Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)
Vol. 5 No. 4, February 2001
Curiously, Fetishism Can Be Fun
_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). 
'I still stand by my 'Visual Pleasure' argument . . .' (Laura Mulvey,
_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
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
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.  (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,  and of Steve Neale 
or Richard Dyer , 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_. ) 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.  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'  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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