How can we make sense of crazy sports riots like the ones that went down last week in Vancouver? How can people get so “up in arms” over a game, while being so resigned about things that really matter?
What is fetish?
I had always thought of a fetish as, more or less, something that someone is peculiarly “into”. A person with a foot fetish is someone who is “into” feet — probably with sexual overtones. Reading Stewart Hall recently, I was introduced to a more complex definition. The basic idea is that a fetish object is something a person fixates on in place of something forbidden. For example, when sexual organs are covered, hidden, and not talked about—and perhaps associated with concepts like sin—this amounts to something of a suppression of sexuality. Within a culture that practices this suppression, it becomes taboo to fixate upon sexual organs. However, sexuality cannot ever be fully suppressed. The mind may latch onto another object to stand in for what is taboo. This is the fetish object. (This process typically happens subconsciously.)
The brain’s system of cognitive associations helps to facilitate this possibility. The sexual fetish object becomes neurologically connected to sexual feelings; these feelings trigger thoughts of the object, and thoughts of the object trigger sexual feelings. (Neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran even suggests that foot fetishes may be particularly common because the region of the brain that processes sexual sensation is right next to the region that processes feeling in the feet.)
Related to the fetish object is the idea of the transitional object. The idea is that small children cling to transitional objects (aka comfort objects) such as blankets, stuffed animals, or pacifiers as a substitute for the mother-child bond. This happens in a stage when the baby is learning boundaries between self and everything else. During this stage, separation from mother can feel upsetting. The transitional object helps the child gain some sense of security and control in her absence.
What does this have to do with politics? Well, if politics is taboo—as the cliché claims—might it share with sexual taboos this pattern in which suppressed urges latch onto less taboo, more socially sanctioned objects? (It’s important to note that neither sex nor politics is universally taboo across cultures.)
For this to be so, politics would have to be something more than an elective activity. Politics would have to be something of a primal instinct; something of a hardwired instinctual desire that could perhaps—like sex—be redirected and partially suppressed, but never fully extinguished. I suspect that politics is something like this. I suspect that the idea that politics could ever be only an elective activity for self-selecting participants is a somewhat peculiar product of our modern society; and that a primal political instinct permeates everything at a level comparable to sex-drive, and that it is suppressed in comparable ways too.