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From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Lacanian Psychoanalysis
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Fetishism first interested psychoanalysts as a sexual perversion, in the strict sense. The term referred to a man's compulsive use of an inherently nonsexual object as an essential condition for maintaining potency and achieving pleasure when having sexual relations with a person of the opposite sex. This view emphasizes that perversion, as originally understood, was viewed as a strictly masculine phenomenon. Freud presented his thinking on the subject in three texts, which represented his changing ideas on the subject: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), "Fetishism" (1927e), and "The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defense" (1940e [1938]). The views expressed in those essays are as relevant in the early twenty-first century as when they were first written. In all observed cases, the fetish, in the fetishist's unconscious fantasy, is a substitute for a woman's "penis." It "completes" the woman by making her phallic. Consequently, the woman's genital organs lose any erogenous quality, in the eyes of the fetishist, erogeneity being completely transferred to the fetish. The fetish becomes the source of excitement, an idealized object capable of providing sexual pleasure to the fetishist. The psychopathological behavior of the fetishist can be considered exacerbation of a universal anxiety. Freud saw in this perversion one of the clearest demonstrations of the difficulty that some men (perhaps all men) experience in accepting the differences of the sexes. It has become clear that the most important factor behind this perversion is castration anxiety experienced to an extreme degree. Fetishism arises entirely from defensive measures unconsciously adopted to reject castration and eliminate it from the field of possibility. Only a part of the man believes that a woman does not have a penis. So as far as the fetishist is concerned, castration is still possible under these circumstances. But if both sexes are equipped with a penis, castration cannot occur in this world. It thus becomes essential to remedy this unacceptable reality by attributing a penis to the woman at any cost. Creating such a reality is the primary function of the fetish in the unconscious imagination of the fetishist. The fetishist must then shelter his fragile mental apparatus from the return of disturbing sexual perceptions. He does so by choosing as a fetish an object that is always available, like a high-heel shoe. One fetishist is quoted as saying, "Every time I am in the presence of a naked woman, I imagine a high-heel shoe; I couldn't tell what a vagina looks like." As Freud demonstrated, the fetish makes the woman "acceptable" as an object of sexual love. Freud considered fetishism important because this pathological structure can be used to observe the workings of two important defense mechanisms that had been partially ignored until then: splitting and denial. Fetishism enabled Freud clearly to identify the mechanism of splitting for the first time, that is, splitting of the thinking ego (to be distinguished from the splitting of the object representation). The fetishist demonstrates that he can accommodate two clearly contradictory conceptions of a woman within himself: a conscious affirmation ("The woman does not have a penis") and an unconscious fetishistic affirmation ("The woman has a penis"). The first is unimportant in the mental representations of the fetishist. These two modes of thought operate in parallel and have no effect on one another. The second mode of thought, a defense mechanism, denies castration, the lack of a penis, the crucial difference between the sexes. Most authors see splitting as arising to ensure the continuity of the denial, though it may be that splitting and continuity of denial occur simultaneously.

Since splitting and denial are observed in psychosis, some see fetishism as a protection against an otherwise threatening psychosis. Fetishism is also thought to protect against homosexuality. We should not conclude, however, that the fetishist is homosexual. In terms of his own feelings of identity and his own self-representations at all levels of thought, he sees himself as a man, a man in relation to a woman, except that the woman in this case also has a penis, according to the man's unconscious imagination. This is a major difference with the transvestite, who sees himself as a woman, in this case, a woman with a penis. Overall, in spite of the exceptions encountered, the transvestite is much closer to homosexuality than the fetishist. Rare cases of fetishism alternating with homosexuality have been observed, however. It follows from the above that fetishism is a sign of narcissistic pathology, with mental operations functioning at a very archaic level, primarily through the extensive use of primitive identification (which some authors refer to as "narcissistic identification" or "projective identification"). This assertion is based on the fact that by endowing the woman (the mother, in the unconscious) with a penis, the fetishist preserves his own sexual organ by identifying with the mother. In doing so, the fetishist exhibits considerable narcissistic vulnerability regarding the integrity of his physical image. Although opinions are divided, it seems justified to view the mechanism and structure of fetishism as resulting from a massive regression following the oedipal stage. The oedipal conflict was traumatic and results in significant regression to all levels of pregenitality, accompanied by strong anal and oral components. These components are manifest in an anxiety of disintegration, which is very noticeable during psychoanalysis. Another school of thought suggests viewing fetishism as essentially determined by pregenital conflicts. Psychoanalytic work in the 1990s has shown that the fetish can also take on, in most cases, several other functions in varying proportions. These secondary functions include protection against trauma and depression, release from the outward expression of hostility and contempt while expressing them secretly, relief from psychosomatic symptoms, control over separation anxiety. As a partial delusion, fetishism protects the subject from the delusion. And finally, fetishism provides access to the maternal breast and full possession of the idealized mother.

