Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 5, February 2001



David Sorfa

Hieroglyphs and Carapaces

The Enigmatic Real in Laura Mulvey's _Fetishism and Curiosity_




Laura Mulvey

_Fetishism and Curiosity_

London: British Film Institute, 1996

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

xv + 175 pp.


'It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty destroys it. That is the

intention of this article.' Laura Mulvey [1]


Laura Mulvey's 1975 article is probably one of the most debated pieces of

film theory, and is still a staple of undergraduate film courses (usually

to the dismay of film students who, in contemporary Britain at least, seem

to feel that any work that classes itself as feminist is total anathema).

[2] Linda S. Kauffman writes that Mulvey's essay has 'taken on a life of

its own', but that many readers have 'failed to notice that the essay

itself belongs to a very specific genre: it is a manifesto'. [3] Mulvey

herself traces the history of feminist thought in _Fetishism and Curiosity_

and writes that: 'Film theory of the 70s was political and polemical, and,

in this spirit, argued that cinematic illusion worked as a total belief

system at the expense of its ability to balance belief with knowledge' (9).

It is within this understanding of Mulvey's work as essentially polemical

that I wish to position _Fetishism and Curiosity_ . It is, however, a

daunting task to review a book by one of our field's most well known, if

variously received writers, and I can only ask forgiveness in advance for

any errors in scholarship that my text must, undoubtedly, contain. I also

take it for granted that the reader is conversant with Freud's short 1927

article, 'Fetishism', and will not spend time rehearsing his arguments. I

have also attached two short postcripts to the end of this review which

deal with Mulvey's discussion of commodity fetishism, and with her third

chapter on Douglas Sirk. I feel that these observations do not fit into the

overall structure of my main argument.


_Fetishism and Curiosity_ is a collection of previously published articles

(the only exception being the third chapter on Marilyn Monroe which comes

from a lecture series) that have been adapted and expanded for this

edition. Mulvey states in her preface that she has 'remained an 'essayist'

and 'dilettante'' (xii) and so the book tends to read as a rather disparate

collection of occasional pieces loosely tied together by the two concepts

of fetishism and curiosity. As will become clear in this review, these

concepts are not developed exclusively, apart from her excellent discussion

of fetishism in the Introduction, and, at best, function as useful focus

points for her discussions, while, at worst, they seem to be introduced

merely for the sake of the title of the book. Perhaps this is an unfair

criticism, especially so early on in this review, but a more sustained

development of her introductory explication of fetishism would have been



I would like to begin by examining Mulvey's political project within this

book, by considering her understanding of the real and its relation to

society. She argues that, 'if a society's collective consciousness includes

its sexuality, it must also contain an element of collective

unconsciousness' (xiii). This leads her to the conclusion that, since she

is interested in the cinema's 'ability to materialise both fantasy and the

fantastic', the cinema is 'phantasmagoria, illusion and a symptom of the

social unconscious' (xiv). For Mulvey, then, cinema functions much like the

speech of the analysand on the psychoanalyst's couch: what we see on the

screen can be interpreted as containing a latent meaning that reflects the

desires and problems of that cinema's contemporary society. [4] This

understanding of meaning as being on two levels (the conscious and the

unconscious) is one that permeates Mulvey's thinking and is fundamental to

her understanding of 'curiosity'. It is the curious interpreter that is

able to read the hidden messages within culture and its products, and so

she sees culture as a 'fetish' which hides within itself the truth of its

production. She writes: 'The 'presence' can only be understood through a

process of decoding because the 'covered' material has necessarily been

distorted into the symptom' (xiv). This argument allows Mulvey to conclude:

'The fetish is a metaphor for the displacement of meaning behind the

representation in history, but fetishisms are also integral to the very

process of the displacement of meaning behind representation. My interest

here is to argue that the real world exists within its representations'

(xiv). I am not entirely sure what the force of the phrase 'real world' has

here. If there is such a thing as the 'real world', the existence of which

is only manifest in readings of the representations of that 'real world',

how would one be sure that one has managed to find the 'real' and correct

interpretation of those representations, and thus be able to claim

knowledge of the 'real world'? She speaks of the 'incontrovertible reality

of intense human suffering', and proclaims that 'the Gulf War did happen,

in spite of what Baudrillard may claim' (xiv-xv). I realise that I write

this within the context of the conflict in Yugoslavia and therefore hope

not to be too glib in asking why 'human suffering' would have any more

claim to 'reality' than any other form of human experience, even that of

going to the cinema?


