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?