Eight Thesis on Phantasmagoria

Shopping Mall, Val d' Europe, June 2010

1. Phantasmagoria is a set of images, in the sense of a set of dream-images, i. e. a dreamlike imagery – a fantasy – reified in an urban space.

1.1. Phantasmagoria is the screen-image which the society that produces commodities makes of itself when it refuses to acknowledge that it is essential for it to produce commodities.

1.2. Phantasmagoria is “not only” the apparition of human creations “in a theoretical manner, by an ideological transposition”, but “in the immediacy of their perceptible presence”, in an “illumination”. It is the result of an ideological process (“ideological transposition”), but it is not perceived as such. It is perceived as a pure form.

1.3. Like ideology in a larger sense, phantasmagoria is also a representation of the imaginary relationship of the society to its real condition of existence.

1.4. As a representation of an imaginary relationship, phantasmagoria is like a dream. Phantasmagoria is a dream that reifies itself in the architecture of the arcades of Paris, in the bourgeois interior under Louis-Philippe, in world exhibitions during the Second Empire, in the Parisian urbanism of Haussmann, in the image of culture and history from humanity’s legendary beginnings to its legendary ends, and in the Fremont street of Las Vegas. Phantasmagoria is a (set of) image(s), but this image is reified, or realised. It also has the concreteness of reality.

1.5. Phantasmagoria is inscribed into the ideological process, but in a dreamlike manner, i. e. alongside an hysterical or neurotic process.

1.5.1. Phantasmagoria is the repression from the consciousness of one reality: the one of productive forces (process of production and social utility). Example: in the world exhibitions, iron and glass as materials of construction are hidden behind columns and hangings.

1.5.2. Phantasmagoria is the repression from the consciousness of one other reality: the one of exchange value. Example: in the bourgeois interior (in which the collector is the true resident), the goods lost their exchange value to take on an aesthetic value.

1.6. As the traditional image, phantasmagoria reduces the action of the spectator to a contemplative attitude. It reintroduces a sense of the sacred in the everyday experience.

1.7. As a typically modern rapid succession of images, phantasmagoria gives a feeling of vertigo. Example (paradigmatic): the amusement parks (with their roller coasters, their “twisters”, their “caterpillars”) at the centre of the world exhibitions. Phantasmagoria reduces also the action of the spectator to an attitude of pure reaction.

2. Phantasmagoria is not only an image; it is also the intentional correlate of immediate experience.

2.1. Phantasmagoria is a social space where we move and interact with objects and with one another. It is related to one’s experience. It is also an “atmosphere” where we have social relations and where we enjoy consumption (here we buy “more” than a good).

2.2. Phantasmagoria is a space that gives us a frame for immediate enjoyment. Its function is not to repress our capacity for enjoyment, but to stimulate it without mediations. It is the social organization of the gathering of our intentions, of our desires.

2.3. We don’t convert any mediated or historical experience into phantasmagorias, only immediate or “natural” ones.

3. Phantasmagoria always refers to the inventory of the “History of Civilization”, i. e. of an historical or natural “authenticity”.

3.1. Phantasmagoria collects one or more kinds of “cultural” or “natural” alibis.

3.1.1. Orientalizing alibis. Example: the interior as an oriental boudoir.

3.1.2. Aestheticizing alibis. Example: the idealization of objects in the interior.

3.1.3. Naturalizing alibis. Example: the naturalizing masks hiding modern constructions or commodities.

3.1.4. Indexing alibis. Example: the re-creation of “authentic” traces where social traces disappeared behind commercial and bureaucratic traces.

3.1.5. Historicizing alibis. Example: the historicizing masks hiding modern constructions.

3.2. Phantasmagorias also merge real worlds, distant countries and fictional worlds without hierarchy.

3.2.1. Phantasmagoria entails a horror vacui. It is a dreamlike continuum of these alibis. It accumulates them eclectically without critique.

3.2.2. These alibis can be linked to an ideology of conservation, an archaeological fetishism, to an obsession of reproduction (more real than the real), or to an absolute iconicism (the sign of the real being greater than the real).

3.2.3. Phantasmagoria inserts into this continuum a symbolic chain that contains, repressed from the consciousness but encrypted in the dreamlike form, the reality of the use value and the reality of the exchange value. It functions like “screen memories”.

3.3. Pure construction (without alibis) is not a phantasmagoria. Example: pont transbordeur, Marseille.

4. Phantasmagoria only exists in the society that produces commodities.

4.1. Phantasmagoria is specific and linked to fetishism, i. e. to the ideological process of inversion in the hypostasis of the commodity that appears in Europe in the 19th Century. Although they have the same functions and structure, Greek houses of Roman patricians are not phantasmagorias (we can consider them proto-phantasmagorias).

