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Fetishism in Literature and Cultural Studies

Fetishism In Psychoanalysis

As the modern European sexual perversion best known perhaps from the writings of Freud, fetishism makes its appearance in continental fin-de-siècle literary texts and in medical and psychiatric discourses of the 1880s and 1890s known as sexology. Freud's most extended treatment of the topic is in a relatively late essay entitled "Fetishism" (1927). Here Freud describes fetishism as a response to the refusal to acknowledge, on the part of the male child, the absence of a penis on the mother's body. This refusal occurs because to recognize its absence suggests the possibility of castration for the little boy, the possibility, in other words, that he too might lose his penis. He therefore substitutes a presence for the absence that he finds; the substitute object is often metonymically related to the area of the body where the traumatic realization would have otherwise taken place. Freud mentions that it is often the last thing seen before this moment.

Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis note that in this essay Freud seems to hesitate between two structures to describe fetishism: on the one hand, he discusses it in connection with repression; on the other—and this is the fetishistic dynamic that proves most productive as a concept in other fields—fetishism is the result of a splitting, the simultaneous denial and recognition of the absence of the woman's penis. This is the meaning of disavowal, an oscillation between two logically incompatible beliefs, captured nicely in the words of psychoanalyist Octave Mannoni's (1899–1989) patient, "I know very well, but nevertheless.…"

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