Fetish/Fetishistic disavowal

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fetishism (fÈtichisme)

The term 'fetish' first came into widespread use in the eighteenth century in context of the study of 'primitive religions', in which it denoted an inanimate object of worship. (an etymology which Lacan believes is important; S8, 169). 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 behaviour. He defined fetishism as a sexual PERVERSION in which sexual excitement is absolutely dependent on the presence of a specific object (the fetish). It is this defmition that Freud and most other writers on sexuality have adopted since. 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 (Freud, 1927e).

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 (Lacan, 1956b: 267). He cites Freud's analysis of the phrase 'Glanz auf der Nase' as support for his argument (see Freud, 1927e).

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 (Ec, 734), or at least extremely rare among women (S4, 154).

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 (see PHOBIA). Like all perversions, fetishism is rooted in the preoedipal triangle of mother-child-phallus (S4, 84-5, 194).

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 (S4, 86, 160).

Lacan's statement, in 1958, that the penis 'takes on the value of a fetish' for heterosexual women raises a number of interesting questions (E, 290). 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."[1]


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... (fEtichisme)


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