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“More influential than deconstruction’s fetish was the conception,

developed from Louis Althusser’s appropriation of Lacanian psychoanalysis,

of the fetish as the ideological object in itself…In its absence [of the Real],
to console and defend us from the terror of our constructive formlessness,
we substitute personas, mirror selves, from our socially defined subject-
positions…Both society and the self are, so this line of argument goes,
imaginary totalisations, false universals that exist in the form of images,
ideological signifiers of holistic closures we can never truly now or be,
(Pietz in Apter and Pietz (Ed) 1993, pp. 125-126)

This essay will firstly in broad strokes, examine fetishism as two different and distinct
discourses. One of psychiatry and one of cultural studies, but also examine the point
where these discourses meet. With this basis, it will secondly and thirdly discuss the
perception of the fetishishing of the body and as a male space and with this in mind
semiotically analyse two advertisements. It will on the whole argue that the body
(primarily the female) is commodified by fetishistic appeals, and the signs and signifiers
fashion ads apply, utilise and play around with discourses, codes and context but the
essay will also implicitly argue that although fetishism is in fashion associated with
particular forms of clothing and sexual lifestyle, it is far more constructive to
acknowledge that “fetishism, in spite of itself, unfixes representations even as it enables
them to become monolithic “signs” of culture (Apter and Pietz (Ed) 1993, p. 3). This
means that there are contending meanings as to what fetishism signifies, and that often
when the distinctions are not there, can lead to inaccurate conceptualisations. Principally,
it is important to understand that two distinct discourses around fetishism exists; one
was firstly adapted by Marx to describe capitalism in critical ways, and the second was
used later by French psychiatry, which in turn was popularised by Freud and later “post-
modern” theorists, such as Lacan.

This mashing together of two separate discourses is what exists in popular culture today,
being a phrase that can be used to describe any overt, sexual or material preoccupation
with objects such as high-heeled shoes and lingerie .Fetishism As Cultural Discourse
(1993), by E. Apter and W. Pietz (Ed) is a useful work in the way that it concentrates on
the development of these two categories. According to W. Pietz, “Fetishism is the term
Marx used to characterise the capitalist social process as a whole…[and] at the very
least, his employment of this word was a vivid way of suggesting to his readers that the
truth of capital was to be grasped from a perspective alien to that of bourgeois
understanding, which knows capital exclusively through its own categories (Pietz in Apter
and Pietz (Ed), 1993, p. 130).” Sexual fetishism, on the other hand, was introduced as a
scientific term in the late eighteen-hundreds by French psychiatrist Alfred Binet, and
according to his denotation fetish meant sexual admiration of an inanimate object.
However, Binet also argued that the fetish was a male space where pathological
behaviour was manifested.
Freud stated that fetishism was the result of a psychological trauma. A boy,
longing to see his mother's penis, averts his eyes in horror when he discovers that she
has none. To overcome the resulting castration anxiety he clings to the fetish as a
substitute for the missing genital. More specifically objects loaded with social value
codes, and it is in this way the two discourses meet. Structural linguists like Althusser
and post-marxist postmodernists like Lacan or Barthes are interested in the fetish
because it is closely linked in the dynamics of how meaning is created. Both discourses
are subsequently concerned with cultural capital and what Walter Benjamin calls “the
hypersensitivity to the sexuality of things (Benjamin in Apter & Pietz (Ed), p. 2).” This
interchange exists because of an increased need during the time spanning between Binet
and Freud to define the different gender-specific reactions to the escalating
commodification of culture that arose, as A. Solomon-Godeau argues: “it is equally
important to acknowledge that the period [late nineteenth-century] also witnesses the
penetration of the commodity into all spheres of life, experience and consciousness
(Solomon-Godeau in Apter and Pietz (Ed), 1993, p. 270).” Because of this, photography
has a crucial role in commodity fetishism, as it is both a commodity and an instrument of
commodification. Both the photograph and the fetish share common traits in that they
denote a lamenting, a longing, for something that is displaced; the object itself becomes
an articulation of desire for something that isn’t there.
The interchange of the discourses of the fetish as it meets with post-modern
schools of thought is where it gets interesting (and complicated!) because it deals with
the fundamentals in how we create meaning. This is important in helping to understand
fetishism, as Pietz explains:

