Fetish Fantasies

A review of Amanda Fernbach’s Fantasies of Fetishism

by Kate Livett

© all rights reserved

Daredevil, X-Men2, The Matrix: Reloaded – this year’s rubber-filled collection of Hollywood blockbusters are light on the dialogue but heavy on the fetish. As Amanda Fernbach argues inFantasies of Fetishism: “… at certain times of cultural crisis, such as the turn of the century or millenium, where fantasies of apocalyptic endism and ‘decadent’ narratives of cultural lack are amplified, fetishisms proliferate, as cultural anxieties spawn an array of fetishistic fantasies.” (41)

Fetishism was originally used to name the practice of colonised cultures who worshipped material objects that they had imbued with a religious or spiritual ‘aura’. These ‘fetishes’ were substitutes for deities, ‘aurified’ with their power. Marx and Engels deployed the word fetishism – with these associated meanings – in their construction of the ‘commodity fetishism’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which they argued was central to the commodity culture of industrialism and capitalism, and which they saw as regulating the relation of the subject to the objects produced by “his” labour. Freud adapted the term to the sexual “perversion” he identified as the substitution of an object for the mother’s absent penis, in which is located both the acknowledgement and disavowal of the mother’s castration. This substitution, Freud argued, allows the fetishist to derive sexual pleasure where normative sexual intercourse does not. Fetishism then, prevalent as it is in both Marx’s economic discourse of capitalism and Freud’s psychoanalytic discourse of sexuality, is everywhere in our culture.

In Fantasies of Fetishism, Amanda Fernbach engages with the complexities of sexuality and subjectivity that have arisen around fetishism since the nineteenth century. Taking the cue of late twentieth-century feminism, which was redefined as multiple, directed across trajectories at times heading in opposite directions, Fernbach argues that in contemporary culture many types of fetishism coexist and function in different ways; ways which are potentially productive in escaping or subverting ‘normative’ models of sexuality. To do this, Fernbach engages with psychoanalytic theory, does sleek, classical textual analyses of standard fetish texts, and also enters the cultural studies space of contemporary sub-cultural fetish practices. It’s a cross-disciplinary study that has the effect of drawing together fetishism in its many cultural formations. Emily Apter, who has written extensively on fetishism, says of Fantasies of Fetishism: “Amanda Fernbach takes on a truly impressive range of discourses and themes – historical, cultural psychoanalytic, and literary – and significantly advances the study of fetishism as cultural symptomology.” Indeed, all the standard texts of fetish theory and of sci-fi and cultural studies appear in a litany of textual analysis: Salome, Dracula, Neuromancer, The Matrix, Scheherzerade,Terminator2, Bladerunner. To read these texts Fernbach deploys the standard theoretical frameworks of recent feminist/queer engagement: Judith Butler and performativity, Donna Haraway and her Cyborg Manifesto, even Deleuze on S/M.

Fernbach defines and names the different fetishisms that she suggests operate concurrently in contemporary culture, such as ‘Magical Fetishism’, ‘Technofetishism’, and the fetishism of ‘S&M.’ She argues that specific instances of these fetishisms, analysed in their contexts, are ultimately functioning as either one of the two most important categories of fetishism she defines: “classical fetishism” and “decadent fetishism.” The former is that fetishism identified by Freud, exhibiting the simultaneous recognition and disavowal of the mother’s “castration.” Fernbach argues that “classical fetishism” is based on fear and maintains rather than subverts a particular form of sexual subjectivity, namely, the normative heterosexual model based on lack. Fernbach’s second category, ‘Decadent Fetishism’, subverts normative sexuality and facilitates the construction of new subjectivities.

As part of its interdisciplinary project, in the last section of the book, ‘Fetishized Subjectivities,’ Fernbach shifts from mostly literary and fiction analysis to first-hand interviews with ‘real-world’ practitioners of S&M. She examines the practices of contemporary dungeon slaves and their mistresses, exploring the dominatrix figure who is the subject of much contemporary representation.

In one sense this shift in Fantasies of Fetishism from literary to ‘real’ cultural practice is a feminist re-working of fetish theory’s origins in the scientific discourse of psychoanalysis, which was determined to keep women from fetishism and the agency it implies/can potentially provide. Numerous recent commentaries on psychoanalysis, and the original case-studies that both Charcot and Freud and their followers used in the construction of fetishism, suggest that the pioneers of psychoanalysis elided the large amounts of evidence in front of them that women were, and are, fetishists. Fernbach discusses contemporary feminist critiques of Freud’s “men only for fetishism” theory, including Liz Grosz’s ‘Lesbian Fetishism?’, but her focus differs in that she resists arguments for the inclusion of women in traditional categories of fetishism. As with many critics negotiating engagements with these constructions, Fernbach is concerned with the ways that these methodologies threaten to replicate the structure of “classical fetishism,” and thereby re-enslave women to the service of their normative operations. In this context, Fernbach’s reappropriation of the ‘real-world’ case-study – through the contemporary interview form – is an important feminist move as a shift in relation to, and through difference from, the same considerations a century after Freud. The motivation behind the return to the ‘case study’ has also shifted – from the sickness and medical intervention of Freud and co.’s therapy, to the mode of interview as sympathetic and critical affirmation. Fetishism, Fernbach is arguing, provides means through which both genders can re-conceptualise their gendered subjectivities.