4.2. It is also a specific social class that sits at the head of this process, the bourgeoisie, that generates phantasmagoria. In this way too, phantasmagoria is not general but specific. Example: Phantasmagorias of the interior, of the market, of the civilisation (Haussmann’s Paris) correspond to different specific classes within the bourgeoisie itself: the trade bourgeoisie; the industrial bourgeoisie; the financial bourgeoisie (supporting Napoleon III).

4.3. The dominant class can also spread its own phantasmagoria to the other classes. It is a weapon to neutralize other classes. Example: The phantasmagoria of the market for the workers of the 19th Century. The phantasmagorias of the market suffocated the “workers’ parliaments” presented to the first World Exhibitions, and transformed them into a compact mass in an attitude of pure reaction where individuals were turned into objects subjugated by a divinely revered and poeticized commoditiy (other example: phantasmagoria of brightness spread to the employees of Weimar).

4.4. On the side of the bourgeoisie, the phantasmagoria; on the opposite side, the end of it. The Commune puts an end to the phantasmagoria in 1871. The real antithesis to phantasmagoria is not “reality” (economic or social), it is not simply the working class (antithesis to the bourgeoisie) or its culture (antithesis to the bourgeois imagination). The real antithesis to phantasmagoria is the open struggle of the oppressed class. It is also from this point of view that the knowledge is possible.

5. Phantasmagoria pretends to be general (or “dreamlike”) although it is specific (or “real”).

5.1. Like in ideology, in phantasmagoria, a specific class is speaking about universal, for all the classes.

5.2. The specific is real. As a dream, phantasmagoria contains reality (it is like the latent thought of the dream). As we said, it is not metaphysical but related to the economic and social world, to the use value and the exchange value, although its form encrypted them.

5.2.1. Phantasmagoria contains the consciousness of one class, the real position and the interest of one class in the battle against other classes. Example: In the bourgeois interior under Louis-Philippe, the diagonal position of the carpet betrayed the defensive position of the bourgeoisie before feudal and proletarian, ancient and new social forces.

5.2.2. Phantasmagoria also has the function of ideology: the defense of the dominant class.

5.3. The universal is oneiric. As a dream, phantasmagoria contains desire (it is what is encrypted into the dream: the frustrated or traumatized desire, the incomplete happiness). It is not theoretical but sensuous, not symbolic but full of fantasy. Although a specific social class generates it, phantasmagoria is a collective dream, shared by more than one class.

5.3.1. Phantasmagoria contains the unconsciousness of all classes, the desire of the classless society, of the reconciliation, that we individually know as the oceanic feeling (maybe an expression of the death drive – Fashion: “Madam Death! Madam Death!”). Example: In the bourgeois interior under Louis-Philippe, the aesthetic continuum and the lost of the exchange value of the exposed objects expresses the desire of harmony beyond the society of production and consumption of commodities.

5.3.2. As a collective dream, phantasmagoria has the brilliance of utopia (the universal desire of the classless society).

6. Phantasmagoria is a false synthesis.

6.1. Phantasmagoria is a false synthesis of real worlds and fictional worlds (see 3).

6.2. It is a false synthesis of all social contradictions (there is no more class division in the phantasmagoria).

6.3. It is a false synthesis of the past and the present, of the antique and the modern. Example: the arcades made of (modern) iron and glass architecture don’t appear as such, but in an “antique” illumination made of column and antique figures.

6.4. The dialectic image is the real synthesis of the past and the present, the past that is not the antique past or an historical past, but the past that just goes away (das Gewesene, the suffering of the present generation of workers) linked to the always-past (das von-jeher-Gewesene, the suffering – or incomplete happiness – of all the past generations of workers, indexed on another time-order, the classless society or, with Fourier, “harmony”, i. e. the place where the primitive vitality of desire can deploy itself without constraint or frustration, where happiness, desire, is completed) and to the now-of-recognizability (the present place from which historical tensions are frozen and where the possibility of stopping the way it goes appears).

7. Phantasmagoria is a “historicizing” imprisonment (see 3) of utopian forces into the form of a myth.

7.1. REMINDER 1. Utopia is originally a figurative critique of ideology. It is an imaginary place outside the world where ideology is represented and its social order questioned.

