Fetishes, Fetish
Roger Wartel

Stanya Kahn

Author's Bio


Let’s begin, if you like, with an everyday sentence: “I caught sight of a man who …” I’m making a statement, no doubt with evi­dence? You acquiesce, yet anatomy has yielded us nothing which may imply certainty. Shall we note, though, the haste and audacity which occur from the in­stant of sight to the moment of a conclusion, for everything de­pends not merely on the organ as proof, but on that which veils it. Thus, for a man, would the difference between the sexes be determined on tissue? And so we live, as if the silhouette would make the difference, as if the difference were a primary condition inscribed as much in morphology as in finality. Is that so certain?

— If all that went so well, we might stop feeling as­tonished, and take comfort in the idea of conformity in accordance with Nature’s order. “The development of the most modest herb obeys constant laws which escape human logic.” An­dré Gide, here in Corydon, proposes a malicious solution which in throwing back to back human logic and the laws of Na­ture, detaches sexuality from human logic, in order to make the blade of grass that one would like.

— If that doesn’t work, if the sexes are not congru­ent to morphology, what there would then be is frank anomalies, errors and ways of detour. What is left is to tolerate or correct, to sanction or exalt.
— But, this doesn’t work too well for the majority of so-called normal men who are encumbered with their sex, who do not know which means to devise in order to act as if they had none of it, or to draw the maxi­mum out of it.

In short, sexual difference is not in the least so evident and simple, nor is it even very natural. And we are therefore carried away from psychological harmonies at the same time as we are to discover that the harmony of appetite and sleep are also prone to ridicule and drowning, contortion and subversion. Thus appetites, as much as relations between the sexes, come about despite common sense: neither temporal nor spatial limita­tions are at stake, neither howling nor organ specificity. There are selec­tive incapacities, abilities awakened by inaccessibility. There is the attraction for the fellow creature that defies all natural finality . . . the natural finality that neither recognizes, imaginary anticipation, nor infantile desire, nei­ther precautions nor rashness. Let’s add the intervention of determining particularities not attributable to perceptions nor the instinct; rather they will be character­ized by a physical support. Just as in our love life, ad­miration as much as contempt may carry us equally into the possible as into the impossible: “one can” with the one whom we despise, then “one cannot” with the one whom we admire — that’s quizzical.

In short, we have come towards a curious version of human sexuality, a bit distorted, perverse. That which divides as well as that which draws closer the bodies, remains an enigma; Leda extricates herself thanks to a scenario where she reduces her partner to bestiality, unless Zeus himself had not guessed that she was beloved among animals.

Notice also that Cinderella’s Prince Charming runs all over the place with his little slipper to fit into the right place, as if he had an idea in the back of his head, a fan­tasy in his imagination where we could see him unprovided for at the same time pinned to the pertinent precious object.

Let’s look over the classic Krafft-Ebing, a Viennese who moved to Strasbourg to become Chair of Psychiatry at the local university. The fetish is there in all the chapters of his books: his work is almost infiltrated by fetish, but moreover, following him, we witness a sort of extension of the con­cept itself. (Shall we add that Freud himself read all this.) Thus the fetish—everyone knows, especially Krafft-Ebing who lengthens the list by including for in­stance the tone of the voice, the gaze, a smell, the feel of skin, moral qualities of authority or docility, behaviors combining attraction and repulsion, and as far as scenarios like in a strange case in which the subject manages to stage a setting where nothing will finally happen if it were not carried away by a “bear chase” fantasy. So here the fetish is carried up to scenic fantasies: what counts for Krafft-Ebing is the indispensable and the immutable which sig­nal the true fetish. Let’s notice that Krafft-Ebing presents himself as an aseptic clinician who initiates an an­thology of diverse facts whose tricky top is nosed by the style of ethnologic observation, the gloves of the human scientist. He adds to the propriety, and he guarantees it by the use of Latin—dead tongue, language of the sciences—as soon as the word slides into too raw equivocation. But on this occasion, let’s recall that the use of Latin deliber­ately acts as provocateur in the gallant texts of the 19th Century when the acrobatics defied modesty. Krafft-Ebing’s clinique is not altogether without merit since one can read there some rules that are definitely not made of rough the­ory, but which are pertinent: “substitution,” “transformation,” “law of association,” “the part for the whole,” “charm isolated when the person becomes so to speak, an accessory.”

