Patricia Morris, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology (London: Author’s Collective Press, 2020).

Apparent antitheses between Anthropology and Psychoanalysis are not difficult to adduce. Since its 19th Century stirrings, Anthropology has been committed to illuminating the multiplicity encompassed within the category of “the human.”

This dedication to difference has typically pivoted on the concept of culture, that universal that is only ever particular. Psychoanalysis, by contrast, treats a farrago of human behaviors, both individual and collective, as symptoms of a common underlying psychological structure, wrought by tensions between conscious motivations and unconscious desires, the shared legacy of the Oedipal Complex and its configuration of id, ego, and superego. The ends of Anthropology and Psychoanalysis diverge accordingly. The former, despite shifting political commitments over its history, has largely claimed a descriptive mandate. The latter is interventionist and teleological—it seeks to cure neuroses, psychoses, and perversions through the sublimations of speech. Whereas Anthropology, especially in recent years, stakes its disciplinary claims on the terrain of ontological plurality, Psychoanalysis posits a broken humanism, based on a universal pathology that it aspires to treat.

       Such, at any rate, is a straw figure version of the antinomy between Anthropology and Psychoanalysis. Patricia Morris’ recent, pint-sized offering, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology (2020), is the latest salvo in this pitched battle, written decidedly from and for the psychoanalytical camp. Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology has the virtue of reviving a worthy interdisciplinary debate, and the motif of the fetish is a fitting point of contact and contention to spark the conversation. It is a pity, then, that Morris prefers to polemicize against a caricature of Anthropology constructed largely from the structure-functionalists of yore. In doing so, she misses the opportunity to break new ground in the underexplored regions between the disciplines.

       Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology begins on a promising note: “There are three distinct disciplines that make free with the term ‘fetishism’. Since the earliest launch of a geographical voyage of discovery, anthropologically-minded adventurers have fetishized artefacts valued by supposedly primitive peoples. Separately, psychoanalysis codified sexual fetishism as a familiar feature of the so-called perverse psychological structure. Following Marx, political theorists have plied the term commodity fetishism by which they denote the unacknowledged relationship between an exchanged object and the labor that produced it. Each group uses the word ‘fetishism’ often and means something different by it. There is one common factor: the fetish refers to a material object that is over-valued” (Ibid.: 7-8).[1] With this, the table is set for a potential feast of conceptual fusion: the syntheses among religion, sexuality, political economy, and the objects that sustain them. Unfortunately, Morris does not have an appetite for such a meal. She summarily relegates the fetish to one of many concepts lost in translation between Psychoanalysis and Anthropology, while largely skirting        Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism.[2] Morris visits a plethora of intriguing figures and debates as she treads between the disciplines, but her broad conclusion is both foregone and predictable: “The mechanism by which an idiosyncratic signification occurs for the individual is the stuff of psychoanalytic treatment. When it occurs in the wider group…the psychoanalyst perceives it and marks it as culture, not as exception or as pathology” (Ibid.: 93-94). An unbridgeable gulf between two modalities of meaning, then: on one side, individual symptom, pathological exception; on the other, collective meaning, normative community.

       The troubles with such a bifurcation between the psychological and the cultural are legion. Morris’ insistence on the rift between psyche and society forecloses any inquiry into the circuits between the two. From an anthropological vantage, the “social life of fetishes,” to adapt Arjun Appadurai (1986), is a fecund site for mediations between meaning and materiality, desire and discourse. An example from the recent, fascinating Turkish television series Ethos (Bir Başkadır)—a drama about psychotherapy—comes to mind: Sinan, an affluent young man who is clearly marked as “secular” according to the dominant ideological polarity of contemporary Turkey, obsessively rubs his face with a headscarf left behind by Meryem, his poor, pious housekeeper. With allowances for televisual license, such an image of a Muslim headscarf as taboo fetish for a secular Turkish man is provocative and persuasive. Yet it would be impossible to comprehend without allowing for a feedback loop between individual symptom and collective meaning—the dichotomy that Morris vigilantly polices.