"fetishism" (Fr. fétichisme)


The term "fetish" first came into widespread use in the eighteenth century in the context of the study of "[[religion|primitive religions," in which it denoted an inanimate object of worship.

In the nineteenth century, Marx borrowed the term to describe the way that, in capitalist societies, social relations assume the illusory form of relations between things ("commodity fetishism]").

It was Krafft-Ebing who, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, first applied the term to sexual behavior.

He defined fetishism as a sexual perversion in which sexual excitement is absolute dependent on the presence of a specific object (the fetish).

The fetish is usually an inanimate object such as a shoe or piece of underwear.


Freud argued that fetishism (seen as an almost exclusively male perversion) originates in the child's horror of female castration.

Confronted with the mother's lack of a penis, the fetishist disavows this lack and finds an object (the fetish) as a symbolic substitute for the mother's missing penis.[1]


In Lacan's first approach to the subject of fetishism, in 1956, he argues that fetishism is a particularly important area of study and bemoans its neglect by his contemporaries.

He stresses that the equivalence between the fetish and the maternal phallus can only be understood by reference to linguistic transformations, and not by reference to "vague analogies in the visual field' such as comparisons between fur and pubic hair."[2]

He cites Freud's analysis of the phrase "Glanz auf der Nase" as support for his argument.[3]

In the following years, as Lacan develops his distinction between the penis and phallus, he emphasises that the fetish is a substitute for the latter, not the former.

Lacan also extends the mechanism of disavowal, making it the operation constitutive of perversion itself, and not just of the fetishistic perversion.

However, he retains Freud's view that fetishism is an exclusively male perversion,[4] or at least extremely rare among women.[5]

In the seminar of 1956-7, Lacan elaborates an important distinction between the fetish object and the phobic object; whereas the fetish is a symbolic substitute for the mother's missing phallus, the phobic object is an imaginary substitute for symbolic castration.

Like all perversions, fetishism is rooted in the preoedipal triangle of mother-child-phallus.[6]

However, it is unique in that it involves both identification with mother and with the imaginary phallus; indeed, in fetishism, the subject oscillates between these two identifications.[7]

Lacan's statement, in 1958, that the penis "takes on the value of a fetish" for heterosexual women raises a number of interesting questions.[8]

Firstly, it reverses Freud's views on fetishism; rather than the fetish being a symbolic substitute for the real penis, the real penis may itself become a fetish by substituting the woman's absent symbolic phallus.

Secondly, it undermines the claims (made by both Freud and Lacan) that fetishism is extremely rare among women; if the penis can be considered a fetish, then fetishism is clearly far more prevalent among women than among men.


The displacement of desire and fantasy onto alternative objects or body parts (eg. a foot fetish or a shoe fetish), in order to obviate a subject's confrontation with the castration complex. Freud came to realize in his essay on "Fetishism" that the fetishist is able at one and the same time to believe in his phantasy and to recognize that it is nothing but a phantasy. And yet, the fact of recognizing the phantasy as phantasy in no way reduces its power over the individual. Octave Mannoni, in an influential essay, phrased this paradoxical logic in this way: "je sais bien, mais quand-même" or "I know very well, but nevertheless." Zizek builds on this idea in theorizing the nature of ideology, which follows a similar contradictory logic. 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."[9]

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund.. 1927e
  2. Lacan, Jacques. 1956b: 267)
  3. Freud, Sigmund. 1927e.
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. 734
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.154
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.84-5, 194
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.86, 160
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.290
  9. 37
  1. Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.
  2. ——. (1927e). Fetishism. SE, 21: 147-157.
  3. ——. (1940e [1938]). Splitting of the ego in the process of defence. SE, 23: 271-278.