Fetish/Fetishistic disavowal

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French: [[fétichisme]]


The term "fetish" first came into widespread use in the eighteenth century in the context of the study of "primitive religions", in which it denoted an inanimate object of worship.

In the nineteenth century, Marx borrowed the term to describe the way that, in capitalist societies, social relations assume the illusory form of relations between things ("commodity fetishism").


It was Krafft-Ebing who, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, first applied the term to sexual behavior.

He defined fetishism as a sexual perversion in which sexual excitement is absolute dependent on the presence of a specific object (the fetish).

The fetish is usually an inanimate object such as a shoe or piece of underwear.

Sigmund Freud

Freud argued that fetishism (seen as an almost exclusively male perversion) originates in the child's horror of female castration.

Confronted with the mother's lack of a penis, the fetishist disavows this lack and finds an object (the fetish) as a symbolic substitute for the mother's missing penis.[1]

Jacques Lacan

In Lacan's first approach to the subject of fetishism, in 1956, he argues that fetishism is a particularly important area of study and bemoans its neglect by his contemporaries.

He stresses that the equivalence between the fetish and the maternal phallus can only be understood by reference to linguistic transformations, and not by reference to "vague analogies in the visual field" such as comparisons between fur and pubic hair."[2]

He cites Freud's analysis of the phrase "Glanz auf der Nase" as support for his argument.[3]

Penis and Phallus

In the following years, as Lacan develops his distinction between the penis and phallus, he emphasises that the fetish is a substitute for the latter, not the former.


Lacan also extends the mechanism of disavowal, making it the operation constitutive of perversion itself, and not just of the fetishistic perversion.

Male Perversion

However, he retains Freud's view that fetishism is an exclusively male perversion,[4] or at least extremely rare among women.[5]

Phobic Object

In the seminar of 1956-7, Lacan elaborates an important distinction between the fetish object and the phobic object; whereas the fetish is a symbolic substitute for the mother's missing phallus, the phobic object is an imaginary substitute for symbolic castration.

Preoedipal Triangle

Like all perversions, fetishism is rooted in the preoedipal triangle of mother-child-phallus.[6]

However, it is unique in that it involves both identification with mother and with the imaginary phallus; indeed, in fetishism, the subject oscillates between these two identifications.[7]


Lacan's statement, in 1958, that the penis "takes on the value of a fetish" for heterosexual women raises a number of interesting questions.[8]

Firstly, it reverses Freud's views on fetishism; rather than the fetish being a symbolic substitute for the real penis, the real penis may itself become a fetish by substituting the woman's absent symbolic phallus.

Secondly, it undermines the claims (made by both Freud and Lacan) that fetishism is extremely rare among women; if the penis can be considered a fetish, then fetishism is clearly far more prevalent among women than among men.

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

There is no unhappier creature under the sun than a fetishist who longs for a woman’s shoe but has to make do with the whole woman. (Kraus 2001: 13)

Karl Kraus’s aphorism encapsulates a key element of the fetish – a disproportionate attachment to a particular ordering or structure of desire. The fetish can be viewed as a psychological version of the fi gure of speech known as synecdoche wherein a part is used to represent the whole. Excessive attachment to the part means that the fetishist “misses the bigger picture” – in Kraus’s example, obsessive longing for a shoe displaces appreciation of the whole woman. The standard understanding of the fetish has come to be dominated by connotations of sexual perversion (the fetishist needs rubber clothing, extreme pain or humiliation, etc.), but the concept of fetishistic disavowal allows a wider understanding of the concept that enables important insights into contemporary ideological processes – the political implications and consequences of which reach well beyond the merely sexual.

Žižek frequently tells the story of a surprised visitor to the Danish nuclear physicist Niels Bohr who voiced disapproval when he saw a horse-shoe hanging above a door. Bohr replied: “I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works also if one does not believe in it!” For Žižek, the story illustrates a crucial, paradoxical element of the way in which belief works. Belief is not a simple unilinear thing; rather, it is an innately reflexive phenomenon – it is possible to believe in belief itself as opposed to the normally supposed need for there to be a content of belief. Th e seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal described the performative element of belief in relation to the Catholic Church with his injunction “Kneel down and you will believe!” but Žižek draws attention to the self-referential causality involved in such a performance: “Kneel down and you will believe that you knelt down because you believed!” (PV: 353).

The importance of the concept of fetishistic disavowal thus resides in what it says about the ideological implications of such self-referentiality – the combined terms fetishistic disavowal stem from an excessive adherence to certain beliefs and practices and a simultaneous denial of any genuine belief. To explain how this concept works in practice, Žižek uses the example of Father Christmas and the way in which parents claim they promote the story only “for the sake of the children”. He argues that beyond the youngest and most naive infants, the majority of children know that Father Christmas does not exist. In reality, the only people who truly believe in Santa Claus are the parents themselves! They pretend to pretend to believe, that is, in the guise of acting like knowing adults performing for innocent children, what really occurs is that adults hide behind a purported fantasy so that they do not have to confront their defining need to believe in the existence of innocent and guileless children – self-deception in the service of innocence!

