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Some Thoughts on Theories of Fetishism in the Context of Contemporary Culture


During the 1970s, fetishism was a key concept for the political aesthetics of modernist-influenced anti-Hollywood cinema and psychoanalytically influenced feminist theory. As fetishism, like a portmanteau, answered a number of conceptual needs, the ideas it provoked appeared on the contemporary agenda of debate, in writing, discussion, filmmaking. The agenda included: willing suspension of knowledge in favor of belief; a defense against a male misperception of the female body as castrated; the image of femininity as fragmented and reconstructed into a defensive surface of perfect sheen; an apotheosis of spectacle in consumer capitalism; the sheen of Hollywood cinema in which the erotic spectacle of femininity contributed to the invisibility of filmic processes; the erasure of the cinematic signifier, and its specificity, under its signified. In these polemics, the influence of Brecht met psychoanalysis and modernist semiotics. Furthermore, an aesthetic that intends to make visible the processes hidden in cultural production could, by analogy, or rather by homology, point toward labor power, also concealed by the sheen of the commodity product under capitalism. This was an agenda composed at the closing moments of the machine age. Contemporary critiques of realism have drawn attention to the way its aesthetics were formally, even fetishistically, imbricated within an apotheosis of vision which assumed that an image represented, or referred to, the object it depicted. For feminist aesthetics, concepts that made visible a gap between an image and the object it purported to represent and, thus, a mobility and instability of meaning have been a source of liberation. It was, of course, semiotics and psychoanalytic theory that played a central part in this conceptual liberation, not only opening up the gap in signification but also offering a theory that could decipher the language of displacements that separated a given signifier from its apparent signified. The image refers, but not necessarily to its iconic referent. The influence of semiotic and psychoanalytic theory on feminism coincided, however, with the wider ramifications of postmodern aesthetics, its pleaOCTOBER 65, Summer1993, pp. 3-20. ? 1993 Laura Mulvey.


sure in instabilities of meaning and infinite deferral of reference. And just as the aesthetics of realism had a specific formal relation to the economics of the machine age and industrial capitalism, so the aesthetics of postmodernism seem to reflect, in turn, new economic and financial structures. The problem of reference is, now, not only a question of the image and aesthetics, but of capitalism itself. As industrial capitalism shows symptoms of decline, finance capitalism flourishes, and the advanced capitalist world shows signs of re-forming into economies that can create money out of money and produce surplus value outside the value produced by the labor power of the working class. In this sense, the success of finance capital over industrial capital in the advanced capitalist economies, where currency speculation can be more profitable than the exploitation of labor power, raises the issue of reference in economic terms. Money, which is first and foremost a symbolic representation of value, is now also subsumed into processes of exchange that do not necessarily represent either commodities or their production. From this point of view, a Marxist approach to contemporary aesthetics might well argue that the loss of referentiality in culture is, itself, the result of shifts and changes in the economic structures that herald the advent of a capitalism based on an electronic machine age in which speed of communications takes precedence over production. Marxism evolved within the historical context of an industrial age that was dependent on working-class labor power to generate value and a political imbalance of power to maintain the supremacy of capitalism. While Marxist theories of ideology aimed to unveil the political and economic realities that lay behind the imbalance, the impact of psychoanalysis and semiotics put the possibility of actually articulating the Real into question. An economic, social, and political real could no more find articulation than the Real of the Lacanian unconscious. All that could be analyzed would be discourses and representations. But it is also crucially necessary to confront the cause that gives rise to certain discourses and representations, and to bear in mind that this theoretical and aesthetic shift might itself reflect changes and developments within the material reality of capitalist technology and economics. The free-floating signifier may, itself, be a signifier of changes in the economic base. Marxist principles that revealed the determining power of the economic over the social and the cultural are as relevant as ever, even as capitalism evolves and convulses in ways that Marx himself could not have foreseen. History is, undoubtedly, constructed out of representations. The question is: How many representations may be related back, as symptoms, to the forces that generated them? It is in this context that fetishism, the carrier of such negative ideological connotations once upon a time, might be reexamined. I want first to argue that the structures of disavowal might suggest a way in which the difficulty of reference could be reformulated, without losing the crucial contribution that psychoanalytic and semiotic theory has made to contemporary thought. The

