Thursday, February 5, 2009

Totem and Fetish

If I were pressed to estimate the number of Star Wars images in the home I share with Anthony and Lindsey Cristofani, I'd put it somewhere around 250. Star Wars characters and iconography grace posters, dishes, postcards, T-shirts, decals on helmets and computers, stickers, neckties, backpacks, pajamas, underwear, dogtags, hats, action figures, toys collected from MacDonald's, bottles of bubble bath, and recently, a 300-piece puzzle we plan to assemble on our kitchen table. Even in the face of that overwhelming (and probably non-exhaustive) list, I will here argue that our use of Star Wars images is not obsessive, not childish, and especially not fetishistic, but a manifestation of a kind of neo-totemism that is ultimately a revolutionary act against what bell hooks has called dominator culture: the capitalist amalgam of prejudices that reinforces us/them, good/bad, in/out dichotomies.

What the hell am I talking about? While these two words—fetish and totem—might connote similar processes of symbolic representation, I (and many other writers) am using them in opposition. I’m talking about the difference between brands, which are fetishes, and totems, which are symbols of unity and tools for transcending oppressive systems of thought and being. The basic difference between a fetish and a totem in this formulation is that a fetish reinforces an inflated and cultish individualism through the superstitious attachment to external symbols. Fetishes serve to construct the “I” while totems reinforce a “We.” Fetishizing something is the way to offer it undeserved and even destructive control over oneself, and oneself alone. Once something is a fetish, I must have it or I cannot: have an orgasm (in the psycho-sexual definition), “be myself” (in the identity-politics definition), feel powerful (in the feminist theoretical definition), etc. Totems, on the other hand, are symbols that carry a meaning shared by many. They recall agreed-upon principles and offer us codified points of meaning to share with others. A totem is never “mine” the way a fetish is.

In Freudian terminology, a totem was the symbol of a clan, used to reinforce an incest taboo. That is, in certain Australian aboriginal groups, your totem told you who you could marry (people with a different totem), and who you couldn’t (people with your same totem). Also according to Freud, a fetish is an object of disgust and desire, elevated to the level of phantasy and obsession. Fetishizing happens every time someone carries a Coach purse because it is Coach, and therefore participates in a system of demonstrating wealth without principled content, because they would feel worse about themselves without it. A neo-totemism involves using symbols as meaningful signs of group identity or adherence to certain beliefs—there has to be conscious content to the symbol.

The use of the totem in my life is three-fold. Firstly, totems prompt self-assessment and accountability. Obi-Wan Kenobi stares at me from the front windshield, light saber ready for battle, every time I get in my car. What does it mean to drive like a Jedi? A constant state of attentiveness. No road hypnosis, no unnecessary anxiety, no arrogance. Becoming an extension of the car, not a disembodied, dissociated controller of it. Am I great at this? No. But there is no shame in being a Padawan. It is a major act of humility to have images of heroes watching over my daily life. They serve as anchors of awareness, like a meditation bell ringing. There is nothing I do that does not contain the possibility of radicalization, and the totems urge me towards that beautiful expansiveness. They are the guardians of Project Limitless.

The second use of totems is, predictably, focused outward, on the world. It’s easy for strangers to strike up a conversation about a shirt or a piece of jewelry. When they say “What’s that on your backpack?” and I say, “It’s the symbol for the Rebel Alliance! Are you a member too?” we get a lighthearted entry to discuss what it means to oppose “The Empire” in its current forms in our own culture. The totem is a recognizable sign—and it is an invitation to moments of revolutionary speech with people who might have expected just to swap trivia.

The third purpose of the totem is most reminiscent of its earlier, Freudian/anthropological definition: it reinforces a group identity. What matters here is that a totem is not exclusionary—anyone can join the Rebel Alliance, if they believe in it, simply by participating. A fetish, on the other hand, excludes everyone, as it is created only to serve the self, to maintain a codified identity and soothe anxieties through reinforcement of difference. People feel simultaneously special and lonely in their fetishes. A totem forces you to quit privileging the self, and consider group processes and needs. In this way, it is an anti-capitalist act to use totems, even though you must participate to some degree in the capitalist system to get them. (Thankfully, you can use secondary markets like ebay!)

Our totems oppose the capitalist cult of individualism by honoring true individuals: people with different aptitudes and wisdoms all working together towards common goals. One of the differences between the Republic (the “good guys,” at least at that moment) and the Separatists in the Star Wars: Clone Wars series is that the leaders of the Republic recognize the individual abilities and offerings of each soldier (Yoda tells the clones, “You are all individuals in the Force”) while the Separatist army consists of thousands of interchangeable droids, none of whom are ever able to generate new or creative content. So having group identity, in the totemic sense, is not a devaluing of individuals, but rather an integration of each person’s worth into a whole. I’ve experienced this at Rowe Camp, where we joke about “This Edge”—a phrase from our mission statement that refers to the place where individual and group needs meet. I’ve experienced this with the Sacred Dice—once a band, now a Revolutionary Salon—where each person who participates offers highly personal, sometimes deliciously idiosyncratic contributions. I’ve experienced this in a historical sense reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer, as the leaders of the revolution in Indonesia used “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” as their totemic battle cry. They didn’t borrow a phrase from the French, they participated in the same basic project exemplified also by the French Revolution, and used a recognizable totem to unify themselves.

There is a problem inherent to using popular symbols like the Rebel Alliance: so many people use them as fetishes it can be difficult to clearly represent your intentions. This is why the totem has to be paired with interaction, whenever possible. I’ve met a lot of Star Wars “fans” who exhibit an intolerant, fetishistic attachment to a favorite character or film, and like to use these ideas as ways to identify themselves, instead of viewing the entire universe with curiosity, openness, and devotion to the principles of social justice so clearly demonstrated in the mythological structure of the story. (Anthony has valiantly defended the importance of the character Jar Jar Binks against that kind of cynical, trendy attitude.)

It can be incredibly difficult to discover fetishization in every day life. This is especially true when one fetishizes people or objects that seem inherently “good”—the process of our using them poorly becomes almost invisible in the light of their goodness. This is certainly a concern amongst those who see the “Obama-brand” as a quietly menacing cultural phenomenon (there are some great debates online about this!). It’s worth investigating your closet, your bumper stickers, your bookshelves, your refrigerator, your travel photos, your walls, your iTunes, to discover the places where you could replace fetish with totem, and habits of identity with awareness of principle. I’m still sorting, and I’d love to hear about your experiences.


  1. Wow, this is the best piece of analysis left. Writers like you are important because they put names to what is bugging us ("fetish") and what is inspiring us ("totem"), so that we can marshall those words into a narrative that disallows us as characters to fetishize our scene or our costumes.
    Also, it's exhilarating to read a person with a BA in Psychology reclaim Freud (the Jar Jar Binks of Psychology majors)!

  2. Hi Vanessa,
    Hello from the U.K. What an interesting and articulate article I shall come back and read more. I think I was always aware of the dichotomy between Fetish and Totem, but I could not have put it in to words. I shall keep a clearer eye out for the appearance of both.

    Of course I was aware of the epic and mythic references of Star Wars but I didn’t think so much could be drawn out of it. In my experience of working in a school one of the problems in society is that the heroes young men choose, are fairly shallow, either footballers or rappers, it’s just about money. Being charitable one could say that their choice is limited because they haven’t be exposed to a wider selection. One could sound very snobbish here, but, that’s part of the point; ones choice of hero is a value judgement.

    I found your blog researching animal totems; I’m an artist making animal sculptures which I see as guardian spirits if you are interested. I would welcome your comments
    Best wishes Mark Gibbs

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