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OverviewPsychoanalytic Interventions

Not incidentally, Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) 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 (1901–1981), that normative masculinity works analogously, as the substitution of the phallic symbol for the penis—not 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 relationships—those relationships mediated by the presence of another, and more particularly, a sexual other (pp. 272–273). 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).

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