Some Thoughtson Theoriesof Fetishism

point would not be to resurrect a totalizing real, but to consider history in terms of symptoms, pointing to sites that call for decipherment-even if it may be too hard to crack the code. Secondly, I want to consider how semiotics and psychoanalysis might be brought to bear on history, to attempt a theoretical means of articulating the relation between representations and their skewed referentiality. This essay is not by any means an answer to these problems, but rather a consideration of the concept of fetishism, in its different theoretical manifestations, as a structure that arises out of, as a consequence of, the difficulty of representing reality. Fetishism acknowledges the question of reference within its own symptomatic structure. The question of reference is raised acutely, as contemporary criticism has constantly pointed out, by the American cinema produced in the aftermath of the Hollywood studio system. And cinema itself now seems more and more antiquated and marginalized by the evolution of very diverse entertainment technologies. For me, this sense of belonging to a past epoch is accentuated by the fact that the cinemas I have most loved, criticized, and learned from-the Hollywood cinema of the studio system and the radical avant-gardist negation of its aesthetic-have both been transformed beyond recognition, and nearly out of existence, by changes in the material conditions of film production. The artisanal and the industrial were mutually interdependent in their mutual negativity. Now, as the end of the twentieth century draws near, both seem almost quaint. For the cinema, in this age of video and television, occupies neither the mesmerizing place it once held in popular culture and imagination nor the central place it once held in the economy of mass entertainment, and, in the age of the small screen, the concept of counter-cinema seems, consequently, to have withered away. At the same time, the fascination exerted by the movies persists. As modes of consumption change, from movie theater to home video and television, intertextual references proliferate. Hollywood cinema is a constant source of quotation and connotation in the more complex cultural climate of the electronic media, in its advertisements and its rock videos. Hollywood, of course, produced the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who both implicitly and explicitly represented the history of Hollywood as his own history and, thus, that of the United States. The past of Hollywood cinema is therefore present; propped up on its deathbed, it is sustained by the power the images of its heyday exert over subsequent generations. All this is well known and is being confronted as an issue by contemporary critics. As Dana Polan has remarked: Mass culture becomes a kind of postmodern culture, the stability of social sense dissolved (without becoming any less ideological) into one vast spectacular show, a dissociation of cause and effect, a concentration on the allure of means and a concomitant disinterest in meaningful ends. Such spectacle creates the promise of a rich sight: not


the sight of particular fetishized objects, but sight itself as richness, as the ground for extensive experience.' Psychoanalytic theory allows a distinction between disavowal, the primary processes of displacement as a mechanism of the unconscious, and the endless sliding of the postmodern signifier. In all three cases, the relationship between signification and reference varies, but the concept of disavowal and the symptom of fetishism that is associated with it can contain the question of reference even while displacing it. Thus, in order to distinguish between disavowal and repression, Freud makes the following points: The ego often enough finds itself in the position of fending off some demand from the external world which it feels distressing and ... this is effected by means of a disavowalof the perceptions which bring to knowledge this demand from reality. Disavowals of this kind occur very often and not only with fetishists; and whenever we are in a position to study them they turn out to be half-measures, incomplete attempts at detachment from reality. The disavowal is always supplemented by an acknowledgement; two contrary and independent attitudes always arise and result in the situation of there being a splitting of the ego. Once more the issue depends on which of the two can seize hold of the greater [psychical] intensity.2 In this sense, disavowal acknowledges its own origin in an unspeakable, and its consequent displacements thus both acknowledge and deny a relation of cause and effect. The psychic process of disavowal, although occurring "not only with fetishists," was first elaborated by Freud in his discussion of fetishism. Through disavowal, the fetish allows access to its own cause. It acknowledges its own traumatic real and may be compared to a red flag, symptomatically signaling a site of psychic pain. Psychoanalytic film theory has argued that mass culture can be interpreted symptomatically, and that it functions as a massive screen on which collective fantasy, anxiety, fear, and their effects can be projected. In this sense, it speaks to the blind spots of a culture and finds forms that make manifest socially traumatic material through distortion, defense, and disguise. The aesthetic of "rich sight" has lost touch with that delicate link between cause and effect, so that its processes of displacement work more in the interests of formal excitement and the ultimate denial of reference than as a defense against it. It

1. Dana Polan: "Stock Responses: The Spectacle of the Symbolic in SummerStock,"Discourse 10 (Fall/Winter 1987/88), p. 124. 2. Sigmund Freud, "An Outline of Psychoanalysis," in The Standard Edition of the Complete PsychologicalWorksof Sigmund Freud, vol. 23, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), p. 202.

