Literature Essay Example

Literature Essay Example


Walter Benjamin defines fetishism as ‘the sex-appeal of the inorganic’. In the light of this description, analyse the treatment of commodity fetishism in any of the material studied for this module.



Word Count:

The original essay requires 4,000 words. This is part of the 4,000 words written.

Writer’s Comment 

The material studied for the module is aplenty and takes a really long time to read and understand each concept. Nonetheless, we manage to have this complete in time. In essays like this, it is essential that the customer provides us with the lecture notes or it may be difficult to score.


Walter Benjamin’s theorisation of fetishism is complex, historically sensitive, and problematic. He simultaneously engages and reconfigures the dominant cultural understandings and historical sense of what had, by the latter half of the 19th century, become a highly overdetermined term. In Benjamin’s “materialist philosophy of the nineteenth century”— both in terms of content and method— the fetish occupies a privileged role . This expansive sense of 1 fetishism demands to be set within a broader geopolitical and historical context.

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In this essay, I want to discuss the historical formation of the contradictory notions of the fetish animating Benjamin’s thought. This essay thus inquires into the multiple historical logics that animated the modern discourse on fetishism, to which Benjamin has acted as both contributor and spectator. My method in this essay is to read alongside this history the modern theory of fetishism (Marx, Freud), as well as crucial literary representations of fetishism (Flaubert, Rachilde). This is intended to illuminate the various senses of the term that circulate through Benjamin’s writing, allowing us to see more clearly what he is doing with fetishism.

Fetishism: Archive of a Modern Category

Throughout the history of capitalism— from its origins in early modern mercantilism, to the high point of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, to the neoliberal present— “fetishism”, as both a cultural term and a social practice, has been an extremely loaded word. This section will focus on how this term developed, to illuminate the Western discourse on the fetish.

The term “fetish” itself derives from the Latin “factitius”, meaning “made by artifice”. This term was first applied in its modern sense during the early modern period: in the fifteenth century, Portuguese traders on the West coast of Africa used the word “feitiço” to refer to the “sorcery” of the magic charms and amulets prominent within African material culture. The term was gradually transformed as the cutting edge of maritime power moved northwards— from the French “fétiche” to the English “fetich” or “fetich” in 1625. The term emerged within the intercultural contact zone between the conflicting value systems of the Portuguese (Christian/ feudal and mercantile) and Guinea (lineage exchange) traders within the emergence of mercantile capitalism. For the Portuguese, “fetishism” signified African cultural backwardness, particularly their promiscuous willingness to worship “some trifle or other, to which they pay a particular respect, or kind of adoration”. However, this dismissive reaction to the unfamiliar (or perhaps all too familiar) cultural practices of the West African tribes, was based on a fundamental mis-recognition of the status of the fetish object within the social structures of these tribes. Because the Portuguese merchants disregarded the social dimension of existence and saw meaning primarily in relation to religious and monetary value, they did not grasp the fetish as a social act. In the societies of the Guinea Coast and Madagascar, the fetish objects functioned as material contracts, binding together political communities and social structures. Thus the construction (or destruction) of fetish objects was related to the instantiation or delegitimation of social forms. The fetish object, as the material embodiment of a deity or ancestral spirit, functioned as “a god in the process of construction”— the material inscription of belief in a higher power that could be revised, or undone, at any moment. And indeed the fetish-pantheon of the Merina was constantly in the process of construction, being revised periodically in accordance with contingent events. We can see how within the logic of the African societies, fetishes operated as a kind of performative utterance, accomplished through material substance rather than language. They were divine objects whose material construction instantiated new social forms and conditions— this was evident as much in the native African practices around kinship and governance, as in the newly formed trade agreements between the Europeans and the Africans. The construction of improvised fetishes from “bibles, beads and bits of wood” as mediums of trust between traders facilitated the emergence of new social relationships. This practice was known as “making fetish”, evoking action and volition rather than essence. Thus, the fetish was never a question of a singular believing or desiring subject. Rather, fetishism, even in its earliest appearance to European consciousness, was about the facilitation of social relation through (sacralised, putatively animate) material objects— objects making things happen, or, material performativity.


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