Nevertheless Krafft-Ebing knows well upon what he buttresses: two points within his method. First of all, ac­cording to him “sexual instinct is a physiological law”: therefore it is a matter of sexual mechanism. He doesn’t question sex such as it happens, for bipartite sex would be given at the outset. Nevertheless Krafft-Ebing stumbles be­fore this physiological mechanism so well in place: “for in man sexual mechanism fails if certain non-physiological conditions are unfulfilled”—“man hides from or adds to his natural state”—“he takes a fragment of the body as object of an exclu­sive concentration.” Thus unnatural elements will appear as determining! The fetish, is certainly proposing itself as a phenomenon that compels one to think of human sexuality as outside physiology, as a subversion of mechanics.

Next comes this extension, this enlargement of the term “fetish” that would call for a reserve and even for a partition. Actually we would have on the one hand this fetishist for whom the presence of the fetish is constraint, constancy, absolute exi­gency, a necessity that does not cease, with its or­gasmic outcome which will allow for his being into non fear or reproach. But also someone for whom trait, contingency, preliminaries, insufficiency in itself constitute the particu­larities of the object-choice. These are discrete unifying traits which glide and run, relaying themselves. Their re­trieval, through lost time, gives them a roguish little turn establishing connivance. They engage in the prelude so far as this can insist. We read in Proust that the bouquet of cattleya orchids glided down the brassiere of Odette de Crécy is soon reduced to the trait “of doing cattleya,” “which became a simple vocable that they used without thinking when wishing to signify the act of physical possession.” But Odette, in spite of her name, was, according to Swann, a little vulgar; and this compelled him to resort to Boti­celli’s painting—“he looked at her: a fragment of the fresco was appearing on her face. . . The word “Florentine painting” rendered a great service to Swann. . . the kisses and the vulgar and mediocre possession were crowned by the adoration of a museum masterpiece.”

Thus the fetish is there, an anomaly to the eyes of “a nature which lacks nothing,” an artifact; such is its sense that comes from the Portuguese in the 17th Cen­tury. But in time we have forgotten that in its original tongue the fetish, this artifice, carried in turn value in spells, enchantment, and moreover the fides of a cult, which implies faith, comfort in the sense of being com­forted. It allows—and everyone practices it at least clandestinely—the diversion of ad-verse, mutilating and murderous forces, that an object, brandished or chased, whether glorious or repulsive, asserts the grumbler under his morion, fright­ens the demon affronted by the exorcist’s cross, assuring Athena behind her buckle whose decoration is no longer a fortunate ornament, as Freud proved to us.

A share, a sharing is thus necessary between he who always loyal to his object, without appeal, cut from the substitution which would rebound, would hold resolutely since that object alone may allow him to go all the way to the end; and he who, neurotic, tortured, embarrassed, cannot find the illusion and fixation that would appease the flesh in some isolated artifice. The fetishist does not fool himself: he knows, but what does he know? In contradistinction to this, we find the hard-working lover who would envy the fetishist his solidity; he should have, poor puppet, all these little markers that in the end… or at the end of the take-off…

Fetish or artifice, fabricated object, that is a cut-out object, removed from all that is natural, signals that something may be lacking. Its presence will illuminate us contrariwise on what it covers and what is not. Although still it must be that for “to lack” one can say the minimum, “a re­treat of presence,” as Heidegger says. If there had been no such “retreat,” we would be within the realm of adap­tation, which is without hole or edge. Nevertheless it is we who have invented adaptation, seated as we were at the edge of a hole, astonished by the fact that life be so well-adapted.

We do not acquiesce to the law of adaptation, although we gently blind ourselves to the belief of it—since we did in­vent it. The fetishist blinds himself to nothing; he is and proclaims to be a contestant—common law and adaptation of biologists, it has nothing to do with him!—“The eye of the Penal Code is not the same as mine,” prettily stated a voyeur condemned to probation!

“To contest,” we would say in German leugen (disavow). Verleu­gnung (disavowal) would be: to contest thoroughly, firmly. This is the word chosen by Freud to indicate this position of disavowal, of denial. Indeed he disavows the judge, the law. But furthermore he disavows castration as advanced by Freud. Disavowal: a dictionary of psychoanalysis says of it “process”—which is false because disavowal is a rationalization, be it by absurdity—that is, “let’s do this were it not like that.” Far from being a process it is a question on rupture, a crucial moment, on logic and deductions. Freud highlights here that the child, this logician, must solve a problem and that he conducts his proceedings toward certain impasses where he strides over the unbearable through some decision. In this case the forthcoming decision concerns castration. To decide to hallucinate? why not? and Freud calls on it. To go through substitutions? That leaves a margin for maneuvering. Another exit door; the disavowal, which leaves no place to doubt. The pervert neither doubts himself nor the law; left for him is to confirm that there is no doubt on the Other’s body lest he grafts the proof; there is no castration.