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is important to remember, however, that the current transcendence of the "rich sight" aesthetic has developed out of the structures of disavowal at work in mass culture. Disavowal maintains, after all, only a tenuous link between cause and effect, while its investment in visual excess and displacements of signifiers produces a very strong texture that can come to conceal this need to conceal the relation between cause and effect. That is, the aesthetic of disavowal can easily provide a formal basis for a displacement that moves signification considerably further away from the problem of reference. And the blind spots that generated the processes of disavowal get further lost on the way. Fetishism, broadly speaking, involves the attribution of self-sufficiency and autonomous powers to a manifestly "man" derived object. It is therefore dependent on the ability to disavow what is known and replace it with belief and the suspension of disbelief. The fetish, however, is always haunted by the fragility of the mechanisms that sustain it. Fetishes are supremely culturally specific, so, as Eisenstein showed so clearly in the gods sequence of October,one man's divine may be another man's lump of wood. Knowledge hovers implacably in the wings of consciousness. In Octave Mannoni's famous phrase, the fetishist's disavowal is typically expressed "I know very well, but all the same . .." Christian Metz invokes this phrase in his discussion of the suspension of disbelief in the cinema: "Any spectator will tell you 'he doesn't believe it,' but everything happens as if there were nonetheless someone to be deceived, someone who really would 'believe in it.'. . In other words, asks Mannoni, since it is 'accepted' that the audience is incredulous, who is it who is credulous? . . . This credulous person is, of course, another part of ourselves."3 Unlike Metz, who sees the cinema's fetish object in its own technological transcendence, feminist film theory has argued that the eroticization of the cinema is a major prop for its successfully fetishized credibility. And constructions of erotic femininity are also dependent on an economy of fetishism. Fetishism in the cinema also leads to Marx and to a consideration of the aesthetics of commodity fetishism. The popular cinema, itself a commodity, can form a bridge between the commodity as spectacle and the figure of woman as spectacle on the screen. This, in turn, leads on to the bridging function of woman as consumer, rather than producer, of commodities. This series of "bridges" suggests a topography, or spatial mapping, in which homologies, realized in image, then slide into formally similar structures. Connotations, resonances, significances can then flow, as it were, between things that do not, on the face of it, have anything in common. The formal structures of disavowal create a conduit, linking different points of social difficulty and investing in "sight" as a defense against them.

3. Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysisand the Cinema (London: Macmillan, 1982), p. 72.


Feminist politics, when picking up the pieces in the aftermath of the crisis of the Left of the 1960s, played an important part in putting Freud on the political agenda alongside Marx. Marx and Freud. For my political generation, feminist and post-1960s, the combination of names has an almost incantatory ring, and the desire to negotiate between the two sets of ideas has, like the search for the philosopher's stone, been at once inspiring and frustrating. The materials for alchemical experiment have been mainly images, representation, aesthetics, in which Freud has tended to have an edge over Marx. Now the sphere of the economic and the social, coded as the sphere of Marx, is forcing itself once again to the fore just as, paradoxically, the Marx-inspired regimes of the world have crumbled. This is due not only to the ever-encroaching economic and social crises generated by the right-wing regimes of the 1980s still in power in the West. Collapsing communism received, perhaps, its coup de grace from an imaginary of capitalism in which the imaginary of the commodity fetish plays a large part. Psychoanalytic theory needs Marx, as echoes of the thirties, of the fascism and nationalism that drove Freud into exile, resound around Europe. At the same time, as world politics moves into reverse mode, remaining Marxists will have to pay heed to the monstrous presence of the irrational in politics, which appears increasingly to be gaining strength over the progressive movement of history. Fetishism, present in the ideas of both Marx and Freud, has seemed to be the first and the most potentially rewarding alchemical link between the two. The obvious link between their concepts of fetishism is that both attempt to explain a refusal, or blockage,of the mind, or a phobic inability of the psyche to understand a symbolic system of value within the social and the psychic spheres. The differences between the two invocations of fetishism are, however, at least as significant as their similarities. The Marxist concept is derived from a problem of inscription: that is, the way in which the sign of value is, or rather fails to be, marked onto an object, a commodity. It is in and around the difficulty of signifying value that commodity fetishism flourishes. The Freudian fetish is, on the other hand, constructed from an excessive, phantasmatic inscription: that is, the setting up of a sign, which is of value only to its worshippers, to conceal a lack, to function as a substitute for something perceived as missing. In one case, the sign of value fails to inscribe itself on an actual object; in the other, value is over-inscribed on the site of lack through a substitute object. In considering the essential difference between the two theories, it may be interesting to consider the semiotic implications that both set up around the problem of inscription and the relation of inscription to a lost point of reference. The concept of the sliding signifier has been of enormous importance for contemporary theory and aesthetics; even so, it is important to acknowledge

