February 2007

Jason B. Jones


Cultures of Fetishism by Louise J. Kaplan

Cultures of Fetishism is not, alas, about the florid, quasi-theatrical sexual practices most people associate with the word. Indeed, it's not primarily about sexuality at all. Instead, Kaplan introduces a term, the "fetishism strategy" to describe a set of cultural practices and discourses which, she argues, impede psychological, social, and sexual health. Kaplan is an energetic, kaleidoscopic writer, able to suggest connections between apparently quite disparate cultural texts without recourse to overmuch jargon. Kaplan is an analyst, and the author of several significant works on varying topics -- for example, adolescence, female perversion, mother-daughter bonds, etc. -- yet her relationship to psychoanalytic writing is perhaps unorthodox. There isn't much clinical material here, nor are there detailed diagnostic or etiological considerations, nor yet much in the way of recourse to an explicit theoretical frame. Instead, all of these things are steeped into her prose, such that her insights flash somewhat unexpectedly on the page. While I have some reservations about her argument's specificity and, ultimately, about its vision of sexuality, Cultures of Fetishism is a thought-provoking book.

Kaplan's concept of the fetishism strategy has five different parts. First, she says that all fetishism involves "transform[ing] something or someone with its own enigmatic energy and immaterial essence into something or someone that is material and tangibly real, a form of being that makes the something or someone controllable." The foot fetishist abjectly cleans his partner's feet, on this model, to avoid the mystery of "what does this woman want?" This makes good sense: The fetishist thinks, "She wants this," where, conveniently, this is exactly the thing I also want. (What the fetishist thinks about his object is a bit of a construction, of course. As Joan Copjec has put it in Imagine There's No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation, "the pervert's own activity... cannot be subjectivized, but is experienced by the pervert as imposed on him by the ineluctable will of the Other." Consciously, the foot fetishist is probably aware that his partner derives no great pleasure from his attention to her feet, but, in the act, it's as if he serves her whim.)

Second, "fetishism transforms ambiguity and uncertainty into something knowable and certain and in doing so snuffs out any sparks of creativity that might ignite the fires of rebellion." This is largely the same point, although it does hint more explicitly at Kaplan's basic idea, that fetishists (or, pursuers of the fetishism strategy) are basically scared tyrants, afraid, usually, of female sexuality. What's slightly puzzling here is Kaplan's apparent belief that what is transformed is intrinsically part of another person, especially the current sexual partner. If we're going to call fetishism defensive (which I'm not sure is a given), surely what fetishism guards against is less the specific threat of the partner's sexuality than some unconscious conflict. That conflict may well be related to the sexuality of another, but it's probably not this other. Also, a classic, even stereotypical manifestation of fetishism is that of the successful man who sexually craves abjection and humiliation. It's not self-evidently clear that this situation is always a rejection of ambiguity in the name of certainty, though it certainly could be.

Third, fetishism, foregrounds certain details (the foot, the corset) in order to hide other aspects of psychological life, and especially it "disguises and covers over the absences that would otherwise remind us of something traumatic." Most of psychoanalytic thought addresses in some way this tension between foreground and background, and so it's hardly shocking that fetishism should engage it in some way. What would have been more useful, as I'll suggest in a moment, is a way to differentiate a fetishistic manipulation of foreground/background from, say, a neurotic or repressive one. The fourth feature is that the fetishist's chosen object will be "more deadened or distanced from human experience" when faced with a "more dangerous and unpredictable... threat of desire." The necrophiliac is probably defending against a stronger threat than is the foot fetishist. Beyond this, Kaplan asserts, what the fetishist craves is the reliability of the object. Maybe my partner won't please me or will be disappointed in my performance, the fetishist seems to believe, but her hosed feet trampling my face assuredly will. The final feature of the fetishism strategy, Kaplan argues, is that the "death drive tints itself in erotic color." Fetish practices lend the glamour of Eros to acts that are either physically or psychically deadly. I'll be returning to this in a moment.

I've used sexual images to elucidate Kaplan's definitions even though she repeatedly says that the fetishism strategy is not (primarily) about sexuality, it's about culture. This is because, for Kaplan, the "fetishism strategy" is propped upon fetishism as a sexual perversion in much the same way that the psychical concept of the sexual drive is propped upon -- that is, emerges complexly from -- the biological mechanics of sexuality. (This argument will be familiar to those conversant with Jean Laplanche.) There are two things to say about this as a strategy. First, it belongs to the pure strain of psychoanalytic rhetoric, wherein something physical is transmuted into something psychical. And second, this allows Kaplan a certain argumentative flexibility, which frequently amounts to having her cake and eating it, too. It's pretty clear that she's relying on the ickiness -- to use the technical term -- associated with fetishists to color our reactions to the cultural phenomena she critiques.

It also leads to a pretty severe definitional crisis, which takes two different forms. In part because this is a work of cultural criticism rather than psychoanalytic theory, there are no guidelines given for distinguishing fetishism from other modes of psychic defense. After all, the book's very first page says that "the need to transform something unfamiliar and intangible into something familiar and tangible is one of the major principles of the fetishism strategy." But isn't this just defense? How can we distinguish hysteria from fetishism? Or the rituals of an obsessive? At some level, if transforming the unfamiliar to the familiar is "a major principle of the fetishism strategy," then aren't education and philosophy, even reason itself, fetishistic? So broad a brush risks blurring the conceptual picture overmuch. The second definitional problem emerges from the first: If we're going to use so broad a definition of the fetishism strategy, then it's unclear what counts as the fetishism strategy, except "stuff I don't like." While that's satisfying in it's way, of course, it also rather limits the conceptual purchase of the book -- or, perhaps, it ensures that the book amounts to a provocation only, rather than a coherent critique. Kaplan writes interestingly on a whole series of cultural forms -- biography and other lifewriting, footbinding, tattooing and cutting, and so forth -- and always incites thought, but it's not clear how generally useful the arguments are.  

I wanted to close this review by commenting on Kaplan's aversion to the death drive, or, rather, her apparent conviction that fetishism inappropriately introduces eroticism into the death drive. On Kaplan's argument, a non-fetishistic sexuality would be free from aggression and would honor the mysterious enigma of the partner. This is flatly unconvincing for all sorts of reasons: It's not clear that there's a difference between Eros and the death drive (as Leo Bersani once observed, it's not clear that people like having sex, as opposed to experience the need to have it); it's not clear what opening oneself to the enigma of the other would mean, sexually speaking; indeed, it's not even clear that the other person, as a whole person, is meaningfully present to our psyches at all during sex. What's worse, I think, is that the confusion of persons (and how we should treat people in the world, perhaps especially our sexual partners) with the psychic and fantasmatic objects upon which we erotically fixate is a mistake. It asks too much of people, setting us up for failure: More than this, I would argue that the confusion between people and objects is the mistake of the fetishist (that is, of the fetishist whose sexual practice makes him or her miserable, rather than those who get along fine with it). More broadly, such a confusion would probably make for lousy sex, too. If moving away from the fetishism strategy means uncoupling Eros and Thanatos, it's not worth it.

Cultures of Fetishism by Louise J. Kaplan
Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN: 978-1-4039-6968-2
222 pages