“Whereas Baudrillard would view fetishism in terms of the desire to

inhabit self-contained formal codes that overcome all internal ambiguity
and external materiality, Derridian post-Marxists would locate the fetish in
semantic indeterminancy and the ambivalent oscillation (hence no
dialectical resolution) between contrary determinations, a “space” where
codes and their logics break down in a materiality that is conceived in
terms of pure difference, contingency, and chance.”
(Pietz in Apter and Pietz (Ed), 1993, p. 125)
A key theorist in this respect is Lacan. Drawing on Freud, the metaphorical way in which
the unconscious functions interested Lacan: it uses signs and symbols to create meaning.
As E. Hayt-Atkins explains, “[a]ccording to Lacan, sexuality is a cultural construction
rather than natural or biological fact…[and] sexed subjectivity, developing out of a series
of psycho-social processes, is constituted through language or symbolic discourse (Hayt-
Atkins, 1994, p. 30).” As he sees it, meaning is created by a shattering of what he calls
the Imaginary Order through recognition of the phallus as signifier of another order, the
Symbolic Order. Paradoxically, Lacan’s total exclusion of women from his psychoanalysis,
worked to foster a poststructuralist feminist theory, which has been very useful in
viewing how meaning and value is manifested around the fetish. Additionally, “[m]en
appear to possess the phallus, and, so, are granted representation as their exclusive
prerogative..[and] above all else, in appearing to be without the phallus, a woman is
measured and marked by its absence (ibid, p. 30).” Femininity for Hayt-Atkins, then, is
indivisible from the representations from which it is produced.

Freudian theory, however, insists on the impossibility of female fetishism. But, clearly it
would seem that women are more than capable of developing fetishes, however, it would
seem that they just do it differently. The male fetish is built around woman as object. As
Simone de Beauvoir famously has written, woman within patriarchal culture “has a
double and deceptive visage: she is all that man desires and all that he does not attain
(de Beauvoir in Hayt-Atkins, 1994, p. 30).” The same goes for V. Steele, who argues
that the fetish is “a symptom both of capitalism and patriarchy, in its double aspect of
glorifying objects and objectifying women: a perspective that means, yet again, that the
fetishist is always male, while the woman becomes the fetish itself, the perfect object
(Steele, 1996, p. 44).” According to J. Matlock, Fashion constructs female subjectivity
and female sexuality (Matlock in Apter and Pietz (Ed), 1993, p. 49). Fashion is a complex
crossing point as it is a commodity, commodifies and “plays” with signifiers that are
perceived by many to have certain values (such as the body), then turns them upside
down or skews them in many degrees.
As Lacan has shown, the unconscious uses signs and symbols to create meaning.
Semiotics can show us how meanings construct, maintain and negotiate certain social
beliefs and attitudes in a culture. It can uncover the many complex ways in which
contexts migrate from one another and show its ambiguity. On a basic level, signs are
combined into texts, but a text has no meaning on its own (Smagorinsky 2001). It draws
value from surrounding elements and from reader association, but also from what it is
not (Littlejohn 1996, p. 332). The combination of these creates the context in which the
text operates. Donald and Virginia Fry argue that “meanings of a message are affected
by events outside the message itself (Littlejohn 1996 p. 329).” Therefore, a way of
producing a meaning stable enough to communicate must depend on two variables: (1)
the maker must understand the kinds of content that will convey certain meanings in an
audience (codes) and (2) that the actual text lays emphasis on certain meanings over
others (context). In this perspective, the kind of magazine also reflects how meanings
are emphasized. The two ads chosen for a semiotic analysis are from Australian GQ and
Australian Harper’s-Bazaar, respectively.

The Analysis:
The first is an ad for Calvin Klein in GQ Australia:

Key signifiers:
Double spread color print of two young people, a male and a female, both wearing
soaked jeans, both with soaked hair, lying and sitting in the sand on the water’s edge on
a beachfront (because of the water seen underneath them), unabashedly staring at each
other in a lustful manner. She is lying down with her hands gripping around the edges of
her jeans, which are unbuttoned, revealing that she has no underwear and wearing a
thin, white, soaked cotton top pulled up to right under her breasts. He has semi-long hair
and is straddled across her left leg in just jeans with a solid grip around her hips. His
buttocks are also barely visible. Directly beneath the couple is the logo “Calvin Klein

Possible signifieds:
Historically, jeans were clothing manufactured for American workers, and most
commonly men in trades such as cowboys and ranch-dudes, but has since become one of
the few items of clothing that is considered uni-sex. It is also closely related to a casual
style of dress. The fact that they are soaked obviously signifies that they’ve just been in
the water, and the intense look they are giving each other signifies impulsive, young
passion, or lust. This is backed up by how the motions of the couple are constructed
towards undressing: her pulling off her jeans while he is helping her. The water can be
seen as to signify beach-culture, or a geographical location.