Some Thoughtson Theoriesof Fetishism

that contemporary American popular culture can, and has, embraced this sliding to lose, to a second degree, a relation to its history and its collectivity. To analyze the fetishisms conceptualized by Marx and Freud is not to deny the place of the signifier, but to return to the question of reference that both imply. The discussion that follows is an experiment. It is posited on the way in which, despite their differences, the two concepts of fetishism trace a series of semiotic problems. And these semiotic problems return to the Real, as conceived by Lacan as the "unspeakable," the stuff of unconscious that surpasses expression. The question is whether this "stuff" may also be present within the social collective and, if so, how it may be deciphered. The point is not to claim that what is unspeakable may be spoken, but to decipher symptoms that might find expression in popular culture. The cultural analyst may perhaps only draw attention to these sites and attempt to formulate means that might make them visible while recognizing that they may not be accessible to the language of consciousness in ideal terms. This experiment does not aim to come up with any new formulation but rather to argue the case for the aesthetics of disavowal as opposed to those assumed by postmodernism. Charles S. Pierce's triad-the index, the icon, and the symbol-is the starting point for a return to Marx within the context of contemporary semiotic theory. For Marx, the value of a commodity resides in the labor power of its producer. If this labor power could ever inscribe itself indexically on the commodity it produces, if it could leave a tangible mark of the time and skill taken in production, there would be no problem. But the index, the sign based on direct imprint, fails. Value has to be established by exchange. Marx shows how value can be marked by the equation of different commodities of equal value. One commodity acts as a mirror, reflecting and thus expressing the value of the other or, indeed, of as many others as it takes for the equivalence to balance. This stage is analogous to the Piercian icon. Slavoj Zizek has pointed out that this process is analogous to Lacan's mirror phase, in which the two sides of the exchange literally have to represent each other.4 While value may be inscribed through this reflective process, it depends on the literal presence of the goods, a barter that has to be repeated as often as exchange takes place. Complex economic systems, with wide-scale production, exchange, and circulation, developed a means of expressing equivalence through a generalized sign system: money. The exchange of money takes place on the level of the symbolic, and the expression of value acquires the abstract and flexible quality of language. 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 labor power as the primary source of value. The referent, as it were, shifts away from the production process toward circulation and the market, where the commodity emerges
4. See Slavoj Ziiek, The SublimeObjectof Ideology(London: Verso, 1990).



and circulates with an apparently autonomous value attached to it. In Marx's terms, this appearance of self-generating value gives rise to commodity fetishism, the disavowal, that is, of locating the source of value in labor power. And, at the same time, a commodity's market success depends on the erasure of the trace of indexicality, the grime of the factory, the marks of production-any of the machine, and, most of all, the exploitation of the worker. mass-molding It instead presents the market with a seductive sheen, competing to be desired. While money appears as a sophisticated, abstract, and symbolic means of exchange, capitalism resurrects the commodity as image. As Marx says, in what are probably the most frequently quoted sentences of Capital: In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relations both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men's hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labor, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.5 Here is a perfect paradigm of the disavowal of knowledge in favor of belief. An abstract system piggybacks itself onto a return to the image, disavowing not only the origin of value but the processes of symbolization that have brought it into being. Commodity fetishism triumphs as spectacle. As spectacle, the object becomes image and belief and is secured by an erotic, rather than a religious, aura. In her book The Dialectics of Seeing, about Walter Benjamin's Arcades project, Susan Buck-Morss describes his perception of its primal staging: For Benjamin ... the key to the new urban phantasmagoria was not so much the commodity-in-the-market as the commodity-on-display, where exchange value no less than use value lost practical meaning, and purely representational value came to the fore. Everything desirable, from sex to social status, could be transformed into commodities as fetishes-on-display that held the crowd enthralled even when personal possession was far beyond their reach.6 Producers become consumers. And the invisibility of the workers' labor is as essential for the commodity's desirability as the visibility of the artisan's just labor is for a craft object. Any indexical trace of the producer or the production
Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), p. 72. 5. 6. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialecticsof Seeing: WalterBenjaminand theArcadesProject(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), pp. 81-82.

