[Delivered at Centre Georges Pampidou, Traverses, 1998. Minor editing, headings, etc.]

Fetish Between Structure and Humanism

According to the classic Althusserian criticism, the Marxist problematic of commodity fetishism relies on the humanist ideological opposition of “human persons” versus “things.” Is it not one of Marx’s standard determinations of fetishism that it deals with “relations between things (commodities)” instead of direct “relations between people”? In other words, that in the fetishist universe, people (mis)perceive their social relations in the guise of relations between things? Althusserians are fully justified in emphasizing how, beneath this “ideological” problematic, there is another, entirely different-structural-concept of fetishism already at work in Marx. On this level, “fetishism” designates the short circuit between the formal/differential structure (which is by definition “absent”, i.e. it is never given “as such” in our experiential reality) and a positive element of this structure. When we are victims of the “fetishist” illusion, we (mis)perceive as the immediate/”natural” property of the object-fetish that which is conferred upon it because of its place within the structure. The fact that money enables us to buy things on the market, for example, is not a direct property of the object-money, but results from the place of money within the complex structure of socio-economic relations. Likewise, we do not relate to a certain person as a “king” because this person is “in himself” (on account of his charismatic character or something similar) a king, but because he occupies the place of a king within the set of socio-symbolic relations.

Our point, however, is that these two levels of the notion of fetishism are necessarily connected. They form the two constitutive sides of the very concept of fetishism, which is why one cannot simply devalue the first as ideological, in contrast to the second as properly theoretical (or “scientific”). To make this point clear, the first feature must be reformulated in a much more radical way. Beneath the apparently humanist-ideological opposition of “human beings” and “things”, there lurks another, much more productive notion, which is that of the mystery of substitution and/or displacement : how is it ontologically possible that the innermost “relations between people” can be displaced onto (or replaced by) “relations between things”? In other words, is it not a basic feature of the Marxian notion of commodity fetishism that “things believe instead of us, in place of us”? The point worth repeating again and again is that, in Marx’s notion of fetishism, the fetishist inversion lies not in what people think they are doing, but in their social activity itself. Thus, typical bourgeois subjects are, in terms of their conscious attitudes, utilitarian nominalists—it is in their social activity, in exchange on the market, that they act as if commodities were not simple objects, but objects endowed with special powers, full of “theological whimsies”. That is to say, people are quite aware of how things really stand; they know very well that the commodity-money is nothing but a reified form of the appearance of social relations, that, beneath the “relations between things,” there are “relations between people.” The paradox is that, in their social activity, they act as if they do not know this and follow the fetishist illusion. The fetishist belief, the fetishist inversion, is displaced onto things; it is embodied in what Marx calls “social relations between things.” And the crucial mistake to be avoided here is the properly “humanist” notion that this belief, embodied in things, displaced onto things, is nothing but a reified form of direct human belief.

The task of the phenomenological reconstitution of the genesis of “reification” is to demonstrate how original human belief was transposed onto things. The paradox to be maintained is that displacement is original and constitutive : there is no immediate, self-present living subjectivity to whom the belief embodied in “social things” can be attributed and who is then dispossessed of it. There are some beliefs, the most fundamental ones, which are from the very outset “decentered” beliefs of the Other; the phenomenon of the “subject supposed to believe” is thus universal and structurally necessary. From the very outset, the speaking subject displaces his or her belief onto the big Other qua the order of pure semblance, so that the subject never “really believed in it”; from the very beginning, the subject refers to some decentered other to whom he or she imputes this belief. All concrete versions of this “subject supposed to believe” (from small children for whose sake parents pretend to believe in Santa Claus to the “ordinary working people” for whose sake Communist intellectuals pretend to believe in Socialism) are stand-ins for the big Other.1 So what one should answer to the conservative platitude according to which every honest person has a profound need to believe in something is that every honest person has a profound need to find another subject who would believe in his or her place.

The Subject Supposed to Believe

In order to determine the scope of this notion of the subject supposed to believe as the fundamental, constitutive feature of the symbolic order,2 it may be compared to another, better-known notion: the subject supposed to know. When Lacan speaks of the subject supposed to know, it is usually overlooked that this notion is not the standard, but the exception, and that it gains its value in contrast to the subject supposed to believe as the standard feature of the symbolic order. What is the “subject supposed to know”? In the TV series Columbo, the crime (the act of murder) is shown in detail at the beginning, so that the enigma to be resolved is not “whodunit?”, but how the detective will establish the link between the deceitful surface appearance (the “manifest content” of the crime scene) and the truth about the crime (its “latent thought”), how he will prove the culprit’s guilt. The success of Columbo thus attests to the fact that the true source of interest in the detective’s work is the process of deciphering per se, not its result (the triumphant final revelation “And the murderer is…” is completely lacking here, since we know this from the very outset). Even more crucial is the fact that not only do we, the spectators, know in advance who did it (since we see it directly), but, inexplicably, the detective Columbo himself immediately knows: the moment he visits the scene of the crime and encounters the culprit, he is absolutely certain that the culprit did it.


  1. The actuality of the subject supposed to believe in Stalinist “totalitarianism” is perhaps best exemplified by the well-known incident concerning the Great Soviet Encyclopedia that occurred in 1954, immediately after the fall of Beria. When Soviet subscribers received the volume of the encyclopedia containing the entries under the letter B, there was, of course, a double-page article on Beria, praising him as the great hero of the Soviet Union. After his fall and denunciation as a traitor and spy, all subscribers received a letter from the publishing house asking them to cut out and return the page on Beria; in exchange they were promptly sent a double-page entry (with photos) on the Bering Strait, so that, when they inserted it into the volume, its wholeness was reestablished: there was no blank to bear witness to the sudden rewriting of history. The mystery here is: for whom was this (semblance of) wholeness maintained, if all subscribers knew about the manipulation (since they had to perform it themselves)? The only answer is, of course: for the non-existing subject supposed to believe.
  2. See Michel de Certeau, “What We Do When We Believe”, in On Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985), p. 200. See also Chapter 5 of Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London, Verso, 1989).

Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities. This account is not monitored and is only maintained to give appropriate credit.

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