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 (1903–1969) later summarized the point (in a dialogue with Walter Benjamin [1892–1940]), "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 money—for 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.
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