Pleasure and Pornography: Impassioned Objects

In this post, a third in the series documenting her CIS-RAW project, Pleasure and Pornography, Namita Malhotra explores the idea of fetish as examined by Anne McClintock (i) . This detour is an exploration of the notion of fetish, its histories and meanings, and how it might relate to the story of Indian porn.


The etymology of fetish derives from the word fetico (Portuguese) which means sorcery or magic arts. In 1760, it was used to refer to primitive religions, especially in relation to the growing project of imperialism. In 1867, Marx coined the term commodity fetishism – using the implied meaning of primitive magic to express the central social form of modern industrial economy, whereby the social relation between people metamorphoses into the relation between things. It was only after this, in 1905, that Freud transferred the word, with all these meanings still clinging to it, to the realm of sexuality and perversions. As Anne McClintock points out, in her useful account and re-understanding of the fetish in the book Imperial Leather (ii), psychoanalysis, philosophy, and Marxism all take shape around the invention of the primitive fetish, which conveniently displaces what the modern mind cannot accommodate onto the invented domain of the primitive. She states that the not-so-concealed rationale of imperialism is fetishism. Fetishists (racial, sexual and other) became a mode of warranting and justifying conquest and control -- whether it was the policing of sexual fetishism for control of classes in Europe and colonies, or the invention of racial fetishism central to the regime of imposing sexual surveillance in the colonies. The imperial discourse on fetishism became a discipline of containment (iii) .

On the other hand in the realm of sexuality, fetish becomes a question of male sexuality alone -- male perversion par excellence. There are no female fetishists, either for Freud or Lacan, for to speak of female fetishism would involve displacing the basic precepts of psychoanalysis -- namely the scene of castration leading to phallic fetishism. However, McClintock points to the usefulness of studying female fetishism, as it allows for certain things to happen. First, it dislodges the centrality of the phallus in this discourse, which surprisingly makes way for the presence and legitimacy of a multiplicity of pleasures, needs, and contradictions that can’t be resolved or reduced merely to the desire to preserve the phallus. Very often, feminists such as McClintock read the Lacanian insistence on the centrality of the phallus as itself a fetishistic nostalgia for a single, male myth of origins and fetishistic disavowal of difference. Such a notion of fetish, embedded in phallic theory, gets easily reduced to sexual difference and does not allow/admit race or class as crucially formative categories as well; thus, race and class remain continuously of secondary status in the primarily sexually signifying chain.

“The racist fetishizing of white skin, black fetishizing gold chains, the fetishizing of black dominatraces, lesbians, cross dressing as men the fetishizing of national flags, slave fetishism, class cross-dressing, fetishes such as nipple clips and bras in male transvestism, leather bondage, PVC fetishism, babyism and so on -- these myriad different deployments of fetishistic ambiguity cannot be categorized under a single mark of desire, without great loss of theoretical subtlety and historical complexity.” Also McClintock points to racist, nationalistic and patriotic fetishes -- such as flags, crowns, maps, swastikas (or for instance chaddis) -- that can’t be simply rendered equivalent to the disavowal of male castration anxiety.

McClintock calls for a renewed investigation of fetishism -- to open it up to a more complex and valuable history in which racial and class hierarchies would play as formative a role as sexuality. Rejecting the Lacanian and Freudian fixation on the phallus as central to psychoanalysis would call for a mutually transforming investigation into the disavowed relations of psychoanalysis and social history. In a way, it would be the bringing together of the varied ways in which fetish has been used -- by Freud (in the domain of psychoanalysis) in the realm of domesticity and the private, and by Marx (in the domain of male socio-economic history) in the realm of the market and possibly in the public. If these meanings were to speak to each other, what we discover is that fetish is in fact the historical enactment of ambiguity itself.

Fetishism involves the displacement onto an object of contradictions that the individual cannot resolve at a personal level. These contradictions could indeed be social, though lived with profound intensity in the imagination and flesh of the person. The fetish -- rather than being a merely an insignificant sexual or personal practice -- inhabits both personal and historical memory. It marks a crisis in social meaning -- the embodiment of an impossible resolution. This crisis/contradiction is displaced onto and embodied in the fetish object, which is thus destined to recur in compulsive ways. By displacing this power onto the fetish, then manipulating or controlling the fetish, the individual gains symbolic control over what might otherwise be terrifying ambiguities.

