Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 4, February 2001



Kenneth MacKinnon

Curiously, Fetishism Can Be Fun




Laura Mulvey

_Fetishism and Curiosity_

London: British Film Institute, 1996

ISBN: 0-85170-5480 hbk, 0-85170-5472 pbk

xv + 175 pp.


'the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men . . .

always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified. The male

unconscious has [as one of] two avenues of escape from this castration

anxiety: . . . complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a

fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so

that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous' (Laura Mulvey on

fetishism, 1975). [1]


'I still stand by my 'Visual Pleasure' argument . . .' (Laura Mulvey,

1981). [2]


_Fetishism and Curiosity_ is an anthology of essays published, of lectures

delivered; and it is remarkable, given this background to the book's

production, that the chapters cohere so well. They convincingly unite

around the theme of fetishism, perhaps a little less so around that of

curiosity, which is best explored in the 'Pandora's Box' chapter.


The book handles such diverse films as Welles's _Citizen Kane_ and David

Lynch's _Blue Velvet_, as well as Ousmane Sebene's _Xala_, while there are

also characteristically stimulating debates on Douglas Sirk, the genre of

melodrama, and Marilyn Monroe. Mulvey finds time to move some distance from

cinema, possibly following the logic of her acceptance that movies have

lost their prime position within the entertainment industries. Thus, she

analyses the work of artists Cindy Sherman and Jimmie Durham, and considers

major topics, such as the relations of the Enlightenment to colonialism,

both economic and -- unsurprisingly in view of her analysis of fetishism --



Her principal concerns are to elucidate Freud's and Marx's understanding of

fetishism, and, more challengingly, delineate the commonalities between

what superficially appear to be their entirely different uses of the term.


Broadly, she understands the fetish as a psychological and social structure

which allows belief to take precedence over knowledge. It is, for her, on

the cusp of consciousness, 'a metaphor for the displacement of meaning

behind representation in history' (xiv). It halts time, being 'fixated on a

thing that artificially resists the changes that knowledge brings with it'

(109). The fetishist 'overrates his object and . . . secretly attaches

mysterious powers to it' (122). Furthermore, the fetish 'materialises the

unspeakable, the disavowed, the repressed' (122).


Significantly, she identifies the source of the word in what she calls

'proto-colonial exchanges' (123), starting in the mid-15th century, between

Portuguese merchants and inhabitants of the West African coast. The

Portuguese *feticio* ('witchcraft'), derived from the Latin *facticium*

('something made up to resemble something else'), produced, in pidgin,

*fetisso*. The concept of *fetisso*, with its refusal to engage with the

beliefs and practices of the inhabitants, was inherited by Dutch traders

towards the end of the next century.


In Freud, value is 'over-inscribed onto a site of imagined lack, through a

substitute object' (2). In other words, an object is valued as substitute

for 'the [non-existent] maternal penis' (2). In this way, the psyche

substitutes beauty and desire for the ugliness of the bleeding wound, the

mark of the (mis)perceived female body's castration.


Marx, on the other hand, attempts to answer the question of how the sign of

value comes to be marked on a commodity. For Marx, the commodity's value

resides in the producer's labour power. Yet, that value in the world of

bourgeois economics is, instead, established by exchange. Thus arises

commodity fetishism, or 'the disavowal of the source of its [the

commodity's] value in labour power' (4).


Possibly the most daring element in her book is Mulvey's double stroke. On

the one hand, she has detected correspondences between Freud and Marx in

their use of the term. On the other, she contends that 'Western' (more

particularly European) intellectual history was thus stamped by these

thinkers as retaining the imagined primitivism from which European merchant

traders believed that they had distanced themselves when they pronounced it

'other' through their use of the term *fetisso*. According to her reading

of Marx and Freud, bourgeois economics and the bourgeois psyche were

steeped in irrationality.