It is in this argument that Mulvey refers to a third term that I think is

intrinsic to her understanding of interpretation: difficulty. 'And over the

human tragedy, like a nuclear cloud, hang the difficult to decipher

complexities of international politics and economics' (xv). It is in this

difficulty, in the representation's unwillingness to easily provide

meaning, in the dream's recalcitrance in the face of the analyst, in the

cinema's refusal to be unproblematically understood, that Mulvey seems to

find the exhilaration which gives her work its force. In describing the

work of the _Cahiers du cinema_ critics, she characterises the critic's

search 'to find a command of cinematic language hidden under the surface of

the text. The process was a kind of decipherment; its pleasure, as well as

in cinema as such, was in detection' (21). It is this fascination with

detection that I will explore in this article and try and place her use of

fetishism and curiosity within this context.


In her writing Mulvey uses a number of similes and metaphors -- fetishism

'like a grain of sand in the oyster that produces the pearl' (3) or the

'Hollywood cinema of the studio system had as many separate but intermeshed

layers as an onion' (25) -- but the two images to which she constantly

returns are those of the carapace and the hieroglyph. I want to trace the

use of these terms within _Fetishism and Curiosity_ because I feel that

they reveal more explicitly the concerns with which Mulvey is dealing than

would a more direct discussion of the terms of her title. I seem to find

myself in the same position as the detective of meaning, chasing a trail of

perhaps inconsequential clues, which will, I hope, in finest detective

fiction fashion, suddenly appear not to have been so trivial after all.


The Oxford English Dictionary prosaically defines a carapace as 'the upper

body-shell of tortoises and of crustaceans', and Mulvey uses this image of

a hard outer layer covering an inner, 'soft' truth as the primary metaphor

for femininity and its fetishisation. Using Julia Kristeva's definition of

abjection and Barbara Creed's later (simplified, I would argue) application

of this to horror film, [5] Mulvey characterises the cinema star's 'glossy

surface' as a 'fragile carapace' that 'shares the phantasmatic space of the

fetish itself, masking the site of the wound, covering lack with beauty. In

the horror genre, it can crack open to reveal its binary opposition when,

for instance, a beautiful vampire disintegrates into ancient slime; or in

film noir, when the seductive powers of the heroine's beauty mask her

destructive and castrating powers' (13). As the epigraph to this review

indicates, Mulvey is especially interested in those moments when the

carapace cracks: 'When the exterior carapace of feminine beauty collapses

to reveal the uncanny, abject maternal body it is as though the fetish

itself has failed' (14). It is this moment of failure that is fascinating,

and it is difficult to tell whether Mulvey feels that that failure is

inherent within the structure of the fetish as carapace or whether it is

the task of the interpreter, of Mulvey herself, to take up the lobster

hammer of critical interpretation and smash open the beautiful object to

reveal the putrid inside (as always, extended metaphors seem to lead to

rather odd illogical moments, for it is the meat within the crustacean that

is white and highly sought after).


The carapace is often aligned with 'masquerade', a term which Mulvey uses

in her description of Marilyn Monroe in her third chapter, 'Close-Ups and

Commodities': 'Marilyn's image is an ethnic image; her extreme whiteness,

her make-up, her peroxide blonde hair bear witness to a fetishisation of

race. But its cosmetic, artificial character also bears witness to an

element of masquerade. Her image triumphantly creates a spectacle that

holds the eye and distracts it from what should not be seen' (48). The

melodramatic tenor of Mulvey's style reminds me irresistibly of the Wicked

Witch in Disney's 1937 _Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs_ and, presumably,

Mulvey would see a definite link between the witch and the sex goddess, one

being the carapace of the other. As she writes of the figure of Pandora in

chapter four, 'Pandora's Box: Topographies of Curiosity': 'The surface is

like a beautiful carapace, an exquisite mask. But it is vulnerable. It

threatens to crack, hinting that through the cracks might seep whatever the

'stuff' might be that it is supposed to conceal and hold in check' (63).

Here, Mulvey seems to be implying that the carapace is always on the edge

of self-destruction, and the cinematic image that comes to my mind is that

of the huge insect-like alien covering itself uncomfortably with human skin

in _Men in Black_ (1997).


