Words meanings change over time and by usage.
Most people when they hear the word fetish think of kinkiness or of a sexual obsession or both.
But let us look at one example of what the word has meant and how that can inform us about things today.
Fetishes were/are (as some few still use it in this sense) items in occult and religious traditions. Idols, carvings, symbols, designs, relics, items or combinations of items that are believed by some to hold some form of power.
Some common examples include rabbits feet, four-leafed clovers, crucifixes, rosary beads, gourd rattles, ju-ju pouches filled with goofer dust, medicine pouches with tobacco and herbs and the like.
So how did a word for a religious symbol come to mean kinkyness or serious sexually related mental illness?
Well the symbol of the fetish was a useful one in earky psychology to explain a function of the way people thought. So the attachment someone might feel to a secular symbol especially an object as a source of comfort clearly functioned on much the same mechanism as someones superstitious or religious attachment to such a symbol. A photo of a loved one or a lock of hair could be as vital to someones emotional well being as the crucifix to the religious persons emotional well being.
An extreme of this associative attachment could then be understood. Just about everyone has emotional reactions to certain images, smells or objects. Reminders of moods or evokers of memories. The child who cannot give up the comfort-blanket to the person sexually aroused only by large pieces of industrial machinery both suffered from an extreme version of the useful mechanism of emotional association and attachment to things.
Coinciding with the rise in the field of psychology was a strong anti-religious and anti-superstition movement and lets not forget the anti-icon attitudes of some branches of christianity that meant that such attachments were often derided. Sentimentality and nostalgia were often ridiculed. Over time the general western culture moved away from much though far from all religious fetishes (often replacing them with political and commercial ones).
Look at the animists. The oldest continuing religious and spiritual traditions of the world with their shamans, animal totems etc. Even the rocks and landscape are often considered to have their own spirit. The capacity for humans to form emotional attachment to objects and even to consider them as entities clearly is part not just of our past but of common human nature. It has been suggested that this cognitive function, the capacity to extend our empathy and emotional attachments to non-human things coukd in fact be a huge part of our capacity to domesticate animals which was one of the species greatest and most significant acheivments.
Not to mention things like art.
A painting moves us, but it is just a flat mass of smears of different light reflecting minerals. It is our capacity to see in that image what is not there but what the artist wants us to see that is the key here.
It's not just seeing certain shapes and translating them as a person, a landscape etc but it is the capacity for us to see a mood, an emotion, a story in that flat mess of various minerals stuck on fabric with oil.
It is our capacity for illusions, for manipulating those instinctive illusion shortcuts, our overly loose and flexible capacity for empathy, our capacity for language, our connecting disparate nebulous ideas together that combines to create our capacity for intelligence, science, creativity, technology and all our achievements as a species.
Without the capacity to associate one notion with another we could never have got to where we are. Without the connections of emotions to symbols there would be no art of any sort. It is at the heart of the reasons why we create art and why it moves us so strongly.
And so, surprisingly, the mechanism of fetish is at the very heart of the human experience. Put Lascaux into an image search. See for yourself. Look at the power of that early human art and wonder at the beauty that comes from those hunters creating the animals they hunted in simple paint on a cave wall. It is our associations, emotional, nostalgic, sentimental that are at the core of all human meaning and knowledge. It is the centre of our communication from the most primal of the evoking of the most raw emotions to our development of sophisticated language and precise scientific knowledge. It is the core of our personal experiences, how we try to understand them, how we make sense of the world and how we try to share that through the nebulous and deeply flawed process of words.
