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English 212
2002 Second Paper
On Serendip

The Language of Fetishism

Chelsea Phillips

(fet´ish-izm) 1. a primitive religion marked by belief in fetishes. 2. a "paraphilia" PARAPHILIA characterized by the use of inanimate objects (fetishes), most commonly articles of clothing such as shoes, gloves, female undergarments, or hose as a preferred or necessary adjunct to sexual arousal or orgasm... (1).

Fetish(n.): a. Originally, any of the objects used by the Negroes of the Guinea coast and the neighbouring regions as amulets or means of enchantment, or regarded by them with superstitious dread. b. An inanimate object worshipped by primitive peoples on account of its supposed inherent magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit. c. fig. Something irrationally reverenced. d. Psychol. An object, a non-sexual part of the body, or a particular action, which abnormally serves as the stimulus to, or the end in itself of, sexual desire (2).

The sexual sub-group that I chose was a sub-group of people with "fetishes". However, the definition of "fetish" which I worked with was inspired by Samuel Delaney's comment that anything we find arousing may be considered a fetish. For my curriculum, then, I have chosen to give a comprehensive education to my sub-group about the origins of the word "fetish" and the development of the meaning of the word in society. This curriculum, then, is designed to give a more informed definition to the word fetish, through an examination of etymological, medical, historical, political, artistic and psychological factors.

Interestingly enough, the origins of the word "fetish" are in religious practice, not sexual practice. The word actually comes from fettico, which means "charm", "sorcery" or "skillfully made" (2). Hence, the technical first "fetish" was an amulet worn around the neck and believed to channel power from greater sources (gods, magic), not toenails or hair. Later, the word took on the broader definition of any inanimate object to which an abnormal sexual attachment is formed. The current medical definition of a fetish ranges from something found exciting to include during sex, to something without which one or both of the partners cannot climax (or climax too early to provide stimulation for their partner).

An intriguing part of the evolution of the word fetish was its first appearance in psychological literature. This took place in France during the 1880-90's, when the concern of a declining population gripped the country's intellectuals in a struggle to find the root cause. The first "sexually deviant" behaviors to be termed fetishes were those not leading to procreation: homosexuality (or inversion) masturbation and obsessions such as nails, shoes or hair (3). These behaviors were considered both distressing and unacceptable for fertile adults in this society where sterility caused decreased birthrates. Most of the reasons were widespread venereal and penal diseases and infertility in both men and women. A campaign against masturbation was enacted to keep men and women from "expending themselves" and weakening their fertility1 (3). Essentially, the starting point for the association with illness and disease began with sexual behavior widely accepted now, what does that say for the future of behavior now considered deviant?

A very different use for the word fetish can be found when in the hands of a political theorist. Marx uses the term to suggest the personification of man-made products, and their influence over the natural processes of human life. In this sense, Marx uses "fetishism" to strictly mean obsession; his political theories follow that capitalism is essentially an obsession with commodities and the ability of humans to produce inanimate products, with the tendency to then personify them. While its root meaning is still being used, the application of it to political theory and something non-sexual is important. At this point, the classroom or sub-group would be split into two factions and lead in a debate as to the effectiveness of Marx's use of this term in the following excerpts from his writings.2

"In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism..." (4).

"The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labor as objective characteristics of the products of labor themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things." (5).

The Marxist ideas on fetishism address its social implications as relating to capitalism. Freud addresses the other part to the social question:
"According to Freud, fetishism functions in a way that falls between neurosis and psychosis. Freud originally distinguished between neurosis and psychosis in the following way: 'in neurosis the ego3 suppresses part of the id4 out of allegiance to reality, whereas in psychosis it lets itself be carried away by the id and detached from a part of reality.'" (6).

Taking this definition, apply it to pictures of Hans Bellmer5's dolls (7). How would Freud react to Bellmer? What do you think he would say was the underlying drive or motivation that Bellmer felt to create these dolls? Do you agree?
Consider this quote from Therese Lichtenstein:

"Bellmer's dolls participated in the dialogue of ambivalence about mass culture found in many early-twentieth-century avant-garde representations. This ambivalence is incorporated into the very structure of the doll's uncanny body, appearing both human and mechanical, animated and dead. The frozen, immovable aspects of Bellmer's dolls, like assembly-line parts, are a metaphor for the alienation and commodification of human lives and desires under high capitalism." (7).

Have the group split in two again, discuss how both Freud and Marx would respond. Once each group has presented its initial argument, open to the large group for discussion.

The final meeting for this class before presentations of final projects will be a discussion of the following in a large group.

"Both Freud and Marx use the concept of fetishism in an attempt to explain a refusal, or blockage, of the mind, or a phobic inability of the psyche, to understand a symbolic system of value, one within the social and the other within the psychoanalytic sphere." (8).

Do you agree or disagree with this statement, based on the readings and discussions in this class? In what ways do you agree or disagree?
The final project for this curriculum will ask you to use the definition of fetishism you have developed over the course of this class. Drawing from the sources we have used, your assignment is to create a collage to visually represent your definition of fetishism. This collage may be made of pictures, words, objects, or a combination of these, and you may include an explanatory paragraph if you wish. The collages will be presented to the group, where each one will be open for comments and questions from your classmates.

1) Miller-Keane Medical Dictionary, 2000.

2)Oxford English Dictionary, OED online.

3) Nye, Robert A. "The Medical Origins of Sexual Fetishism." in Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Emily Apter and William Pietz, eds. Cornell University Press, 1993.

4)Encyclopedia of Marxism, Basgenm, Brian and Andy Blunden, eds. A concise and clear guide to definitions and ideals of Marxism

5) University of Utah Economics Department, Tatsuo, Miyachi. "Marx's Critique of the Fetishism."

6)Purdue University, Felluga, D.F. "HONR 199: Telling the Holocaust, A Guide to Terms."

7) Lichtenstien, Therese. Behind Closed Doors: The Art of Hans Bellmer. University of California Press, 2001. 15.

8) Mulvey, Laura. Fetishism and Curiosity. British Film Institute and Indiana University Press, 1996. 2.

1 First activity: Design a poster and slogan that you, as a 19th century Frenchman/woman, would have used to do your part in making the country more fertile.

2 These excerpts from Marx' Kapital are to be read, not for their political value, but for the relevance of the language used. Suggest a stronger focus on the imagery that comes to mind when reading, and how this affects ability to conceptualize his theory of capitalism. Make sure this does NOT become a political debate, keep it within the confines of a debate on the merits of language.

3 That part of the mind which is most conscious of self; spec. in the work of Freud that part which, acted upon by both the id and the super-ego (ego-ideal), mediates with the environment. (2)

4 The inherited instinctive impulses of the individual, forming part of the unconscious and...interacting in the psyche with the ego and the super-ego. (2)

5 Hans Bellmer (1902-1975), surrealist known for his photographs of life-sized dolls in various stages of assembly and poses. Mostly active in 1930s, he used the dolls to oppose Nazi ideals of perfect, Aryan bodies.

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