Jeans as a style for both men and women came to its right in the 60’s and 70’s. This was
also the period of the sexual revolution and hippie-culture, especially in California. The
combination of the sexual tension between the two, the fact that they are wearing jeans
and almost nothing else and the beach as setting for their impulsive romp, drives the
connotations to that era. The water can also connotate purity, and settles neatly right
next to the discourse and values widespread in hippie culture, that what they were doing
was nothing wrong, it was pure love. The way in which she is helping him remove her
clothing also implies a power-relationship; she is the enticer while he dominates her by
his sitting-stance and through his action as the one instigating the affair.

Naturalised meaning:
It can be argued that the reader, having identified the connotations, will identify with the
values presented, and see himself / herself as one of the persons in the ad. Through
reading a magazine aimed at a demographic group, we can learn what society expects
from that group. The magazine is therefore a "powerful ideological force" in society
(McRobbie, 2000, p.69).” Consequently, the target audience that this ad was meant for
could be young males and females aged 16-35, with high income. William Leiss and his
colleagues has in their study of advertising seen that “at the core of advertising’s
purposes now is not the message itself as a communicator of meaning, but rather its
relationship to the audience (Leiss et al., 1990, p. 214).” With the development of the
theory of market segmentation, the logical step is therefore to conclude that creators of
ads don’t focus on the product, but the universe of codes and signs that connotate
certain positive meanings that are related to a certain lifestyle in a certain social group or
culture. Thwaites and colleagues mention that “the social situations in which a sign is
used may determine the appropriate content, type of sign and coding. A sign’s contextual
functions indicate the context in which it operates (Thwaites, Davis and Mules, 2002,
p.19).” Because the meaning is not lying there on the page, one has to make an effort to
grasp it (ibid, p. 200). The creators of the ads have given the readers a and c, but the
reader must fill in b. The peculiar thing about advertising is that we are inclined to fill in
this gap. The most naturalised meaning that can be read from this ad is that Calvin Klein
Jeans is a commodity filled with desire, passion and sexual energy, but not in a dirty
way, there’s a strong element of romantic purity involved as well, as a subtle
juxtaposition and justification for the promiscuity of the young people involved.

The second ad is for Gucci in Harpers-Bazaar Australia.

Key signifiers:
One page spread, color print of a woman and a man, only visible from the waist down, to
a white background, standing \ sitting on white furry rug. He is sitting on the edge of the
white indiscernible, while she sits partly on his lap with one leg resting on top of his
thigh, with the rest of her leg hanging down between his legs. His arms are resting on
top of her leg, with one hand firmly gripping heir naked thigh in one hand and displaying
a glass of scotch on the rocks in the other. He is wearing black crocodile-skin loafers,
pin-stripe pants and a black waist-coat, and also a white cuff-linked shirt and a watch
with a leather strap showing 8.55. She is wearing black, fin-de-siecle-style suede high
heels and a black skirt or dress with a texture like a feather boa that stops right before
her knees.

Possible signifieds:
The framing of the image, in that it stops at the lower half of the couple’s torsos, and the
fact that the woman’s leg is raised and also framed between the man’s legs showing off
her shoe, implies the importance of what they are wearing below their waists, in
particular, on their feet. The watch and glass of scotch can signify wealth and
masculinity. Her shoes and dress and his pin-stripe trousers and waist-coat can signify a
time frame between the 1900’s and “the roaring twenties,” whereas the strong grip he
has on her thigh can also signify a dominating power-relationship where he displays
implicit “ownership” of her.

