The Fetish: A History, A Future, and Why You Can’t Survive Without One

History, Philosophy

Peter Calos

On the first of October, in 2013, a man revealed anonymously to the internet that he had a deeply-held and obsessive fetish for the state of Ohio.

His story was as follows:

He lived in Ohio, and was intensely interested in hunting, in the geography and history of the state; enough to read an obscure book by a longhunter (a hunter who typically embarks on elongated excursions, some lasting for as long as six months). This book concerned the fault lines around the Ohio Valley River, and the author was a local, who he quickly managed to contact and befriend. This author happened to lead a hobbyist group that would often embark on hunting trips near the valley. Our protagonist was encouraged to come on one of the trips in question, where he was led into an obscure forest near the Ohio River. Once there, the members of the hiking party encouraged him to take several unidentifiable pills, and he experienced audio-visual hallucinations while the leader of the troop spoke about the history of the land and performed sexual acts in front of him.

Emerging from the experience, the man found he had acquired a…shall we say, a ‘certain taste’ for the fault-lines and specific geological features of Ohio.

This story, posted on 4chan slightly under six years ago, is almost certainly not true.

Yet it raises the question of how our interactions with and ideas of the fetish have changed over time. What is the origin of this idea, of attraction to a physical object? The etymology? Its conception over time? How should we consider the ‘fetish’ in modern society?

Tracing terms

The term ‘fetish’ first rears its head in 16th and 17th century travelogues, written by European traders journeying as far as their supplies and superstitions allowed into West Africa. Common parlance has it that the term ‘fetish’ refers to a small wooden idol, worshiped as a god by African tribesmen; Portuguese traders from the 15th century originally distinguished between a feitico (an object worn on the body and used in rituals) versus an idolo (a medium of worship). Collation of the terms was a European generalisation.

As the concept became more widespread, the colonialists’ impression of the fetish developed into an object that obstructed the natural path of commerce, it being a valueless piece typically composed of wood, stone, or bone, which captivated its owner despite its complete lack of monetary value.

Introductions of the fetish to Western intellectuals were fraught with travellers’ preconceptions of fetishes as primitive African misunderstandings of the universe. Their belief that devotion to a physical object could change the natural state of the world, bring prosperity to the unfortunate, or curse a particularly offensive person was a ridiculous idea to a culture that had already long accepted monotheism and the idea of an incorporeal god.

And this was also a culture that had only relatively recently recovered from the cultural shock of Protestantism, which had raised the following questions:

  1. What to do with physical representations of divinity
  2. How to accept that the Catholic power structure was both necessary to uphold social values, and also irredeemably corrupted by centuries of selling relics and indulgences.

Discrimination from a Christian world followed fetishists (If I may be allowed to use the term in an anachronistic context) in West Africa and in the Haitian colonies, on account of the association with witchcraft, sorcerous acts, and the deception of others through perceived tribal fakery. These tensions were compounded by the efforts of the West Africans to resist their oppressors with highly effective poisons. The use of fetishes had become yet another aspect of the ‘barbarian’ image the West had of her colonies.

In 1757, a French philosopher (Charles de Brosse) coined the term ‘Fetichisme’ to describe “the religious delusion that blocks recognition of rational self-interest and social order.” This description signposts two aspects of the European mindset: it is both an evolution of the Portuguese traders’ conception of the fetish as a useless trinket clogging up the market with inflated, non-extant value, and it is also an evolution of the idea that the fetish is an obsession, something that cannot be disregarded on a whim or bought or sold in the first place.

Fetishism abstracted: 19th century Europe

The backdrop of the late 19th century: European imperialism, contrasting the civility of a Europe which was being torn apart by politics and economic depression (the Austro-Hungarian Empire) with the brutal reality of colonial oppression. What Belgium had done in the Congo, and Germany in Southwest Africa, was widespread knowledge, to say nothing of the position of African-Americans in the United States.

