TO MY FRIENDS ANDREAS Q. GRÖSCHL & BASTIAN HERZOG
Christs of another form, another belief, inferior Christs of obscure wishes...
—GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE, Zone, 1912
Fetishism implies a form of relationship between human beings and objects. It is a versatile category that implies attributing properties to objects based on their exchange and disruptive value in the cultural, economic and sexual framework.
The use of the terms fetish and fetishism is fundamental in cultural critique, with its origins in studies on religious practices surrounding objects. It is a term used to identify criteria of the world in which properties are attributed to objects that can only be assigned correctly to human beings. A fetish, from an anthropological perspective, is any object endowed with a cultic force, capable of subjugating individuals to the point of becoming it. The concept has also been used to describe a process of substitution and disavowal of that which is perceived as both the origin and accurate determination of the object’s exchange and disruptive value.
As we know from Sigmund Freud, the id is contingent and also multiple; it is historical, as Karl Marx and Michel Foucault revealed; and it is always, as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel suggested, a we. Fetishisation, thus, involves two operations above all: a misplacing of value or agency, as understood by Marx in his account of commodity fetishism, and a blocking of perception of knowledge and power, as emphasised by Freud in his account on sexual fetishism. The act of fetishising objects not only implies the substitution and representation of what is lacking and missing in individuals: that is to say, the tendency and action of reifying objects. The fetish is also a mode of agency for instigating and disrupting values, meaning that in the fetish resides the origin and archetype of any given social, cultural, economical and symbolic value.
Marx, in a notorious passage in the Capital, argues that the division of labour in a capitalist production led individuals to forget how commodities are made—even to the point that they are made by human labour. As a result, the commodities acquire an autonomous power of their own to becoming fetish, and thus, alienating both the producer and the consumer.
The fetishised product embodies a fallacy of the origins of value in capitalistic production. Marx’s account of fetishism addresses the exchange-value of commodities at the level of the economic relations of production. For him, an object’s hidden value—its fetish character—is to be considered as a “secret”. However, he did not go further in the analysis of the use-value and consumption of the fetishised commodities, not to mention the role of signs and symbolic capital assigned to the objects.
Freud suggested that all erotic life involves certain kind of fetishism, some investment in inanimate objects with libidinal energy. In his work, the unreal object that arouses the fetishist indicates also a perversion. In its origins lies a misconception in the lack of the female genitalia that leads to a substitute for a sexual object. Freud’s concept of the fetish as a desired substitute for a suitable sex object seeks to clarify how objects are desired and consumed. In his account on desire, he suggested [that] the finding of a sexual object is in fact a refinding of it. However, on this regard, Jacques Lacan commented that this process of refinding is a constant but endless searching, that the missed object (of desire) can- not be regained because it is phantasmatic, something already lost. This means that desire cannot be satisfied because it is defined in lack, but it can be re-created in fantasy with the fetishised object as a projection of the absent object—of desire.
The idea of objects having a life of their own and the use of commodities as a symbol of ostentation, power, and instrument for subjugation, was part of Georges Bataille’s analysis on his idea of the general economy and sexual transgression. Jean Baudrillard goes further, and actualising Marx and Bataille, he explores the creation of value in objects through the social exchange of signs—just like Bataille argued some decades before—in accordance with his theory of consumerism and simulacra.
It was Baudrillard who began to treat fetishism as a mechanism of social value by showing how objects are fetishised in ostentation, and presenting a human relation also with unreal objects and symbols, because the fetishised object has a life of its own, so it can transcend materiality and the physical realm to become a sign.
Gilles Deleuze’s and Félix Guattari’s work allows the notion of fetish to be considered from a double and ambiguous perspective: transgression and becoming. Such a conception is found to have greater contribution in the analysis of the fetish relations, given that it allows the fetish to be understood as either a reified or disruptive value. This dialectic conception of the fetish allows both, the possibility of understanding the origin of the necessity of projecting a particular role on objects, and the faculty of tracing the source of values that need to be transgressed and overcome.
The fetish, in its plurality and ambivalence, ought to be understood as a form of relationship between humans and objects that has the power to embody any object and sign, animate or inanimate, according to the use and exchange value assigned to it. It is also an entity with agency, capable of generating patterns of behaviour in which the individual, either projects and alienates itself in the re-creation of the lost object of desire through the fantasy, or manages to confront and free itself by transgressing society’s given values.
The fetishist value of the image, commodity, body and art-objects has taken the place of the erotic theatre, typical of classical debauchery. The structure of desire has changed in a direction that excludes both iconoclasm and symbolic mediation by desire, fantasy or art. The successive step in constant and deep alienated society seems to be that of a reduction of real bodies to quasi-bodies, fingerprints, drills, holographs and filters, and with them, their objects of desire; in brief, the mimicry of desire has been established, however it is no longer an embodiment, it is an already filtered simulation.