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the phantasmagoria of modernity « Previous | |Next »
May 17, 2011

Walter Benjamin characterized modernity as “the world dominated by its phantasmagorias.” The Oxford English Dictionary gives the following meaning to the word “phantasmagoria” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: “a shifting series or succession of phantasms or imaginary figures, as seen in a dream of fevered condition, as called up by the imagination, or as created by literary description.

model+bike.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, poster, Adelaide, 2010

For Benjamin, the term seems to indicate the main aspects of the experience of the spectacle a general mode of experience in the world of commodities that have become their own visual culture; to our sensory experience in the commodity culture of capitalism in 20th century modernity that is conditioned by a particular mode of technological advancement.

Benjamin explored the spectacle associated with various forms of the entertainment industry in The Arcades Project (department stores, industrial exhibitions, arcades panoramas, and so on) centred around Paris in the nineteenth century.

An arcade in English is a passage in French and it basically connects two parallel streets and the passage has shops, cafes and other establishments that face each other. The passage is thus open at both ends and covered with glass and iron. Although arcades are found in other European cities, the arcades were invented in Paris and thus remain a Parisian phenomenon.

girl in car.jpg Gary Sauer-Thompson, advertising, Adelaide, 2010

Benjamin’s notion of the phantasmagoria of modernity gives us an understanding of how since the nineteenth century the physiognomy of the city, its architecture and urbanism, as well as the industries of entertainment and display can be understood as historical and material realizations of the commodity culture in our world of global capitalism.

Phantasmagoria for me refers to the magical world of commodities as signs that are designed to seduce and enchant us. A commodity culture is our visual culture in late modernity. This is our regime of visibility and more generally, of representation; it is self-referential system of signs that express modernism system of beliefs--- the utopia of progress, the cult of novelty and fashion etc --that become a site for our urban experience.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 7:07 PM | | Comments (1)


We live in the cave of commodity-capitalism.

Plato’s allegory of the cave, as presented in Book VII of The Republic, tells the story of humans imprisoned in a dark cave since childhood. All they see are the shadows of puppets presented on the wall in front of them. These shadows are, to the prisoners, reality as they know it. Plato states that “such persons would certainly believe there were no realities except those shadows of handmade things”

Imagine if one of the prisoners were released and then exits the cave, exposing himself to the outside world beyond the shadows. The truth, unbelievable as it is, is revealed to him and he comes to the realization that what he originally thought was reality is nothing more than an illusion.

That is Walter Benjamin’s goal: To lead people out of the cave, to dispel the “phantasmagoria” of mythic reality of commodity culture that we have been exposed to since birth.