Thinking about Fetish




2: An inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit.

That is an advertisement, not a clickable one, or even a sanctioned one, but a screen capture of an advertisement is an advertisement all the same. It is an ad for a Leica camera, designed to resemble an exposure camera, and posed to situate itself in a sort of timeless minimalism. The leather straps and leather wallet suggest practical, but affluent, character. The newspaper and wood table suggest a hint of the past. Finally, the blurry background is clearly some sort of cafe or coffee shop, but all that can be determined is that it is somewhere sunny, perhaps pleasant. There is no suggestion of salesmanship beyond the camera’s name “Safari,” which conjures up vacation/expeditions in the unknown far away continents of yesteryear, and a discreet “In stock” button. The suggestion is that all the picture contains is available. The moment captured in the image is available through the purchase of the device. Purchasing the device will give you the opportunity to inhabit that moment, through travel and consumption, and indicates to others that you are the sort of person who travels, takes pictures, wears leather, and inhabits a timeless space. Simultaneously giving you the ability to be more satisfied and self actualized, while also reinforcing your personal brand to others. All for the low price of $8,450.

I could spend all day writing up details dissections of ads like these, all the way down to the stock photo models on Amazon entries for $2 t-shirts. Because this stuff is not complicated. Sure in the Leica example there is also the decades of time that Leica has spend building itself up as a name, the particularities of that specific model that lend itself towards appealing to a certain type of person, and even the fact that the wallet appearing in it is a specific type of slim wallet that people who don’t cruise the internet for wallet based communities would likely not come across. These are all tiny little details that add up to making the device a fetish. A magical object that contains a reliquary of the person that the person who would buy this wants to be.

When people gripe about “consumerism” (a word that is so increasingly nebulous it’s almost useless, like a fish talking about water) they often fixate on the idea that identities, personalities, and lives can be bought. They are acknowledging that it is true, but also that it is wrong. Something about the way that modern capitalism commodifies all aspects of personality and identity rubs directly against conventional wisdom and intuitions. For enough money, I could go out and rent the life of a pre-Civil War southern gentleman, slaves and all. Then, once I was bored of that, I could discard it all, and go off to become an LA socialite, or an English sailor, or a Japanese technological marketer, or anything else with zero repercussions or hazards beyond depletion of some ephemeral concept called capital. Any identity can be picked up or dropped assuming that my capital wealth can withstand the change. However, everyone already in those identities will immediately resist me, and people who know me from other identities will not immediately incorporate that identity into their perception of me. We know that people aren’t just what they say they are, no matter how much they dress like it.

This concept, which can be called consumerism, really is indicative of a certain form of belief that has unfortunately become the hot button word “neo-liberalism.” Despite how that word is misused, its original use was a view where every aspect of life is dominated by our conception of a “market.” Where things are given exactly as much weight as can be determined by pitting them against other things. Where morality does not enter into questions of governance, only success against competitors. Where materialist facts do not conform to moralist preferences. The marketplace of ideas is a neoliberal conception, where ideas only have merit based on how far they are spread and accepted.

That’s not what I’m here to talk about, but rather the way that this approach to life causes us to flatten objects, ideas, and ultimately people down into easily perceptible, understandable, and discardable images.

In the world we live in, this is an incredibly convenient and appealing way to approach life, because it removes the moral burden of considering other things and people (if they were worth it they would be successful) and allows for the trade and use of anything, as long as it is permitted by the marketplace (if it was not worth it, it would not be available.) To extend this back to the original point, identities that survive are determined to have merit, those that don’t are not, and there are no other moral concerns. Therefore purchasing your identity is perfectly fine as it is part of mechanism by which that identity is preserved and marketed. Theoretically, if I were to tomorrow establish the idea of “Squirrel screwer” as a repugnant, but distinct identity, as long as I got enough people to subscribe to that identity, there would be nothing wrong with it through the lens described here.

This is an extreme example, but the point I am making is that it makes a lot of sense that people feel like they can simply buy a life these days. This compression by removal of context, work, and specification. This reduction to image. This is how buying a camera represents an entire lifestyle.

Interestingly, there is no easy way to access the technological specs of that camera, you have to download a whole separate pdf to even see a megapixel count. As far as I know, that camera may not even be as good as my phone’s camera, which while it was a flagship a few years ago is nothing impressive now. The entire appeal is designed around the identity.

I will have to return to this subject later. Magical thinking is a big subject. In particular though, this reduction of objects to fetishes of identity, totems of self, is an enchantment of a sort. We imbue our coats, our cars, our couches, our water bottles, with extra bits of mental identity simply by choosing them over their competitors. Often we defend their superiority, and eventually even name and form strange bonds with these objects. We imbue them with a part of ourselves, almost like a spirit. All of this is aided by our concern with their influence on our image.

I am going to retreat to my bookshelf for now, because there is no greater symbol of confusing owning a thing with being a thing then the person with a shelf full of nonfiction they haven’t read.

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