PRINT March 1979

Transcendent Anti-Fetishism

Latent in every man is the venom of amazing bitterness, a black resentment, something that curses and loathes life, a feeling of being trapped, of having trusted and being fooled, of being helpless prey of impotent rage, blind surrender, the victim of a savage, ruthless power that gives and takes away, enlists a man, then drops him, promises and betrays, and crowning injury, inflicts on him the humiliation of feeling sorry for himself and of regarding this power as intelligent, sentient being, capable of being touched . . .

In each of us this venom is always ready to pullulate in secret, to permeate the organism, darken the sun, change true to false and false to true, an hour into eternity, and to turn all thoughts into the fuel of a somber force consuming indiscriminately our flesh, our reason, talents, and instincts and sometimes even the self love which is all powerful in man.

—Paul Valéry

PAUL VALÉRY WAS AMONG the turn-of-the-century misanthrope artists and intellectuals who were anxious to get their cultural turmoil and personal angst into a logical order. They found this order in language, the disjunction of symbols manifesting itself in Surrealism. With the symbolic order of language, they mapped their reality, their word-and deed-signifiers, on linguistic charts—the chart, a labyrinth, a point of entry into the latent, the loathing, the onerous and dark. The symbols that were the expression of particular desires carried the tension and power of their discoveries. More than anything, this tension sought its credibility in its logic, but a logic that was transparent. The signals, contained in the symbols that they uncovered, were translucent.

The texts of these artists and intellectuals were analogous ones, their thoughts being the analogues. They gave contradictory questions elementary form. Why this and not that? And then? Why do I need desire to do what I do? Either or, or either this or that? They used an ambiguous, contradictory model of consciousness to understand these questions: they used the model of the dream, the structure of desire that precedes formalizing constraints. This could only have been done by locating themselves at the juncture of memory and language, where dialectical impulses and disparities such as physiological/psychological, natural/cultural, could be examined.

Artists have always sought the language by which they could validate their experience vis-à-vis the things that they put into the world. Art theory has developed out of the problem of locating the coordinates of perception in consciousness, and the art object has been assigned meaning to the degree that an individual consciousness could establish beauty and/or enjoyment, in the formally entrancing object. This view assumes that there are certain characteristics intrinsic to the objects under scrutiny. But what is really intrinsic is only the linear transference between things that we “know.” They then enjoy the benefit of the doubt, and are epistemologically convincing.

In order to reconcile the object with what we in fact do know and feel, it has been necessary for many artists to take the emphasis off the continuous repetition of autonomous moments in the world of feeling and to root these moments in a larger psychological, social and political reality, meaning by “reality” the authority that an artist has over (and then through) his or her production. This process becomes the translucent symbol of thinking, for “everything about thought is psychological, only the pattern of thought is logical.”1 The work gropes for a meaning that implies a form, a signifier, a substructure with a psychological correlative. Recently many artists have used such axiomatic language to talk about their production. This is discourse, not a stab in the dark. When work addresses desire, and the object made is the function of this desire, the artist works with very little formal “margin.” In such a constricted, specific area the possibilities are taut, and categorical terms like “deconstructed,” “Minimal” and “Conceptual” seem empty.

Although a psychoanalytic model is useful because it furnishes plausibility for a cultural model, it is more useful in its approach to the questions of why we do what we do. We are invited to look into desire through the dream, that primary tool for understanding all that is disguised, substitutive and fictive. We do this not by concentrating on the dream as dream, but rather on the text of the dream account. Analysis attempts to substitute this text, “the primitive speech of desire,” for the literal text, the formal account; it does this by moving from one meaning to another, so that it is not desires that are placed at the center of the analysis so much as the form they take, their content (abstractions) and their implications.2 The symbol becomes the image embodied in the object, and “the vicissitudes of meaning can be attained only through the vicissitudes of instinct” (Freud).

“Desire is always extraterritorial-deterritorialized-deterritorializing. It passes over and under all barriers, and the work of the artist is constantly to be tearing down systems which reify desire, which submit the subject to the social and familial hierarchy.”3 As Poincaré says somewhere, the work of the artist, like that of the inventor, is not to exploit the useless possibilities, but to exploit the useful ones, which are, by far, in the minority: “To invent is to discern, to choose.”

The consciousness of desire, the “psychologized object,” belongs to the areas of meaning that come under the unified questions. How do desires achieve speech? How do desires make this speech fail? And why do they themselves fail to speak? The investigation of these issues, involving perception in its broadest sense, is the content of art. Little has been said of the psychologized object, and the terms that have been used to designate it as such have been misleading, attaching to it the incorrect attributes of the anthropological, the primitive and the fetishistic. Resulting from a vast array of psychological variables, and involving itself in fundamental problems of consciousness, the psychological object goes beyond these things and attempts to delineate a place, locating an origin and human intention and going from the ideational to the notional.