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process is wiped out, in a strange reenactment of the failure of the workers' labor power to stamp itself on its products as value. Any ghostly presence of labor that might haunt the commodity is canceled by the absolute pristine newness and the never-touched-by-hand packaging that envelops it. And the great intellectual achievement of capitalism, the organization of an economic system as a symbolic system, can continue in its own interests. The commodity fetish masks something that is disturbing and secret for a particular form of economic exploitation and combines the topographical with the semiotic. It represents the logic of symbolic exchange as an imaginary investment in object as such. And that object then becomes endowed with a phantasmagorical otherness of hidden "something" behind its surface appearance. Surface and depth. It is this dichotomy that psychoanalysis and semiotics have challenged with the concept of displacement. And it is here, in topographical imaginaries, that homologies between the otherwise incompatible Marxist and Freudian concepts may emerge. There is nothing intrinsically fetishistic, as it were, about the commodity in Marx's theory. While establishing value may be a complex process in a sophisticated system of circulation and exchange, and it may be difficult to decipher the place of labor power as the source of value, fetishism of the commodity, in Marx's argument, has a political implication particular to capitalism and those societies that come under its sway. Commodity fetishism also bears witness to the persistent allure that images and things have for the human imagination and the pleasure to be gained from belief in imaginary systems of representation. There is no need to claim a psychoanalytic explanation for this phenomenon. The point of interest lies rather in the way that objects and images, in their spectacular manifestations, figure in the process of disavowal, soaking up semiotic significance and setting up elisions of affect. Freud, in his short essay "Fetishism," elaborated his concept from the male child's misperception of the female body as lacking the male sexual organ and therefore perceiving it as a source of castration anxiety. The psychic sequence of events that follow are enacted through the processes of disavowal, substitution, and marking. The fetish object acts as a "sign" in that it substitutes for the thing thought to be missing. The substitute also functions as a mask, covering over and disavowing the traumatic sight of nothing, and thus constructing phantasmatic space, a surface and what the surface might conceal. This intricate confusion of the semiotic and the topographical, so important to the workings of the unconscious, has yet another dimension. For Freud, the fetish object also commemorates. It represents a memorial, marking the point of lack (for which it both masks and substitutes) and ensuring that the fetish structure, even in its fixation on belief in the female penis, includes, through its very presence, a residual knowledge of its origin. It is in this sense that the fetish fails to lose touch with its original traumatic real and continues to refer back to the moment in time to which it bears witness, to its own historical dimension.



It is well known that the fetish very often attracts the gaze. In popular imagination, it glitters. It has to hold the fetishist's eyes fixed on the seduction of belief to guard against the encroachment of knowledge. This investment in surface appearance enhances the phantasmatic space of the fetish and sets up a structure in which object fixation can easily translate into image. The sexual fetish masks its origins in an excess of image. But while the symbolic system of money value is essential to the appearance of the commodity fetish as spectacle, the Freudian fetish is constructed precisely to disavow the symbolic system at stake in sexual difference. And while the Freudian fetish includes a trace of indexicality in its function as "memorial," the consumer of commodities is not known to whisper, "I know very well, but all the same . . ." However, the erotic power of the sexual fetish can, enabled, perhaps by the homologous topographical structures of the two types of fetish-both split between spectacle and disavowal-overflow onto and enhance the commodity. Film theory, particularly feminist film theory, has recently begun to examine these elisions and condensations. The visibility or invisibility of the production process has had a crucial place in film theory debates. In an extension of the Marxist model, it is logical that Hollywood, the Detroit of cinema, would evolve its characteristic style around the erasure of its own mechanics of production. The Hollywood film, as a commodity, also emerged into the marketplace as a self-generated object of fascination, erasing, during the high days of genre, stars, and the studio system, even any easily identifiable directorial signature. And the spectacular attributes of the cinema fuse into a beautifully polished surface on the screen. It is not surprising that an interest in Brechtian foregrounding of the production process or a Vertovian formalism heralded a politically based desire to demystify the magical sheen of the screen. The aesthetics of the 1960s and '70s avantgarde were organized around the visible presence of an artisanal author and acknowledgment of cinema's mechanical processes. But cinema is a system of production of meaning, above and beyond a mechanical process of image generation, and one that has a unique ability to play with the suppression of knowledge in favor of belief. The process of production gives birth to images, while the construction of the image gives birth to fascination. Feminist film theory has argued that cinema finds its most perfect fetishistic object, though not its only one, in the image of woman.