Fetishism as a concept had become abstracted from its roots in totem worship, and had veered off wildly into two directions:

Commodity: Karl makes his Mark(s)

Commodity fetishism finds its roots in Karl Marx’s writings. In creating his labour theory of value, Marx conspicuously neglects a quite obvious source thereof: black slaves. In Marx, the slave is not a commodity, or a productive entity, or even a person: he is a ‘pedestal’, an object lacking agency, whose work is absorbed into Marx’s equations as part of the socially autonomous white labour force. In Marx’s work, the African slave is a demonstrative example for the plight of the European wage-worker, not an object in himself.

Yet the great irony of Marx’s attitude towards the fetishists is that his labour theory of value was itself a framework to be applied to the world in the absence of real evidence, something to be ideally taken in faith and acted upon by a unified proletariat. In other words, his work was written for the sake of creating a framework to judge the world by and act accordingly, which is the same principle as the African priests with their fetishes. Marx, being Jewish and downwardly mobile in class terms, was in a decidedly poor position within his own framework, and so must have considered the subjection of African culture to Europe to be in his personal interest (adding the Africans to the ‘ladder’ of European class would have brought him, relatively, one rung higher).

Commodity fetishism: when producers and consumers perceive one another in value terms, as mere creators or purchasers of value, rather than people. Economic relations abstract the reality of a given situation, hide the cruelty of the capitalist towards the worker through market-oriented language. In other words, in Marx, the ‘fetish’ is an obscurant; an obsessive, religious framework that conceals the truth of the world.

Sexual Fetishism:

The first person to coin the term sexual fetishism was the French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911), who was also the progenitor of the first IQ test. Binet established the belief, popular among contemporary psychoanalysts, that a fetish was established as a result of an associative process, a lasting after-effect of a sexually-charged first impression. Following in his wake was the Austrian Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902), whose exhaustive book of sexual pathology, the Psychopathia Sexualis, challenged many pre-existing ideas on the formation and classification of perversions. The book was considered an essential resource for 19th century psychologists.

Krafft-Ebing retained the idea of perversions as functional sexual deviations which arose during puberty and declined after 40. He also wrote about individual fetishes in a distinctly gendered manner, referring to sadism and lustful murder as excessively manly, while masochism was excessively effeminate. Masturbation, in Krafft-Ebing’s view, was a key component in causing a fetish to appear.

He differed from his progenitors, however, in asserting that fetishes were mainly brought into being by hereditary tendencies, ‘taintedness’ in the family line which led to imbalances between inhibition and sexual instinct. This instinct was aggravated by stimulation, but not caused by it. Like Binet, Krafft-Ebing believed that a specific fetish was caused by the association of an object with inborn sexuality.

His most important deviation from the contemporary consensus, however, was the new conception of a fetish as not the result of degeneracy, a weak anatomy, or weak will, but as an intrinsic part of a person’s psychological composition, inseparable from that person. This more liberal perspective allowed him to then separate actions from psychological states – ‘perversions’ from ‘perversities’. “In order to differentiate between disease (perversion) and vice (perversity) one must investigate the whole personality of the individual and the original motive leading to the perverse act. Therein will be found the key to the diagnosis.” Perversion was now separated in the popular consciousness from immorality and crime, and thoroughly individualised.

One cannot avoid Freud.

In his first three essays on the subject, Freud simply summarised and regurgitated the views of his predecessors. Then came disparity: according to Freud, the sexual norm (attraction to a mature member of the opposite sex) was a perversion in itself, in the sense that the disposition towards perversion was common enough to overlap with sexual norms, and thus formed a part of sexual normalcy. In simpler terms, perversions existed, and were defined in much the same terms as Krafft-Ebing and his adherents, but they were universal. Childhood sexual proclivity was perversity to Freud because it always had the potential to veer off into any fetish as a consequence of a formative sexual experience.

In 1927, after having delved deeper into his psychological studies, Freud returned to the concept of fetishism, and redefined it as a result of traumatic childhood experience. Such a radical idea was a point of contention between Freud and other psychologists and contemporary sexologists, but this and other differences largely rose from a difference in objectives: Freud was sceptical about the possibility of ‘curing’ the perverted, while the main body of European psychoanalysts considered themselves medical workers. This was what distinguished psychoanalysts of the 20th century from sexologists: a focus on treatment versus research.

