Friday, December 11, 2009


In Luis Buñuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid, characters frequently entertain each other’s foot fetishes. Céléstine (Jeanne Moreau) indulges Monsieur Rabour’s (Jean Ozenne’s) fascination with her feet (pictured), an expression of some sort of fetish, but what it might be isn’t clear—which seems to be precisely the point. Each individual is forced to acknowledge that his understanding of others inevitably must be incomplete; there is no book that, in the space of a few hundred pages, can provide the perfect simulacrum of the many years of a person’s life. The impossibility of perfect understanding, however, does not negate the possibility of partial understanding. But there seems to be a much bigger issue at work: It is not the enigma that lies between the fetishist and the “interpreter” of the fetish, but the greater enigma that lies between the fetishist and the unnameable. The inability to communicate the meaning of the fetish would seem to be essential for a true fetishist.

My understanding of the fetish differs from that put forth by Freud. The later Freud seemed to conclude that the fetishist was not a solipsist. He argues, in An Outline of Psycho-Analysis, in his discussion of the fetishist that “the detachment of the ego from the reality of the external world has never succeeded completely” (p. 60; see also p. 61). However, Freud most certainly did not show, finally, that the fetishist is not a solipsist; he simply defined the fetish as “a compromise formed with the help of displacement” (Outline of Psycho-Analysis, p. 60) of cathexis from the instinctual object to some signifying object, an effect that tells us nothing about whether this signifier as such is understood by one, ten, a hundred, or one hundred million people. For instance, the example of the foot-fetishist in Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis provides no help given the narrative’s glaring lacunae, as he simply recounts the (illusory?) scene of origin of the fetish, though this explanation tells us nothing of the meaning of the fetish (pp. 348-49). He concedes, in “Fetishism” (1927), that it is not always possible “to ascertain the determination of every fetish” (p. 201) though the impossibility of this determination is unrelated to the more daunting issue of the meaning of the fetish.

What is the fetish? An enduring material object, X, that acts as a signifier of some other object, process or relationship, Y. Fetish is thus to be distinguished from ritual as object is from event, the spatial axis of a related pair whose temporal axis is ritual: The Sacrament of Holy Communion is the ritual, the transubstantiating wine and wafer the fetish. The signified entity, Y, is, in turn, instinctually highly cathected for sexual, religious or economic reasons, or even because of some atypical neurological condition. In the fetish complex the signifier—the fetish object—in turn becomes cathected, acquiring the affective import of the instinctual object. How does the fetish object become cathected? In other words, the question is how it is possible that a signifying object (even one possessing materiality) can provide some part of the satisfaction of the instinctual object. This paradox certainly confounded Freud and would seem to be the primary reason for his interest in fetishism, especially in those cases where the fetish is unrelated to the instinctual object by metonymy—for instance, when a cowry shell is more mysterious than the female foot. Unlike the cowry shell, though, the shoe is more obviously metonymically related to the foot. The paradox is why the shoe (or, as in Diary of a Chambermaid, Céléstine’s high-heeled leather boots) has more affective import that the foot—a paradox expressed by Carl Perkins who, as legend has it, when first hearing about the story of the prized pair of blue suede shoes, was chagrined that a man actually would value his shoes over a beautiful girl. Put it another way, signs may be consumed but they are not nutritious.

Valuable Shoes:
Adam Ant – Goody Two Shoes
The Beatles – Old Brown Shoe
Kate Bush – Red Shoes
Elvis Costello – (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Shoes
Depeche Mode – Walking in My Shoes
The Drifters – I’ve Got Sand in My Shoes
The Eagles – Those Shoes
Elton John – Who Wears These Shoes
K. C. & the Sunshine Band – Boogie Shoes
Carl Perkins – Blue Suede Shoes
Ray Price – My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You
Paul Simon – Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
Joe South – Walk A Mile In My Shoes

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