"Clip from The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)" GIPHY.
Accessed April 7, 2019. https://giphy.com/gifs/QmKEe9jP9zNBLBrRJz.
What is a “fetish?” Traditionally speaking, it’s a material object with spiritual power. The word comes from the Portuguese feitiço for “charm” and Latin facere, “to make” – attributed to sailors in the 1600s who dismissed the worldviews of the West African peoples with whom they traded. Nowadays, however, “fetish” has a sexual connotation – thanks to English sexologist Havelock Ellis. By 1901, “certain perversions of the sexual instinct, the person, part of the body, or particular object belonging to the person by whom the impulse is excited” were considered a fetish.
But let’s return to the original definition. As Peter Stallybrass discusses in his essay “Marx’s Coat” in Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (edited by Patricia Spyer), Europeans had a tendency to essentialize the commodities in which they traded. Believing something like gold had inherent worth, they naively exchanged things like beads in an effort to “dupe” people from other cultures into accepting “lesser” goods (186). They couldn’t conceive of a world in which an object’s value proceeded from the people producing and consuming it – they didn’t understand that all value is inherently subjective, especially when it comes to material culture.
Stallybrass attributes this dynamic to capitalism, drawing on Karl Marx's idea of commodity fetishism (184) – such that objects are rendered abstract concepts because of the layers of subjective value embedded within them by society. I am interested in how this process connects to popular, modern-day notions of “fetishism.” Consider Alasdair Pettinger’s example in his article “Why Fetish?” –
“A lover who treasures a lock of hair, or a handkerchief, does not separate them in his mind from the image of his
beloved. But he who amasses veritable collections of such objects is becoming perverse; the associations with their
female owner may be retained, but they are also loved for themselves. Eventually abstraction (where the connection
between the particular object and the loved one is severed) gives way to generalization (where any object of that class
is a sexual object)” (9).
Pettinger describes the “perversion” of an object and the meaning that was understandably associated with it. The abstraction of this meaning, obsession over and proliferation of the object itself constitutes a “fetish.” But is a fetish (be it a sexual fixation or marketplace commodity) always a corruption of something that “naturally” preceded it? For example, a coat may have inherent value because it protects someone against the elements. However, its abstraction as a fashionable or respectable item reaches beyond that original utility into signification. As such, material culture is afforded much more power and meaning than one might anticipate – in a way that does not always logically proceed from its original intended use.
Public history emerges from this cross-section of socially constructed meaning and memory. As with Igor Kopytoff’s “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as a Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (edited by Arjun Appadurai), anything from stamps and cars to comic books and old furniture may be valued collectively (80). These things appear within the highest echelons of traditional historical institutions like the Smithsonian – carefully curated and preserved, sequestered away and occasionally displayed for the public, with millions of dollars spent to maintain it all. But to what end? Our (trans)national historical imagination is inextricably linked to our mass production and consumption. We experience and remember the world through commodities – “stuff” through the lens of capitalism.
In “Woolworth to Walmart: Mass Merchandising and the Changing Culture of Consumption” in Shopping: Material Culture Perspectives (edited by Deborah Andrews), Susan Strasser mulls over the role of large companies in this dynamic. Everything from pricing to purchasing shapes our relationship with “stuff.” As I discussed in my first blog post of this year, commodities comprise a history of social, cultural, political and economic commentaries on the human condition. As such, it’s difficult to parse material culture from merchandizing – how producers and consumers perceive one another, and how these messages are unintentionally blended in historical interpretation.