Fetish as Universal Phenomenon

‘Sexology’ became an accepted and well-defined intellectual discipline around the turn of the 20th century. This discipline was politicised in the sense that it dealt with power relations and the representation of deviants – the founder of the first sexological journal, Magnus Hirschfeld, defined sexology as a ‘progressive science’. His findings supported this definition: sexual deviation was not pathological or dangerous to society on a wider scale. A second founder of the discipline, the American Henry Havelock Ellis, claimed that sexology should serve a primary role in the politics of sex reform, and tried to garner sympathy in particular for sexual inversion.

Historical and anthropological contexts were added to the study of sexology, to divorce it from the exclusive domain of psychoanalysis and to potentially gain a deeper understanding of sexual proclivities. The question for Iwan Bloch, a major figure in the field and the creator of the term ‘sexology’, was not the origin and treatment of fetishes, but the reason they had been repressed throughout most of human history, and why they continued to be repressed. Activism from these circles mainly focused on the legal reformation of anti-homosexual laws, even from those sexologists who believed homosexuality to be a mental disorder.

Henry Ellis argued that the phenomena central to perverted desire was closely related to socially accepted sexual norms, implying that fetishists were in fact closer to the sphere of ‘normality’ than people had previously believed. According to him, sexual desire existed on a bell curve, with the majority of society close to the mean and a relative handful of individuals located at the extreme ends. Yet all previous standards upheld from Krafft-Ebing’s time were not lost: Ellis considered exhibitionism a perversion of the courtship instinct, and considered excessive self-stimulation to have harmful side-effects.

Ellis found a receptive audience in the 20th century Americans; in part because his writing was less obsessed with theory than the typical German tract, in part because it was filled with examples of deviation. These details, released publicly in popular science books, were seen as a form of social amelioration for those who had previously been pathologised. Many American sexology books became bestsellers.

Some statistical arguments and biological arguments were used to reduce the stigma of the fetish: because much of the population had a fetish of some kind or another, according to sexological research, practices that were ostensibly deviations were in fact secretive norms. Many of the fetishes were also practiced by animals, meaning there existed a biological, or a natural basis for a fetish. The idea was at the time radical, and by no means an accepted perspective – but an extant one.

Well, what do you think it means?

Try the following experiment: run the gamut of 20th century anthropological attitudes on the fetish, as I have just outlined them, through the gauntlet of 1960s and 70s progressivism. The result is our contemporary conception of the fetish as something slightly scandalous, but mostly harmless, and usually privately admissible.

(One will forgive the lack of relative detail in this section; my assumption is that the layman is familiar with the liberalising tendency of the second half of the 20th century on various fields of the social sciences, and the reader is also aware of the liberating effect its socio-cultural movements had on the public consideration and expression of sexual deviance. There is little I could add to that understanding within the scope of this work. To return to our topic, the modern-day fetish…)

According to the ever-reliable Oxford dictionary, a fetish is now “a form of sexual desire in which gratification is linked to an abnormal degree to a particular object, item of clothing, part of the body, etc…an excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing.” The original meaning of the word as an object of African worship is now apologetically retained as an outdated secondary meaning.

Since it has become to a large degree secularised, in the sense that it no longer refers strictly to either the sexual meaning or the original religious meaning, the term is somewhat less charged in modern Western society.

With that in mind, and given that we appear to have run out of history to analyse, please allow me to delve into the realm of speculative philosophy, to create a prospective definition for the term ‘fetish.’


The term may be increasingly divorced from its overtly psychological meaning, and come to refer to something like the following:

“A specialisation undertaken for its own sake, a private interest (not reliant on anyone else sharing it for it to interest you) that serves as a framework through which you interpret the world. Or a ‘motivating framework’. Not something that exists in isolation, and not something that completely dominates the mind, but exists in tandem with a whole host of other specialities and interests. We might tentatively call a ‘worldview’ a ‘collection of fetishes.’”

This covers both the original divine spectrum of the word and the modern secular use.

Under this definition, the fetish can be considered a ‘god’ in the sense that it provides an underlying meaning and reason to act in the world, and as an artistic/creative endeavour.