While Freudian analyses of fetishism in cinema have a long history in film theory, one strand of the argument is particularly relevant here. The image of woman on the screen achieves a particular spectacular intensity partly as a result, once again, of a homology of structure. Just as an elaborate and highly artificial, dressed-up, made-up, appearance envelops the movie star in "surface,"

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so does her surface supply a glossy front for the cinema, holding the eye in fascinated distraction away from its mechanics of production. This fragile carapace 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. In film noir, the seductive powers of the heroine's beauty mask her destructive and castrating powers. At the same time, this duality of structure facilitates displacements so that images and ideas that are only residwith woman as surface and cinema as surfaceually connected-fascination can slide together, closing the gap between them like automatic doors. The topography of the phantasmatic space acts as a conduit for shifts in signification. It is this sexuality of surface, a sexuality that displaces a deep-seated anxiety about the female body, that feminist film theorists have recently analyzed as a bridge between the screen and the marketplace, where woman, the consumer par excellence, also consumes commodities to construct her own sexual surface into an armor of fetishistic defense against the taboos of the feminine upon which patriarchy depends. These kinds of links first came to my attention when I was working on the films ofJean-Luc Godard, particularly in the period of his work leading up to 1968 and, most particularly, his film 2 or 3 Things I Know aboutHer. The heroine of this film is an average working-class housewife who takes to casual prostitution in order to acquire the consumer goods associated with the needs of a late capitalist life-style. Woman as consumer and consumed is not a new concept, and Godard, of course, uses prostitution as a metaphor quite widely in his work. But I was struck by the analogy that Godard seemed to suggest, simultaneously, as it were, misogynist and anticapitalist, between femininity and commodities as seduction and enigma, with both premised on an appearance fashioned as desirable, and implying and concealing an elusive, unknowable essence. Godard combines an ancient, romantic mystique of the feminine (the femmefatale, the Sphinx, the Mona Lisa) with a Marxist, materialist interest in revealing the function of the commodity in modern life. This dualism also reflects Godard's passionate and conflicted relationship to the cinema-as both a site of fascination and the erotic and something to be exposed as mystification and delusion. For Godard the fascination of the cinema had been, above all, epitomized by Hollywood cinema. There is an intrinsic interest in an overlap between the politics of sexuality, the politics of fetishized commodity consumption, and the politics of cinematic representation. And there are obvious ways in which the female movie star sets up a possible point of conjuncture between the figure on the screen as fetishized commodity and her function as signifier in a complex, social discourse of sexuality. One privileged image, such as that of Marilyn Monroe, who still today represents an apex of the star system, may epitomize a construction of female glamour as a fantasy space. Its investment in surface is so intense that it seems



to suggest that the surface conceals "something else." The question, then, is what this something else might be, and to what extent the surface sheen guards against nameless anxieties associated with the female body outside its glamour mode, which are then repressed, leading to an even more intense reinvestment in the fascination of surface. Marilyn's own form of cosmetic appearance is particularly fascinating because it is so artificial, so masklike, that she manages to use her performance to, as it were, comment on, draw attention to, or foreground both its constructedness and its vulnerability and instability. When Andy Warhol did his Marilyn series, after her death in August 1962, he brought to bear on her image qualities that he had explored in his work on the commodities he elevated into icons of the American way of life. The image of the movie star, mass-produced and infinitely repeatable for consumption, is identified by a given look, like a trademark, that masquerades as value. Warhol illuminates two aspects, in particular, of the mythological quality of Marilyn's face. First, he used its commodity aspect, reducing her features into a minimal caricature that could be stamped onto a surface, and replacing the pseudonatural cosmetics with highly stylized and nonlocal color, which played on the cosmetic of makeup and that of paint or print. In juxtaposition with his other paintings of commodities, Marilyn's image highlights the surface nature of commodity appearance itself, and the brightly glittering, blond surface is resonant with "value" and with its enigma. But in, for instance, his Marilyn Diptych, he hints at the second quality that her face evokes. The masquerade is fragile and vulnerable, and the surface starts to crack as the printing process slips and her features distort and decay. The other side of the feminine masquerade seeps through into visibility. In this work, Warhol brings together the mark of the print, the signifier, the subject of modernist discovery and unveiling, with the topography of feminine surface and its underside, which suggests death and decay. This hint of something troubling and concealed rubs off, as it were, onto his commodity images. The trademarks of capitalism, like Campbell's soup or Coca-Cola, conceal the fact that these objects are produced in factories and by workers. The stamp of the printing process, again, sometimes slips in this mid-twentieth-century version of the still life, produced by a former child of the Pittsburgh working class. In the film industry the star always functioned as the main vehicle for marketing, providing the facade behind which the wheels of investment, production, circulation, and return could function invisibly. In his book Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dyer makes this point about stars: Above all, they are part of the labor that produces film as a commodity that can be sold for profit in the marketplace. Stars are involved in making themselves into commodities; they are both labor and the thing that labor produces. They do not produce themselves alone. We can distinguish two logically separate stages. First, the