In her chapters on Cindy Sherman and Jean-Luc Godard, Mulvey makes explicit

her conflation of the female figure and cinema itself. She sees Sherman's

work as gradually moving towards a total 'defetishising' of the female body

by using an 'oscillation effect' to 'dice' with the 'credibility of the

fetish' (74), while she summarises Godard's project thus: 'If the shiny,

glossy surface fascination of the screen could be unmasked to reveal the

process of production concealed beneath it, cinema would be stripped of its

fetishistic aspects' (80). This conflation is possible because of Mulvey's

earlier explication of the metaphorical similarities between Freud's and

Marx's versions of fetishism. She writes that fetishism is 'the alchemical

link between the two' (2) and, while never completely collapsing the one

into the other, she uses the slippage of the term to move from the body of

the woman to the screen of the cinema. In either case, her goal (or her

analysis) is the same: the failure of the fetish. In the Godard chapter,

Mulvey spells out the analogy:


'The image of an exterior casing protecting an interior space or contents

from view usually carries with it the implication that if the exterior

cracks, the interior contents may disgust and possibly harm. From a

psychoanalytic point of view, the protective surface is a defence

constructed by the ego along the lines of a fetish. It denies the interior

but because it knows the exterior *is* an exterior it thus acknowledges the

interior. Female beauty, in a sense, fulfils this function by fixing the

eye on something that pleases it and prevents the psyche from bringing to

mind those aspects of the feminine that are displeasing . . . But the

cinema, too, has insides less sightly and fascinating than its screen. It

is a machine that can only work with money, and that produces a commodity

for circulation in the market, one which must also disguise the labour that

created it and its own creaky, unwieldy mechanics while it waits to be

ultimately overwhelmed by electronics' (94).


I think that, again, the over-riding metaphor of the carapace clearly

inflects Mulvey's reading of fetishism.


In chapter eight, 'The Carapace That Failed: Ousbane Sembene's _Xala_',

Mulvey explicitly deals with her use of the image of the carapace: 'I have

chosen the word 'carapace' to evoke the central poetic and political themes

in Xala in order to convey an image of vulnerable flesh covered by a

protective shell. The carapace doubles as a mask behind which the ruling

elite camouflages itself, adopting the clothes, language and behaviour of

its former colonial masters. The carapace also evokes the social structure

of neo-colonialism' (121). The carapace now stands for the female, the

cinema, and for the post-colonial subject. Whereas the carapace of the

female star and of the surface of the cinema screen seem to hide the

unpleasant mechanics of oppression, in the post-colonial milieu the

carapace 'conceals not simply vulnerable flesh, but flesh that is wounded

by class exploitation' (122). Here, I think, Mulvey has used the metaphor

to such an extent and for such diverse purposes that it has lost all

specificity and has become a rather tortured exercise in metaphorical

logic. The next sentence stretches this logic to its breaking point and the

usefulness of this metaphoric excess escapes me: 'Whereas a scab indicates

that a wound has developed its own organic means of protection, the

carapace of neo-colonialism denies and disavows the wound and prevents

healing' (122). [6] She goes on to argue that, in _Xala_, 'the fragile

carapace collapses under pressure from class politics and economics but

these pressures are expressed through, and latch onto, sexuality and work

on the body's vulnerability to the psyche' (130). Fetishism in Freud and

Marx is used here, again, to move from psyche to body, from erotics to

economics. As Mulvey concludes: Sembene's 'use of the concept of fetishism

is not an exact theoretical working through of the Marxist or Freudian

concepts of fetishism, however; his use is *Marxist* and *Freudian*' (134).


The carapace in _Fetishism and Curiosity_, then, could perhaps be explained

by a term such as 'false consciousness', or even 'ideology', and in this

sense it can be linked back to Mulvey's pre-occupation with the 'real'. In

order to be able to sustain an intellectual project based on the moral

worth of interpretive activity the critic cannot interpret blindly but must

have as a goal the elucidation of the 'real' and of 'truth'. This truth

lies beneath the carapace created by another (presumably evil) power.

