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Fetishism in Literature and Cultural Studies

Fetishism And Postcolonial Studies

Following on the work of the Martinican psychoanalyst and revolutionary theorist Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), whose work sought to understand the fantasies that produce racist colonial stereotypes, postcolonial and critical race theorists use the ambivalent oscillation of fetishistic disavowal to describe how racial difference works fetishistically in colonial encounters. For Homi Bhabha, the colonial stereotype is not a static entity but a scenario that has to be continually (and anxiously) restaged as a defense and that moves between the contradictory poles of recognition and refusal of racial, cultural, and historical difference. Thus the notion of fetishism allows colonial relations to be understood as always under construction, ever ambivalent, and thus potentially open to rearticulation, resignification, and change. Anne McClintock combines the anthropological, Marxist, and psychoanalytic histories of the concept to argue that fetishism is a way to think through the displacement of social contradictions onto "impassioned objects" (p. 184) and thus that it can be usefully dislodged from Freud's Eurocentric family romance to describe the meeting points of public imperial projects and private domesticities, desire and commodity fetishism, and psychoanalysis and social history. In bringing together in a dynamically ambivalent configuration the racial and the sexual, the social and the individual, the economic and the psychic—all elements that are part of the rich historical genealogy of the concept—fetishism has proven an extraordinarily productive notion for understanding the investment of desire in objects.


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Apter, Emily, and William Pietz, eds. Fetishism as Cultural Discourse. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

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McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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Nye, Robert A. "The Medical Origins of Sexual Fetishism." In Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, edited by Emily Apter and William Pietz. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Pietz, William. "The Problem of the Fetish, I." RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 9 (1985): 5–17.

——. "The Problem of the Fetish, II: The Origin of the Fetish." RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics 13 (1987): 23–45.

Schor, Naomi. "Fetishism." In Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary, edited by Elizabeth Wright. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992.

Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. New York: Verso, 1989.

Carla Freccero

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