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At the price of fetishism

Mankind's pitiful sexual history finds its most conceptual and poetic version in fetish worship.


For a few months now, I have embarked on the Don Quijote-like and enormous task of assigning a discursive form to the non-existent existence of the trans body. I do not do so for altruistic reasons, but because such a discursive invention constitutes the very condition of life for those who are at the edge of the anatomy and of the law. One of the parameters that constitutes transsubjectivity (compared with the naturalized and normal bodies of the sexes – that is, with the persons who identify with the sex ascribed to them at birth), consists in the impossibility of constructing themselves without reference to an element (be it an object, an organ, a name, a technology, an institution) that we have not been assigned and that does not belong to us: it is an object or organ that appears as something radically different, but which we nevertheless claim as both possible in general and ours in particular.

The trans body maintains a relationship of gentile differentness with its own (irregular) genitals, and more specifically with the body that medical science continues to call a prosthesis and which we call our body. It is with the object that I build another body that is enlarged or transformed and which for a short time acts and lives. Incorporating the object involves rejecting its thingness and insisting on integrating it as something living. Hence the hospitality I feel towards the prosthesis completely to consider it to be a short and external organ in my body.

Fetishism = paraphilia?

Western psychology speaks of "fetishism" to indicate the relationship of the gendered body to something it perceives as a mere and bare object. According to such a grammar, fetishism was supposed to constitute a pathological means of obtaining pleasure by eroticizing an object. The fourth edition of the Manual for Diagnosis and Statistics for Mental Disorders, DSM-IV, continues to refer to fetishism as a "paraphilia", that is, a perversion or aberration of the sexual desire in which the subject continues to incorporate an inanimate object or non-genital organ into its cycle of sexual pleasure. The subject displaces the central part of the sexual penetration of the bio-penis-bio-vagina, and switches to an object, image or non-genital organ with which it forms part of a sexual relationship. With admiration, I read the list of "fetich paraphilias" in DSM-IV: rétifism or foot fetishism, named after the French writer Restif de la Bretonne; belonephili, needle fetishism; toonophilia, cartoon fetishism; agalmatophilia, wax puppet fetishism, dacryphilia, crying and tear fetishism. 

The list is long, but allow me to quote my favorite: bronchophilia, storm fetishism. As I went through this list, I thought that humanity's pitiful sexual history finds its most conceptual and poetic version in fetish worship, the only one worthy of artistic rendering. I therefore ask myself, and I also ask my colleagues the psychologists if it is also possible today to continue using the concept of fetishism as a category to diagnose and perform clinical treatment. 

Forced restrictions

I would argue that instead of being a sign of deviance or perversion, fetishism shows us the extent of the constraints that Western modernity has imposed on life force when it was occupied with the task of fabricating a civilized sexual experience. For what if the concepts that psychology invented for the apparent purpose of increasing knowledge and treatment were in fact merely tools for a cultural operation for the purpose of annihilation, impairment and submission? 

The concepts that our modern subjects use to explain and classify the sexual experience and to understand the construction of normal and pathological subjectivity are marked by colonial violence. "Fetich" is the term used by the first Portuguese colonizers during the 1400s to give the objects that the indigenous peoples of the West African coast had a special value by making them essential elements in a ritual where the difference between living and dead, organic and inorganic, animal and human, beyond the taxonomies that Christian thinking had followed in the Middle Ages. "Fetich" therefore became the term by which European colonial merchants and missionaries could banish such objects and rituals to witchcraft and to primitive and pathological experiences that should be eradicated.

Key concepts in sexual psychology

In the colonial world of imagination, the term has fetishism served to legitimize slavery and imperial politics. Western reason has unmasked the ritual and erotic connection to the inorganic by qualifying it as witchcraft, pathology, and primitivism, and then rescuing it exceptionally and by the legitimacy that the market and academia could give it as "art." Within colonial modernity, the fetish could go hand in hand: from the traveling writer Charles de Brosses to the economist Sir William Petty, from this to Kant, from Kant to Hegel, from Hegel to Auguste Comte, and from here to Marx in 1842, where it came into being commodity fetishism, a central concept in the socialist critique of capitalism. It was already interesting that the African relationship to the inorganic materiality had been interpreted both as religious sanctity and sorcery and as economic and political pathology, but it is even more fascinating that fetishism has become a key concept in modern sexual psychology.

In 1887, the psychologist Alfred Binet, best known for inventing the first experimental methods to measure intelligence, wrote "Fetichisme dans l'amour" – "Fetichism in love", a short dissertation in which the transfer of the sexual instinct of the sexual organs to an object being referred to as pathological. A few years later, Freud makes the fetish the key to understanding the difference between heterosexuality and perversion: fetishists treat objects like fetishes, while for heterosexuals, the penis and vagina have become the only good fetishes. Freud thus inherits the colonial violence that invented the fetish, and he creates it as mental health. What would our sexuality not have been if Freud had been an African? 

Article. "Eloge du fétichisme" was printed in Libération June 29, 2018
and is translated from French by Carsten Juhl.
Precadio is an author, philosopher, curator focusing on identity, gender, pornography, architecture and sexuality. Residing in Barcelona.

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