University at Albany, State University Of New York
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for graduation with Honors in English
graduation from The Honors College.
Ian Andrew Lepkowsky
Research Advisor: Mary Valentis, Ph.D.
Abstract Title: Social Media Fetishism: The Substitution of Life, The Disavowal of Death, and The Zombie Syndrome
Statement: I am studying social media as a symptom within a culture of fetishism, where social media has become a substitute for human interaction under the concepts of fetishism outlined by Marx, Freud, Kaplan, Debord, and Baudrillard because I want to find out why people have fetishized social media so that one can understand how to rectify the underlying issues causing the fetish.
In the past decade, social media has become fetishized by a select group of users, characterized by hours a day spent on these websites, and failed attempts to delete their accounts permanently. I analyze both fetishism and social media in order to understand the implications of social media fetishism. I start with fetishism. I open up the discussion of fetishism by tracing the concept’s evolution from its origins in native cultures as a worship of talismans and other charms in substitution for a physical presence of their Gods. From there I analyze fetishism through the lens of Marxist commodity fetishism both to apply the concept of commodity fetishism to the current social media culture, and also to further illuminate the substitutive nature of fetishism through highlighting commodity fetishism’s substitution of human sentiment by a material object or objects. I continue to analyze the substitutive nature of fetishism through Freud’s sexual fetishism, in which objects or body parts are used as substitutes for sexual arousal as well as for intimacy. After establishing a basis for fetishism in these three historical contexts, I re-contextualize fetishism from the modern perspective of Louise Kaplan, author of Cultures of Fetishism. Then, in order to establish the link between fetishism and social media, I analyze Facebook and Twitter as fetishized spectacles, through the lens of Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.” This connection also builds upon Baudrillard’s theories on simulation, analyzing social media as a simulated reality. After firmly establishing this line of reasoning, I seek to prove that the avoidance of human interaction or desire for mediated interaction, as well as the creation of a social media identity, is a direct response to anxiety characterized by the fear of death. I posit that since one cannot maintain stable identities in the real world due to criticism as well as the potential for physical death, one seek to create more stable, lasting, enduring, and potentially indestructible personalities on social media sites that by characteristic of being on the Internet, have the potential to exist outside the boundaries of human existence and the human lifespan.
Throughout the process of writing my thesis, Professor Mary Valentis has helped me more than any other person. For this, I am eternally grateful.
Table of Contents Abstract ………………………………………………………………………………… 2
Introduction …..……………………………………………………………………….... 5
Chapter I ………………………………………………………………………………. 11
Chapter II ……………………………………………………………………………… 32
Chapter III ……………………………………………………....……………………... 53
Chapter IV ………………………………………………………………………………73
Works Cited ……………………………………………………………………………. 91
In the past decade, social media in mainstream society has been steadily increasing. The most obvious examples of which are Facebook and Twitter, but in addition to these two are a whole cornucopia of other social media forms. Many people accept these forms of social media into their lives. Some people see social media as a fad, others as a hobby, and others are indifferent. However social media should be seen as a symptom. While social media may seem harmless, it is actually a cultural fetish. While this is not necessarily true for all social media users, it is true among a fetishistic culture of users. A criticism of this thesis might be that the conclusions are not universally applicable. However, this thesis is only referring to those individual users of social media who use it in a manner that could be considered fetishism defined by absence, substitution, and fixation. Some people may use social media once or twice a week, and have no real attachment to their profiles or social media identities. These are not the people addressed in this thesis. Again, this thesis is only addressing those individuals that participate within the culture of social media fetishism.
Historically, fetishism is not foreign to international culture. According to William Pietz’s research, the concept of the fetish most likely originated from the native tribal traditions of the inhabitants of the Guinea cost of Africa, who worshipped charms and talismans as a substitute for not having a physical manifestation of their Gods. The word fetish comes from the Portuguese “fatisso” meaning charm or sorcery, which later evolved through the French Fétich after popularization in 1760 by anthropologist C. de Brosses’ “Le Culte des Dieux Fétiches.” Around 1867, the term was adopted into American English as fetish, meaning “something irrationally revered”.
One famous theorist who studied fetishism was Karl Marx. Marx specifically studied commodity fetishism, which is the substitution of human sentiment by a material object produced through labor. Already, one can see the beginnings of a pattern. In both of these cases, fetishism involves the substitution of one notion or idea for a more easily attainable perverted re-creation of the original idea. In the case of commodity fetishism, the original idea would be that of human interaction and labor through trade that has been reduced to an acquisition of an object that represents the interaction in labor, but eliminates the human component.
In Freudian sexual fetishism, a person substitutes the original idea of sexual intercourse for a representation of that idea or of that arousal such as an object or body part. As one begins to see more of the pattern of fetishism, one can come to more conclusions. At first one was able to establish that fetishism involves substitution. But now with a third form of fetishism to analyze, it becomes apparent that not only is substitution an aspect of fetishism that remains constant as others differ, but so is the loss or absence of intimacy.