In his essay to the catalogue for the exhibition “Pictures,” at Artists Space, in New York, in 1977, Douglas Crimp addressed this issue, but misrepresented the struggle by which objects become mediated, resonant, “distanced”—the coefficients of experience, perception and memory. Assigning an object-image a linguistic or characterological texture does not mean that the object-image functions merely as a sign, or, inversely, that it denies the function of the signifier.4 The message remains fixed in its function as a relayer of action, from which detachment, as a symbol of communication itself, is impossible. “Intensity of feeling does not necessarily correlate with validity of conclusions.”5 A fetish implies a temporary resolution of contradictions intrinsic to the problem of differentiation (this is not you/this is not me); it indicates an arrested development, stagnant and inert. To fetishize is to reify, which makes the object opaque, distant, alien. The fetishizing process operates restrictively at the level of displacement, vacillation and passivity. To fetishize is to trivialize the palpability of the experience of the object.

On the other hand, psychological and cultural distance is established from a primary drive through mediation (or reflective imagination-investigation) and objective break. It is not you / it is not me, but it comes with you (the artist): hence, there is a humanizing condition, albeit a tragic one, that engenders the contradictory nature of social relations—the giving up, the transitional. The object negotiates its reality through particular desires, a libidinal cathexis, and not a descriptive encoding.

The transitional object is of interest to us when it becomes an antifetish, a force that functions symbolically or multiply (“schizophrenically”), when it evokes characteristics that can be understood in terms of our models, our instinctual desires, and our limited category systems (memory). Thus the great artistic battles are always those that are waged with the self, and they find their fruition in the disparity between things. Power and powerlessness, the cultural and the social, excitation and boredom: instead of providing clear emblems such dichotomies emphasize the problematic. Otherwise, unreflective insights or narrative passages that are beholden to the hierarchy that they parody (like puns) point without describing, and deprive the object of its symbolic function.

“A madman who imagines himself a prince differs from the prince who is in fact a prince only because the former is a negative prince, while the latter is a negative madman, considered without their sign, they are alike.”6

The problem of artistic creation is the problem of madness and death. The psychological object is verifiable to the extent of its capacity to remodel the means of access it offers the superego for the relief of certain symptoms and inhibitions. Capacities tell us what is possible, and each must also include a conception of purpose: each is a capacity for. The capacity of a person or his creation to influence social existence is a power, and the question of consciousness is understood only insofar as we are able to avoid enslavement or subjugation, whether by our ideological models (accumulated meaning), or by an institution.

In turning to a psychoanalytic model for the structure of signification in artistic production, it seems appropriate to engage an exegesis of the intrasubjective symbolic function, one made possible by hermeneutical interpretation rather than by the traditional psychoanalytic theory of esthetics. By turning to the psychodynamic and mythical tensions, we get away from the more restrictive, unreconstructed Freudian models that predicate the communication of desire on sublimation and “regression in the service of the ego.”7

The extraction of the symbolic form distilled into the dream text, or the thought text understood as language, and so interpreted, seems more apt than Freud’s model of the artist’s world view as an expression of fantasy. “The symbolic function presents itself as a double movement within the subject; man makes an object of his action, but only in order to restore to this action in due time its place as a grounding. In this equivocation, operating at every instinct, lies the whole process of a function in which action and knowledge alternate.”8

What gives rise to a psychological object is an intentional structure that consists not in the relation of meaning to thing, but an architecture of meanings in relation to each other. The texture of these interrelations is what makes interpretation possible, although the texture itself is made evident only through the actual movement of interpretation. Art, like language, presents a map of possibilities located in memory and experience; it struggles to go from lesser to greater consciousness (understanding), so that the possibilities can, through signification, congeal into a text that can be seen, discussed and interpreted. The artist, exercising a so-called “doxalethic function”9 (the license to violate reality testing temporarily), interprets one archeology and substitutes for it the object text, by “the calculus of the thought content of desire,” or what desire would say were it to speak without restraint or inhibition.

Consider Lacan: “We always come back again to our double reference to speech and to language. In order to free the subject’s speech, we introduce him into the language of desire, that is to say, into the primary language in which, beyond what he tells us of himself, he is already talking to us unknown to himself, and in the first place in the symbols of the symptom.”10 Or Ricoeur: “Too often it has been said that imagination is the power of forming images. This is not true if by image we mean representing, or presentifying, the thing over there, elsewhere, or nowhere. The imagery of sensory perception merely serves as a vehicle and as material for the verbal power whose true dimension is given to us in the cosmic and the oneiric.”11 As Bachelard noted, the poetic image “places us at the edge of articulate being, it expresses us by making us what it expresses.”

