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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The first use of fetish is in French, fétiche, and later in Portugese (as feitiço) carrying the meaning of charm and sorcery and in Spanish meaning “made by art, artificial, skillful contrived” (OED Online 2012). To meaningfully interrogate the formal usage of word fetish, this glossary compares Freud’s sexual fetishism and Marx’s commodity fetishism, because the use of the term fetish by Marx and Freud have had significant implications for the development of social thought (e.g. critical theory, sociological theory) and psychology respectively (e.g. how we talk about and understanding sexuality, mental health, and psychosocial issues). First, I will discuss Freudian fetishism, then Marxist fetishism, and in the final section discuss their similarities and differences. In the psychological definition of fetish, “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”(OED Online 2012). Prior to the development of Freudian psychoanalytic theories, the realm of sexuality (and other dimensions of human behavior) were mainly governed by religion and law (Halperin 1989). Acts of transgression (e.g. theft and adultery) were recognized and punishable, but the person was not seen to be biologically/essentially predisposed to these acts. The predisposition to theft and adultery, to which we name kleptomania and sexual addiction today, coincided with the medicalization and ‘psychologization’ of human behavior and sexuality (Halperin 1989). It is important to keep this historical context in mind when we understand and discuss Freudian fetishism, because it is part of this psychological innovation (that is competing with religious and other explanations) to understand human sexuality. For Freud, fetishism is the sexualization of objects that have been prescribed as nonsexual objects. In the eyes of a fetishist, all the erogenous qualities of the genital organs are transferred to the object, known as the fetish. Freud notes that this perversion is a way for one to understand the difference in sexes and to protect his or her mental state from complete psychosis (Marcus 2000). Freud, in the context of his society and Victorian sexual norms felt the need to explain ‘abnormal sexual behavior’ in psychological terms. Thus, sexual fetishism was an innovation to explain what was considered abnormal sexual behavior, that is, the sexual objectification of things unrelated to genitals and reproduction, as a psychological process to protect one-self. While the exact explanations of Freudian psychosexual theories have fallen behind the times, this mode of thinking (i.e. psychologization of human behavior) is now, arguably, the dominant mode of explaining and interrogating human (sexual) behavior.

            In  Capital: Volume I, Marx describes the fetishism as the transformation of human social relationships into objectified economic relationships. Commodity fetishism reduces all of the labour and production processes behind the making, buying and selling of goods to economic terms (Marx 2011). For example, while certain companies (e.g.Walmart) may draw on production practices that are detrimental to laborers and the environment, our system of commodity fetishism obscures these problems from consumers.  As a result, we might opt to buy a cheaper product that is bad for people and environment, rather than a more expensive substitute that respected a high standard of labour and environmental standards, because the system of commodity exchange obscures the true social and environmental impact of the production process.  To overcome the problem of commodity fetishism, we may want to promote policies that will force goods to be priced at their true cost (i.e. accounting for their impact on labour and environment), and demand a much higher level of corporate and industrial transparency and accountability.

Freudian and Marxist notions of fetishism seem to be very different on the surface, but they both have transformative qualities and represent major milestones in the development of 20th century social thought. While Freudian fetishism functioned to explain what was considered abnormal sexual behavior in Victorian England, Marxist fetishism deepened our understanding of the capitalist mode of production and revealed some internal problems as well as ways to move forward. New theories and modes of thought continue to be developed in these intrinsic areas of importance (i.e. economics and psychology), and it may be our duty as students and scholars to ensure that new ideas to explain these economic and psychological processes represent the interests of the marginalized communities who have historically been oppressed (e.g. sexual minorities and migrant laborers).

Halperin, David. 1989. “Is There a History of Sexuality?” Wiley-Blackwell (October). http://www.jstor.org/stable/2505179 .

Marcus, Steven. 2000. “Introductory Essay.” In 3 Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. Revised.

Marx, Karl. 2011. “Part 1: Commodities and Money.” In Capital, Volume One: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1. Dover Publications.

OED Online. 2012. “Fetish (as a Noun).” Oxford English Dictionary. http://www.oed.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/Entry/69611#eid4377609.

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