Do not believe that he would turn up his nose at the Other, not that he loves or wishes him well, since this would mean attributing him a fault or a lack. No, the Other has the plenitude of jouissance, of the very gesture dedicated by the precise emblem which says no to castra­tion. This brings the pervert to ravishment; whereas that particular access turns down all debate on justification, vain agitation of the guilty. Do not believe, therefore, in castration, a beautiful affair, although it implies as Lacan would say, “the absence of one of the terms of belief, namely the term which designates the division of the subject.” Disavowal, refu­tation set up the belief in the unbelievable and stops reve­lation at the very threshold where it is about to emerge. Refutation here takes up from the act, that is, rejection of the unconscious, separation from the signifying chain; it pro­duces a sort of exclusion inside this chain, interrupting all re-entry in a discourse, stopping the argument, or still cutting on the social link. Put in another way, by refuting one raves.

The Verleugnung, this contesting, this rebellion, neither process nor mechanism is confirmed of a great logical complexity insofar as it brings on a “there is not” with a harder negation—“there is no there isn’t.” Doubtless it is there, out of the fetish, that we could better specify what Freud invented as the concept of castration.

With castration Freud does not unravel a short story to create fear or laughter. He does not formulate castration through a descriptive anatomy and the preliminary bipartition. We should not take castration for what it is not—but as a myth that can give account and which manages to capture the fashion in which each being relates to the world and to his own property, which shouldn’t allow for any imagery.

Sexual dif­ference (1925) “says nothing to the child”: a single organ, a sin­gle libido.[1] Suddenly there comes a surprise, with the anxiety that the discovery of the Other’s absolute alterity imposes; and this shares both a disadvantage and a menace. The “quarrel of the phallus” in order to take up the term again, a quarrel from the years 1920-5, far from being ex­tinct, doesn’t take up from feminist protest which entertains slogans, egalitarian symmetry, reciprocity and paral­lel or counteracting developments.

Let’s hypothetically posit the “phallus” as a universal value; everybody has it, a universal affirmative. Thus all others have it. Castration can be written as the pas­sage from àto A. A crucial moment, the castration of the Other incarnated on the side of the woman, or better said, mother-side.

From the moment—Freud says—“the castration complex” gets installed, a shipwreck happens, a depre­ciation of this universal value and from this fall an empty place remains, implying the incapacity of the Other to fulfil it as much as a renunciation of the subject. Unless we find a solution. With the pervert the fetish becomes his convenience, insignificant no doubt, although it draws its power from that insignificance, because it is at hand. Still it is necessary that a circum­stance, a dart of the eye compels him to endorse its unique, irremovable, irreplaceable quality, almost hallucinatory in that which it disguises. At the movies this would be called “stop on image.” What does it disguise? The mother does have that which she doesn’t, that is to say the phallus; and here is the proof, denying forever more. Yet for the pervert there is more—startling—satisfaction bursts out even though he gives up, while he autographs this object on the Other, to the Other. Not content with his satisfaction, the pervert dedicates himself, devotes himself to the Other whom he could have believed amputated.

The solution of the true fetishist would consist then, in an elegant resolution of all the problems in a Er­satz. Thus he does not have to give up the pleasant appendix, since it is there, currently at hand. There is the proof by its authenti­c presence on the Other who carries it. And one sees immediately that it is the Other who is fulfilled by the at­tribute: everyone has won, such will be the politics of the fetishist. We may deduce that in spite of appearances and crim­inal sanctions, the fetish-object is not the subject of an as­siduous quest, but the same very cause of that quest, the cause of desire itself: it is what is pressuring. Thus the clinical model offered by the fetishist paves the way to the function of objet a such as it will be developed by Lacan, since the Other is precisely marked with incompleteness, with a bar.

Precursor of the objet a? we would have on one hand a fetish, an implacable materiality, an imper­turbable substance whose efficiency takes up from a logic that holds as necessary the materiality of this graft to the body. On the other hand we would have the logical consistency of this object called objet a, neither reabsorbable in the signi­fying chain, nor a palpable substance. It makes itself a rem­nant of the subject, subtracted, and it is written with a bar: $.

It is not, then, imagery which may confuse them, but the logic of their articulations deducing them one from the other—from the fetish to the object a. To further complicate things, would the subject not man­age to merge in this object that chooses? Curious conjec­ture of fetishism? But is it not so, ever since the instant of his arrival in the world, from that instant of the binding of the cord where, phallus of a fulfilled mother, he will be left to his own end with the restitution of her jouissance? “Mom,” last breath of the dying who utters his masochism in order to be re-found lastly, in her.

Fetishes—Fetish originally appeared in print in lacanian ink 3, 1991

[1] S. Freud, S.E. XIX, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986, “Anatomical Self-Distinction,” p. 252. (Editor’s note).


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