This verbal or visual image, which runs through the representation, is symbolism:

Symbols occur when languages produce signs of composite degree in which the meaning, not satisfied with designating some one thing, designates another meaning attainable only in and through the first intentionality. Far from lending itself to formalization, the symbolic directs you from the first meaning to the second. It is constituted in and through the literal meaning which achieves analogy by giving the analogue. In contrast to a likeness that we can look at from the outside, a symbol is the very movement of the primary meaning intentionally assimilating us to the symbolized, without our being able to intellectually dominate the likeness.12

Thus the psychological object differs from the deconstructed or minimal object, which is, by reduction, an affirmation, a statement asserting something of something. The psychological object is a negation, separating something from something (me from you, me from myself); it has what Brecht describes as an “estrangement effect.” It is the result of negative capabilities, and, although didactic, it is not intellectually dominated, or intellectually dominable.

The situation which we confront today comprises a double possibility, a double solicitation and urgency. On the one hand, purify discourse, liquidate the idols, go from drunkenness to sobriety, realize our state of poverty once and for all. On the other hand, use the nihilistic, destructive iconoclastic movement so as to let say what once, what each time, was said, when meaning appeared new, when it was at its fullest. We have not finished doing away with idols and we have barely begun to listen to symbols.13


In those days they had eyes, but sight was meaningless;
Heard sound, but could not listen, all their length of life
They passed like shapes in a dream, confused and purposeless.
Of brick built, sun warmed houses, or of carpentry,
That had no notion; lived in holes, like swarms of ants,
Or deep in sunless caverns; knew no certain way
To mark off winter, or flowery spring, or fruitful summer;
Their every act was without knowledge, till I came.
I taught them to determine when stars rise or set
A difficult art. Number, the primary science, I
Invented for them, and how to set down words in writing
The all remembered skill, mother of many arts.
I was the first to harness beasts under yoke
With trace or saddle as man’s slave to take man’s place
Under the heaviest burdens; put the horse to the chariot,
Made him obey the rein, and be an ornament
To wealth and greatness. No one before me had discovered
The sailor’s wagon. Flax winged craft that roam the seas.
Such tools and skills I found for men.

Prometheus accomplishes all this by using the stolen gift of fire. By presenting —and representing—new modes of production, he leads man into a period of self-liberation, providing the crucial contribution in the transition of infantile man into a state of civilization and productivity. His narcissism, his audacity, his manipulation of reality caused him to be chained to a rock for thirty thousand years, while a vulture tears at his liver. The themes of aggression/submission, power/powerlessness, love/hate, and control/being controlled, are salient throughout the myth.

Do we control or are we controlled by what we see? Does our reality induce images or is an image a design that we use to map our reality? Does experience take a back seat to the reality of image (things), or can the experience of images inform the internalization of our reality? Is our real trivial, or do our representations of it trivialize it?

When we are conditioned (through simulation and displacement), when we use other than ourselves to record, when we get it through the media and popular culture, we are talking of icons and signs and not perceiving forces and flows. As in religion, this reality is of things above, looking down, and it “blinds us especially to the reality of power as it subjugates us. Their function is to tame, and the result is the fabrication of docile and obedient subjects.”15 If reality strikes us as a cultural, and not a psychological dynamic, then our representations of it are as docile as the forms by which we receive it (as itself). We are placated by merchandising techniques that validate these forms. Identity with these images, which are more real than our memories, which seem to be more personal only because we are the result of them, certainly does nothing to establish a critical relationship with them. Impoverished object relations always result in the fetish. Creation of the self is only possible at the moment of division from (or contact with) the other. One experiences self in relation to what is not self. The struggle for differentiation is a critical struggle, and when the transition cannot be made, when there is total cultural amalgamation, we only know ourselves through culture’s fabrications. Or, what we internalize is only a composite of history’s ideological misinterpretations.

People then seek their object relations through the emblems of the culture, and things like television stars, doctors and mechanical gadgets take on monumental significance. What is crucial about the symbol (as communication, inquiry, discourse, notion, and not as a universal sign in the Jungian sense), or about the text, is that it is a critical embodiment of desire that does not reiterate, and is not beholden to a codified, generalized model of meaning. “Libido is primarily object-seeking rather than pleasure-seeking.”

