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Matt Wray

Related: Cultural Studies - fetish

Fetishizing the Fetish

Matt Wray

Bad Subjects, Issue #41 , December 1998

When I was about 8 years old, I read with excitement an advertisement for a pair of x-ray glasses in the back of Boy's Life magazine. You know the ad I'm talking about. It promised to open up the whole of the hidden world to me, to reveal all that was secret and concealed, to bring into view the invisible and expose the undisclosed. This ad was particularly effective on me, because just a year before I had gotten glasses to correct my nearsightedness. When the optometrist placed those geeky new glasses over my eyes, everything around me snapped into focus and the fuzzy world of blurry lines and bleeding colors disappeared. As I read the ad for these special x-ray glasses, I recalled how thrilling it had been to be able to see everything so sharply, so clearly, for the first time in my life. Everything seemed to shimmer with intensity and brilliant, reflected light. The eye doctor asked me to read the license plate of a car across the street and I did so, flawlessly. My parents smiled at me and I could see their shining teeth from across the room. As I sat there, I imagined that maybe the car belonged to some bad guys, and I noted the license plate number again, committing it to memory. I fantasized that If they were bad, I could tell the police -- I'd be a little hero! I'd do the right thing and everyone would know what I had seen with my nerdy new eyes. I felt like someone had gifted me with superpowers of sight. It was an unforgettable, supercharged moment for me.

If these new glasses could give me that special moment again, then I wanted those x-ray glasses! You might even say I developed a little fetish for them, since by having them, I'd have some special power or status I didn't have before. But I knew my mom would never approve -- the glasses were kind of pricey and, after all, the ad showed a guy looking through a woman's dress, his eyes all bugged out. I knew I'd never get those glasses, but that only seemed to make me want them all the more. My desire finally waned when I showed my older brother the ad. He laughed in my face. "Don't be an idiot," he chided, "Those things don't work!" I took in this news with a bit of disappointment and despaired of ever having that feeling again. My fetish for x-ray glasses was potent, but short-lived.

If today's critical theorists have a fetish, it is probably fetishism itself. Clearly, we derive a certain perverse pleasure from using the term, enjoying its cachet and the way it wryly suggests a sexual, libidinal energy at work in everything from shopping to sport, from celebrity worship to public humiliations. For these reasons and others I'll explain in a moment, fetishism as an analytical concept has enjoyed great favor among cultural critics. It is generally understood as a potent -- I'm tempted to say magical -- weapon of analysis for a wide range of culturally informed activities, most of them having to do with how we learn to want stuff, how we come to desire objects and things.

But, like any term that enjoys great popularity, it has been so widely used and abused that it has come to mean quite different things to many different people. For the purposes of keeping this essay brief, I want to focus on just three different meanings of the word as it is used in different arenas: in everyday speech, in the psycho-sexual realm, and in the economic, material realm

-- http://eserver.org/bs/41/wray.html [Jun 2004]

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