The same mechanism that informs my art and my writing, what little my CFS lets me indulge in, informs my experience when I walk out my door. The smell of the cut grass that reminds me of my childhood, the endless cycle of growth and reaping that has been the core of civilisation since the discovery of agriculture performed in miniature, turning there is the path, the journey, the symbol of progress and the course of life not to mention of our one-way procession through the dimension of time in the space-time continuum. Before I can dwell on causality or Indian metaphysics my eyes are drawn up to the row of trees on the right with their many shifting meanings and the great building to my left. The trees on this occassion are leafless, seeming dead but only dormant, sleeping, conserving themselves through harsh times to burst into life in the spring. Their limbs are black silhoettes against a pale lemon sky and the sun glints it's last fading rays as gold off the windows of that beautiful house of learning with it's grand entrance and columns. I cross the wide hilltop road, bracing against the bitter sharp breeze filled with icy moist night air so that I can smell the twilight scents of the gardens on the other side of the fence that run along the side of the great brick building. I pause, letting the smells transport me to those times good and bad that I smelt those scents before, some memories have turned bitter with time becoming sharp like the thorns of the roses and some have mellowed and softened like wilting petals. I turn back, the warm memories having won over the chill melancholies and am greeted by the swooping form of a small bat hunting the mosquitos and moths of the beginning of the night.
You see what I have done there? Our lives are filled with associations. Many are shared. Most of us have similar enough experiences that we can convey the message we wish too by using these shared experiences and common language. But not all is common. Warmth is not always seen as positive in all cultures, nor cold as negative.
Look at the symbol of the bat. In China it is a symbol of good fortune, mostly on account of a similarity of the sound of the name and the word. In parts of the west it was once a belief that bats were the spirits of sleeping, dreaming people or those of the dead so harming a bat was meant to cause terrible bad luck. Other times and other cultures have bats as symbols of evil.
Now I'll get more personal.
I know clothes dont make women women. That is clear and obvious on a rational level.
But they do inform our symbolic landscape which directly connects to our emotions.
When I put on the clothes I don't see myself as a man transforming into a woman in the way a shaman might transforn into an animal by donning a wooden mask though there is a relation between the two. Instead I am using the symbol to express an inner truth. The dark red lipstick as it marks my lips is not a mineral stuck on with an oil or a tool of deception, it is a symbol of the emotions within, it is a sign projected outwards of the femininity within me.
It is powerful, like the rosary beeds or the gourd rattle or the goofer dust but I am aware that the power comes not from some outside source but from my emotional associations that I impose upon it in my mind. I invest it with power that i then react to on the deepest emotional levels just as I do the smell of the lavender mixed with the hum of bees.
Thats not all there is to it of course, crossdressing has many levels. Still it is worth exploring ideas like the occult and religious fetish and how it relates to our basic human existence at every level, not just sexual but relating to every passion, emotion and experience.
So some days puting on some lipstick can move me near to tears and/or make me ecstaticly happy. But then I cried watching an old videotape of She-Ra yesterday when the unicorn was hurt as the emotions i swiftly swallowed and hid watching it as a child 'because He-man is in it' and I had convinced myself (with a lot of help from society) that 'I wasn't suppossed to still get upset like that at my age as a boy' all just poured out of me now with the extra strength of nostalgia, increased self awareness and decades of bottling them up, locking them away.
The lipstick and the clothes do not make me feminine. I do not only feel feminine when I wear them. They certainly aren't neccessary for sexual arousal but neither am I never sexual when I wear them either. They express my inner femininity. They evoke many memories from throughout my life. They represent all those times when i had to be not-feminine, all those things I had to hide, give up and keep secret. They allow me to see myself reflected on the outside the way i often, but not always, feel on the inside.
These strong emotional associations aren't the sole reason for crossdressing, they are an effect rather than the cause. The cause is the inner femininity and its alternating repression and intensified external release is a substantial part of the way many crossdressing people experience their transgender nature. The clothes as symbols are culturally specific but the motivation, the reason why clothes become symbols and tools of trans-gender expression is because they already exist in those cultures as gender symbols.
Perhaps this meditation on fetish in the braoder meaning of the word, on symbology and its emotional power that occured to me as I put my lipstick on yesterday might convey to those who do not understand why for some it is such an emotionally powerful act, why so many misunderstand it and why the narrow view of it as a 'kink' or a sexual fetish in the modern psychological sense fails to reflect the way we all make emotional associations, the way we all live in a world made up of symbols both those shared and those uniquely personal.
Of how such associations of thought and emotion are at the very core of the human mind and experience.
Tony Briffa speaks at Monash University on intersex human rights - We’re delighted that Tony Briffa will be speaking at Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, on the human rights of intersex people, on 7 O...
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