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Zizek and Fetishism

In the introduction to his book, The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek acquaints readers with his books tripartite aim.  He plans, among other things, to illustrate concepts fundamental to Lacanian psychoanalysis – an intention which will serve to further his more ambitious goal “to reactualize Hegelian dialectics by giving it a new reading” in the light of Lacanian psychoanalysis – and “to contribute to the theory of ideology via a new reading of some well-known classical motifs” (7).  In this broad category of classical motifs associated with the theory of ideology, I aim to describe the evolving relationship between fetishism and the commodity-form.

The first chapter opens by examining Lacan’s claim that Karl Marx invented the notion of “symptom” (11) – a critical concept employed by both Marx and Freud in their respective disciplines.  While novice theorists may initially balk at the thought of trying to integrate psychoanalysis and Marxism, the answer to this initial, seemingly bland query is well-worth the wait.  Zizek skillfully elaborates the parallels existing between Marx’s analysis of the world of commodities and Freud’s – followed by Lacan’s – analysis of the world of the unconscious.  While he highlights the “fundamental homology” (11) between their respective interpretative procedures, he simultaneously moves to guide his readers’ attention to the emphasis on “form” central to both schools.

In order to appreciate Zizek’s “new reading” of commodity fetishism, it is particularly helpful to take a look at the “old” one.  The original Marxian notion of commodity fetishism at work here involves “a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things”(Marx qtd. in Zizek 23).  We are given, for instance, the abstraction involved in replacing production and social relations with the notion of a product or a commodity which we then assign a comparative “value” abstracted even further into the form of money.  This is the classic example of Marxian “so-called commodity fetishism”:

Money is in reality just an embodiment, a condensation, a materialization of a network of social relations – the fact that it functions as a universal equivalent of all commodities is conditioned by its position in the texture of social relations.  (Zizek 31)

Commodity fetishism’s “essential feature,” though, can consist not merely of a faulty switch/exchange between “men” or “social relations” and “things,” but also of “a certain misrecognition which concerns the relation between a structure and one of its elements” (24). This “misrecognition,” Zizek argues, is a function of the “inversion proper to fetishism” (24).  To illustrate his point, he elaborates on a Marxian quote concerning the relation between a king and his subjects:

Being-a-king is an effect of the network of social relations between a “king” and his “subjects”; but – and here is the fetishistic misrecognition – to the participants of this social bond, the relationship appears necessarily in an inverse form:  They think they are subjects giving the king royal treatment because the king is already in himself, outside the relationship to this subjects, a king; as if the determination of “being-a-king” were a “natural” property of the person of the king.  (25)

Zizek uncovers two different and apparently incompatible modes of fetishism  – commodity fetishism and a fetishism of “relations between men,” where the former occurs in capitalist societies and the latter in pre-capitalist societies.  This pre-capitalist “fetishism in relations between men” – such as between king and subject -- should be, Marx argues, called by its proper name:  “relations of domination and servitude” (Marx qtd. in Zizek 26).  In the capitalist world, then, the place of fetishism simply shifts “from intersubjective relations to ‘relations between things’: the crucial social relations, those of production, are no longer transparent”; the true relations of domination and servitude are “repressed” and “disguise themselves” during this transition from feudalism (pre-capitalism) to capitalism, thus producing a Marxian “symptom” (26).

Following closely upon this revelation that social relations are “no longer transparent” comes the problem of another sort of “misrecognition” or “false consciousness” associated with Marx – his infamous definition of ideology from Capital as “they do not know it, but they are doing it” (Marx qtd. in Zizek28). Zizek, citing the example of money -- where we know very well that a coin/bill does not actually contain any sort of magical properties – argues that Marx’s maxim should now be replaced with:  “they know that, in their activity, they are following an illusion, but still they are doing it” (33)  This should remind readers of Zizek’s remarks from earlier in the text: “How tempting to recall here the formula of fetishistic disavowal: ‘I know very well, but still . . .’.” or “ ‘I know that money is a material object like others, but still . . . [it is as if it were made of a special substance over which time has no power]’” (18).

Looking through the prism of Lacan and Marx, then, Zizek brands us as “fetishists in practice, not in theory”; he posits that we “do not know” or we “misrecognize” the fact that in our “social reality itself, in [our] social activity – in the act of commodity exchange – [we] are guided by the fetishistic illusion” (31).  Amidst this discussion on ideology, Zizek highlights one of the most significant differences between Marx and Lacan:

In the predominant Marxist perspective the ideological gaze is a partial gaze overlooking the totality of social relations, whereas in the Lacanian perspective ideology rather designates a totality set on effacing the traces of its own impossibility.  (49)

This difference corresponds to the one that distinguishes the Marxian from the Freudian notion of fetishism:  In the former, “a fetish conceals the positive network of social relations,” whereas in the latter “a fetish conceals the lack (‘castration’) around which the symbolic network is articulated” (49).

Works Cited


Zizek, Slavoj.  The Sublime Object of Ideology.  London:  Verso, 1989.

Contact the author  Mollie K. Clemons



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