The Confusion of Marxian and Freudian Fetishism in Adorno and Benjamin

By Mioyasaki, Donovan | Philosophy Today, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Confusion of Marxian and Freudian Fetishism in Adorno and Benjamin


Mioyasaki, Donovan, Philosophy Today


Both Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin borrow from Freudian theory in their analyses of fetishism's relation to the contemporary reception of cultural products. I will argue that both authors have confused the Marxian and Freudian theories of fetishism, resulting in mistaken conclusions about artistic reception. By disentangling the Marxian and Freudian elements in both authors' positions, I want to show that 1) Adorno's characterization of regressive listening implies, contrary to his intentions, that the current reception of artwork is in fact antagonistic to fetishism, and that 2) his criticism of Benjamin's optimism toward "reception in distraction" is nevertheless justified. If I am correct, it may be necessary to reassess Adorno's demand for asceticism in advanced art. The current danger may not be "fetishism" at all, but rather the troublesome consequences of fetishism's decline.

The Marxian Fetish of Commodity Alienation

According to Marx, a laborer's product becomes a commodity when produced for the purpose of exchange rather than direct use. He compares the commodity to a religious fetish because "the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, entering into relation both with one another and the human race."1 However, this is not simply an illusion. Marx claims the commodity's fetishistic appearance is both true and false: "the relations connecting the labor of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things" (emphasis mine).2 Given the private production of capitalism, it is true that laborers relate to one another indirectly through the exchange of material goods. Their social relations are material relations. The workers' alienation from the commodity-its seeming lack of direct relation to their labor-- truthfully reflects the workers' alienation from one another.

At the same time, commodity fetishism is illusive because this impoverished social relationship between laborers is attributed to commodities: "a definite social relation between men, assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things:"3 The concrete labor-relations of humans, the very source of commodities and their value, go unnoticed in the commodity's abstract exchange-value. Because the link of the commodity's exchangeability to actual human activity is shrouded, "the process of production has the mastery over man, instead of being controlled by him."4 The illusion is not this mastery (just as it is not illusory that the religious fetishist is subservient to the fetish-god); what is illusory is the implication that such a state of affairs is a "self-evident necessity imposed by nature."5 The commodity, seemingly disconnected from the worker's activity, takes on the character of external necessity or independent law; its existence and value appear to fall outside the realm of human control. Consequently, the fetishistic commodity falsely implies the impossibility of social change.

The Freudian Fetish: The Fantasy of Reconciliation

The Freudian theory of fetishism emphasizes, not alienation, but the illusion of a relation. Freud traces the origins of sexual fetishism to the castration complex. He claims that a young boy, upon discovering that women do not possess a penis, interprets this fact as a verification of the threat of castration. In order to preserve his relation of desire to the mother without endangering his own body, he must reject this lack: "The fetish is a substitute for the woman's (mother's) penis that the little boy once believed in and . does not want to give up."6 The fetish is substituted for the mother's penis, Freud tells us, "to preserve it from extinction."7

As in Marx's view, fetishism is related to a substitution. Here the fetish is substituted for the "maternal phallus," rather than exchange-value substituting for the social relations of labor. …

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