The Saddle, 2017. Designed and produced by Fleet Ilya.

The terms fetish and fetishism have long been used to mark specific ‘problem-ideas’ for modern social theory. Despite the use of this terminology in a variety of disciplines that claim no common theoretical ground—the history of religion, Marxism and positive sociology, psychoanalysis and the psychiatry of sexual deviance, philosophy—there is a common configuration of themes. Four themes that consistently inform the idea of a fetish are: (1) the untranscended materiality, (2) the historicality of its origin: rising from a singular event that creates a fixation, (3) the dependence of the fetish for its meaning and value on a particular order of social relations, and (4) the active relation of the fetish to the living body of the individual.

The central conflict of fetishism, whatever form it may take (commodity, sexual, anthropological) is between belief and knowledge; it is the belief that the fetishist acts upon, not knowledge alone. This reminds us of how deeply knowledge is structured by the framework of interpretation, because it is the process of interpretation that most deeply affects our understanding of a thing in its function or uses. Fetishism’s attention to the thing, its inappropriate emphasis on the thing, transgresses the boundaries of identity and enables us to become or do something we otherwise could not.

Fetishism is a means to focus on the meaning and constitution of the relation between things; a point of mutual interest and exchange; a bridge between social reality and fantasy or psychic reality; a hermeneutic strategy that uses materiality to embody symbolic aims; an epistemology—a way of coming to know a thing.

There is a certain degree of reciprocity in coming to know a thing, as our reaction to the thing changes through the course of coming to know it. Knowledge is the responsive process of interaction between things, as the thing of our knowing is transformed through the process of knowing and simultaneously exerts a transformational force on us.