In the case of the natives, they did not have the intimate connection with their Gods that they sought, and so they created a substitute. In commodity fetishism, there is an absence or loss of the intimacy that is experienced in the interactions between people, which has been hyper-accelerated in the digital age. One now has the ability to click once on Amazon and have a package waiting for one at one’s doorstep, all without any type of human interaction or intimacy. In sexual fetishism, a person directly avoids the intimate contact with another person and creates a substitute in the form of a body part or object so that one can experience the benefits of sexual arousal without the risk of intimacy.
This thesis challenges, analyzes, and explores the risk of intimacy as it relates to fetishism. To understand fetishism, one must first understand why one are creating substitutes for intimacy. One create substitutes for intimacy because one see intimacy as a time of vulnerability. But vulnerable to what? When one becomes intimate, one immediately becomes subject to two vulnerabilities. One becomes vulnerable to physical destruction as well as psychological destruction. When one is intimate, potentially naked, one lets his/her guard down in relaxation while allowing the other person to view his/her self as he/she is without any type of mediation. Physically, one is vulnerable to destruction without clothes and without any type of weapons, shields, or form of protection agaisnt harm. Psychologically, when one becomes intimate, one does the same. One trusts another person with the fullest versions of oneself. Normally one adapts oneself to one’s surroundings. To a certain extent, one acts to meet social expectations. But when true intimacy is reached, one does not feel the need to conform. One does not change oneself. One is oneself in one’s entirety. And thus one is vulnerable to psychological destruction. If one presents one’s unmediated self to people, one’s identity, one subject one’s unprotected personality to criticism, which if one is not psychologically strong enough to weather, can destroy one’s self-concept and self-esteem.
The root of these fears, as well as the root of all fears, is the fear of death. What would one fear if one were immortal? Would one fear finding a job? Of course not; one only worries about work because one needs a job to feed oneself. Would one fear heights or roller coasters or murderers or theft? One would have no reason to have any of these fears as they all relate to the eventuality of possible death. Now if people’s physical bodies were invincible, what might one still be afraid of? Even with infinite life, a man might still be scared to approach a woman he finds attractive, especially if he is insecure. If he believes that he is ugly, and knowing that he is immortal believes that he will be ugly for eternity, then he will likely experience a profound sense of fear when approaching an attractive woman. So in this case, although he is not fearing a physical death, he is fearing a psychological death. He fears the death of his self-pride. He fears embarrassment. The only logical reason for fearing this type of embarrassment is that a person actually fears the death of his/her psychological self, self-image, or self-concept as much as he/she fears physical or bodily death.
Professor Louise Kaplan, author of Cultures of Fetishism adds great insight on this topic. Kaplan re-contextualizes Freud to explain the concept of disavowal. In Freudian Psychology, disavowal stems from the male’s fear of the female’s lack of the phallus. Freud believes that men become so terrified by the image of what they subconsciously view as castration, that at some level of the subconscious they actually disavow that the woman does not have a phallus. Kaplan goes on to explain that while this type of disavowal is integral to fetishism, the disavowal is not of the woman’s absent phallus as is historically suggested. Rather, the disavowal is often of the concept of death or loss as its own entity, despite its various forms. She posits that when a person engages in fetishism, he seeks to compensate for or substitute for that which is lacking. In the case of the native peoples, the talismans and charms were a disavowal of the notion that God could not be experienced directly and physically. In the case of commodity fetishism, the commodities or products of labor are disavowals of the presence and humanity of the laborers. A person can fetishize a Coach pocket book while at the same time disavowing the notion of the underpaid and frequently outsourced minimum wage or fewer workers who struggle to make a living while the company turns million dollar profits. At the same time, the person disavows a piece of her own humanity as she turns her back on her contemporaries and at the same time identifies with the materials she purchases as opposed to her own bodily self.
This disavowal functions in social media. In a social media fetish, a person disavows all aspects of his character or personality that he does not accept. At the same time, he is disavowing both psychological and physical death. People are substituting insecure identities in the real world for secure identities in social media worlds. If people talk face to face, they can be insulted and criticized. If the person is weak minded or insecure, his reputation as well as his self-image or self-concept is in jeopardy, is unprotected, and is thus vulnerable to death. In the real world, other people can see their emotions. Other people can see what they don’t want to be seen.
This is not the case with social media. In the case of social media, the user is entirely in control of creating his profile or avatar. On popular sites such as Facebook, the user creates an entire identity by linking events and pictures through a timeline. A person creates a digital representation of himself. Since this digital representation can only be altered by the user, so long as his password is secure, it is a safe identity. It is protected from criticism. If a person does criticize him and threatens his identity, he can block him with the click of a button. If a person is tagged in a picture he does not like, he can untag himself, disavowing that this captured side of him was even him at all. He eliminates the image from the timeline, and thus from his identity, and thus from the digital self-concept or self-image that he is projecting into the world. At the same time, by creating and managing an online profile, the person is creating and managing an identity that is outside of death. Or perhaps that is conceivably outside of death. People die and their Facebook pages remain. Their identities remain. Even after physical death, they have somewhat managed to preserve their identities. Is this not the attraction to fame? It is almost intuitive that people seek fame in order to extend their presence, image, and person, past the physical limits of humanity.
