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Fernbach's Fantasies of Fetishism


Fantasies of Fetishism: From Decadence to the Post-human.

Fernbach, Amanda. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002. 256p., $24.00, softcover. ISBN: 0813531772.

A decent writer can get a lot of mileage out of a hot topic, and fetishism is, to say the least, hot. The high-quality, glossy format Rutgers chooses for Fantasies of Fetishism validates to some extent the popular appeal of the subject matter and the numerous photographs, beginning with a highly eroticized cyber-chick on the cover, virtually ensures an immediate reaction from a reader perusing the shelves. Certainly, this is an odd tack for an academic book; but in many ways, Fantasies of Fetishism is not your usual academic book.

Flipping idly through the pages reveals an odd collection of photographs -- many from a photographer ominously named Cadaver-ranging from S&M fetish wear to cyborg art. The illustrations alone tell a strange tale which begins with a disturbing, yet strangely appealing figure called "Queen Bee," continues on through a blood-bag bikini, Absolute Vodka advertisements, nineteenth century theatrical costume designs, Japan's ocean in a coliseum Seagaia, the disturbing body art of artists like Fakir and Stelarc, to Metropolis, and "Click and Drag" club flyers. Nor should we should forget the dominatrix magazine covers such as Black and Blue and Vault. Fernbach has collected an interesting array of fetishisms under one cover. The introduction operates as a very succinct introduction to fetishism that approaches the lucidity of Judith Butler's survey of psychoanalytic theory and gender in her ground breaking Gender Trouble. The first chapter, "Millennial Decadence and Decadent Fetishism," discusses the limitations of the of the classical model of fetish and delves quickly into pre-freudian fetishisms primarily focusing on oriental-inspired stage performances, though there is some predictable, albeit appropriate, discussion of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Chapter two, "Magical Fetishism: Worshiping at the technological Altar," examines the concept of magical fetishism by opening with a study of Seagaia, Japan's premier Epcot Center-esque water park and then wanders off into what amounts to a lightly interpretive survey of extreme-art body performances. "Forms of Technofetishism and Future Selves: Negotiating the Post-Human Terrain" pokes about some in some of the more interesting venues in the post-human scene, though some of her references are dated and one must wonder whether these are actually strains of post-humanist thought or merely noteworthy cul-de-sacs. While her reading of geekgirl magazine (now an e-zine) led me to a highly interesting website, her pro-forma reading of William Gibson's character "Dixie Flatline" from Neromancer is severely over done. Finally, "Fetishism at the Professional Dungeon: The Dominatrix and her Male Slave" pretty much does what the title suggests by opening up the power/sex dynamic in sado-masochistic interactions between the dominatrix and her male slave. All of which is highly interesting, to say the least, but one is left to wonder if Fernbach is not engaging in a bit of wishful thinking (particularly considering that she does not examine the female slave, nor pony-girl performance, and the like), and the glaring absence of any discussion of seminal texts like Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World will leave the more serious researcher with some serious doubts.

As a collection of related essays read as an introductory text and survey of the field of human fetish, Fantasies of Fetishism succeeds. However, taken as a whole, the choice of these diverse materials for a book is somewhat bewildering as one is left to wonder why, for instance, Fernbach focuses on 19th century millennialism instead of the more recent millennium, which would seem more appropriate to the subject matter of the rest of the book. If her intent is to set the stage by delving back into the time of Freud (which seems the case) the following jump in the next chapter to contemporary Japan in almost dumbfounding. Thus, as a book-length argument, Fantasies of Fetishism ultimately fails. (Also uneven is the tone, which sometimes makes for an uncomfortable reading experience. Wavering between excellent summaries of complex theory and banal explanations of fairly common terms, Fernbach's style is often unsure and unsteady and her arguments often suffer for it.)

Fernbach's central argument, that fetishism can be subversive in way which has long-term effects on a culture, is glossy hyperbolic restatement of the foucauldian assertion (via Butler's elucidation) that changes in the sex-gender system can occur over a period of time, particularly if the gender performances are consciously transgressive. Over the long haul, drag matters -- just not too terribly much. Her conclusion that "decadent fetishism can teach us to embrace difference, fluidity, and partiality, not just as part of a general apolitical postmodern celebration of all differences equally, but as political strategies" (230) is woefully optimistic and, departing from the interpretive function of criticism, operates in the prescriptive mode. In the final analysis, Fernbach's admission that decadent fetishism is "idealistic and utopian" proves much more succinct than her double-voiced conclusion that denies, even as it admits, the problems of idealistic, utopian philosophies -- however fun they may be for the participants.

The true audience of Fantasies of Fetishism -- a broader reading public interested in sex and fetish on more than the most banal level (and not very likely to read Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, or Elaine Scarry) -- will find this book interesting, perhaps enlightening, and probably a lot of fun as they explore the nifty references to some of the more hip, if not the darker and more obscure, alleys of popular sex culture.

C. Jason Smith