On Racial Fetishism
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On Racial Fetishism

Let me suggest provisionally that fetishism (or at least its structure) always has to do with repudiation and loss. That it commemorates a loss, but a loss that is simultaneously recognized and denied (perhaps it is recognition that is denied?), by substituting a sign, a sign that preserves the loss it effaces like ice preserves the muddy footprints of passersby. And that, reciprocally, the knowledge and belief that sustain fetishism always run the risk of falling prey to doubt, so that as soon as the subject ventures into it, it runs the risk of finding itself somewhere it would rather not be.

Frantz Fanon claims in Black Skin, White Masks that it is in the fetishism analyzed both by Freud and by Marx—or rather, where this analysis breaks down—that the psychopolitical dimensions of racial antagonism most needs to be thought.1 One imagines that such thought (especially if it were to turn out to be a case of precarious redoubt), has a complex structure that is difficult to pin down. My working hypothesis here, in what is rather speculative, is that this structure must have at least an antinomian relation with the structure of the fetish as Freud and Marx present it, and especially in the distinction between illusion and loss, acknowledgment and disavowal, phantasm and reality. Moreover, we shall see that antinomy is also part of our problem and, as such, cannot solve the problem of the fetish. [End Page 215]

I shall be trying to show, not that Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxist philosophy are two incomplete theories of fetishism (two incomplete ways of reading disavowal and repudiation), but that where there is a racial fetish (where what is repudiated and disavowed is raced), Fanon presents an interesting challenge. This “racial fetishism” can (as tends to be the case in Fanon) be a perverse relation to difference, of which the fetish acts as a defense against more intolerable forms of anxiety, while allowing subjects to enjoy this fear more or less secretly, more or less violently. This “fetishism of representation” would then be (as Vicky Lebeau has brilliantly shown from a different point of view) the place where fantasy becomes real, or at least the place where the other as projected text—and a projection only to the extent that our fear of traumatized loss (of being exposed to the stereotypical other) requires fetishism to be representable at all—meets the singular violence of repudiation.

And so, by way of an exergue, as an example of this fantasmatic occlusion, this famous paragraph in which the enjoyment of racist fantasy is at stake:

The choice of the phobic object is . . . overdetermined. This object does not come at random out of the void of nothingness; in some situation it has previously evoked an affect in the patient. His phobia is the latent presence of this affect at the root of his world; there is an organization that has been given a form. For the object, naturally, need not be there, it is enough that somewhere it exist: It is a possibility. This object is endowed with evil intentions and with all the attributes of a malefic power. In the phobic, affect has a priority that defies all rational thinking. As we can see, the phobic is a person who is governed by the laws of rational prelogic and affective prelogic: methods of thinking and feeling that go back to the age at which he experienced the event that impaired his security.

(BS, 155)

Fanon not only outlines a parallel between phobia and fetishism (in face of the other’s proximity), but he also makes that parallel key to understanding the choice of object in the splitting of the subject, at least as far as knowledge and belief are concerned—in the face [End Page 216] of the traumatized loss (or its intractability?) that is disavowed, pushed into the void of oblivion, phobia reincorporates what is denied in all of its malefic proximity as a perfectly congealed remnant at “the root of [the subject’s] world.” This is precisely why, taking a glance at Freud’s second theory of anxiety, there is an overdetermined...