In the real world, the user or person does not have this type of control. For one, in the non-virtual world, a person more or less dies when his body is laid to rest, or in other words loses the ability to maintain animate function. Second, in reality, if a person is attempting to deny his own uncomfortable life situation such as that he is obese and living in his mother’s basement while believing the reality that he is a level 40 Paladin, the real world, and human interaction, pose a serious threat to his entire identity. For this person, not only is he escaping physical death in his Paladin realm, he is also escaping the psychological death of his social media identity, or identity within a social media supportive massive multiplayer online video game. If this person were to interact largely in the real world, he would have to accept the death of his psychological self-image, self-concept, or self-identification as a level 40 Paladin.
Through this line of logic, as well as continuing to analyze and explore this topic through the lenses of other theorists on fetishism and substitution such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, it will become clear that social media fetishism is a reaction to the fear of death, either of the physical self or of the psychological self.
Before one can contextualize fetishism in a modern sense, one must first understand its history. Over the past few centuries, the word fetish has been attributed with various different meanings. However, although the term fetish takes on different meanings in different contexts, there are central principles that link each of these definitions. In each instance the word fetish is used throughout history, an object is seen as a material representation of an individual’s irrational or indirect conception of value. In some contexts, the individual’s attribution of value is supported by a societal system of economics that reinforces this type of thinking, as is the case in Marx’s notion of the fetish. In other contexts, the individual’s attribution of value is related to that individual’s personal experience, regardless of the surrounding society, as in Freud’s notion of the fetish.
It is my view that both of these perspectives are accurate, and are complementary, not mutually exclusive analyses of the fetish. In order to understand the fetish in a modern sense, one must not only trace its history, but also find the connection between its disparate parts. One must take into account both the individual and societal components of the fetish. Understanding the history of the fetish is important because through each contextualization of the word fetish, one experiences not a distortion, but an augmentation. And though many of the differences between conceptualizations must be discarded to come to a definition, it is finding the similarities in the word fetish through so many different lenses and perspectives that is crucial to establishing its definition at present. Throughout its history, three characteristics of fetishism are absence, material substitution, and uncontrollable fixation.
Although anthropologist William Pietz admits that, “origins are never absolute,” his research proposes that:
The fetish as an idea and a problem, and as a novel object not proper to any prior discrete society, originated in the cross-cultural spaces of the coast of West Africa during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries […] the fetish originated within a novel social formation during this period through the development of the pidgin word Fetisso, this word in turn has a linguistic and accompanying conceptual lineage that may be traced. Fetisso derives from the Portuguese word feticio, which in the late Middle Ages, meant “magical practice” or “witchcraft” performed, often innocently, by the simple, ignorant, classes. Feticio in turn derives from the Latin adjective facticlus, which originally meant, “manufactured.” The historical study of the fetish must begin by considering these words in some detail, only then going on to examine the subsequent development into Fetisso, and finally that word’s textual dissemination into the languages of northern Europe, where national versions of the word developed during the seventeenth century. (Pietz 1)
For Pietz the etymology of the word fetish is as important as its various definitions. Though this essay focuses more on the definitions of fetish established from the seventeenth century onward, Pietz is correct in his assertion that it is worth considering in some detail, the words preceding fetish. By Pietz’s research, the first word in the lineage is the Latin adjective faticulus, meaning manufactured. This word then evolved into the Portuguese word feticio, meaning magical practice or witchcraft.
Before the word fetish had even fully coalesced into the term one recognize today, it had already embodied two concepts. The first concept is that of being manufactured. This represents the material or physical object. The second concept is the notion of magic or witchcraft. These terms represent a spiritual or non-physical dimension of that which is the object of the fetish. At the time of their use these two terms may have been used separately from one another. However once the word had transcended faticulus and feticio to become fetisso and ultimately fetish, their meanings had combined forming the conceptual foundations of the modern fetish.
The first time the word fetish was used was with African tribes. Though it is uncertain exactly who was first to apply the term to African spirituality, its meaning in that context is documented. Tribal Africans would often carry talismans, charms, or other trinkets that they assigned great value to. Talismans could be said to imbue a person with strength, wisdom, prosperity, or possibly even affect that which is outside of the person such as the weather and the afterlife (Pietz 4-6).
Absence is the first key component of defining fetishism. What is lost in this assignment of value is a correlation to the physical. Surely one can agree that holding a carved piece of wood is not what causes rain. And yet without the science one use today to explain what was then phenomenon, the tribal Africans would believe that holding a “special” piece of carved wood, rock, or jewel were correlated to this phenomenon. Or at least so believed the Portuguese traders who called African spiritual objects fetishes. This belief marks an absence. Whether it is an absence of information, explanation, or understanding. There is an absence of the psychological representation for the actual cause of rain. Since these people did not have the technology to create a correlation between rain, pressure systems, humidity, warm fronts and cold fronts, etc, they sought out a physical correlation as an explanation.
