6 minute read


OverviewFeminist 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. 207–208). 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.


Althusser, Louis, and Étienne Balibar. Reading "Capital." Translated by Ben Brewster. London: Verso, 1997. First French edition 1968.

Bass, Alan. Difference and Disavowal: The Trauma of Eros. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Baudrillard, Jean. Mirror of Production. Translated by Mark Poster. St. Louis, Mo.: Telos, 1975.

Benjamin, Walter. "Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century." 1955. Reprinted in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings," translated by Edmond Jephcott, edited with an introduction by Peter Demetz, 146–162. New York: Schocken, 1986.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989.

Comte, Auguste. "Système de logique positive, ou traité de philosophie mathématique." In Œuvres D'Auguste Comte. Vol. 12. Paris, 1856.

de Brosses, Charles. Du culte des dieux fétiches. Paris: Fayard, 1760.

Freud, Sigmund. "Fetishism." In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud [SE], edited by James Strachey, vol. 21, 149–157. London: Hogarth, 1961. Essay originally appeared in 1927.

Grosz, Elizabeth, "Lesbian Fetishism?" In Fetishism As Cultural Discourse, edited by Emily Apter and William Pietz, 101–115. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Lacan, Jacques, and Wladimir Granoff. "Fetishism: The Symbolic, the Imaginary, and the Real." In Perversions, Psychodynamics, and Therapy, edited by Sándor Lorand, 265–276. New York: Random House, 1956.

Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Introduced by Ernest Mandel, translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1976. First German edition 1867.

——. "The Leading Article of No. 179 Kölnische Zeitung." In Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, On Religion, edited by Reinhold Niebuhr, 16–40. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars, 1993. First English edition 1964.

Müller, Max. "Is Fetishism a Primitive Form of Religion?" 1878. Reprinted in The Essential Max Müller: On Language, Mythology, and Religion, edited by Jon R. Stone. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Müller, Wilhelm Johann. Die Afrikanische auf der guineischen Gold Cust gelegene Landschafft Fetu. 1673. Translated and reprinted as "Müller's Description of the Fetu Country, 1662–9." In German Sources for West African History, 1599-1669, edited by Adam Jones, 134–259. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1983.

Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. London: British Film Institute, 1996.

Pietz, William. "The Problem of the Fetish, I." Res 9 (spring 1985): 5–17.

——. "The Problem of the Fetish, II." Res 13 (spring 1987): 23–45.

——. "The Problem of the Fetish IIIa: Bosman's Guinea and the Enlightenment Theory of Fetishism." Res 16 (autumn 1988): 105–123.

Taussig, Michael T. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

——. "Maleficium: State Fetishism." In Fetishism As Cultural Discourse, edited by Emily Apter and William Pietz, pp. 217–247. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997.

Rosalind C. Morris

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ferroelectric materials to Form and matterFetishism - Overview - Historical And Linguistic Origins, Comparative Religion, Philosophy, And Fetishism, Commodity Fetish, Psychoanalytic Interventions