The fetish then can be called an impassioned object; something that emerges from a variety of social contradictions, rather than merely from the scene of castration or phallic centric domains. Hence they are neither universal, nor are they entirely about personal histories alone, but are about personal and historical memory or a social contradiction that is experienced at an intensely personal level. “As composite symbolic objects, fetishes thus embody the traumatic coincidence not only of individual but also of historical memories held in contradiction” (McClintock). This reading of fetishism gives rise to far richer possibilities of cultural analysis.

Fetish was neither proper to African or Christian European culture, but sprang into being from an abrupt encounter between two heterogeneous worlds during an era of mercantile capitalism and slavery. At this point it clearly embodies the problem of contradictory social value -- whether it is gold as valuable, or gold as warding off bad luck. Though initially just about heathen customs and rituals, it later also becomes a marking of certain groups of people for conquest. It is from this context that Freud transports the word, laden with meanings of conquest and violence, to the realm of sexuality. Obviously these meanings stain future connotations of fetish, the word fetish itself becoming prey to contradictory meanings of race and sex and difference.

For Freud, the fetish is the embodiment in one object of two positions -- castration and its denial. Though this does capture some sense of the ambiguity that McClintock also refers to, here the meanings oscillate between two, and only two, fixed options (a recurring male economy). The fetish becomes both a permanent memorial to the horror of castration, embodied not in the male but in the female -- as well as a token of triumph, and safeguard against the threat of castration. This has, of course, been critiqued by feminists quite severely. McClintock’s basic argument is that it is indeed hard, considering the varied nature of fetish objects, to find a single originary explanation in the psychic development of the individual -- in a single originary trauma. What is important here, however is to take on this notion of the fetish as an historical enactment of ambiguity itself, and see if as a theoretical concept it has any value to the study of the loose category of Indian porn, especially MMS porn.

Soap in these strange days: fetish objects

“Such spectacle creates the promise of a rich sight: not the sight of particular fetishized objects, but sight itself as richness, as the grounds for extensive experience.”
Dana Polan (iv)


Anne McClintock’s work on fetish also looks at the seemingly ubiquitous object of soap as the carrier of many ambiguous meanings around gender, class, imperialism -- both the cult of domesticity (the running of the empire of home with servants, sweepers, cleaners, women, maids etc.) and the cult of new imperialism found in soap in its exemplary mediating form. The story of soap, for McClintock, reveals that fetishism rather than a quintessentially African propensity (belonging in the realm of lands and peoples that were being discovered through imperialism) was in fact central to industrial modernity; fetishism was not original either to industrial capitalism or precolonial economies, but was from the outset the embodiment and record of an incongruous and violent encounter (between two or more heterogenous cultures) and about rapid changes of modernity, rather than about the ‘primitive’.

Marx says that the mystique of the commodity fetish lies not in its use value, but in its exchange value and its potency as a sign: “So far as (a commodity) is a value in use, there is nothing mysterious about it”. This could be linked to the idea of a mobile phone that is supposed to achieve so much beyond mere communication, at least according to the advertising -- they should mend ruptured relations and homes, get all the hot chicks, grow beautiful gardens, change the boring routine of life. For some time, the Samsung mobile phone ad with Estella Warren played in India, which probably moves the mobile phone with camera out of merely its symbolic use as enhancing attractiveness, to actually ‘getting’ or rather capturing girls by clicking. Magically in the ad, the act of clicking photographs make the girl not just willing, but she also takes the phone and photographs herself. Barring one scary moment when it looks like she might turn into an avenging warrior like Xena or The Bride, but instead she simpers into a loving sexy pose, she is willing. The ad can’t be easily dismissed as misogynistic, but it does give an intriguing glimpse of the intimate pictures and moments that can be captured with a mobile phone.

That a mobile phone is fetishized as a commodity is probably evident, from the rush to get the more enhanced phone with the better camera and features, though mobile phones are also a ubiquitous element of one’s life, in some ways exactly like soap. Probably in a country like India, having a mobile phone can be read as opening up sexual possibilities in a way that wouldn’t be obvious in a more developed country. If the fetish is a social contradiction that is experienced at an intensely personal level, then the mobile phone, especially after the DPS MMS clip, is precariously located between the zones of the private and personal, and that which is entirely in the public domain beyond any control of the person(s). This ability of the mobile phone to occupy simultaneous universes because of its interconnectedness in a network, and that it is (for most people now) an entirely personal object with messages, numbers, conversations, images, videos, is what makes it unpredictable.