  1. Fetish in divine terms

There is no reason to discount the original definition, since a fetish and a god are the same. There is a tie here between the idea of ‘god as fetish’ and ‘fetish as god’. Both contain the key to meaning: a solid bedrock, an unquestionable foundation through which to interpret the world. Unquestionable in the traditional sense due to superstition, certainly, but now also unquestionable from a secular viewpoint as a result of the time put into it, the hours of understanding gained from a lifetime of experience, and from the inability of even the most ardent postmodernist to discount that experience.

A fetish contains its own minuscule yet gargantuan world: within the area of a single art-form or of a profession is a universe-full of specialist terms, of ideas, a personal history relative to the history of everything outside of it, which may actually belie or contradict another fetish’s history in tone, if not in content. A fetish defines things.

An example. Ask a 21st century atheist what God is and he’ll likely reply with some variation on ‘a psychologically driven superstition’. None of the terms of religion or the practices thereof have any meaning for him. But a 12th century Frenchman believes that God is the underlying reason for everything, and the existence of his God – his fetish – is what allows him to define everything, understand abstract events. He can look at an assortment of religious tools, symbols, icons, and understand how they all fit into the overarching tapestry of Christian faith – what each piece means, what it’s used for and why. In other words, for the man with the belief, the man with the fetish, somewhat arbitrary practices have their own meaning and map onto the world in a very specific, specialist way.

To use a secular example, a chess player understands the reason each piece moves the way it does – because it’s an abstraction of a certain type of warrior on a battlefield.

The understanding of shared world history differs between a fetishist and a non-fetishist. The aforementioned 12th-century Frenchman considers the crucifixion of Jesus to be the supreme moment of salvation, the event around which the world turns, while the atheist would view it as merely another Jewish rebel being given a typical Roman punishment. To use a less dramatic example, consider ‘history’ as viewed by an art historian, versus someone whose chief focus is political history. A peaceful exchange of techniques, driven by outside factors which are not in themselves important – versus the history of those same factors.

Whoever lacks a fetish lacks meaning: all aspects of life assume an equally important, agnostic, characterless character, and the observer becomes a post-modern believer in nothing, immobilised, with only a casual interest in everything, unable to decide anything is more important than anything else. This is the fate of the fetish-less.

2. Fetish in artistic terms – what makes good art?

The fetish in regards to art is a combination, between the excessive focus outlined in my modern definition (specialisation for its own sake) and the Marxist idea of commodity fetish, or the uniquely sell-able product. A fetish is what distinguishes one piece of art—one product—from another. What people typically consider ‘good’ art is usually a piece with a strong, unique focus, where a specific theme is explored in unusual and interesting depth, as opposed to a poor work, where a theme is ignored, treated in a shallow manner, or used as window dressing for the sake of some irrelevant aspect of the work. In other words, good art is good because it caters to a specific fetish.


Whether my prediction for the future of the idea of ‘fetish’ is deluded or prophetic, out-of-order or the order of the day; whether the fetish will become an entirely secular, non-sexual concept again or whether the European psychologists have associated it with the carnal instinct beyond all recovery is not something I can tell you.

Take, as a final example, the excessive, fervent devotion of a frenzied, sexually frustrated acolyte for a religious icon, which promises to cure him of his shameful impurities: an icon which he is intent on purchasing. Here is the archetypal frustrated, embarrassed 15th century Christian, convinced by the Catholic church that he can indulge in his forbidden fantasies if he purchases the requisite volume of indulgences. In this man, every aspect of the term ‘fetish’ is combined into a focal point. It is at once an obsession, a commodity, a locus for his desires, and a thing that grounds his worldview and allows him to define his world relative to it. So, perhaps, the term will never lose its potency, as long as we have that example to draw upon.

Within the history of the fetish we encounter a history of cultural exchange, unwilling and purposeful, of rebellion, discrimination, of mental deficiency, of degeneracy, of religions lost to time. The fetish as object and the fetish as symbol of the mind have been collated in our modern understanding as a slavish fixation, something to obsess over and fascinate us forever, no matter the future.

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