Wednesday, 23 June 2010


As is well known, Freud draws our attention to the psychic mechanisms that distort our thinking. One such mechanism is what he terms disavowal. In Freud's view, disavowal is related to fetishism/perversion and involves the expression of two contradictory attitudes that persist side by side. More specifically, it involves a kind of 'reverse hallucination'; on one level denying the existence of something and on another level continuing to believe it. This is typically because the original belief is associated with an 'unacceptable' desire. The classic disavowed response involves admitting but rejecting something in the same breath. For example, the smoker who says that they have given up smoking yet continues to smoke is disavowing the fact that he/she is a smoker.

Very often the original belief is maintained by displacing the original desire onto a more ‘acceptable’ - less feared - object. For Freud this is exactly what is involved in fetishism. Fetishism is a key idea in philosophy in many ways and it generally signifies a tendency to imbue an irrelevant object or part of an object with a ‘significance’ that it doesn’t really possess. Marx, as we know, tried to understand capitalism as based upon the fetishism of commodities that involved the over valorisation of the world of things and the ontological emaciation of the world of human agency.

For Freud, a fetish - surprise, surprise - is a substitute for a penis. Not just a substitute for any penis however; but specifically the substitute for the penis that the boy-child thought the mother had before he became aware of sexual difference. For some children, this idea is too traumatic to contemplate and hence they only partially give it up; creating elaborate substitutes for the ‘real thing’ in order to defend themselves from this traumatic reality. Freud goes on to use this idea in order to make an interesting observation:

'[w]hat happened therefore, was that the boy refused to take cognisance of the fact of his having perceived that a woman does not possess a penis. No that could not be true: for if a woman had been castrated, then his own possession of a penis was in danger; and against that there rose in rebellion the portion of his narcissism which Nature has, as a precaution, attached to that particular organ. In later life a grown man may experience similar panic when the cry goes up that Throne and Altar are in danger, and similar illogical consequences will ensue (Freud 1961, 153)'

In the light of Freud’s observation can we view academic ideas/positions as fetishes in just this sense? Is disavowal the psychic mechanism involved in the defensiveness that often accompanies contemporary political/ideological positions; the 'thrones' and 'altars' of contemporary intellectual life? Might we say that fearing the 'castration of rationality', a number of contemporary thinkers have created intellectual fetishes - protected by powerful taboos - that allow them to preserve an often retarded political orientation? What ideas/systems of thought fit the bill here? Postmodernism perhaps with its fetishes of ‘identity’ and so on? Perhaps we might say that even the great academic name or movement is itself a disavowed fetish in just this sense -'Deleuze', 'Badiou' and so on?

Neil Turnbull

1 comment:

  1. Are you saying that postmodernism disavows modernism at the same time as affirming it? Im not sure this is 'necessarily' the case though of course it would be phallically paranoid of me to jump to pm's defence. i will admit that there is a certain sense of paranoia that comes from pm's denial of fixed identity 'if 'I' dont exist than im not a philosopher making this statement... what am I, i must exist somehow, the alternative is to terrifying to consider...' one may say

    With regard to consumer capitalism there is a great passage in zizek's violence that talks about the 'I know the truth but...' in so called 'ethical' products but ill have to track it down before making further comment.

    good post neil. certainly something to think about...