Critical activity becomes a crusade against hypocrisy and oppression, where

the avant-garde (whether it be artistic or interpretive) is the only

position from which an attack on the carapace is possible. Although I

sympathise with this position I cannot but feel that it denies any active

part to the audiences that participate in popular culture (and I use the

word 'participate' to distinguish an activity which is more often termed

'consumption'). But perhaps this argument needs to be continued in



It is the importance of interpretation that lies behind Mulvey's other,

less frequent, metaphor: that of the hieroglyph, one of the meanings of

which is 'a secret or enigmatical figure' (OED). Mainly developed in her

chapter on Sembene (although prevalent throughout her discussions of the

riddle of the Sphinx and _Blue Velvet_), she develops Marx's discussion of

value as that which 'converts every product into a social hieroglyphic' [7]

and makes it almost impossible to properly decipher the true value (the

labour value) of any product within capitalism. What is important here is

not so much Marxist theories of value and labour (although her discussions

of these in terms of commodity fetishism in her introduction are exemplary

and highly recommended (3 ff.) -- see also Post-script I below) but the

emphasis on the necessity and difficulty of interpretation. She writes of

three processes that the hieroglyph evokes: 'a code of composition, the

encapsulation, that is, of an idea in an image at a stage just prior to

writing; a mode of address that asks an audience to apply their ability to

decipher the poetics of the 'screen script'; and, finally, the work of

criticism as a means of articulating the poetics that an audience

recognises but leaves implicit' (118). For Mulvey, the process of the

formation of meaning is quite straightforward. There is an idea that exists

which is then translated into a form which demands to be deciphered but

which can only be properly understood by a small group of critics who will

come and explain to the general public the true message of any 'mode of

address'. This final reading of the hieroglyph would constitute, if I have

followed Mulvey's reasoning correctly, the failure of the fetish and the

final cracking of the carapace. Presumably, this explanation of the

processes which underpin popular culture and consumer culture in general,

will have some sort of liberating effect on general society. The problem

that faces the critic is one mentioned at the beginning of this review:



She returns to the problematic of difficulty again and again throughout

these essays. She writes: 'it may always be difficult to decipher the place

of labour power as the source of value' (5); 'A shared sense of addressing

a world written in cipher may have drawn feminist film critics, like me, to

psychoanalytic theory, which has then provided a, if not the, means to

cracking the codes encapsulated in the 'rebus' of images of women' (27);

'The enigmatic text [_Citizen Kane_] that then gradually materialises

appeals to an active, curious, spectator who takes pleasure in identifying,

deciphering and interpreting signs' (99). In the introduction she writes:

'History is, undoubtedly, constructed out of representations. But these

representations are themselves symptoms. They provide clues, not to

ultimate or fixed meanings, but to sites of social difficulty that need to

be deciphered, politically and psychoanalytically . . . even though it may

be too hard, ultimately, to make complete sense of the code' (11). She does

not discuss this further, but what would be the implication of a code that

could not be cracked? A code that resisted all attempts at deciphering it?

What if there exists not a code with a secret message, a hieroglyph with a

hidden meaning, or a carapace concealing the flesh of truth, but rather a

code with no key, a world made purely of surface and of screen: a world in

which the carapace conceals nothing at all.


Mulvey seems to be quite near such a conclusion in her essay on Sherman

when she states that fetishism is 'the most semiotic of perversions' where

'its semiotic enterprise is invested in an acknowledgement of artifice',

and Cindy Sherman 'traces the abyss or morass that overwhelms the

defetishised body, deprived of the fetish's semiotic, reduced to being

'unspeakable' and devoid of significance' (74). The implication of this

would be that the fetish cannot fail, because there is nothing but the




Post-script I: Commodity Fetishism


Mulvey provides an extremely good discussion of Marxian commodity fetishism

in terms of C. S. Peirce's semiotic triad, in which she argues that money

becomes the perfect expression of the logic of the commodity fetish:


'Not only does money, as the sign of value, detach itself from the

literalness of object exchange but it also facilitates the final erasure of

labour power as primary source of value. The referent, as it were, shifts,

away from the production process towards circulation and the market, where

the commodity emerges and circulates with an apparently autonomous value

attached to it' (3).


Mulvey sees capitalism's success as depending on: 'the erasure of the marks

of production, any trace of indexicality, the grime of the factory, the

mass moulding of the machine, and most of all, the exploitation of the

worker' (4). However, she does not, I feel, satisfactorily explain how an

object would be able to retain the mark of the original value of labour. In

this regard, would it not be useful to consider Derrida's analysis of

writing in 'Signature/Event/Context' -- where communication (and what else

is economics but a communications system?) is shown to be intrinsically and

structurally based around the possibility of the absence of its author?

Derrida writes:


'To be what it is, all writing must, therefore, be capable of functioning

in the radical absence of every empirically determined receiver in general.