       I suspect that Morris would object to this interpretation as another anthropological mishandling of Psychoanalysis, a hollow invocation of “fetishism” that neglects the mise-en-scène of the Oedipal drama that conditions fetishistic perversion. As she details at length, Freud theorizes fetishism as a response to the Oedipal threat of castration on the part of the (boy) child who refuses to accept the prohibition on the mother and, instead, “find(s) a substitute for the missing penis” (2020: 82)—that is, the mother’s castrated penis that he refuses fully to acknowledge as missing. Crucially, the transposition of sexual desire from mother to fetish object produces a mode of privileged secrecy—as Jacques Lacan notes, “the meaning of the fetish is not known to other people so the fetish is not withheld from him: it is easily accessible and he can readily obtain the sexual satisfaction attached to it” (quoted in Morris 2020: 84). Sexual fetishism establishes a domain of potent, private meaning divorced from public culture.

        Such an solipsistic, pathological vision of fetishism is at odds with recent anthropological treatments of fetishism as a social, semiotic process, above all because anthropologists have sought to recuperate the genealogy of fetish as a history of intersubjective innovation. For anthropologists, fetishism is not a problem to be solved or condition to be treated. David Graeber, for instance theorizes the fetish as “a god under process of construction” (2005: 427), hovering between the poles of magical manipulation and theological abstraction. In the rapidly transforming, frequently violent contexts of early colonial West Africa—the crucible in which the concept of fetish, fetisso, was first formed (Pietz 1987)—fetishes served as vehicles of and for the “creation of new social relations” (Graeber 2005: 408). In his analysis of the “unfetish,” Sasha Newell extends this argument further in order “to produce a model for understanding what a sociality of things may look like” (2014: 186). For anthropologists writing in this vein, the fetish offers startling insights into the mediations of materiality, sociality, and subjectivity.

       For orthodox Psychoanalysis, by contrast, fetishism is a scandal: a detour[3] from the route to “normal” heterosexual desire that neutralizes the danger inherent to the Oedipal triad by perversely latching onto an external object. This drama is at basis a matter of the nuclear family and the objects that orbit it; society, culture, and their modalities of meaning are external and irrelevant. To maintain this pristine image of the Oedipus Complex, however, one must first naturalize the nuclear family itself. Feminist scholars, as well as anthropologists, have effectively interrogated this psychoanalytical naturalization of the bourgeois nuclear family for decades, but the point bears repeating: If the intimate relationships that saturate a child’s early years are socially mediated, then psychological development and its configuration of sexual desire, the very formation of the subject, is necessarily a matter of social and “cultural” meaning. Yet this is precisely the bone that Morris relentlessly picks with Anthropology: that it “culturalizes” the psychological.

       Anthropologists should not ignore this criticism, especially in light of the recent disciplinary obsession with “affect,” a concept that, in William Mazzarella’s words, “implies a way of apprehending social life that does not start with the bounded, intentional subject while at the same time foregrounding embodiment and sensuous life” (2009: 291). One of Psychoanalysis’s major contributions to Anthropology, and the social sciences generally, has been to decenter the “bounded, intentional subject” by emphasizing the constitutive role of desire for cultural reason. That said, Morris’s rearguard attempt to preserve the integrity of Psychoanalysis by erecting a barrier between individual symptom and collective meaning will not stand. Unsurprisingly, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology has little to say concerning the most prominent thinkers—none anthropologists—who have applied psychoanalytical concepts productively to political-economic, social and cultural questions: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Slavoj Žižek, Renata Salecl. More surprising is Morris’s lack of interest in Freud’s own fascination with the potential consequences of Psychoanalysis for theories of history, society, and religion, expressed above all in Totem and Taboo (1990 [193]) and Moses and Monotheism (1955 [1939]). If the founding father himself sought a role for Psychoanalysis as social theory, as well as therapeutic method, surely we might envision a relationship between Anthropology and Psychoanalysis that amounts to more than miscomprehension or antinomy. To insist otherwise would be perverse.

*The author would like to thank Sasha Newell for his invaluable insights and recommendations.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 1986. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Freud, Sigmund. 1955 [1939]. Moses and Monotheism. Trans. by Katherine Jones. New York: Vintage Books.

