Friday, March 23, 2012

Stories of Objects: On the Possibilities for Fetishism in Education

We make our objects from what we make of our world, and in return they teach us: this is fetishism’s object lesson.
-    E. L. McCallum

We read this week about the role of stories in our lives. Stories, it seems, for Alberto Manguel in City of Words, are responsible, in part, for our ways of seeing, being, and relating in or to the world. It does not matter if the story is pure fiction or one materially lived out for “the story materially lived out and the story lived out in the imagination hold equal ranks” (80). The materially lived out story - one experienced by the body and mind is no different from the story imagined by the mind and body. Scientifically, we see the emergence of empirical evidence to support this. Manguel points out via Richard Dawkins that “in biological terms, imagination is a survival mechanism developed to grant us experiences that, though not rooted in physical reality, serve nevertheless to educate and improve with the same power and efficacy as those that take place in the physical world” (80). And neuroscientists have recently argued about the power of  literature - fiction - whereby “brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.” (Murphy-Paul, 17 March 2012, Your Brain on Fiction)

Stories are central to the human. We might argue that humans are constituted - become subjects - through stories. As Chimamanda Adichie noted in her acclaimed TED Talks lecture “The Danger of a Single Story” “stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize”. Stories as Manguel concludes “can tell us who we are and what are these hourglasses through which we sift, and suggest ways of imagining a future that, without calling for comfortable happy endings, may offer us ways of remaining alive, together, on this much-abused earth.” (146). Manguel, ends on a rather positive note on the power of stories - noting, however, throughout his argument how stories have been used to construct and negate the other, to dispossess and malign. Who can tell the story, when and how often matters.

What I am interested in for this response is thinking through Manguel as opposed to thinking about Manguel. Specifically, I want to think through how stories - as objects we possess either via our memory (shared, cultural) or via books - illuminate the productive possibility of “fetishism”. As I have noted before, I have a reading fetish. Often within the popular imagination the “fetish” is seen as a sexual pathology - one of the paraphilias listed in the DMS IV-TR. Fetishism is viewed as a abnormal relationship between a subject (human) and an object (shoes, feet) whereby the object comes to “replace” the whole (e.g., another subject). Plus, I am a “queer theorist” by some people’s definitions so my scholarship seeks to think through sexuality (in all its complexities) to see what it offers us as educators, as humans, in relation to knowledge, pleasure, and desire.

So, as E. L. McCallum argues in her feminist re-evaluation of fetishism - fetishism offers an alternative epistemology (an alternative model of knowledge). There is a promise in fetishism. McCallum - in her history of fetishism - notes its emergence with the “age of exploration” or what Willinsky taught us to see as the beginning of the European’s “diving the world”. Fetishism she highlights began in reference to religion (fetish objects), later taken up in Marxist economics (commodities fetishism), but most notably psychoanalysis (sexual fetishism). In all of these operations or uses of  “fetish” “the definition of fetishism has consistently boiled down to the use of an object to negotiate (usually binary) difference to achieve an immaterial end, whether it be economic gain, cultural prestige, or psychical satisfaction” (x).

Fetishism offers a promise - a promise that seeks to navigate the tensions between subject and object. Stories - as objects - come into contact with subjects - notably in schools - to educate and in that education create tensions and spaces to navigate the anxieties and pleasures of living. Stories - as objects - are something that are “read”. We “read” objects - using objects for our own pleasure (pleasure of creating, of learning, of impressing) and how we read matters - as Eve Sedgwick pointed out in her analysis of paranoid and reparative reading practices. McCallum, adds to this, writing that “a degree of sympathy with the text and a sense of its interpretive openness is required to produce the kind of reading that makes a text blossom” (155).

Creating relationships with texts - with stories - that open up the world to us rather than close the world from us simultaneously open ourselves up to relate to other subjects. If we read sympathetically - not to simplify McCallum too much - helps I would argue to sympathize with others. And as Adichie makes quite clear - having multiple stories as opposed to a single story helps in our constant struggle to recognize the other and be recognized as a subject ourselves. Objects and our relationships with those objects have a significant impact on how we as subjects relate. Objects are not the problem. Objects are a means by which we relate and understand the world.

While fetishism is easy to pathologize, see as problematic, and perhaps causes some sense of dis-ease...such responses, I believe, neglect the inevitability it would seem within the contemporary world of objects and our relations to them. As feminist Donna Haraway argued in her “Cyborg Manifesto” - the human and object have become intertwined - think about prosthetics, our attachment to our mobile phones - and so fetishism offers us a promise and a way to think through how objects allow us to achieve some sort of satisfaction - not solely “sexual”. Fetishism, via McCallum’s argument, provides us with critical leverage to not simply demean objects but to look at the hope that objects bring to our lives. Objects - like subjects - offer ways of experiencing pleasure and satisfaction. This relation is not a substitution for relations between subjects BUT rather is an alternative way of knowing the world - an alternative epistemology that opens up ways of knowing the self.

How does this help us think through Manguel? Well, Manguel relying on Lewis Carroll’s Unicorn in Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass notes that “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you”. Belief becomes central to our relationships to or with stories. We fall in love with stories that we can “believe” - even if a story is “fantasy” we are drawn to it if it is “believable” or allows us to see ourselves reflected in it. Belief here, I think, comes into contact with knowledge which seems central to the educational project. What is the difference between “belief” and “knowledge”. We can probably point to any number of instances where “belief” is seen as getting in the way of “knowledge”. Belief is a problem - something that gets in the way of “knowledge”. But belief is also central to living for belief is what pushes us to create new knowledge. We “believe” something is wrong and find ways to prove that the flaws of “knowledge”. Belief pushes us to change the world. Whitney Houston sang about belief - she “believed the children are our future” and she “believed in you and me”. She believed these things...she did not “know” them but used her belief to create music that spoke to her fans worldwide.

Within fetishism belief becomes central for the fetishist “believes” in the object. The fetishist, in a sense, knows that the object is just that - an object - but the fetishist believes that the object can “do” something more - can provide psychic satisfaction. And we all probably have memories of an object we imbue with special powers (a blanket, a pacifier, a stuffed animal) that gives us satisfaction. Normal development asks us to give us these objects to create “proper” relations with other subjects. But, what might it mean to re-ignite our passion for objects - not to the detriment of other subjects - rather so we have diverse ways of achieving satisfaction? Can education work like fetishists and embrace its strange relationships with objects? What might it mean to not, as I have said before, talk about our “fetishization of standardized tests” in negative light but critically think about how such objects (tests) are used to create satisfaction (probably more for policy makers than students)?

Stories then, as objects, offer possibilities. Complex possibilities, adventures that might take place only in our minds...but it is there in our minds that we come to some sense of satisfaction with our world, ourselves.


Manguel, Alberto. City of Words. Toronto, ON: House of Anansi Press. 2007. Print.
McCallum, E. L. Object Lessons: How to do things with Fetishism. New York: SUNY Press, 1999. Print.
Murphy Paul, Ann. “Your Brain on Fiction”. New York Times. 17 March 2012 accessed at
Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2003. Print.

1 comment:

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