The very concept of fetishism, used by both in ironic manner, is the

clearest link between them. Both, according to Mulvey, have recourse to the

term to explain a blockage -- produced in the phobic psyche by one

reckoning, demonstrated by the other in the ability or refusal to

comprehend a symbolic system of value. Her linking of the two apparently

distinct uses of 'fetishism' is indicated with particular economy in the

following passage, arising from discussion of Monroe:


'Glamour proclaimed the desirability of American capitalism to the outside

world and, inside, secured a particular style of Americanness as an image

for the newly suburbanised white population. In this sense the new

discourse of marketed sexuality and the new discourse of commodity

consumption were articulated together, reinforcing each other as though in

acknowledgment of a mutual interest.' (48).


Her definition of 'curiosity' is as follows: 'a desire to know, as a

counterpoint to the blindness of fetishism' (xi). Referring to the mythical

Pandora's fetishistic surface image, her interpretation of Pandora's box is

that it 'contains everything that fetishism disavows', so that her

curiosity 'appears as a desire to uncover the secret of the very figuration

she represents' (59). In this way, Mulvey illustrates her point that there

is a dialectical relationship between fetishism and curiosity, and that

belief and knowledge can coexist simultaneously.


A particular strength of the book is Mulvey's insistence on history's

relevance, for example, even when, paradoxically, the genre of melodrama

seems to pose as ahistorical in the 1950s. In relation to this, she claims

the advisability of understanding its ahistoricity 'as a historical

phenomenon' (24).


The 1970s is a decade, incidentally, of particular importance to Mulvey

since that most famous of all _Screen_ articles, 'Visual Pleasure and

Narrative Cinema', appeared in 1975. She characterises it as a period when,

by means of anti-fetishisation, wholesale exorcism was aimed at -- in the

contexts of cinema and feminism, her particular concerns at the time (and,

clearly, subsequently too).


However, it is her insight into the 1950s which is most impressive.

'Fifties-ness' is explained as a collective fantasy -- 'the time of

everyone's youth in a white and mainly middle America setting, in the last

moment of calm before the storms of civil rights, Vietnam and finally

feminism' (67).


The relevance of the book to philosophy should be evident by now, surely.

It is made most explicit, though, when Hegel is mentioned as making

Oedipus's answer to the Sphinx's riddle 'the founding moment of a

subjectivity that is centred on human consciousness' (145). The riddle is

aligned by Hegel with coded, obscure meanings; Oedipus's answer with 'man's

ability to think philosophically' (145). It should be obvious that

fetishism, so fundamental to Freud's and Marx's accounts, contradicts

Hegel's conclusions. Thus, for example, 'Freud transforms Oedipus from a

figuration of human reason into a figuration of the human subordination to

unreason' (147). And yet she can still see in psychoanalysis a rational

theory of the irrational!


I have long been drawn to the work of Laura Mulvey, since my initial

acquaintance with it through 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'. This

article would be of crucial concern to film studies if for no other reason

than the massive use made of it within the subject over the last 24 years.

The massiveness of its use must surely be owed, though, to universal

recognition of the fundamental importance of its analysis. No account of

specularity, of looking relations in cinema (or, for that matter, in the

fields of, say, television or art) seems to be possible without a

re-examination of her position in 'Visual Pleasure'. That position,

declaring that man is the subject, woman the object, of seeing, and that

such seeing is a key to cinema's erotic pleasures, has been challenged,

most notably perhaps by Kaja Silverman. [3] (Silverman argues for masochism

against Mulvey's sadism in cinema's erotic viewing, and draws attention to

the strong possibility of the secret identification of males in the

diegesis (and audience) with the suffering female object.) More normally,

though, it is built upon, extended -- as in, for example, the work of Paul

Willemen, who increases the three Looks to four, [4] and of Steve Neale [5]

or Richard Dyer [6], who foreground disavowal as a means whereby men may

become covert erotic objects.


In my own teaching, I have devoted entire modules to the exploration of

Visual Pleasure and Discourses of Misogyny, with Mulvey's most celebrated

articles at the base. In my research, I have reacted against what seemed in

those same articles to be a serious underestimation of the possibilities of

male objectification and of 'reading' as an important political

intervention in the apparent tyranny of dominant meanings. Perhaps because

of the multiple readings and close analysis of her 'Visual Pleasure' and

'Afterthoughts' essays in particular, the impression sometimes forms that

her thinking is set in concrete. I suspect that it has, for many disciples.