Andy Warhol. Five Coke Bottles. 1962. Andy Warhol.Marilyn Diptych. 1962.

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person is a body, a psychology, a set of skills that have to be mined and worked up into a star image.... The people who do this labor include the star him/herself as well as make-up artistes, hairdressers, dress designers, dieticians, body-building coaches, acting, dancing, and other teachers, publicists, pin-up photographers, gossip columnists, and so on. Part of this manufacture of the star image takes place in the films the star makes, with all the personnel involved in that, but one can think of the films as a second stage. The star image is then a given, like machinery, an example of what Karl Marx calls "congealed labor," something that is used with further labor (scripting, acting, directing, managing, filming, editing) to produce another commodity, a film.7 Dyer's description clearly relates to both male and female stars, but the process works more acutely in the case of the female. And in the course of this process some stars achieved an emblematic status that moved far beyond the fictional characters impersonated on the screen. Two theories central to feminist analysis of the specificity of cinematic images of women should be briefly introduced here. In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," I argued that the spectator looking at the screen has a voyeuristic relation to the female, eroticized, image. This look, I claimed, is transmuted into that of the male protagonist looking at the eroticized woman within the fictional world of the narrative. I also argued that the very perfection of this image was a defense against the castration anxiety that the body of the woman may generate. Or rather, the fixation on surface, the gloss of appearance, created a binary space in which the problematic body was erased under a seductive surface. There is also the concept of the masquerade, which feminist film theorists (in particular Mary Ann Doane) have adapted from Joan Riviere's 1929 paper "Womanliness as Masquerade," in which she discusses the difficulty of femininity and its persistent construction in relation to male expectation. Riviere also focuses on the way in which competent women disguise themselves under an appearance of helplessness and coquettishness in order to undermine any male anxiety at rivalry: Womanliness therefore could be assumed and worn as a mask, both to hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it-much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not stolen the goods. The reader may now ask how I define womanliness or draw the line between genuine womanliness and the "masquerade."

Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), 7. pp. 5-6.

Some Thoughtson Theoriesof Fetishism


My suggestion is not, however, that there is any such difference; whether radical or superficial, they are the same thing.8 Such an alignment between femininity and masquerade finds an apotheosis in the cinema, and particularly the Hollywood cinema, investing as it does in the power wielded by eroticism in the marketplace. While the eroticized female image may "front for" the cinema machine, a similar process of reinforcement exists between woman and commodity. Film theorists have traced the links between Hollywood cinema and a conscious tie-in with marketing directed at the female film spectator. These links shift the argument away from the fetishization of the female body on the screen within the erotic economy of patriarchy, capitalist production, and cinematic convention, toward an erotic economy in which the fetishization of the female body becomes a vehicle for generalizing an appearance or masquerade off the screen and within the wider social interests of patriarchy and capitalism. Here the cinema functions as a bridge between the movie star as object of desire and the commodities associated with her, as objects of desire, for the women watching the screen and looking in shop windows. Charles Eckert, in his influential article "The Carole Lombard in Macy's Window," shows how specific commercial tie-ins transposed the fashion of the film stars into mass-produced clothes and cosmetics, priced within the range of every working girl.9 Doane, in the introduction to her book The Desire to Desire, traces this relationship: "The woman's objectification, her susceptibility to the processes of fetishization, display, profit, and loss, the production of surplus value, all situate her in a relation of resemblance to the commodity form."'0 And in relation to the cinema she states: "The economy of the text, its regulation of spectatorial investments and drives, is linked to the economy of status tie-ins, the logic of the female subject's relation to the commodity-her as consumer of goods and consumer of discourses."" Doane argues that the mass audience of cinema helped to place the laborer in the position of consumer, offering an image of a homogeneous population pursuing the same goals-living well and accumulating goods. And the film genres directed at a specifically female audience sold a certain image of femininity: It is as though there were a condensation of the eroticism of the image onto the figure of woman-the female star proffered to the female spectator for imitation .... The process underlines the tau8. Joan Riviere, "Womanliness as Masquerade," in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 38. 9. Charles Eckert, "The Carole Lombard in Macy's Window," in Fabrications: Costumeand the Female Body, ed. Jane Gaines and Charlotte Herzog (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 100-21. 10. Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman'sFilm of the 1940s (London: Macmillan Press, 1987), p. 22. 11. Ibid., p. 25.