7.1.1. Between Thomas More and Charles Fourier, between the 15th century and the 19th century, utopia is a figurative way putting into question the passage from the feudal epoch to the industrial world. Merging feudal harmony and machinery dynamics in a fantastic way, the representation of “harmony” by Fourier allows him to criticize “civilization”.

7.1.2. Consequently, utopia opens up the field of the social theory (critical theory of political economy).

7.1.3. Utopia is not originally an idealist concept. The “harmony” of Fourier exists in all of us, in material reality (what is grasped by anthropological materialism), it is only “repressed” by “civilization”. It is what did not happen in its entirety, what was “traumatized”. A new social organisation (and not a state of nature) will only go beyond this trauma (this incomplete happiness) and releases all these repressed forces (this is also “theology”).

7.2. Utopia degenerated. Already in Fourier, the active dynamics of a new harmony became separated from its utopian images, which became autonomous, an “ideal”. Utopia in the 20th century can contain critical figures that can be used by social theory, but it is not sufficient to be a critique by itself.

7.3. When utopia degenerates, it becomes a phantasmagoria, i. e. a sort of a figurative ideology realised in the form of a myth.

7.3.1. REMINDER 2. A myth is a collective storytelling (without author) that explicates definitively the social foundation including its relation to cosmos. The myth also aims to resolve a fundamental social contradiction in a retrieved lost time, and its structure is repetition.

7.3.2. Phantasmagoria has the structure and the form of a myth: repetition and resolution of all social contradictions.

7.4. To summarize: Phantasmagoria has the function of ideology (to reproduce the social order), the structure and form of myth (repetition of reconciliation) and the brilliance of utopia (it uses abstractly images of the classless society).

8. It is necessary for the social movement to liberate utopia from phantasmagoria.

8.1. It is necessary to liberate the imagery from this mythical structure and form, to make a “true” synthesis of the real world and the possible world, of the awakened consciousness and of the dream consciousness.

8.2. This operation is possible when the phantasmagorical “reality” (architecture, urbanism, etc.) falls into ruin. Example: this is when the arcades are destroyed (the Arcade of the Opera was destroyed in 1925 to allow the Boulevard d’ Haussmann going through it) that W. Benjamin can save its poetical intensity, its “surrealist” force.

8.3. The operation of regaining the poetical intensity into human creation (of reconnecting each other) is made from the point of view of the social movement, i. e. the point of view of the fighting and oppressed class linked to its past generations.

Galerie de la Madeleine, Paris, July 2006

Some phantasmagorias

Phantasmagorias of the interior (bourgeois interior, Paris, 1830-1848; Gaudi’s Barcelona, 1880-1905); phantasmagorias of the market (world exhibitions Paris 1855-Shanghai 2010; arcades 1822-1925); phantasmagorias of civilisation (Haussmann’s Paris – until the emergence of American cities); phantasmagorias of the eternal return (Nietzsche, Blanqui, Baudelaire); phantasmagoria of happiness (Gründerjahre, 1871-1873); phantasmagoria “of the brightness, of the youthfulness, of culture and personality” (Kracauer’s Weimar employees).

Other phantasmagorias (to be questioned)

Disneyland, Coney Island, Las Vegas, Los Angeles (neo-colonialism and the falseness of neo-haciendas, Palace of Living Art, etc.), Dubaï, Xanadu (William Randolf Hearst’s castle, as portrayed by Orson Welles), Madonna-Inn in San Luis Obispo, California (with prehistoric rooms, safari rooms, etc.), Paul-Getty museum (reproduction of all great European works of art), gothic Neuschwanstein castle of Ludwig II of Bavaria, Fun Palace (Montreal), “Thames Town”, Luodian and Anting New Town (in the suburb of Shanghai), global tourism, new age

Some forerunners (to be questioned too)

Greek houses of Roman patricians, cabinet of curiosities in Renaissance Europe, Roman churches with baroque nave, magic lantern, panoramas, dioramas.

Some equivalents

Taken from the fantasy world: the fortress of solitude (Superman)

New phenomena linked to phantasmagoria

Imagineering, ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder)…

Marc Berdet, August 2010, Berlin

The first version of these thesis was presented at the “Workshop on Critical Theory”, organized the 25-26th August 2010 with the co-operation of the Selbstorganisierte Universität in the RaumErweiterungsHalle, Kreuzberg, Berlin. Thanks a lot to Paula, Leena, Paola, Sami, Johannes, Stefano and Jan. And thanks to Christos for his corrections.

These thesis are on construction. All your propositions, comments and critiques (constructive and destructive) are of course very welcome. MB.


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  1. 06/09/2010

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