Lose Your Hamsters: A Plea for De-fetishized Reflection on the Pandemic — Rutwij Nakhwa

(Image from Wikimedia)

Perhaps, the Freudian notion of fetishism is a useful tool to think through the situation of the pandemic. For Freud, the fetish is the last thing one is faced with before (re)encountering traumatic lack: ‘it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish’ [1]. For instance, he explains how the foot becomes a substitute for the mother’s penis and covers over the non-existence that gives rise to the threat of castration. The fetish of the foot stands in as protection against the threat of castration and veils a fundamental lack. Through the following story, Žižek illustrates how a fetish works and its political implications:

In psychiatric circles, there is a story told about a man whose wife was diagnosed with acute breast cancer and who died three months later; the husband survived her death unscathed, being able to talk coolly about his traumatic last moments with her —how? Was he a cold, distant, and unfeeling monster? Soon, his friends noticed that, while talking about his deceased wife, he always held a hamster in his hands, her pet object and now his fetish, the embodied disavowal of her death. No wonder that, when, a couple of months later, the hamster died, the man broke down and had to be hospitalized for a long period, treated for acute depression. So, when we are bombarded by claims that in our post-ideological cynical era nobody believes in the proclaimed ideals, when we encounter a person who claims he has been cured of any beliefs, accepting social reality the way it really is, one should always counter such claims with the question: OK, but where is your hamster — the fetish which enabled you to (pretend to) accept reality ‘the way it is?’ [2]

As the world deals with the Covid-19 pandemic, aren’t all of us, like the man in the story, instantly clutching on to our own hamsters? A generalised fetishism seems to be at work in the overall response to the pandemic. In India, one observes a variety of hamsters. The most common fetishized response can be broadly seen through the Indian media’s Islamophobic coverage of the crisis. The barebones of the media narrative are as follows: groups of Muslims in India are almost singlehandedly held responsible for the exponential rise in the outbreak of Covid-19 cases in the country due to, whether wanton or unwitting, irresponsible behaviour. As if to suggest that if only Muslims had behaved themselves, the virus would have never spread to this extent. Interestingly, the fetishist response appears to traverse ideological and class demarcations. In liberal and progressive corners, the hamster is the government’s bad administration (whether regional or federal): if only the existing government had acted more proactively, we could have avoided the crisis; implicit in this response is the desire for a different/better political structure. The middle-class sees it fit to blame both the elite — non-resident Indians, students, foreign travellers who returned en masse from ‘infected’ countries, and others among the privileged who irresponsibly put others at risk through sheer idiocy — and the poor: the large population of India’s homeless, slum-dwellers, and migrant workers who appear to thwart the rules of social distancing; begging the question: How does one self-isolate without a home to live in? Without food to eat? At the global level, China becomes the hamster par excellence, held responsible unilaterally for the entire pandemic.

Ultimately, these multifarious fetishes obfuscate (and protect against) social antagonisms that were always already part of our reality — even before the pandemic. Contra the variety of Foucauldian responses that view the crisis as mere intensification and the normalisation of the surveillance state, the pandemic highlights pre-existing antagonisms, which the fetishist response veils over and blinds us from. In Lacanian terms, these hamsters/fetishes enable us to hold on to the fantasy of a non-castrated big Other, whether of the nation-state or society in general, and therefore support wishful visions of a return to the ‘(ab)normal world’ once the pandemic is over. In these times, to think of the possibility of a different post-pandemic world, the first thing to do is to let go of our hamsters and confront the fundamental lack that structures our social reality.

Interestingly, Žižek has become a target of internet outrage following the publication of his book Pandemic! — ‘How dare he capitalise on this crisis?’. Apart from the fact that he has pledged all royalties from the book to Médecins Sans Frontières [3], his act of writing demonstrates that he is not fetishizing the pandemic. Žižek has been analysing the antagonisms of our world since much before the crisis; alarm would have been justified if he hadn’t written the book!

Rutwij Nakhwa is a film journalist and visiting lecturer based in Mumbai, India, and is interested in Marxian and Lacanian thought.


1. Sigmund Freud, ‘Fetishism’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol XXI (1927 – 1931) (London: Vintage, 2001), 155.

2. Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), 299.

3. https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/pandemic/

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