Yet, for anybody forming such suspicions, this new book must be taken into

account. Both the ideas and the communication of the ideas mark a sometimes

breathtaking advance on those of her earlier work.


I have one or two reservations about even such a brilliant achievement as

this book represents. Might it not be illuminating to bring to bear Lacan's

phallus on Freud's albeit symbolic penis? Is it true that the popularity of

female stars far outran that of male stars? (It may not be Kristin Thompson

alone who wants to apply a corrective to Mulvey's 'overly binary argument'

here (179 n. 5). Her lack of interest throughout 'Visual Pleasure' in

exploring the (disavowed) objectification of men on screen has been

commented on extensively in my own _Uneasy Pleasures_. [7]) Again, for

example, *is* domestic melodrama primarily for women in the 1950s? Barbara

Klinger's paper, ''Local' Genres: The Hollywood Adult Film in the 1950s',

supplies a useful corrective here. [8] And can we still explain the

anorexic girl unproblematically as 'tragically act[ing] out the fashion

fetish of the female'?


Despite these niggles, Mulvey is no dilettante, whatever she claims. The

pleasure of the book lies in its constant audacity and sheer breadth and

clearly confident mastery of argument. If it has not changed my life, it

has most definitely enriched it with new ideas and a recharged notion of

the interconnectedness of things. It has certainly changed my view of the

writer. As indicated above, 'Visual Pleasure' and, to a lesser extent, her

'Afterthoughts' paper have acquired the status of holy writ in some

quarters. It might be tempting, but on this evidence quite myopic, to lose

sight of the sheer range of her insights and her openness to revision and

reconsideration. When she describes Jean-Luc Godard's stranded

avant-gardism, it seems as if she may well be talking of herself, although

she never admits as much. If her theoretical stance as a film practitioner

in 1975 seems dauntingly austere to this reader, perhaps that is how it is

for her too now. The apparent puritanism of her final words in 'Visual

Pleasure' [9] seems to have been replaced and situated from a 1990s

vantagepoint within a 1970s worldview.


Her writing now yields considerable pleasure in its own right. My favourite

moment from this point of view is when she refers to Ronald Reagan as 'the

uncanny President' -- 'made-up, artificial and amnesiac' (153).


_Fetishism and Curiosity_ is, possibly in words more proper to the

Hollywood publicity machine, a towering achievement.


University of North London, England






1. Laura Mulvey, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', in _The Visual and

Other Pleasures_ (London: Macmillan, 1989), p. 21.


2. Laura Mulvey, 'Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema'

Inspired by King Vidor's _Duel in the Sun_ (1946)', in _The Visual and

Other Pleasures_, p. 29.


3. Kaja Silverman, 'Masochism and Subjectivity', _Framework_, no. 12, 1980.


4. Paul Willemen, 'Voyeurism, the Look and Dwoskin', _After Image_, no. 6,



5. Steve Neale, 'Masculinity as Spectacle: Reflections on Men and

Mainstream Cinema', _Screen_, vol. 24 no. 6, 1983.


6. Richard Dyer, 'Don't Look Now: The Male Pin-Up', in _The Sexual Subject:

A Screen Reader in Sexuality_ (London: Routledge, 1992).


7. Kenneth MacKinnon, _Uneasy Pleasures: The Male as Erotic Object_

(London: Cygnus Arts, 1997).


8. Barbara Klinger, ''Local' Genres: The Hollywood Adult Film in the

1950s', in Jacky Bratton, Jim Cook, and Christine Gledhill, eds,

_Melodrama: Stage/Picture/Screen_ (London: British Film Institute, 1994).


9. 'Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used . . . cannot

view the decline of the traditional film form with anything much more than

sentimental regret' ('Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', p. 26).




Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


Kenneth MacKinnon, 'Curiously, Fetishism Can Be Fun', _Film-Philosophy_,

vol. 5 no. 4, February 2001





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