Substitution is the second key component of defining fetishism. The use of an object to create a physical representation of an idea is a substitution for that lack of understanding. The object does not actually have any power of its own. The greatest extent of the power the object has in reality is in so far as it can be used. However in these cases, objects could be granted even the power to create rain. They are substituting a talisman, charm, or trinket to account for an absence of information, understanding, or explanation. So the Portuguese claimed that the tribal Africans would take the idea of raining, and they would connect that idea to a physical object. To choose which object, a popular theory in these types of tribal African religions is the first encounter theory. This is the notion that Africans would take whatever they first encountered after an event to be some sort of sign or symbol from the divine. Although many times the first encounter was an object, the power was also extended to plants and animals. So if it rained heavily for three days and then a farmer found a piece of driftwood washed up ashore, that piece of wood might be seen as the cause of the rain. Or it might even be carved into the shape of a raindrop and then used as a talisman to bring rain.
Fixation is the third key component of defining fetishism. In the case of the tribesmen, their talismans were used as objects of worship. They would use the same object time and time again in hopes at producing the same effects. It could even be called an obsession with these objects. Although the actual focus of these tribesmen’s motivations were in a more direct relation to the actual rain and the crops which it helped them to raise, the fixation would not be so much on the events, but rather displaced to the object. This fixation and obsession is not only the assignment of value, but it is also the displacement of value. It is my assertion that the root of all this displacement of value is the value of life. This is a displacement of the value that a person has for oneself.
In the example of the rain talisman, it is the rain that is valued. The rain is valued because it helps to produce crops. Crops are valued because they help to keep people alive. In the examples where talismans bring strength, wisdom, or another personal quality, all of these are enhancers to life. And all of these qualities are qualities that can be expressed by that person’s life force. For example, a talisman only aids in making a person strong in so far as that he believes it will and then allows himself to become strong. But it is not the talisman doing the work; it is merely the talisman that persuades the person to invest in his own expression of strength. In each example, the value that is displaced is the value of life, or of the value of the original person. If this example seems vague, perhaps it will become clearer through the view of commodity fetishism.
Although commodity fetishism is quite different from the fetishism of the African tribesmen, it still contains the three basic principles of absence, substitution, and fixation. Commodity fetishism is a term invented by Karl Marx. He uses the term to describe the products of labor that are traded within a capitalistic system. Marx understands that objects have use value. When he talks about commodity fetishism and the misappropriation of value, this is not what he is referring to. He acknowledges use value:
The utility of a thing makes it a use value.But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use value, something useful. This property of a commodity is independent of the amount of labour required to appropriate its useful qualities. When treating of use value, one always assume to be dealing with definite quantities, such as dozens of watches, yards of linen, or tons of iron. The use values of commodities furnish the material for a special study, that of the commercial knowledge of commodities. Use values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth. In the form of society one is about to consider, they are, in addition, the material depositories of exchange value. (Marx 2)
When Marx is referring to commodity fetishism, he is talking about when the value of a commodity transcends its use value. In the examples Marx mentions, every product has a use that can be compared to the uses of other products. But when the commodity becomes what Marx refers to as a “mysterious thing” is when the value of human labor becomes lost within a commodity. Marx uses the example of table. As he sees it, the product of a table has the power to take on a power even greater than that of the value of labor it took to produce it. Marx is somewhat baffled by this phenomena. It is so difficult for him to compare to his own realm of experience that he says, “to find an analogy, one must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. 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 (2).”
For Marx, a commodity becomes fetishized when it takes on a trade value. When the commodity is being traded, it takes on a value that transcends the value of the labor. In a sense the value of the labor is lost. Marx says that in order to trade items for other items, then one must be equalizing the general and abstract quality of human labor into the object or commodity that is produced. To Marx, the fetishized commodity is a necessary result of producing within a system that trades products for other products:
The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. In this way, the character that his own labour possesses of being socially useful takes the form of the condition, that the product must be not only useful, but useful for others, and the social character that his particular labour has of being the equal of all other particular kinds of labour, takes the form that all the physically different articles that are the products of labour have one common quality, viz., that of having value. (Marx “The Fetishism Of Commodities And The Secret Thereof”)
For example, a modern version of this principle might be a Coach pocketbook. Regardless of the hours that it requires to make, despite its use value or the cost of materials, a Coach pocketbook can sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars. The labor is not worth thousands of dollars. The materials are not worth thousands of dollars. As soon as the Coach pocketbook becomes not just a pocketbook that is for use by the person who produced it and instead becomes a commodity to be traded, it has transcended its use value. It takes on an immense, almost magical value.