Žižek’s theoretical insight regarding the notion of pretending to pretend to believe is that, whereas so-called “primitive” cultures develop working modes of symbolism/ideology embodied in social rituals and objects, if pushed, their members retain the ability to maintain a healthy sceptical distance towards those practices. Primitives act at a social level as if they believe, but at an individual level they may in fact demur. By contrast, “advanced” media consumers are part of a generally cynical zeitgeist but, as individuals, tend to act with uncritical belief. The split nature of this cynical disavowal-structure is encapsulated in the phrase “je sais bien, mais quand même …” (“I know very well, but even so …”), and is manifested in media formats that facilitate the deliberate overlooking of obvious ideological questions. For example, the internationally franchised TV series Secret Millionaire is premised upon the presence of a millionaire pretending to be a non-wealthy volunteer working among underprivileged people, and relies upon both the revelation of the initial secret and the maintenance of a much more substantive secret that the format encourages neither the participants nor the audience to ask, namely, what sort of society allows such wealth disparity to exist in the first place? In contrast to the primitive’s rational practice of irrationality through objects like the totem pole, Secret Millionaire’s audience unwittingly disavows through a fetishized screen more irrational than any totem pole the true secret it is watching – the systematically ideological nature of the docudrama format.

The movie Kung Fu Panda is for Žižek one of the purest representations of fetishistic disavowal. The film’s key message is that:

“I know very well there is no special ingredient, but I nonetheless believe in it (and act accordingly)…” Cynical denunciation (at the level of rational knowledge) is counteracted by a call to “irrational” belief – and this is the most elementary formula of how ideology functions today. (“Hollywood Today”)

Rather than merely a clever academic observation confined to the realm of cultural studies, the physical and hard-nosed economics of such cynical disavowal can be seen in Starbucks’ recent efforts to present elements of its franchise as independent, neighbourhood coffee shops:

In a diversion from its usual mixture of stripped wood decor and bland artwork, Starbucks is opening a store in its home city of Seattle intended to capture the vibe of a beatnik coffee hangout – and disguise the fact that drinkers are in a Starbucks. Th e store will be called 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea in an apparent attempt to mimic a local, independent coffee shop. A Starbucks spokeswoman says the place will have a “mercantile” look with open bins of coffee beans and manual grinding machines. Th ere will be live music and poetry performances. At least two other re-hashed outlets are on the way in Seattle as chairman Howard Schultz tries pushing Starbucks back towards its artsy roots. Steve Gotham, an analyst at marketing consultancy Allegra Strategies, thinks this is a smart move as customers look for differentiation among branded coffee houses: “The issue of localness and local relevance has some way to go – it’s a consumer trend more operators need to tap into.” (Clark 2009)

Both the marketing consultants and the customers availing themselves of the neo-mercantile atmosphere of carefully culturally re-engineered shops know that genuine “localness” and “local relevance” cannot be corporately generated, but proceed as if it can – the profitable exploitation of je sais bien, mais quand même.

The archetypal examples of this kind of ideological operation are the notions of commodity fetishism and electronic/paper money. We pretend to believe that money made of paper/bytes is actually worth the physical goods we buy with it and that commodities have special non-physical properties. Thus, once again in a reversal of the primitive who publicly believes, but is privately cynical, although claiming that we do not really believe that brands are special, contemporary consumers nevertheless continue to routinely pay orders of magnitude above the material value of a T-shirt if it is adorned with a logo such as the Nike swoosh. Žižek’s key point is that conscious disavowal contradictorily co-exists with practical acts that embody belief.

At the level of belief, key capitalist ideas – commodities are animate; capital has a quasi-natural status – are repudiated, but it is precisely the ironic distance from such notions that allows us to act as if they are true. The disavowal of the beliefs allows us to perform the actions. Ideology, then, depends upon the conviction that what “really matters” is what we are, rather than what we do, and that “what we are” is defined by an “inner essence” (Fisher 2006).

Whereas the distance held towards his belief by the primitive is a conscious one, our disbelief is mediated by key capitalist mechanisms – the marketplace, the media – so that Kant’s subjectively objective (a reality interpreted by the subject) becomes the objectively subjective (the subject interpreted/interpellated by reality). “Although people may claim not to believe in the political system, their inert cynicism only validates that system … the idea that the way we behave in society is determined by objective market forces rather than subjective beliefs” (Thornhill 2009). Th is introduces a significant degree of ambiguity to Rachel Dawes’s words at the end of Batman Begins: “Bruce … deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath … it’s what you do that defines you.”

See Also


  1. Freud, Sigmund.. "Fetishism", 1927e. SE XXI, 149
  2. Lacan, Jacques. "Variantes de la cure-type", in Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. [1956b]. p. 267)
  3. Freud, Sigmund. "Fetishism", 1927e. SE XXI, 149
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966. p. 734
  5. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p.154
  6. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 84-5, 194
  7. Lacan, Jacques. Le Séminaire. Livre IV. La relation d'objet, 19566-57. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Paris: Seuil, 1991. p. 86, 160
  8. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p. 290