The sign represents primary intentionality; whether it be the retinal registration of images, more expressive forms of representation, or patterning, all function only at the level of discharge. They are easy because they operate at the lowest level of psychic tension, ventilation. They point to ready solutions and pat formulas. Just as speech desires reply, even if it implies nothing, even if it denies the evidence, even if it is intended to deceive, the discourse represents the existence of the communication that constitutes truth. A reaction is not a reply.

Pre-logico-symbolic thought, attempting the reconciliation of the irreconcilable, avoids problems of the tragic, of the deadly consequences of I versus other, of difference and of contradiction. The infant “I” fears the death that separation denotes. The transitional “I” is physically charged by confronting threatening psychodynamic challenges. The reconstruction, in psychodramatic terms, of fragmented memory, of partial objects, takes place in an ambiguous region, where signification is the function of symbolic intentionality. The notion stops before the idea, or begins after the idea, and is not categorical. This is a restless state where no image is satisfactory. There is overlap, contradiction and ultimate entropy.

Vito Acconci, for example, has continually employed notional categories of memory to signify fundamental desire/need discrepancies that the “I” might undergo in transition or in relation. The tension between attraction and repulsion: one is always a comment on, and reflection of, the other, in a going toward. Reality does not come in one way or another; instead the contradictions that constitute the tension between different cathected states evoke our memory of this tension. Our images are transitive as well as transitional, for going toward something indicates the passage from a lesser to a greater knowledge and awareness: “Knowledge comes about insofar as the object known is within the viewer.”16

Desire is a perpetual effect of symbolic articulation. The reality that an artist ascertains through his work, the degree to which it is there within him, within his memories, grids the chart for the negation of external control. The giving up of infantile notions of value, which is understood in terms of something being pleasurable or unpleasurable, and the transition to the renunciation of the passive love object, move the understanding of value to control,17 control being the strength or weakness that one has in his productions (how much he is willing to relinquish), as a way of renegotiating a relationship to autonomous objects. External control (the parent) is superseded by self-control (relations with the self/other). The essence of mobility is the ability to go from the one to the other.

The idea of self-control involves elements of mastery. Thus we get out of ourselves by and through the control we have over ourselves and our work (production). Our production indicates a going toward something else; it signifies the dynamic relation of something with the outside without codifying that relation. We get out of ourselves by going into ourselves and evoking the dialectical tension of this symbolic discourse. Obsessiveness and ritual are the meaningless activities that support empty gestures and decorative repetition. The notional space in which delusion, madness and death are ferreted out in reality-testing is the place where symbols are taken in, and where they are issued as communication itself.

The psychological image, like the Dada and Surrealist literature and art that predates it, destroys, by calling our attention to the differences between the superficial and the symbolic. It demystifies our reactions to the formalized logic which estheticizes superficiality. It is not so much the actual structures that we create but the memories of psychological variables that characterize our desire to make structures. By synthesizing the dramatic aspects of our existence, the artist does not attempt to cosmeticize radical linguistic and psychological models. Instead, these insights are put into another form, the notion form or the chart form. Such systems proceed by, as it were, entering into the same maze, but at different points. Ultimately, all the questions are the same.

This view implies a declaration of principle, of social reality, of vision, of differentiation, of transition, passage and memory. It is puzzling because it asks and answers questions in no particular order or way. It is a black pool, reflective, translucent, taut, associative, ambitious and evocative. It is also a trap that is critical of its capacity to trap, to fool, to evoke.



1. For a discussion of “the deconstructed object” see Marcia Hafif, “Beginning Again,” Artforum, Sept. 1978, pp. 34–41.

2. Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage, New Haven, 1970, Book II, part ii.

3. Felix Guattari, “Anti-Oedipus: Psycho-Analysis and Schizo-Analysis, An Interview,” Semiotexte, 11/3 (1977), pp. 77–85.

4. See Douglas Crimp’s “Pictures,” exhibition catalogue for the show at Artists Space, New York, 1977.

5. Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on a Theory of Sexuality (1908).

6. Jacques Lacan, “Function and Field of Speech and Language,” in his Ecrits, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York, 1977, p. 109.

7. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams.

8. Lacan, p. 73.

9. For a discussion of Doxalethic Function see Donald M. Kaplan, “Reflections on Eissler’s Concept of the Doxalethic Function,” American Imago, XXIX/4 (Winter 1972).

10. Lacan, op. cit.

11. Ricoeur, op. cit.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, trans. P. Vellacott, Harmondsworth, 1961, p. 34.

15. Gilles Deluze and Felix Guattaris, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, New York, 1977, introduction (trans. Mark Seem), p. xx.

16. An aphorism of St. Thomas Aquinas.

17. Edith Jacobsen, The Self in the Object World, New York, 1964.