In this case, when the product takes on this almost magical value it is an immediate substitution for an absence. The absence is the absence of the accurate representation of human labor. The labor is no longer associated with the pocket book. The pocket book becomes an entity unto itself to interact with people and products, to be both used and exchanged. The product itself is a substitution for the value of labor. It both substitutes for and replaces the conceptualization of labor. And once the product takes on this commodity form, it becomes fixated upon. It becomes an object to be almost worshipped. Especially such is the case with a Coach pocket book. A person will display such an item and even use that item as a symbol of value for the person. The bag signifies the status of a person with enough money to purchase such an item. Thus when the person displays this item, his/her own perceived worth increases.
When one look at the situation in this way, when one think of the ways in which people use objects as a means of identifying their own value of worth through the displacement of the value of other’s labor, one can return back to the notion of life. A person’s labor is merely an expression of that person’s life force. It is an expression of that person’s efforts and energy. However a commodity is more than that. In a commodity, a person places the value not only of the person’s labor that has gone into it, and not only of the value of its use, but also the value of the person himself. The person associates with his commodities and ranks his own value with the value of his commodities. He decides how much he is worth, and how much his own life is worth, by estimating the perceived worth of the commodities which he possesses.
Paralleling Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism in both renown and eloquence is Freud’s theory of sexual fetishism. While many of Freud’s points are dated and disproved, his ideas are worth examination for the sake of its historical context and to aid in the process of re-contextualization. Following the pattern of the previous two forms of fetishism, Freudian fetishism is also characterized first by an absence. Traditionally, in Freudian sexual Fetishism, the absence is that of the mother’s penis. According to Freud’s theory, at the root of all fetishes, there is the male fear of castration. When a boy realizes that his mother does not have a penis, whether consciously or unconsciously, he fears that her penis has been castrated. He does not want to lose his penis because he was born with one. He has become attached to it. He recognizes that it is a part of his body.
For a little boy, this is a fear too overwhelming to manage. He cannot come to terms with the notion that he might lose penis. In an able to pacify these fears, the unconscious mind engages in an action know as disavowal. In an essay titled, “Freud; or, The Absent Object” Giorgio Agamben explains the paradoxical reality of disavowal:
In the conflict between the perception of reality, which urges him to renounce his phantasm, and the counterdesire, which urges him to deny his perception, the child does neither one nor the other; or, rather, he does both simultaneously, reaching one of those compromises that are possible only under the rule of law of the unconscious. On the one hand, with the help of a particular mechanism, he disavows the evidence of his perception; on the other, he recognizes its reality, and through a perverse symptom, he assumes the anguish he feels before it. (Agamben 31)
Under this definition, “the fetish is therefore the “substitute for the woman’s (the mother’s) penis that the little boy once believed in and – for reasons familiar to us – does not want to give up” (152-53) (Agamben 31.)
On this point I must disagree with Freud. It has been said that Freud’s perception is sometimes skewed due to his focus on sexuality. This is true here as well. It is not necessarily true that the concept of disavowal is a direct result of the reaction to the mother’s absent penis, nor is it true that the fetish is the substitute for the mother’s penis. While the concept of disavowal is indeed in play, Freud misrepresents it in his sexualized application. Disavowal is a much more deeply rooted issue than the fear of castration. Freud says that for “reasons familiar to us” the boy does not want to give up his penis. This is a vague assumption on Freud’s part, as well as it is a shallow one. Freud assumes that because he has a penis and wants to keep it, that this fear is thus understandable and able to be generalized. Although it may seem obvious to Freud why he does not want to lose his penis, that there are actually deeper reasons.
This fear, as well as all fear, is a reaction to the fear of death, be it a physical death or a psychological one. One example is of Freud’s fear of losing his penis. On a physical level, the penis is the reproductive organ. If Freud loses his penis, he loses the ability to continue his genetic life. Without a penis, he cannot create a child and cannot pass on his genes. Thus there is a death to his lineage. Though the lineage could potentially continue through a brother or sister, the exact combination of Freud’s DNA would be lost. It would be dead. From an evolutionary perspective, our most basic instinct, our most basic programming, is to survive and reproduce. Along this line of logic, Freud believes that sexuality is present even at the adolescent phases of development, though people are aware unconsciously, not consciously. By Freud’s own logic, if a person has an unconscious awareness of sexuality, then although a little boy may consciously perceive, “I don’t want to lose my penis,” he may unconsciously perceive, “I don’t want to lose my ability to reproduce.” The child fears the loss of his penis because unconsciously, he fears his physical genetic death.
There is also a psychological component to the fear of death. At a conscious level, the boy is able to realize that the penis is a part of his body. He identifies it with himself. From a young age, people identify themselves with their bodies. A little boy might be as scared to lose his arm or his leg, as he was to lose his penis. The child’s fear is not merely due to a fear of castration, but of the destruction of the self, a concept which is infinitely more terrifying, especially for a child. Children are still making the connection between mind and body. They must learn how to crawl, then walk, then run. They are still in the stage of learning and developing their motor skills. They are creating the mind-body associations that one take for granted throughout the rest of our lives. But at this stage in life, making those mind-body connections is of the utmost importance. At the stage one is still learning to use one’s body, one must also be learning to identify them. One is becoming aware of oneself, or self-aware. A child would see the loss of a limb or reproductive organ as not only a loss of part, but also as a destruction of the whole. Whether a child is male or female, most children are at some point exposed to death and loss. These concepts and the fear of them are relatively inescapable.