Freud, Sigmund. 1990 [1913]. Totem and Taboo. Trans. by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Graeber, David. 2005. “Fetishism as social creativity: Or, fetishes are gods in the process of construction.” Anthropological Theory 5 (4): 407-38.

Mazarella, William. 2009. “Affect: What is It Good For?” Pp. 291-309 in Enchantments of Modernity: Empire, Nation, Globalization. Saurabh Dube, ed. London, New York and Delhi: Routledge.

Morris, Patricia. 2020. Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology. London: Adam Rei Books.

Newell, Alexander. 2014. “The matter of the unfetish. Hoarding and the spirit of posessions.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (3): 185-213. DOI:

Pietz, William. 1985. “The problem of the fetish.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 9 (Spring): 5-17.

_____. 1987. “The problem of the fetish II: The origin of the fetish.” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 13 (Spring): 23-45.

Spyer, Patricia, ed. 1998. Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Places. New York: Routledge.

Valeri, Valerio. 2018. Classic Concepts in Anthropology. Giovanni da Col and Rupert Stasch, eds. Chicago: HAU Books.

[1] Note, however, that Morris casts anthropologists as fetishists in their own right, in contrast to psychoanalysts and Marxists, who wield the fetish theoretically. While there are worthy reasons to criticize (aspects of) Anthropology as a fetishism of Otherness, Morris’ polemic ignores most conceptual elaborations of fetishism within Anthropology itself, beginning with Edmund Tylor and extending through the work of William Pietz (1985, 1987), Valerio Valeri (2018), Patricia Spyer (1998), David Graeber (2005), and Sasha Newell (2014).

[2] Morris does dwell on commodity fetishism in her discussion of Daniel Miller’s anthropological study of consumer culture in Chapter Six. Miller is one of only a few contemporary anthropologists that merit her consideration, and her conclusion about his work is characteristically dismissive: “Miller’s theory of mass consumption could be applied to the urban subcultures of fetish clubs and erotica communities…However, his theory lies outside the scope of analysis of individuals whose sexual fetishism is psychologically embedded in a psychic structure often characterized by emotional anguish” (2020: 113).

[3] As Morris points out, the Latin origin of perversion means “turned around” or “turned away” (2020: 77).

Jeremy F. Walton is Max Planck Research Group Leader, “Empires of Memory: The Cultural Politics of Historicity in Former Habsburg and Ottoman Cities,” Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Anthony DiMaggio: The War on Anti-Racism: The Mainstreaming of Social Movements, and the Emerging Backlash

By Joy James: The Algorithm of AntiRacism

By Lawrence Davidson: Israel’s Road to Apartheid and the Fate of International Law

By James Block: The Road Not (Yet) Taken II: From Culture Wars to a New History

By Russell Jacoby: High Court of Literary Correctness

By Benjamin Shepard: From Pandemic to Solidarity, Mutual Aid from Plague Days to Autonomous Zones

By Charles Thorpe: Toward Species Being

By Kurt Jacobsen: Stockholm Syndrome and The Trial of the Chicago 7

By Bill Nevins: Poetry Review Column

By Geoffrey Kurtz: Review Essay: J. Toby Reiner, Michael Walzer (Polity Press, 2020); Michael Walzer and Astrid von Busekist, Justice is Steady Work: A Conversation on Political Theory (Polity Press, 2020)

By Robin Melville: Review Essay: Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn (London: Verso: 2020)

By Benjamin Shepard: Review: Christophe Broqua, Action = Vie: A History of AIDS Activism and Gay Politics in France. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2020).

By Aidan J. Beatty: Review: Tanya Lavin, Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy. New York: Hatchette Books, 2020)

By Jeremy F. Walton: Patricia Morris, Fetishism, Psychoanalysis, Anthropology (London: Author’s Collective Press, 2020).

By Warren Leming: Review: Mark Harris, Mike Nichols: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2021.

By Sarah Kamal: Review: Eben Kirksey, The Mutant Project: Inside the Global Race to Genetically Modify Humans. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020.