Fetishism Fetishism. What does one imagine upon hearing that word? Perhaps many imagine leather, silk, satin or fur in which they associate these such items in a sexual manner. That is the more typical answer, but beyond that there do exists other meanings and definitions. In the beginning, fetishism took on a meaning of animism (the belief that lifeless things have a spirit), but in the past two hundred years, fetishism got reconstructed and recast twice: once in terms of economics and once in terms of psychoanalysis. Fetish is thought to derive from the Portuguese feitico meaning “magic charm” or a “thing made” (Sargent 151). In the eighteenth century, the Portuguese sailors would use that word to describe bits of carved wood which were worn on strings around necks or hung on doorways. The bits of carved wood would sometimes be shaped into a figure with scowly faces that was at times decorated with cowrie shells. A less appealing fetishes would be consisted of nothing but a bit of stiff, oddly stained rag tied to a stick. Not at all times were these fetishes made out of wood. Others would be made of snail shells, nut husks, leopard whiskers, lion teeth, etc. They might be anointed or stuffed with the ashes of certain medicinal plants; gums, spices, and resins; eyeballs of animal or human remains. These fetishes were not only seen in the locations mentioned above, but also hung from bows of fishers’ canoes to provide a safe voyage, tied to hunters’ arms to ensure good aim and were draped over plants in a garden to prevent pestilence and theft. Some were good and some were bad, but all had great mysterious powers. These fetishes were made and consecrated in special ceremonies by ogangas (”magical doctors” or “spiritual leaders”) (Wilson, Adorned, 114). According to Leah Hager Cohen, the Portuguese sailors’ name for such a complicated device, feitico, took on a second definition “that which is made in order to make,” which was something more complex. The meaning of a thing enchanted, bewitched, invested with a charmed and potent spirit — as were the fetishes: they had the power to make the rains come, to make you fall in love with your neighbor and so on. This is what the people believed and from no more than that faith sprang the objects’ power (200). Shortly after the birth of fetishism, all over the world people made them, had them and saw them. The range for such fetish objects were unlimited and endless. Anything became a fetish object. The Ancient Lapps managed to put their beliefs in the most dullest, inanimate object – a stone. In churches during the Middle Ages, stones were anointed with oil, blood, and wine as offerings to the spirits within. People from North America to Africa to Siberia fetishized stones from our Mother Earth. Since then, the natural surroundings of the earth became a fetish. People have paid worship with prayers and sacrifice to water which was belived to be alive with spirits. In Acra, a pitcher would be cast into a river so that it may travel across other rivers and streams and act as a messenger. The people hoped that it would gather water from other rivers and streams and return to irrigate the fields. Peruvians gave great regards to the sea as their supreme deity. They made offerings to the salty water of animal entrails, blood and gold before they set sail. Other natural surroundings such as the winds, hurricanes, rainbows, rains, and trees were also common fetishes. The Payagu s of South America would take a burning stick and run against the hurricane to frighten it away. The rainbow was thought to be a bringer of wealth or fortune, or as a passageway between mortal and divine realms. Druids would act as protection against evil fairies during the christmas. The Greeks of Dodona would hear rustling in oak leaves which would be considered as a sacred language. For the Germans, mandrake plants and jack-in-the-pulpits were both thought to be house magic. If someone were to pick one, a terrible dark scream would rip from the earth and the picker would die on the spot. But, if you managed to gently remove a mandrake from the soil without causing it any pain and then wash it in red wine and wrap it in red and white pieces of silk bathing it every Friday and giving it new vestments at the new moon, it would reveal your fortune. In additiion to nature, animals and humans have been classified as fetishes too. The eye of an elephant has been linked with the presence of a deity, thus making the animal sacred. Similar accounts have been made to cows, snakes, tigers, sharks, monkeys and butterflies. As for the human specie, we have created a special link to the albinos, hunchbacks, twins, dwarves. If a slave were one of the listed, she would be granted her freedom, or her lock of hair might be sold as holy freedom. In the medievel Europe, peddlers passed off little sacks of unreconizable materials as remnants of some dead saint’s or martyr’s body. It could be a bit of bone from the pinky finger, a tooth, or some burned ashes from the dead corpse. Today, some people dangle crosses or figurines from the rearview mirror which is meant to grant us safety while driving, while others may carry a “lucky” penny or a rabbits foot to bring about good luck. The economic sense of fetishism was written by Karl Marx in Das Kapital, in which he states all commodities are fetishes. The instant an object becomes a commodity, a special kind of fetishism attaches itself to it. He speaks of commodities as having “mystical” and “enigmatic” characters. He says of an ordinary table that “once it has entered the realm of the commodity, it evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its free will” (Bullough 114). The fetish of the commodity is the value that people collectively assign to it. When we grant commodities with a specific value, a character tied not with price, a fetish begins instantly. The object that holds only a price value is masked by its true identity. Leah Hager Cohen argues that “the whole idea of a thing being worth . . . forty bucks . . . is strictly a human conceit layered onto the object in question. There is nothing more objectively real about the value inhabiting each product than there is about the spirit inhabiting a scrap of tree bark — except that we all agree to behave as though such value is objectively real and we revere it daily by acts of exchange” (207). A green apple is not a tart, shining, globe of fruit; it is not a sign of autumn, rather, it is fifty cents, a product of a crop. But once an object passes back out of the realm of commodities, its identity shifts again. The apple with a value of fifty cents later takes on a new character we assign it. It might then smell sweet and delicious reminding us of a pie. A house, for another example, has its investment character. It has an identity as a piece of real estate value, covered by an animus of laughter, sorrows, and family. Hence, the result is simply one fetish, one powerful imagined identity, replacing another. Nowhere does what Marx called the true nature of the object rise to the surface. It has already been rinsed away by the original act of submitting it into the area of commerce and profit. The truth beyond the fetish’s mirage is the relationship of laborer to product (Cohen 209).
