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  • On the History of FetishismDe Brosses and Comte
  • Alan Bass (bio)

Psychoanalytic concepts often take their names from words that can have a complex history of their own (e.g., unconscious, ego, drive, object). This is particularly true of the terms fetish and fetishism. While we tend to think of fetishism in sexual terms, the word had been in use for centuries before it became a psychoanalytic topic. Freud makes a passing reference to the word’s background when he speaks of fetishism in the Three Essays of the Theory of Sexuality (1905). He knew that fetishism had been given a specifically sexual meaning by Alfred Binet (of the intelligence test), in 1888.

In his fundamental article, Binet had written: “The term fetishism suits quite well, we think, this type of sexual perversion [i.e., arousal by things, as described by Charcot and Magnan and taken up by Kraft-Ebbing]. The adoration, in these illnesses, for inanimate objects such as night caps or high heels corresponds in every respect to the adoration of the savage or Negro for fish bones or shiny pebbles, with the fundamental difference, that in the first case religious adoration is replaced by sexual appetite” (1888, 3).1 Binet spoke of savages, Negroes, and religious adoration because he knew the original meaning of fetishism. The word fetish was coined in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese explorers of West Africa to describe the religious veneration of things they found there. As European exploration of the world expanded to Asia and the Americas, and especially as missionaries spread out, the worship of things was observed everywhere. [End Page 19] Binet’s alignment of the sexual fetishist with the savage or Negro is part of the long history of use of the word to categorize first racial, and then sexual, degeneracy.

This phenomenon was baptized “fetishism” by Charles de Brosses, a French amateur ethnologist, in 1760. In the eighteenth century there were many investigations of origins—the origin of society, of language, of religion. Such investigations, influenced by the observations of previously unknown “primitive” cultures, attempted to account for the development of the contemporary world out of its primitive beginnings. De Brosses thought that fetishism was the original, universal form of worship, as opposed to many of his contemporaries who thought that polytheism was the original religion. However, this immediately posed a problem. How to explain the eventual development of “true” religion, that is, the worship of an abstract, universal god instead of the worship of material, specific things?

We no longer appreciate what an important and vexing question this was for many thinkers. If the one, true God created everything, why did he create man as a fetishist? Kant and Hegel both felt compelled to try to explain fetishism, linking it to what both saw as most unreasonable in “primitive” cultures. But there was a surprising result of all these attempts to account for the universality of fetishism. In the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and sociology, drew on the universality of fetishism to make strong claims for his new approach to science. Marx, consciously drawing upon the religious background, made commodity fetishism a key concept of Capital. And Freud took Binet’s concept of sexual fetishism and expanded it greatly.

Fetishism, in fact, has a vital role in Freud’s thought. In the Three Essays (1905) he says, “No other variation of the sexual instinct that borders on the pathological can lay so much claim to our interest as this one” (154). In the study of Leonardo da Vinci (1910) he had his insight that the fetish is the substitute for the missing maternal phallus (96). And then starting with the two papers on neurosis and psychosis of 1924 (1924a, 1924b) he began to consider perversion in relation to ego splitting and disavowal. [End Page 20] This became the explanation of the structure of fetishism in 1927, and then, surprisingly, the model for all compromise formation in the posthumous Outline (1940a) and “The Splitting of the Ego in the Process of Defense” (1940b).

Freud’s generalization of fetishism at the end of his life conforms to a striking historical pattern. Starting...