicalizing terminology of the day, termed it a pathology, a deviant sexual practice, and a perversion. 'Fetishists' as a category described those men who developed erotic attachments to objects rather than to people and who sought sexual gratification with and through that object. It might be a boot, a glove, a piece of underwear, a fur (these are the time honored examples, but it could be practically anything else). This practice, once catalogued and described, became something of a "model perversion" in the nineteenth century. For sexologists of the day, it practically defined abnormal sexual behavior. But while the category existed and was increasingly diagnosed as the cause of all kinds of moral degeneracy, it really had no convincing theory to support it and thus remained somewhat enigmatic.
In 1905, in his Three Essays on Sexuality, Freud offered one theory to account for this behavior. In his view, the fetish originated with the male child's horror of female castration. Confronted with the mother's lack of a penis, the child represses this lack and finds some object to stand in for and substitute for the missing penis, thus relieving the anxiety and restoring in a displaced way) the erotic attachment to the female. The act involves not only finding a substitute object, but also a subsequent act of forgetting the act of substitution. For Freud, the fetish is a kind of creative denial, a sort of magical thinking that helps the fetishist ward off anxiety and restore a sense of well-being, all the while producing a kind of amnesia. Of course, this theory does not really help explain why some men become sexual fetishists and others do not. Nor does it explain how or why a woman might develop a fetish. (The French psychoanalyst Lacan added some interesting twists in explicating this theory, but since his theories are not widely known outside of academia, I won't pursue them here.)
There is, however, a non-sexual sense of the term fetish which hardly ever gets invoked outside of those increasingly narrow circles of people who are familiar with Marx. Ever since 1867 when Marx first borrowed the concept and pressed it in to service in his analysis of commodities, the term fetish has carried a precise, non-sexual meaning in critical theory, one that has tended to disappear from popular view due to the widespread attachment to the psycho-sexual version of the fetish.
What is the Marxist conception of the fetish? Like the psychologists who appropriated the term a decade later, Marx thought the idea of the fetish was a good metaphor for describing certain kinds of magical thinking not only in primitive cultures, but his own modern, enlightened culture as well. In fact, Marx used this term to denote a practice that he believed was universal within all capitalist societies. Marx argued that the most pervasive and widespread kind of fetishism had to do not with strange objects of sexual desire but with necessary objects of everyday life — what we call commodities. Marx called this magical thinking the fetishism of commodities.
This is the first thing to notice, a point not so minor as it might at first seem: for Marx, fetishistic thinking is not some bizarre and unusual practice to be associated with primitives and sexual deviants. Instead, it is a characteristic of everyday life under capitalist social relations that appears to be perfectly normal and natural, but in actuality is rather bizarre and unusual.
His argument goes something like this. In capitalist society, material objects are given value by people — we construct hierarchies of value, placing more value on some objects — for instance, gold — than others. But strangely, we forget our part in constructing the hierarchies and the object like gold come to seem naturally valuable. We praise gold for its natural properties and prize it most highly of the precious metals. But, Marx insists, the properties which make gold valuable are not primarily natural, even though gold is extremely useful for some things. No, what makes gold valuable is a specific set of social relations. This is easily proven when one considers that only a minority of cultures have considered gold to be a precious metal. Thus, the powers bestowed upon gold are social, not natural. This is true not just of gold, but of all commodities.
But this is not how it appears to us. And this is the second important point to notice: the appearance of commodities as valuable, while not exactly false, masks an important truth which can only be disclosed through theoretical analysis. Yes, commodities are valuable, but we are routinely deceived about where the value comes from. We think these things have value in and of themselves, but in reality, they have value because somebody, somewhere made them — their labors were exploited for profit. In the act of fetishizing commodities, in imagining them to have natural powers above and beyond what they actually have, we lose sight of and forget the processes of exploitative production which create commodities in the first place.
Marx discusses the fetishism of commodities in the opening chapter of Capital and then he drops it. But subsequent Marxist theorists have made a great deal of this concept, demonstrating as Marx implied that it is the most simple example of how the economic and material forms of capitalist production — understood as relations between things — obscure, conceal and otherwise distort the underlying and more fundamental relations between people.
Enjoy Your Fetish!
In several respects, the fetishes as described by Freud and Marx are similar: both describe kinds of magical thinking; both describe acts of forgetting and repression; and both are used as analytical means for exposing unseen causes and for explaining unusual effects.
But for me the important difference is that, in current public discourse in the US, while a wide range of cultural observers readily discuss and even take time to explain and debate the idea of the sexual fetish (does Clinton have a cigar fetish?), the idea of the commodity fetish is hardly ever mentioned. This is not surprising, given the reputation that Marx has in this country and given that he was arguing that this is a fundamental blind spot in all capitalist cultures. But it is worth remarking upon for those very same reasons. In addition, I want to mention three other reasons why I think we tend to like our fetishes to be "sexy" rather than "classy."
One of the reasons we tend to favor the psycho-sexual fetish is that it fits the US ideology of individualism so well. The psycho-sexual fetish is basically a concept which attempts to explain the behavior of specific individuals — it even allows for a very strong form of individuation, where someone can develop the most unusual forms of fetishism and receive fame or at least notoriety for the uniqueness of their kink. Marx's fetish, on the other hand, is a theory which attempts to explain social behavior — the behavior of a group, a culture. That kind of does not fit well with many Americans — we like to think of ourselves as individuals first.
Second, the popularity of the sexual fetish in critical theory might also be understood as the unfortunate ascendancy of psychoanalysis, with its emphasis on language and symbols, over political economy, with its emphasis on economic institutions such as markets and political structures such as the State.
Third, that the sexualized notion of fetishism has dominated public discourse to the exclusion of commodity fetishism is indicative of the degree to which sex and sexuality is widely considered to be more determinative of our social and private identities than capitalism is. This cultural condition confuses us pretty badly about both sex and money. The sexual fetish masks the commodity fetish in our public culture and conflicts and questions about sexual morality displace equally important moral questions about the unethical inequalities of markets and economic practices. It's fine to rape the planet and exploit the global proletariat through overconsumption and overaccumulation, but if you are going to be a sexually pervert, we're going to crucify you!!
I want to suggest that, as critical thinkers on the Left, we need to find ways to make the commodity fetish as intelligible, as popular, and as useful as the idea of the sexual fetish has become. To draw attention to commodity fetishism is to subvert our normal, everyday thinking about ourselves as a consumerist society and to perhaps make us think more deeply about what kinds of injustices and inequalities lurk behind every item in every store on every shelf.
This is not as depressing as it may at first sound. The pains of thinking critically are matched only by the pleasures or reaching new understandings and transforming one's own consciousness, the possibilities of learning to see the invisible realms and imperceptible patterns of everyday life. So, I tell myself, don't despair — there are such things as x-ray glasses after all.
Special thanks to Jillian Sandell for her help with this article.
Matt Wray is a Ph.D candidate in Comparative Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. He is co-editor of the forthcoming anthology The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness.(Duke University Press). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.