If it is a stretch for us to see the real identity in an object, it is because we have commidified it so much. It is hard to think of anything so sacred that it lies beneath the commidification. In the old days, the lands, prairies, tides, cliffs, deserts, was not property. They had no monetary value. The people who inhabited this continent didn’t even think about owning the land or anything else that didn’t belong to us. But today, anything we can own, we commidify. We have commidified things like trees, rocks and animals. We can pay for services to have someone else’s horse mate with us. We cannot purchase sunshine, but we can buy or rent space where the sunshine will fall. Even water, unless it falls from the sky, is owned by someone as part of their property. All of this information which appears to be commidification plays a part in reinforcing the mask, the idea that anything in it’s purest form can be disguised in terms of price. Even human beings have found a way to commidify themselves. Today, we can buy, rent, or sell, legal or not , sperm, eggs, sexual intercourse, organs, babies. If we have commidified even ourselves, what does that make of us? “In that regard, we, like all the products we gather and clutch to us, wear masks . . . trapped in our grotesque fetish mask” (Cohen 219). Within the field of psychoanalysis, fetishism occurs when the sexual goal is a body part, a fabric or inanimate object rather than the whole human being. Any article of clothing such as bras, lingerie, panties, stocking, etc. and materials made of leather, rubber, silk or fur are among the common fetish objects. People with a sexual fetish would act on urges or engage in a fetishistic manner by stroking such object while fantasizing about it. (Sargent 151). The fetishist has his attention focused on the fetish object and his attention remains almost totally there. He may shift his attention temporarily so that enjoyment of other sex activities can be maximized, but his overall mental concentration will remain on the fetish object itself (Donn 98). In certain rare cases, he will be unable to achieve sexual satisfaction unless the object is physically present. This fetishistic act is usually practiced in private and involves masturbation or is incorporated with a willing partner (Sargent 151). If a partner is involved, X will dress or allow Y to dress in materials or clothes that the fetishist finds attractive. This level of dressing will be the only physical manifestation necessary to make the fetishist happy, as shown in the example below from Colin Wilson’s The Misfits. When my husband first told me about his preference, I must admit that I was puzzled, slightly frightened and somewhat resentful. In the end, however, it turned out to be making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill about it. Nowadays, I occasionally wear the sort of things he likes me to wear, and, although I think it makes me look a bit stark, it makes him so happy that I haven’t the heart to stop altogether (49). If the fetishist’s behavior is more compulsive, it is less likely that a partner would be involved. The reason for this is that as the intensity of the fetishistic behavior increases, it becomes apparent that the fetish object, rather than the partner, is the sexual goal. The compulsive fetishist will show a greater attachment with the object. The following case from Sexual Variations by Chris Gosselin & Glenn Wilson is an example of a more intense fetishist: . . . his first memory of rubber, the fetish material that now dominates his sexual life, was the smell and feel of a hooded jacket and overalls made of rubber-backed cotton that he wore during some of his walks in the country in search of wildlife. “In such a situation,” he says, “one is alone, undistracted by any stimulus coming in and highly sensitized to everything. Under these circumstances it seems to me inevitable that I should have begun to turn on to something, especially something which proclaimed itself, by smell and noise and the heating effect upon my body, like that rubber did. The odd point about it is that I don’t remember it at the time having anything to do with sex.” It was in fact not until the age of fourteen that Mr. W. had what he describes as “the sort of experience that you psychologists fellows dream about.” He had, he says, returned from a country walk, dressed in his waterproof outfit. He called out to see if his mother was at home. At first, she didn’t answer him, but after a while she came downstairs and greeted him. After a while, his uncle appeared as well: “And although nothing was said, I somehow was convinced that they had been having sex together.” His marriage was “happy enough” in his own estimation. Never once did he mention his fetishistic leanings to his wife, although he bought appropriate literature and was acquiring a small collection of rubber garments kept either in the garden shed or in the trunk of his car. He would dress in these when his wife was out of the house, achieving orgasm some time by masturbation. He states that he was perfectly well able to satisfy his wife sexually by conventional techniques . . . his fantasies during intercourse were, however, nearly always fetish-oriented. After fifteen years of marriage, Mr. W’s wife died. . . his fetish collection grew speedily . . . in his house is a complete “rubber room” lined throughout with curtains of the same material and containing two large cupboards full of rubber garments, gas masks, photographic and other equipment. He has in the past visited specialist prostitutes to play out some aspect of his fantasies, but now does not do so, feeling that he has all he needs for sexual satisfaction without leaving his house.These two cases with different intensity levels are examples of men with fetishes with certain cloth materials or clothing. Elizabeth Wilson states that “fashion, indeed, brings the two together in an intimate relationship, and the offspring of this relationship is fetishism. For fetishists sex is in a particularly stark way ‘in the mind” (95). An interesting factor of the fetishistic activities these days is that the focus of attention appears to have changed. Classical case histories recorded a wide variety of target stimuli: parts of bodies, items of clothing, materials, and other inanimate objects. However, these days, fetishism is being directed toward a specialized range of garments and materials in leather, vinyl and rubber. This apparent change is not surprising as society’s acceptance of the fact that “bodies are for touching” has probably reduced the attraction of body parts as a fetish object.