This fear affects people not only in childhood, but also throughout the rest of their lives. One retains the fear of destruction of the self, whether it is psychological or physical. As one becomes older, one begins to associate oneself not only with one’s body but also one’s possessions and position. A common fear among adults is that of job loss. Again, there is a physical level of this fear. People fear that if they cannot maintain their jobs, they will not be able to support themselves, and thus will die. And again, there is a psychological component to this fear. At a psychological level, people aren’t just afraid of losing the ability to make money, they are afraid of the death of the identity they have created. There is a social aspect where a person becomes “unemployed.” The word has a stigma. All of a sudden, a respectable workingman must now tell people that he is unemployed. Before he was a man to be admired. Now he is a man to be pitied or to give compassion to. The identity he created for himself as the successful workingman dies with the loss of his job. It is the same fear of destruction of the psychological image of the self of castration. These loses represent a type of psychological castration of a person’s identity. Unconsciously, one links this absence to death.
On an unconscious level, one see absence as a notion and one relate that notion to the absence of the self. This is the absence that one truly fears. One fears the absence of one’s own presence. A destruction of even part of our presence or our identity sparks the fear of destruction of the self, which has become expanded to be defined as a person as well as that persons possessions and position. That is not to say that once a person loses possession or position that he is actually destroyed. In fact, certain individuals experience loss or crisis and after a period of deep self-evaluation, emerge with a stronger concept of self that is no longer dependant on that which has been lost. Though it should be acknowledged that some people also become depressed after loss, and some never fully recover or regain composure. Though they are not actually dead, they have accepted a psychological destruction. This situation is where the fear stems from. People fear they will suffer an irreparable psychological destruction. Contrary to Freud’s beliefs, it is this fear, the fear of absence of self, or the fear of death that instigates the disavowal response. People are disavowing both psychological and physical death, as well as the actions that remind them of death, such as castration. The fear of death is the root fear in the fear brought about by the notion of castration. The idea that the fear of death is the root fear is also more logical than Freud’s view of the fetish in that his view is sexually biased against women. Women do not have the same fear of castration that men have, and yet women also have fetishes. Including women in the perspective of the fetish, it makes more sense that both men and women are reacting to the fear of something that reminds them of death, and then disavowing that.
So then, if the absence aspect of the fetish is not the absence of the mother’s penis, then there must be another absence to account for. This absence is the absence of intimacy. If disavowal is a reaction to fear, then sex must produce a fear. The fear one reacts to in sex is the fear of intimacy, which ultimately triggers the fear of death. When a person is intimate with another person, both individuals are in a vulnerable position. Firstly, if the individuals are engaging in intercourse, there is a high probability that they are naked. To be naked is to remove a barrier of comfort. The majority of one’s time is typically spent clothed, and the time one spends interacting is almost always clothed. Clothes act as a boundary. In a physical sense, clothes give a person more protection from outside elements. In a psychological sense, clothes provide people with a layer of identity. People can draw others attentions to approvable topics, such as music, a style, or a certain designer. Clothes can draw attention away from the body so that the body cannot be criticized as easily. Clothes can serve as a buffer or distraction. To remove this layer, is to put oneself in a more vulnerable position. In the fear of physical death, being naked or unclothed puts one at a disadvantage against attack. Unconsciously, one fear confrontation in a vulnerable position, should it lead to death. In the fear of the psychological death, there are multiple aspects of fear. A person may fear performance anxiety. She may fear that she may not reach climax or that she will not be able to bring her partner to climax. She may fear criticism from her partner about her body, or about her performance, even if climax is reached. In this regard, the fear relates to death in that if she conceives of herself as successful, this sexual failure could result in the destruction of herself as a successful person. She will lose her own approval. Her perceived sexual flaw will distort the quality of the whole.
In contradiction to Freud’s belief that the absence of the fetish is the absence of the mother’s penis, my assertion is that the absence of the fetish is the absence of intimacy. By replacing the intimate person with an object, the fear of judgment is removed. The fear of attack from the other person is removed as well. Again, by a power granted only to the unconscious mind, a person is able to paradoxically disavow death through the disavowal of intimacy, while still convincing herself that the object he replaces the person with is an intimate object. She uses the same object to arouse intimacy as she does to disavow it. Normally, the person with which another person becomes intimate is the sexual object. For Freud, the sexual object is “the person from whom the sexual attraction emanates,” (Freud 4). The sexual object is usually the object of the sexual aim, which Freud defines as, “the action towards which the impulse strives,” or the action of sex (Freud 4). In cases of fetishism the person with the fetish does not need an actual person. They accept and rather prefer the absence of the person. And as with the previous examples of fetishism, once there is the absence of intimacy, there is also a substitution with an object.