Marilyn Monroepublicityphoto.

CaroleLombard publicityphoto.

Some Thoughtson Theoriesof Fetishism


tological nature of the woman's role as consumer: she is the subject of a transaction in which her own commodification is ultimately the object.... The ideological effect of commodity logic on a large scale is therefore the deflection of any dissatisfaction with one's life or any critique of the social system onto an intensified concern with a body which is in some way guaranteed to be at fault. The body becomes increasingly the stake of late capitalism. Having the commodified the initial distance and distinction it presupposes-is object-and displaced by appearing, producing a strange constriction of the gap between consumer and commodity.'2 In the fifties, America became the democracy of glamour, completing a process, through the movies and through mass-produced clothes and cosmetics, that had been launched in the 1930s and interrupted by the Second World War. America then exported this image through the Marshall Plan and the Cold War; the glamour of Hollywood cinema encapsulated this relation between capitalism and the erotic and the society of commodity possession. For Freud, the body that is the source of fetishism is the mother's body, uncanny and archaic. For Marx, the source of fetishism is in the erasure of the worker's labor as value. Both become the unspeakable, and the unrepresentable, in commodity culture. Repression of the mother's body, repression of labor power as a source of value. These two themes run, respectively, through the Marxist and the Freudian concepts of fetishism, concealing (in image) structures of sexual difference and value that, although not themselves structurally linked, reinforce each other through topographies and displacements linking the erotic spectacle of the feminine to the eroticized spectacle of the commodity. There remain important differences between the two kinds of fetishism, one of which I described at the beginning of this paper as a problem of inscription. I have attempted to suggest that this problem is central to and articulated within the Hollywood cinema of the studio system and has been made visible by recent film theory. By placing some of these analyses in juxtaposition to each other I wanted to reiterate the well-known argument that the disavowal of production processes is, in this context, complemented by the construction of an image that finds its ultimate realization in the eroticized feminine. There is a logic to the harnessing of the overinscribed signifier to the uninscribed. The sheer force of "rich sight," of the spectacle, creates a diversion away from inquiry or curiosity. The "aesthetics of fetishism," however, derive from the structure of disavowal in the Freudian model ("I know very well, but all the same . .."), which creates an oscillation between what is seen and what threatens to erupt into knowledge. What is disavowed is felt to be dangerous to the psyche, either the


Ibid., pp. 30, 32.



black void of castration anxiety or some other threat that sets up a split between knowledge and belief. In the same way, the threat to an autonomous selfsufficiency of image, that is, value located in the image itself and not its production processes, threatened the cohesion of Hollywood cinema. But danger and risk are also exciting, on a formal as well as on a narrative level, and Hollywood cinema has made use of a greater degree of oscillation in its system of disavowal than has often been acknowledged. This trompe l'oeil effect is central for postmodern aesthetics, which came ultimately to use self-referentiality, intertextual reference, and direct address in the interests of a pleasurable destabilizing of perception. To look back at the aesthetics of disavowal in Hollywood cinema is, still, an attempt to rearticulate those black holes of political repression, class, and woman in the symbolic order. But it is also an attempt to return to a reconsideration of the relationship between cause and effect in the social imaginary at a time when the relation between representation and historical events is becoming increasingly dislocated. Spectacle proliferates in contemporary capitalist communication systems. At the same time, the reality of history in the form of war, starvation, poverty, disease, and racism (as an ever escalating symptom of the persistence of the irrational in human thought) demands analysis with an urgency that contemporary theory cannot ignore.