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  • Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of-the-Century France
  • Susan Derwin
Emily Apter. Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of-the-Century France. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991. xviii + 273 pp. $37.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.

This interdisciplinary study of turn-of-the-century French authors who have combined medical observation with an interest in writing literary chronicles of deviant behavior—what Apter, borrowing from Freud, calls "pathography"—resists simple classification. Apter's inquiry into the ideological underpinnings of the fetishistic "sensibility" leads her into the fields of cultural history, psychoanalysis, the history of science, economic theory, feminism, and anthropology. The result is a theory of feminine fetishism designed to mobilize the critical potential dormant in the concept of fetishism but hitherto impeded by its customary assimilation to a logic of phallocentrism.

The first two chapters of the book present a history of theories of fetishism and a genealogy of fetishistic perversion. Apter develops a notion of "critical fetishism" based on an articulation of the doubleness of the fetish. According to her, the fetishist creates a simulacrum that reflexively exposes its own "imposter value" and thereby subverts its auratic power. Drawing on nineteenth-century theories such as Alfred Binet's "Le Fetichisme dans l'amour," Apter shows how the double structure of the fetish finds its poetological parallel in the stylistics of realist and naturalist works by the Goncourt brothers, Emile Zola, Guy de Maupassant, Octave Mirbeau, Remy de Gourmont, Georges Rodenbach, Rachilde, Léo Taxil, Augustin Cabanès, Octave Uzanne, Cazalis, and Paul Bourget, to name only some of the authors she discusses. Her readings are structured around topics such as: female exhibitionism in the cabinet peep-show; the sartorial superego and the masquerade; maternal collectomania; maso-feminism (feminine mysticism); scopophilia; the female domestic; and the realist stigma. In each of these areas, Apter teases out the existence of a feminine fetishism that subverts masculinist notions of feminine identity. So, for example, she uncovers in representations of women's clothing in the writings of Uzanne and the Goncourt brothers a critique of feminine essentialism in favor of a theory of "materialized social construction."

Apter's view of feminine perversity as an expression of a "subversively erotic practice" enables her to forge links between the critical potential of these texts and current debates over issues of crucial importance to feminist epistemology, such as the significance of the gaze and the historical relativism of psychoanalytic and literary definitions of femininity. To this end she uses her analysis of literary works as a point of departure for her consideration of contemporary understandings of femininity (of Riviere, Doane, Lacan, Montrelay, Jardine, and others).

Apter demonstrates a command of relevant cultural and historical knowledge that lends scope and density to her readings. My only reservation concerns the momentum of her writing. One wishes she would have lingered [End Page 425] longer over the fascinating bits of text she presents for consideration (and further limited her material if necessary) and that, given the importance of psychoanalytic theory to her study, she would have developed more thoroughly the key terms on which she relies; she presents complex concepts such as narcissism, sadomasochism, and even fetishism, in a somewhat cursory manner. Overall, however, Apter has effectively employed an original concept of feminine fetishism in her analysis of a diverse and fascinating collection of texts. The result is an invigorating literary-historical study whose broader relevance to inter- and transdisciplinary issues, such as the social construction of identity, is unmistakable.

Susan Derwin
University of California, Santa Barbara


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