Looking at MMS porn
“Memories were meant to fade. They were built that way for a reason”
Mace, Strange Days


When looking at MMS porn, I’m irresistibly reminded of the movie Strange Days, in which Angela Basset’s character Mace expresses her frustration with Lenny (played by Ralph Fiennes). Lenny is obsessed with preserving memory and accessing other people’s experiences, through what in the movie are called playbacks. Playbacks are recordings of events in the brain that were fed back into brain waves to reproduce the earlier event -- the feelings, the sensations of touch, the smells and not just the visual. Playbacks haven’t been invented yet, but the obsessiveness with which Lenny wheels and deals (he’s also a dealer and collector of playbacks) gives a peculiar insight into how mobile phones are becoming fetish objects of sorts -- particularly MMSs recorded on mobile phones where other people are able to occupy the space of an unknown character that conveniently rarely ever appears on the screen. The famous pornographic ones are the DPS MMS clip and other MMS scandals, including the hidden voyeuristic ones taken without permission, and a precursor of this is Mysore Mallige where the man appears rarely on the screen and only at the end, almost like a signature. In a peculiar way MMS porn becomes like playback from Strange Days, a movie that is attempting to unravel the unknown future mired in technological changes that are messily intertwined with human desire and frailty. A future (set on the date of turning the millennium) that we’ve hopelessly gone past without even asking many of the questions that the characters in the movie pose.

Indian websites advertise MMS scandals as a specific category of pornography. This category also includes genuine MMS clips of celebrities kissing (Kareena Kapoor), wardrobe malfunctions from Fashion Week, and also fake ones with celebrity look-alikes bathing, changing, having sex (Preity Zinta, Mallika Sherawat). Mostly what is being talked about are videos made on mobile phones by men, who record themselves having sex with ‘gullible’ women. The alleged gullibility of these women is probably essential to the erotic charge of such videos. They are shaky videos, especially when sex is underway, and have a grainy quality that makes them eerily real. Their perspective is usually that of the man who is holding the phone camera and rarely enters the frame himself, whereas the woman is definitely the desirable object that is being captured. Maybe this phenomenon can be understood better if one looks at McClintock’s idea of fetish and whether MMS/images on mobile phones can be located within that category -- whether the ambiguous nature of the video or image recorded on the mobile phone and its ability to be an intensely personal and private object and also to be so easily transmitted into networks signifies a crisis in social meanings around private and public. The mobile phone then merely becomes an object onto which this anxiety is displaced, and the recording of images repeatedly (and anxieties and fears triggered when they accidentally slip into the public domain) are ways of trying to control terrifying ambiguities over the private and the public (where aspects of sexuality, family and selfhood could be calamitously disrupted by a slip between the two categories). (v)

In a strange way this is a parable for a larger phenomenon of pornographic circulation and the law, as well. The mass circulation of pornography is perceived as a private secret that is kept by all, and whenever there is slip between the two categories, the law and public discourse are barely able to deal with the furore of anxieties. And if not, then the law and public discourse proceed to deal with the banal unbuttoning of Akshay Kumar’s jeans by his wife as obscenity in courtrooms, as if we hadn’t all imagined an MMS that allowed us to be doing the same.

 i. Anne Mcclintok’s work on sadomasochism illuminates some of the arguments that I make in relation to sexual subjectivity and the state’s interests and desires in policing it.  (unpublished article for book on queer issues and the law). Her work borrows from notions developed by Foucault. “Sadomasochism plays social power backwards, visibly and outrageously staging hierarchy, difference and power, the irrational, ecstasy or alienation of the body, placing these ideas at the centre of western reason.” The analysis of sexual subjectivity and State’s interest in it also looks at the judgment on sadomasochism by the House of Lords, England that declares such activities that cause severe injuries and maim the body, as illegal, regardless of consent of parties.
ii. Anne Mcclintok, Imperial Leather: Race, gender and sexuality in the colonial contest, Routledge, 1995.
iii. Ibid
iv. Cited from Laura Mulvey, Some Thoughts on Theories of Fetishism in the Context of Contemporary Culture, October, Vol. 65 (Summer, 1993), pp. 3-20. 

v. As in the story of Chanda in Dev.d loosely inspired from the DPS MMS clip incident
Chanda from Dev.d


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Namita A. Malhotra

A media practitioner, sometimes poster-maker, occasional designer and comic book fan, mostly online, ex-porn and cyber sex-er, legally trained and L word buff