Fetishism and Commodity Fetishism

Fetishism is the displacement of desire and fantasy onto alternative objects or body parts (e.g., a foot fetish or a shoe fetish), in order to obviate a subject’s confrontation with the castration complex. According to Sigmund Freud, fetishism is connected to the childhood belief that the mother has a penis: “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and—for reasons familiar to us—does not want to give up” (1953–74: 21.152–53). Freud came to realize in his essay on “Fetishism” (1928) that the fetishist is able at one and the same time to believe in his fantasy and to recognize that it is nothing but a fantasy, so that fetishism occupies a position between neurosis and psychosis. Freud originally distinguished between neurosis and psychosis in the following way: “the essential difference between neurosis and psychosis was that in the former the ego, in the serve of reality, suppresses a piece of the id, whereas in a psychosis it lets itself be induced by the id to detach itself from a piece of reality” (1953–74: 21.155). In analyzing a case of mourning, Freud is forced to rethink this distinction in his essay on fetishism: “In the analysis of two young men I learned that each … had failed to take cognizance of the death of his beloved father … and yet neither of them had developed a psychosis. Thus a piece of reality which was undoubtedly important had been disavowed by the ego, just as the unwelcome fact of women’s castration is disavowed in fetishists” (21.155–56). The fact of recognizing the fantasy as fantasy in no way reduces its power over the individual. As Freud goes on, “It was only one current in their mental life that had not recognized their father’s death; there was another current which took full account of that fact. The attitude which fitted in with the wish and the attitude which fitted in with reality existed side by side” (21.156). Similarly, the fetish is able to become the vehicle of both “the disavowal and the affirmation of the castration” (21.156). Octave Mannoni, in an influential essay (1969), phrased this paradoxical logic in this way: “je sais bien, mais quand-même” or “I know very well, but nevertheless.” Slavoj Žižek (1991a) builds on this idea in theorizing the nature of ideology, which follows a similar contradictory logic. Julia Kristeva goes so far as to associate all language with fetishism:

It is perhaps unavoidable that, when a subject confronts the factitiousness of object relation, when he stands at the place of the want that founds it, the fetish becomes a life preserver, temporary and slippery, but nonetheless indispensable. But is not exactly language our ultimate and inseparable fetish? And language, precisely, is based on fetishist denial (“I know that, but just the same,” “the sign is not the thing, but just the same,” etc.) and defines us in our essence as speaking beings. (1982: 37)

Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha reads the “racial stereotype of colonial discourse in terms of fetishism” (1994: 74). Just as the young boy wishes to disavow his mother’s difference from himself, fearing his own castration, the colonial “fetish or stereotype” about the subjugated Other “gives access to an ‘identity’ which is predicated as much on mastery and pleasure as it is on anxiety and defence, for it is a form of multiple and contradictory belief in its recognition of difference and disavowal of it” (75). Radical difference is “disavowed,” in other words, “by the fixation on an object that masks that difference and restores an original presence” (74). As with the sexual fetish, that imaginary object, the “‘fullness’ of the stereotype,” is, in fact, “always threatened by ‘lack’” (77).

Commodity Fetishism

Commodity Fetishism is the tendency to attribute to commodities (including money) a power that really inheres only in the labor expended to create commodities. Karl Marx turns to fetishism to make sense of the apparently magical quality of the commodity: “A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (1867: 163). Fetishism in anthropology refers to the primitive belief that godly powers can inhere in inanimate things (e.g., in totems). Marx borrows this concept to make sense of what he terms “commodity fetishism.” As Marx explains, the commodity remains simple as long as it is tied to its use value. When a piece of wood is turned into a table through human labor, its use value is clear and, as product, the table remains tied to its material use; however, as soon as the table “emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness” (163). The connection to the actual hands of the laborer is severed as soon as the table is connected to money as the universal equivalent for exchange. People in a capitalist society thus begin to treat commodities as if value inhered in the objects themselves, rather than in the amount of real labor expended to produce the object. As Marx explains, “The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things” (164–65). What is, in fact, a social relation between people (between capitalists and exploited laborers) instead assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things” (165).

This situation occurs because in a capitalist society the real producers of commodities remain largely invisible. We only approach their products “through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products” (Marx 1867: 165). We access the products of the proletariat through the exchange of money with those institutions that glean profit from the labor of the proletariat. Since we only ever relate to those products through the exchange of money, we forget the “secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities” (168); that is, labor: “It is … precisely this finished form of the world of commodities—the money form— which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly” (168–69). In capitalist society, gold and then paper money become “the direct incarnation of all human labour” (187), much as in primitive societies the totem becomes the direct incarnation of godhead. Through this process, “Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way; they become alienated because their own relations of production assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action” (187). Although value ultimately accrues because of human labor, people in a capitalist system are led to believe that they are not in control of the market forces that appear to exist independently of any individual person.

The situation differed in feudal society: In such a society, “we find everyone dependent—serfs and lords, vassals and suzerains, laymen and clerics.” Because “relations of personal dependence form the given social foundation, there is no need for labour and its products to assume a fantastic form different from their reality. They take the shape, in the transactions of society, of services in kind and payments in kind” (Marx 1867: 170). Transactions in feudal society involve the particularity of labor rather than the abstract universal equivalent necessary for commodity production. Marx therefore concludes that “Whatever we may think … of the different roles in which men confront each other in such a society, the social relations between individuals in the performance of their labour appear at all events as their own personal relations, and are not disguised as social relations between things, between the products of labour” (170).

Further reading: Apter and Pietz 1993; Bhabha 1994; Kristeva 1982; L. J. Kaplan 2006; Mannoni 1969; Žižek 1991a.


Categories: Anthropology, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Marxism

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