The Desirable Body:  Cultural Fetishism and the Erotics of Consumption by Jon Stratton


By Robyn Sassen

A Rollercoaster Ride Through Consumer Fetishism


ver thought of the humble Coke bottle as representative of the development of visual culture since the 19th century? Jon Stratton’s foray into cultural fetishism and the erotics of consumption does considerably more than touch on the expected bases of this area. Stratton has taken and assimilated the work of important theoreticians and he’s created a great melting pot if it all, relating theory to concepts and realities which you and I and everyone else has experienced and can relate to, like the inimitable Coke bottle. Philosophers of the calibre of Marx, Foucault, Lacan, Huyssen and Debord each claimed the territories of consumerism, fetishism in modern society and how they all tie together. Notoriously, the writings of these individuals are not exactly what the average reader in the street can take to the bath to read. Each has a reputation for being powerfully unreadable for the average contemporary consumer of modern fetishes, a truism that’s patently ironic.

But, on no account should you get me wrong. The Desirable Body might be a relatively slim, rather handy book, but it’s not exactly easy reading. Stratton has structured his text to embrace a number of different areas where popular culture touches consumerism, and where fetishism plays a role that doesn’t only embrace what strange lonely men may do with shoes. He takes the notion of cultural fetishism, the concept of the phallus—or the cultural penis, which, he explains, rather than a sex organ, is a cultural symbol of power—and stretches the material beyond what it is about normally.

So, instead of being some kind of academic peepshow, this reveals considerably more. Within the rubric of sexual identity and how it is constructed by society’s miens, Stratton introduces visual culture to sociology, psychology, and all the other academic-ologies that it normally passes like ships in the night, and hey presto! He makes them compatible. The main difficulty that reading this book presents is the whirlwind of analogies, and the plethora of examples drawn from all over contemporary society.

That said, one thing that doesn’t sit well with this encyclopaediac foray into consumerism is the cover. It looks too much like a girlie mag, and if you look closer, it appears too be an academic treatise, which makes it forbidding. But maybe that’s the whole point, which reveals my insecurities: Stratton’s book straddles the line. He gives his reader the ‘heavies’ in his introduction, outlining his theoretical position, but in the text itself, he extrapolates his material, bringing together the theory with the popular culture in a way that is palatable, humorous and logical. And the ride is exciting—creating couples that feel unexpected, but work, theoretically. For instance, think of a juxtaposition between Kate Moss and Freudian theories relating to hysteria and anorexia or Batman and Robin bunched with Walter Benjamin’s representation of the flâneur. Better still, Arnold Schwarznegger in Terminator and Mickey Rourke in 9 ½ Weeks or Oscar Wilde and the average housewife consumer of the 1950s, certainly feel like peculiar couples, but in terms of the machinations of cultural consumerism, the points which Stratton articulates here are succinct.

In this way, Stratton creates an edge on the material. This edge should be a very exciting teaching tool. Not only does it offer a meaningful look at the nineteenth century and all its bits and pieces of cultural development, but it offers it in the context of a twenty-first century reader—with all his/her jaded reactions intact. The ideologies, behaviour patterns and thought processes of the nineteenth century are all direct forebears to who we may be today. The Desirable Body can give the reader a handle on why Impressionism was such a dynamic earth-shattering movement; on the difficult issues which the birth of photography presented; on the role play of blue movies and other titillating visual culture which was for many years relegated to hidden places; and on the presence of the gynoid in sexually aware society.

And speaking of hidden places, cupboards and dark places to hide things, gay culture also comes under Stratton’s perspicacious eye. Together with feminism, he takes apart elements of queer theory and puts it together again in an English that is contemporary and articulate, and is plentifully illustrated by way of example from popular, mainly visual, culture—the type of stuff that the average person in the world will know about and have had access to on one level or another—even if you haven’t seen the movie. One of the by-products of this sexual history foray may be seen as sexist: women get painted in pretty darn disturbing colours if you ask me. These, however, are not Stratton’s philosophies, and rather than advocating any specific, ideological thrust, his book is an account of how we, as products of a western ideology, have shaped ourselves. In his conclusion, Stratton is at pains to describe this, which perhaps detracts from the main thrust of the material. It is clear that Stratton is not presenting western ideology as a male conspiracy, but rather an account.

The text is divided into five chapters which deal with different aspects of cultural fetishism, categorised broadly by gender, sex, sexuality. As the title of the book dictates, and the notion of fetishism generally, sex is where it’s all at, and indeed, where it’s all from. But aside from evaluating the role and understanding of consumer fetishism and all its implications, there’s another course of development at play which is about the development of visual culture across the centuries.

It’s a much more subtle evocation of a social history of behaviour and the world as we know it, and it runs parallel with the primary content of the text. So, while Stratton’s examples may begin with painting, follow on to photography and branch out into the film industry and more advanced technologies, he concurrently teases out, for instance, where or what would the porn industry be today without the understood cultural presence of the nude or the prostitute in nineteenth century European painting. Better still, without the notion of the spectacle as a cultural entity, would we indeed have room for all of the electronic media in our lives which are part of our contemporary consumer’s privilege? Clearly these are rhetorical issues—simply by virtue of being at the computer monitor, and reading this review, we are products of a consumerist society, and wittingly or not, are benefitting hugely by the rich varied history it has undergone.

This means of illustrating theory enables Stratton’s perspective to be broadly based in the logic behind cultural development rather than focusing on the smaller details or agency of how things are. Thus his narrative is painted in broad brush strokes, which obviate specialist idiosyncrasies or viewpoints, making this a comprehensive overview rather than a pernickety detail.

Indeed, it’s a meaty text. But it’s the kind of meaty that can get washed down very palatably with a Coke, without causing any untoward indigestion. It’s meatiness is probably what living and seeing and behaving in this funny old world with any degree of sensibility is still about.


A Note from the University of Illinois:
“Stratton ties spectacularization to the primacy of the visual, as evinced in grand expositions, photography, the cinema, and clandestine surveillance techniques. Among other topics, he explores an enduring fascination with man-made women in literature (Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Tomorrow’s Eve, E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman) and film (The Stepford Wives, Mannequin). He also explores female patterns of consumption (from “shop till you drop” to anorexia) and, concomitant with a more public homosexuality, the fetishization of the male body (e.g., Arnold Schwarzenegger and ads for Calvin Klein underwear). “

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