Note on Fetishism
September 8, 2021
A thought that’s been bugging me from one of the Žižek posts:
‘Being-a-king’ is an effect of the network of social relations between a ‘king’ and his ‘subjects’; but—and here is the fetishistic misrecognition—to the participants of this social bond, the relationship appears necessarily in an inverse form: they think that they are subjects giving the king royal treatment because the king is already in himself, outside the relationship to his subjects, a king: as if the determination of ‘being-a-king’ were a ‘natural’ property of the person of a king. (Žižek, 2008, p. 20)
The point of this example is to illustrate that the subjects’ misrecognition of their relationship to the king is a necessary condition of the king’s de facto authority. Now, while it seems to me that this misrecognition may well be a sufficient condition of the king’s effective authority, I’m not seeing why it should be necessary. Why can’t the subjects recognise the king as a simple peer—i.e. be consciously aware that his effective authority depends on them granting it to him—but nevertheless establish a practice in which his (and only his) decree is taken to be authoritative?
Say you’re on a Spanish Galleon and there’s some guy up in the crow’s nest while the rest of you are down on deck. This guy is a peer, nothing special about him at all, yet in this context you grant him a special authority—namely, the epistemic authority to call out dry land. Perhaps someone on deck just happens to see the coastline first, but even then everyone will turn to the crow’s nest to call it for real. This is just a part of the social practice, an element of what everyone expects of themselves and everyone else in this situation, not so dissimilar to the way a tennis shot is not in unless the umpire calls it so.
It’s pretty clear what’s going on with the crow’s nest and the umpire. Really there’s two things: i. though a peer in ‘intrinsic’ terms, they happen to occupy a special position in ‘extrinsic’ terms (privileged line of sight in both case), and ii. they are playing a role in a social practice in which their authority is contingent on their performance of certain responsibilities. An umpire is only supposed to call out if it seems to them that the ball fell outside the line; the guy in the crow’s nest is expected to cry out land only when he truly believes he has seen land. If either were to consistently fail to meet these responsibilities they would be quickly divested of their authority.
So it seems that socially effective authority is possible without a fetishistic misrecognition—in this case when authority is matched by a corresponding responsibility, usually in connection with the occupancy of some privileged but contingent positioning. On this basis, mutable de facto hierarchies can be installed in an ad hoc manner on top of underlying reciprocal peer-relations as various contingencies of positioning arise. What distinguishes this from the situation with the king, then, is just the absence of the corresponding responsibility. The fetishistic misrecognition, it seems to me, is not a necessary condition of socially effective authority (there are other ways to achieve this)—what it does is to render this authority unchallengeable, absolute, which is to say independent of any corresponding responsibility.
What if rather than the divine right of kings, we turn instead to the mandate of heaven. Here the ruler’s authority is conditional on subjects judging them to have acted out the mandate’s requirements, which is to say as having met a certain set of responsibilities—a status that can be revoked, historically by rebellion. But the subjects do not consider the ruler’s authority to be based on their own granting of it; the mandate of heaven is what establishes the authority, the subjects only judge the mandate to have been earned through its enaction. Is this a fetishised or defetishised relation?
Let us imagine that the mandate is understood to be bestowed not by Gods but by ancestors. Unlike a God, an ancestor is a peer, though certainly a peer with a privileged line of sight. Would a mandate bestowed by an ancestral heaven, then, not bear an authority structure more akin to the ad hoc hierarchies of crow’s nests and umpires, albeit pushed back behind one layer of abstraction?
There’s a passage quoted in Baudrillard, attributed to Edmond Ortigues (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 135), on the absurdity of applying Oedipal conceptions of the psyche to ancestral societies:
In a society under the sway of ancestral law, it is impossible for the individual to kill the father, since, according to the customs of the Ancients, the father is always already dead and still living. . . . To take the father’s death upon oneself or to individualise the moral consciousness by reducing paternal authority to that of a mortal, a substitutable person separable from the ancestral altar and from ‘custom’, would be to leave the group, to remove oneself from the basis of tribal society.
The institution of the divine right of kings materialises an Oedipal structure of authority—an authority understood on the basis of command and obedience, Lordship and Bondage: in which authority is taken to be wholly independent of any kind of corresponding responsibility. It is to this structure that the fetishistic misrecognition belongs. But it seems that others—the Chinese mandate of heaven, perhaps here we can also think of noblesse oblige—can be understood as materialising a different structure, one based not on inherent asymmetry but on a contingent, circumstantial symmetry overlaid on an inherent symmetry.
- Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death (I. H. Grant, Tran.). Sage Publications.
- Žižek, S. (2008). The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso. [PDF]