The frilliness of the woman’s dress, the feathery texture and the peculiar style of shoes
she is wearing can draw connotations to that of a 1920’s showgirl, or even a prostitute.
Steele notes how prostitutes in France and England during the 1890’s and onwards
increasingly adopted fantasy costumes such as luxurious and fashionable negligees in
order to address the increasing fetishistic demands of their clientele (Steele, 1996, p.
49). The man’s grip on the woman’s thigh combined with the watch, the glass of scotch
and the suit connotates a certain status of power as well, a justification of his ownership.
Gripping a woman tight by the naked thigh while nonchalantly sipping on a scotch on the
rocks, does have and air of decadence and soave, upper-class masculinity to it. The
careful framing of the couple’s torsos and most importantly her peculiar shoe, also
stresses the sexual fetishistic connotations

Naturalised meaning:
While it is unlikely that Gucci propagates this certain type of sexist patriarchy, it certainly
does fool around with it in a subtle and playful way. It’s connotation to decadence is
particularly interesting, as “[e]tymologically, the fetish is a decadent object…[coming
from] the Portuguese feitiçio, “artificial, skilfully contrived,” which in turn derives from
the Latin facticius, “made by art (C. Bernheimer in Apter and Pietz (Ed), 1993, p. 63).” It
is also interesting to think about whose gaze this ad appeals to. I would argue that it
appeals to both sexes, in that it encourages the reader to take part in this masquerade
where men can act like “real men” and women can act playfully submissive in order to
engage in this fetish-fantasy. The ad is a relevant illustration of what Solomon-Godeau

“Participation in society requires that the body submit itself to a

specularisation… that transforms it into a value-bearing object, a
standardised sign, an exchangeable signifier, a “likeness” with reference to
an authoritative model. A commodity – a woman – is divided into two
irreconcilable “bodies”: her “natural” body and her socially valued,
exchangeable body, which is a particularly mimetic expression of masculine
(Solomon-Godeau in Apter and Pietz (Ed), 1993, p. 284)

The naturalised meaning can therefore be that Gucci invites the reader to indulge
in luxury and decadence in the lieu of the specific time period and engage it with
playfulness, a fetishistic initiative, but with a sophisticated, ironic distance.

To summarise, although fetishism is in contemporary popular culture associated with an

unusual or exaggerated often sexual obsession with objects or special parts often of a
woman’s body, there are two main discourses that feed into another which is built up on
the understanding of both. The first is Marx’ use of commodity fetishism, and the other is
a psychoanalytical aspect, describing the fetish as a lamenting of the absence of the
phallus, and how this is manifested in the way in which we create meaning. As a result of
this, feminist theory, which is based on post-marxist theories such as structural and
post-structural linguistics, is concerned with exposing the overarching patriarchy that can
be decoded in psychoanalytical discourse, as it places no emphasis on the possibility of
women being capable of having fetishes. Consequently, the semitotic analysis of the ads
selected are an illustration of how the exchange of values are coded and decoded
through a process of either sustaining or challenging the prevailing discourses on the
fetish, but also on how “the fetish is where thought and object interpenetrate in the
significance of collective sentiment (Apter and Pietz, 1993, p. 233).”

E. Apter and W. Pietz (Ed), Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Cornell Uni Press, Itacha
and London, 1993

E. Hayt-Atkins, “Sylvie Fleury, The Woman Of Fashion,” in Art/Text nr. 49, Sep 1994

W. Leiss, S. Kline & S. Jhally, Social Communication in Advertising: Persons, Products

and Images of Well-Being (2nd Edn.). London: Routledge, 1990

S.W. Littlejohn, Theories of Human Communication (5th Edn), Wadsworth, 1996

A. McRobbie, Feminism and Youth Culture (2nd edition), Macmillan Press, London, 1995

P. Smagorinsky, “If meaning is constructed, what is it made from? Toward a cultural

theory of reading”, in Review of Educational Research, vol. 71, pp. 133-169, 2001,
[Online]. Available: Proquest Academic Research Library database. [Accessed 1 Sep.

V. Steele, “Fashion and Fetishism”, in Fetish: Fashion, Sex and Power, Oxford Uni Press,
pp. 33-56, 1996

T. Thwaites, L. Davis, W. Mules, Introducing Cultural and Media Studies; a semiotic

approach, Palgrave, New York, 2002

GQ Australia, Winter 2006

Harper’s Bazaar Australia, October 2004

Ad 1: Australian GQ
Ad 2: Australian Harper’s-Bazaar