In cases of fetishism, the person is replaced with an objectified representation. The sexual object is typically, “a part of the body but little adapted for sexual purposes, such as the foot, or hair, or an inanimate object which is in demonstrable relation with the sexual person, and mostly with the sexuality of the same (fragments of clothing, white underwear)” (Freud 53). Recently shoes, latex materials, and certain sexual toys have also constituted fetish objects. As Marx had no other words to describe fetishism other than to hail back to the religions from which it originated, Freud does the same saying, “This substitution is not unjustly compared with the fetich in which the savage sees the embodiment of his god,” (Freud 53). Though both of these prominent thinkers use the term fetish in completely different settings and contexts, both of them hearken back to the origins of the word. If not by the similarities throughout the different perspectives, the connection between these different types of fetishism is clear in the conscious perspective of these writers who respectively connect each of these philosophies to the same central notions.
In this instance of the fetish, the substitution is typically not only a substitution for the sexual object, but also often for a traumatic or particularly excitatory event in a person’s early life:
The persistent influence of a sexual impress mostly received in early childhood often shows itself in the selection of a fetich, as Binet first asserted, and as was later proven by many illustrations,—a thing which may be placed parallel to the proverbial attachment to a first love in the normal (“On revient toujours à ses premiers amours”). Such a connection is especially seen in cases with only fetichistic determinations of the sexual object. […]In other cases it was mostly a symbolic thought association, unconscious to the person concerned, which led to the substitution of the object by means of a fetich. The paths of these connections cannot always be definitely demonstrated. The foot is a very primitive sexual symbol already found in myths. Fur is used as a fetich probably on account of its association with the hairiness of the mons veneris. Such symbolism seems often to depend on sexual experiences in childhood. (Freud 56-57)
So not only is the sexual object or person being substituted, but the object of fetishism also acts as a substitution or replacement for the representation of or recreation of a feeling or memory that was experienced during childhood.
In cases of sexual fetishism, the notion of fixation is probably most well known or at least most recognized among fetishes. A popular example in our culture is the foot fetish. A person with a foot fetish will fixate on feet. He will have a quasi obsession with them. He will return to that same sexual object replacement over and over again to produce the sexual aim through that means.
Also, if fixation is most apparent in sexual fetishism, then perhaps so is this notion of fetishism tracing back to a misappropriated value of life. In this case, the act of sex is the actual physical representation of the production of human life. It is quite literally a person’s expression of his or her life force. In sexual fetishism, a person misappropriates his own life force, as well as the creative power for the life force of a man and woman to produce a child, and attributes that same power to a body part or object. It is both a perversion and misappropriation of the life force. This perversion and misappropriation is especially obvious in that while in tribal fetishism and commodity fetishism the life force is imagined to be contained within the object, in the case of sexual fetishism, the object or body part will never have the ability to produce life in the way that two humans can.
One can also view this perversion from the perspective of the sexual aim. Considering the act of sex as the ultimate goal, one also sees that the fetish can become so distorted as to preclude the actual enactment of sex with another person completely. Freud views these as the worst types of cases. In some of the cases, those afflicted with a fetish would use the fetish object or body part to encourage stimulation, which eventually results in copulation with another person. However in the cases that Freud sees as the worst type of perversion, the other person is eliminated entirely. Sometimes people will engage only in masturbatory acts stimulated by fetish objects or representation of objects. For example a person with a foot fetish might engage in masturbation with only shoes or socks or perhaps even pictures of feet. In this case, the life force of the person, or the potential to create life, has been entirely wasted as well as misappropriated to the fetish.
In the case of sexual fetishism, as in the previous examples, the fetish marks not only the misappropriation of the life force, but also the aversion to death. In the case of tribal fetishism, it was clear that attributing a talisman with the power to bring rain is a misappropriation of the life force. Through the lens of Freudian disavowal, one can also see this act as a disavowal of death. In a similar way to the sexual fetish, the tribal fetish and the commodity fetish are also maneuvers to disavow or in some way avoid a psychological death, a physical death, or a combination of the two. In the example of tribal fetishism, one acknowledged that the tribesman’s motivation for using the rain talisman was to summon water for the crops, which would produce food to eat, which would keep him alive that much longer. Earlier, the focus was on the misappropriation of the life force. Disavowal suggests that the focus be not on the preservation of life, but rather on the fear or avoidance of death. This may seem like semantics, but it is an important distinction to make. If the focus is on the preservation of life, then the focus is on what a person is moving towards. If the focus is on the fear or avoidance of death, then the focus is on what a person is moving away from.