However, it is also at this point of Fantasies of Fetishism (implicit feminist project meets disciplinary and discursive shift) that an elision occurs in the book. Feminism meets economic structures, or doesn’t, in Fernbach’s analysis. S&M may be an ‘underground’ practice, but it remains a capitalist industry, whether occluded or not. The other fetishisms Fernbach discusses also exist in specific economic contexts, and are deeply related to the subject/object relationship that Marx and Engels called “commodity fetishism.” The subjectivities Fernbach discusses have economic contexts ranging from the largely white, middle-class society of the Internet and Fernbach’s ‘technopagans’, to the business-men slaves of dominatrix, to the art economy of Stelarc’s performance art. If sexual subjectivities are inextricable from their cultural and economic contexts, then these larger economic and ideological structures are central to any investigation of sexual subjectivities.

This hiatus in Fantasies of Fetishism is in one sense understandable – until recently it has been a hiatus in the subject of fetishism itself. If the dilemma of the twentieth-century was how to reconcile the massive, and often contradictory, contributions made by theorists of “private” subjectivity – psychoanalysts such as Freud and Lacan – with the critiques of structures of power and mass social organisations such as those by Foucault and Marx, then fetishism, central as it is to both systems, is the point at which those systems would productively connect. Even Haraway’s utopia-through-dystopia vision of subjectivity is premised on the negotiations of the ‘cyborg’ with and within the dominant global economic structures. But Marx appears nowhere in the index of Fantasies of Fetishism, and commodity fetishism is only mentioned twice in passing.

This kind of negotiation would focus Fernbach’s analysis, especially in her discussion of proliferation. The proliferation of subjectivities and the proliferation of fetishisms are together lauded by Fernbach, and represent a point from which to start negotiations about what is ‘truly’ a subversive fetishism, and what is a “classical fetishism.” However, proliferation also is inextricably part of capitalism, as the super-abundance and plurality of postmodernity attests. Proliferation is not, of itself, an inherently liberatory movement, as Foucault so clearly established as a framework for his discussions of sexuality in The History of Sexuality Volume 1, when he lists some of the many other ‘perversions’ that were categorised – and constructed in that process of categorisation – during the nineteenth century; most significantly the “homosexual”, as well as “those minor perverts”, “zoophiles and zooerasts”, “auto-monosexualists”, “mixoscopophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophiles, sexoesthetic inverts, and dyspareunist women” (43- 44). With these as examples, Foucault argues that the proliferation of sexual perversions occurred from within, and expanded, the existing discursive formations around sexuality. Fetishism, as a perversion, has its place in this list, and as Fernbach identifies in her discussion around the “classical fetishism” that serves to regulate normative sexuality, it comes out of a hegemonic discourse. Fetishism’s central place in the economic theory of capitalism, as Marx understood it, then suggests that the proliferation that Fernbach sees as a positive plurality is an essential part of capitalism’s own reproductive function. Discussions of the proliferation of fetishism, then, would surely be most productive when viewed in relation to capitalism’s proliferatory imperative.

Fernbach’s categories themselves beg a greater consideration of the economic processes/structures behind the instances of fetishism that constitute them, most of which are located firmly within sub- or micro-cultures – themselves an area of much recent theoretical analysis. The fetishisms of contemporary club-land that Fernbach discusses, with their focus on the machinic and the cyborg and personal sexual subjectivities, might be productively viewed in relation to the financial structures that generate and maintain the value-invested relations between subject and object, sexual subject and commodity fetish. Fernbach passingly hints at the complexity of commodity fetish/sexual fetish intersections in specific instances, such as in her discussions of the relation between middle-class white male ‘technopagans’ and their desire to escape or transcend a subject position that is called into question and threatened by philosophical and cultural shifts away from the white male subject position as ‘subjectivity’ itself. And in the discussion of the practicing dominatrix, Fernbach acknowledges that the predominance of white middle-aged affluent men in the role of the willing (and paying) slave has a direct relation to capitalism, but she doesn’t go further than that acknowledgement. The relations between capitalism and commodity, commodity and fetishism, are not taken on explicitly by Fernbach, though the chapter on ‘real-world’ practices raises questions about that relation: even if the dominatrixes are re-defining sexual subjectivities with an agency they are claiming for themselves as women, how does this sit with their relation to the commodity fetishism of capitalism? More generally, how does the commodity fetishism of capitalism in which we are all engaged relate to the agencies of women in their deployments of fetishistic practices? Is it truly “decadent fetishism” that facilitates subversive identity construction if subjectivity fetishism is always inextricably bound (in leather) to the reified object of the commodity fetish in capitalism?

In Fantasies of Fetishism Amanda Fernbach argues that, in the contemporary context, fetishism has proliferated as both an aesthetic and as a trajectory of potential subversion of normative categories of subjectivity. But she privileges gender over all other axes of operation. While there is no consideration of the relations between the commodity fetishism of capitalism and the fetishism of the sexual subject, that trajectory of potential subversion seems too much like the utopian transcendence envisioned by the white male technopagans of Fernbach’s study.


Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Post-Human by Amanda Fernbach is published by Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002.

Kate Livett is currently doing her PhD on Gertrude Stein and fetishism in the School of English at the University of New South Wales. She writes a weekly column called ’20-something’ for the Tasmanian newspaper The Mercury.


Foucault, Michel. .The History of Sexuality Volume 1, Tr. Robert Hurley. London: A. Lane, 1978.

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