And this absence is not a continuous modification of presence, it is a

rupture in presence, the 'death' or the possibility of the 'death' of the

receiver is inscribed in the structure of the mark'. [8]


In Derrida, the sign must always presuppose the absence of its originator,

and surely, then, a product, in order to be realised to exist as such, must

depend on the possibility of losing touch with its producer -- thus 'labour

power' is not so much 'erased' as necessarily lost. It is almost as if

Mulvey is harbouring a nostalgia for the possibility of a product that has

inscribed within itself the value of its labour power -- a value that is

clear and easy to read.



Post-script II: Douglas Sirk


In this discussion of two of Douglas Sirk's films, _Magnificent Obsession_

and _Imitation of Life_, Mulvey stresses the many layers of meaning that

the melodrama may be seen to have -- she earlier uses the image of peeling

an onion (25) -- and finds within them a (possibly unconscious)

self-reflexivity and subversive play which she terms 'proto-post-modern':

'The play between appearance and artifice that marks star performances in

the woman's picture now seems, retrospectively and possibly

anachronistically, proto-post-modern' (30). Her discussion of the films,

although doubtless of interest, seems to be only vaguely concerned with the

issue of fetishism and the few uses of the word -- 'Lora's fetishised

image' (32); 'Why, the film asks, does a society that is obsessed by

appearance and spectacle suddenly fetishise essence when it come [sic] to

race' (34) -- seem to be rather random and the word is not used with the

same rigour that her introduction establishes for an understanding of the

term. At times Mulvey's metaphoric analysis of the films strikes me as

somehow presumptuous in its certainty ('Annie metaphorically stands for the

labour processes concealed by the spectacular nature of the commodity'

(35)), and it is not the content of Mulvey's assertion that I have a

problem with, but rather its didactic style.


A particularly odd moment occurs when Mulvey writes: 'While _Magnificent

Obsession_ needs psychoanalytic theory, particularly the Freudian Oedipal

drama, _Imitation of Life_ grafts its obvious themes of performance,

spectacle and femininity on a scenario which needs political theory,

particularly Marx's theory of labour' (32). I am not sure that I completely

understand the desire (if it is possible to use that word in this context,

but surely that is the force of Mulvey's reiterated 'need') with which she

imbues these films. This odd relationship between film and theory recurs

later: 'I would use it [_Magnificent Obsession_] as an example of how, with

only a little help from psychoanalytic theory, a story of forbidden love

can be shown to conceal an incestuous day dream . . .' (38). What does this

odd elision mean? And what exactly is the force of 'a little help'?


Middlesex University

London, England





1. 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', in _Visual and Other Pleasures_,

p. 16.


2. For an American academic's experience of the hostility shown by students

to Mulvey's work, see Alayne Sullivan's 'Feminist and Other (?) Pleasures'.


3. _Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture_, p.

72. For a critical appraisal of Mulvey's essay and its reception by later

feminist thinkers, see Lorraine Gamman and Merja Makinen's _Female

Fetishism_, pp. 176-182.


4. Mulvey: 'Psychoanalytic film theory suggests that mass culture can be

interpreted similarly symptomatically. As a massive screen on which

collective fantasy, anxiety, fear and their effects can be projected, it

speaks the blind-spots of a culture and finds forms that make manifest

socially traumatic material, through distortion, defence and disguise' (12).


5. Julia Kristeva's _The Powers of Horror_, and Barbara Creed's _The



6. Notice that Mulvey conflates denial and disavowal while earlier she is

at pains to point to the significant differences between these two terms in

the Freudian paradigm (11-22).


7. Karl Marx, _Capital_, Volume 1, pp. 74-5.


8. 'Signature/Event/Context', in _Limited Inc_, p. 8.





Creed, Barbara, _The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis_

(London and New York: Routledge, 1993).


Derrida, Jacques, _Limited Inc_ (Illinois: Northwestern University Press,



Gamman, Lorraine and Merja Makinen, _Female Fetishism: A New Look_ (London:

Lawrence and Wishart, 1994).


Kauffman, Linda S., _Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary

Culture_ (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).


Kristeva, Julia, _Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection_, trans. Leon S.

Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).


Mulvey, Laura, _Visual and Other Pleasures_ (Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1989).


Sullivan, Alayne, 'Feminist and Other (?) Pleasures', _WILLA_, vol. 3, 1994

<>, pp.





Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001


David Sorfa, 'Hieroglyphs and Carapaces: The Enigmatic Real in Laura

Mulvey's _Fetishism and Curiosity_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 5,

February 2001 <>.




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