Naive desire and coffee table fetishism

Anna Munster

Fantasies of Fetishism

Fantasies of Fetishism

There is an obvious aesthetic comparison to be made between the cultures of contemporary S&M fetishism found in glossy magazines such as Skin Two and global fetish clubs, and cyberpunk fantasies of the last 2 decades, spawning their own sartorial techflesh codes. In fact spaces such as Sydney’s infamous Hellfire Club and those within popular culture (The Matrix films for example) already exist and testify to the regular meeting and interchange of postindustrial, cyber and sexual fetishism. It seems odd, given fetishism’s entry into the mainstream, that we have had to wait until now for the kind of sustained cultural analysis of this phenomenon found in Amanda Fernbach’s Fantasies of Fetishism. It is this very proliferation of forms of fetishism that provides fodder for her academic investigation, which simultaneously acknowledges the publishing industry’s demands for fetishisation: it’s presented as a hybridised cultural studies coffee table book. The book provides just enough theory to titillate, while a range of large format black and white photos offer glimpses of club freaks; features objects of worthy art criticism such as Stelarc; and provides some free advertising for New York’s professional dominatrix community.

Although Fernbach’s book should provide a much needed cross-subcultural study of the pervasiveness of millennial fetishes, most of it is a diatribe against the psychoanalytic theory of fetishism. In classic Freudian terms, the fetish provides a mechanism of both acknowledgement and refusal; a disavowal that the male subject uses to hide his traumatic sighting of the female genitals. The fetish, such as fur, lace, whip or cane, is the last thing he remembers seeing before his moment of horror and so he clings to it ferociously, worshipping and adoring it above all else. As in many post-Freudian feminist readings, Fernbach suggests that Freud sustains a phallic sexual economy in which women are always seen as lacking and threatening to male sexuality.

Her contribution to a more nuanced understanding of the contemporary fetish comes through suggesting other forms of fetishism that can come to terms with the transformative and transgressive qualities of present fetishistic fantasies. She introduces new and old alternatives for understanding posthuman, S&M, technopagan and cyborgian fantasies. These range from decadent fetishism, in which she compares fin de siècle culture with millennial crises of disintegration, to magical and pre-oedipal fetishism. This strategy proves useful when she undertakes a reading of, for example, Stelarc, suggesting the many competing fantasies at work in the man who needs his body to interface with the technology he claims is overcoming it. However her overall analysis is haunted by a naïve desire to always configure the cyberpunk, the dominatrix, the club kid as radically transgressive, whereas anything mainstream, such as the cosmetic industry, remains trapped within classical Freudian fetishism. Ultimately this has the effect of holding onto the Freudian fetish as an object against which we should fight the good fight until the very last of the book’s 230 pages.

There is something lacking academically in Fernbach’s conceptual apparatus that I found surprising in a book that stakes so broad an interdisciplinary theoretical claim. For the fetishism lacking in Fantasies of Fetishism is contemporaneous with both Freud’s and our time: the commodity fetish. There is a corpus of theoretical work as rich as the psychoanalytic understanding of the fetish from Adorno, Benjamin, Baudrillard and beyond, that analyses consumerism as a culture of the commodity fetish. Here the commodity, like Freud’s fetish, disavows the social relations of consumerist exchange that provide the fetishised object with its value. And yet this hardly rates a mention in Fernbach’s book. If it had, it may have proved more difficult for her to paint the technofetishist and commercial S&M world as necessarily transgressing subjective norms. For the utopian, pre-dotcom crash desire to remake the self via the gadgetry of cybernetic hard and software, along with the belief that the commercial dominatrix is a figure autonomously choosing her professional destiny, belong to the fantasy of individual freedom that is the bedrock of consumer fetishism. The libertarian philosophy of both subcultures can be found strewn across the glossy pages of Black and Blue (advertorial for the US commercial S&M community) and Mondo 2000. Fernbach’s failure to acknowledge consumerist culture in the structuring of contemporary fetishisms, and her dated choice of material for analysis, keep the book in a kind of mid-90s bubble of longing for the coming techno-queer cultural revolution.

Amanda Fernbach is an Australian writer who has published widely on the subject of feminism, and lives in New York.

Amanda Fernbach, Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Posthuman, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2002, ISBN: 0748616160

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 12

© Anna Munster; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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