This difference is crucial in understanding the fetish. If a person move towards a location, then it is possible that he will eventually arrive at that location, given that he continues to pursue his course. However, if a person moves away from a location, he will never arrive there. And yet, he will still be defined in relation to that which he moves away from, thus never truly escaping. For example, let’s say a person is traveling to Rome. If he takes the road to Rome for long enough, he will eventually arrive in Rome. Once he has arrived, his intention has been fulfilled. On the converse however, let’s say a person is traveling away from Rome. When he leaves Rome, he will set out on the same road as the previous traveler, only this time, he will be moving in the opposite direction. However for this traveler, there is no pre-determined point of completion. He can walk anywhere between one step and one thousand steps away from Rome and technically, he will no longer be there. Physically, he will no longer be there. However psychologically, he cannot escape Rome. He is on the road away from Rome, which is technically the same road to Rome as well. He is still counting his steps away from Rome. Psychologically, his fixation is upon Rome. It is the object of his thought. What if Rome were to expand? If so, he would have to keep moving. Thus, due to his constant fixation on Rome, the man will continue to move incessantly, with no destination in sight. His object of intention becomes not a location, as with the previous traveler, but on the act of movement itself.
This example is an ideological representation of the fetish. The difference between the man moving toward Rome and the man moving away from Rome is important because it explains the repetitive fixation upon the fetish. On one level, the fetish is a metonymy. It is an object that stands in the place of another concept. In our society, many subjects can be viewed as being culturally or psychologically metonymical. What is different about the fetish is that the fetish is often preferable to the source not merely by choice but rather by indefinite compulsion. This seemingly endless compulsion stems from fear or trauma, as Freud suggested. In the example of a person moving away from Rome, psychologically Rome would be the psychological site of a traumatic event. In the example of the tribesman, the traumatic event would be the fear of death by not raising enough crops. In the example of the Coach consumer, the traumatic event would be of a psychological death. In this case, the person who obsesses over the pocketbook fears that she will experience a social death if she is stripped of her instrumental bearers of status. With the bags, she creates a certain image of herself that she values with her life. Without them, she fears the death of that image and of that woman she believed herself to be.
As the old saying goes, “The criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.” The same is true in the case of trauma. The mind continuously returns to the traumatic event or incident that caused the damage. The person cannot forget the event and yet at the same time the person cannot process the event. Though some people may be able to overcome this boundary through therapy or other means, fetishists seek to self- medicate through the use of the fetish. This is the same paradoxical reality of disavowal that Agamben explains, however applied to the concept of all trauma, as opposed to specifically of the fear of castration. It is the same, “conflict between the perception of reality, which urges him to renounce his phantasm, and the counterdesire, which urges him to deny his perception…” (Agamben 31). In the case of the tribesman, the phantasm is the false psychological object of a rain talisman conflicting against the reality that he is dependant upon nature, a force that he does not understand, and thus cannot ensure his survival. In the case of the Coach consumer, the phantasm is the woman’s psychological image of herself as a person of status and worth conflicting against the reality that the purchase of a pocketbook does not enhance her character in any way, and thus her notion of status is imaginary. In both cases, the fetishists are able to do, “both simultaneously, reaching one of these compromises that are possible only under the rule of law of the unconscious,” through the substitution, fixation and obsession on either the talisman or the Coach pocketbook (31). In this unconscious compromise, a person is continually walking away from the trauma or fear as the man walks away from Rome. Since he does not take measures to heal the trauma, be it from childhood or otherwise, the fetishist must repeatedly affirm his disavowal through the fetish, in a never-ending effort to combat the repressed knowledge of the real, or of the traumatic reality. Thus, although many subjects could be labeled as metonymy, only those subjects that incite fear or trauma based fixation and compulsion can fall under the category of fetish.
At this point, it should be clear that fetishism is composed of the three basic concepts of absence, substitution, and fixation. This definition is apt to describe tribal fetishism, commodity fetishism, and sexual fetishism. The purpose of this three-component definition is to reduce fetishism to a concept that can be easily understood and explained throughout different contexts. So while this thesis has so far only directly confronted tribal fetishism, commodity fetishism, and sexual fetishism, this definition is apt to describe not only these three contexts, but any other context of fetishism as well. Ultimately, this analysis will lead to the examination of fetishism in the context of modern social media. In addition to the components of absence, substitution, and fixation, the concepts of fear-based disavowal and the avoidance of physical and/or psychological death are key to explaining and understanding this new social media fetishism.
As a 21st century psychoanalyst, author, and feminist scholar, Kaplan’s perspective will enrich the perspectives of Marx and Freud as it will help to bridge those perspectives with more modern theorists such as Debord and Baudrillard, and can carry that narrative straight through to present day. In her book, Cultures of Fetishism, Kaplan is a sherpa, guiding people safely through the world of familiar, making the confusing, uncomfortable, and strange more understandable, comfortable, and familiar. Her perspective performs the same functions within this thesis. In addition to Kaplan, Debord and Baudrillard, 20th century theorists, will help to analyze society in relation to commodity as well as to explain how fetishism has evolved from the perspectives of Marx and Freud to the world of social media.