Monday, April 04, 2005


In a moment of pecuniousness, I once purchased a shelf's worth of books with titles like Fetish. Now, I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong. I wasn't visiting an adult bookstore on one of my walks about San Francisco. I try to avoid such places.

Why? Because Roger Scruton is, I think, largely correct about pornography:

"The goal of pornography is to de-sacralize the sexual act, to detach it from love and commitment, and to put it on sale as a commodity."

Except that pornography also needs sexual taboos. Without the frisson of the forbidden, pornography ends in utter boredom.

If you've read the Marquis de Sade (and God help me, I've actually looked at some of his writings), then what quickly becomes apparent is that although he uses language to objectify sex, he requires the sacred body in order to perform his desecration of the temple. In the desecrating act lies exquisite pleasure.

De Sade understood the pornographer's need for the sacred taboo better than do most modern pornographers, who tend to conflate two types of taboo: the sacred and the impure. They denounce as "puritanical" any understanding that sexuality should be sacral, interpreting sacral as impure, i.e., dirty. Hugh Hefner made his fortune promoting a 'healthy-minded' attitude toward sex and appears to lack any understanding of sexuality as sacred.

The sacral character of sex, however, lurks in the background of profaned sexuality, as the very word "fetish" implies. Pornographers must simultaneously affirm and deny the sacrality of sex. They fetishize some aspect of the sexual act, then repeatedly profane it into mundane banality, an "expense of spirit in a waste of shame."

The Fetish book noted above is by Valerie Steele. I haven't yet read it. Perhaps I won't. Most of my personal library remains unread by me and is used mainly for reference purposes. Let me use Steele's book this way. If I check her index on fetish, I find that "religion" merits only one mention, on page five. She remarks that:

"The word fetish has a dual meaning, denoting a magic charm and also . . . . a false consciousness and alienation that finds spurious gratification through the consumption of consumer objects."

Steele seems to conflate commodity fetishism with consumerism. Marx's point was more interesting than that. He argued that the bourgeoisie mystified social relations as the relations among things and thereby attributed active agency to the commodities of the market. As objects imbued with active power, commodities become fetishized, sacred objects in a primitive cult.

I don't think that Scruton is using commodity in this Marxian fashion, but the manner in which pornography simultaneously affirms and denies the sacrality of sex brings Scruton's and Marx's distinct points together. Steele, though, not only misses Marx's point about the cult of commodities but also too quickly disposes of the primary religious meaning of fetishism for her to recognize ways in which she might fruitfully have applied anthropological analysis.

Probably, Steele wasn't interested in that analysis, nor in Scruton's view. Her final paragraph begins this way:

"We may protest that 'the pervert is always someone else!' but our fantasies betray our hypocrisy."

Do they? Or do our fantasies, rather, betray our ideals? At least for me, it's the latter, and I say, "Peccavi." Because I have. What man hasn't?


At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Incessantly updating columns astound me whenever I visit this blog. I don't think I got this article quite straight down, but I guess in my case the illusions also betray my covert feelings. OTL! Have to say "Peccavi" too. :)

Myung Suk from the Western History

At 3:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Oops. I forgot that some students might actually be reading these posts. I'd better be careful what I say.


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