Cultures of Fetishism – Louise J. Kaplan


I was actually researching racial fetishism when I came across this book. It doesn’t really touch much upon that subject but it’s full of interesting information nonetheless.

It turns out that most people’s definition of fetishism is too narrow in that it’s usually taken to mean sexual fetishism. However, according to Dr. Kaplan, a psychoanalyst, “any excessive activity of heightened devotion could be referred to as a fetish.”

Kaplan goes on to list 5 principles of fetishism. Number 2 was the most interesting to me: “Fetishism transforms ambiguity and uncertainty into something knowable and certain and in doing so snuffs out any sparks of creativity that might ignite the fires of rebellion.” In that case, fetishism is used to dominate. Terrifying stuff.

Kaplan also explores footbinding in China, a topic that interests and horrifies me at the same time. What was different in her approach was that she considered Chinese women who had had their feet bound while it was still in vogue and then had had to live with the social stigma of having bound feet once it was no longer a fetish.

Kaplan’s dissection of fetishism in film was very interesting. She discussed Marilyn Monroe, the movie Eyes Wide Shut, and a Jude Law and Vivian Wu movie I had never heard of before and have no desire to ever watch because it sounds too bizarre (The Pillow Book).

“Whether in medicine, art, psychology, politics or religion, it has been a longstanding tradition to employ the enigmatic body of a woman with its mysterious desires and perplexing unpredictable movements as a fetishism emblem. Of course that’s not new but the way she dissects it in her examples is enlightening.”

I was very interested in the section on fetishism in biography writing. I have been reading a lot of biographies recently and was a bit surprised to learn that French philosopher Jacques Derrida actually calls biography writing “archive fever.” Virginia Woolf goes further to say that the duty of the biographer “is to plod without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers, regardless of shade, on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and finis on the tombstone above our head.”

Other topics touched upon were reality television, tattoos, commodification of children, and robots. All in all, this book was very thought-provoking and I learned a lot from it.


2 thoughts on “Cultures of Fetishism – Louise J. Kaplan

  1. This sounds VERY interesting. I’m going to have to read this at some point.

    Did you find any good books on racial fetishism during your search?

    1. It’s worth reading for the analysis of women in film alone! I haven’t been able to find any racial fetishism books yet but I’m still looking! It’s something my friends and I have to deal with so I really want to learn more about it, as disturbing as it is.

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