Social Movement and Phantasmagorias (Abstract)

Une version française de ce résumé se trouve ici.

Abstract of PhD Thesis. Author : Marc Berdet. Title : Social Movement and Phantasmagorias in The Arcades Project. A Ragpicker’s Historical-Sociological Reasoning. Language : French.

Members of the jury : Alain Gras (advisor, professor. in sociology, university Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne), Jan Spurk (professor. in sociology, university Paris V), Michaël Löwy (prof. in sociology and philosophy, CNRS), Anne Kupiec (professor. in sociology, university Paris VII Denis-Diderot), Philippe Ivernel (translator and germanist).


This thesis aims at supplying instructions for use of The Arcades Project to the sociologist and the historian of today. In this purpose, it presents the major part of materials of this “book which is not a book” in its chronological coherence and in its historical-sociological relations, which are “elective affinities”, in the Weberian sense. This thesis seeks to inaugurate a new sort of sociologist, a lame sociologist: the ragpicker.

This work constructs this figure around four concepts: social movement; phantasmagoria (the nascent bourgeois class’s daydream); anthropological materialism (here, the nascent proletarian class’s utopia); and the relation of “expression” between infra- and superstructure, translated in a Weberian term of “elective affinities”. With phantasmagorias, capitalism was able to capture a poetic and playful intensity that was found in anthropological materialism, and thus to dispossess the social movement of its intensity, exactly as did fascism at the very moment Benjamin wrote The Arcades Project. Yet the ragpicker’s task consists in re-finding this poetic and playful moment peculiar to anthropological materialism. If humankind, from here, does not stop to give a sign to utopia, his or her gesture is reified at every moment, in a jerky way.

The ragpicker’s jerky, dislocated step undergoes this double jerk in his “trouvailles” (finds). On the one hand, it is a jerk from reification against human creation, which the ragpicker analyses with the dialectical materialism. In the other hand, it is a jerk from human creation against reification, which the ragpicker theorizes with the help of anthropological materialism, elevating himself  to a paradigmatic rank.

With his jerky walk, the ragpicker expresses at the same time the infernal temporality of fetishism and the vigorously emerging temporality of anthropological materialism, cracking the homogeneous temporality of phantasmagoria. He goes through the reification and the modern myths that cover phantasmagoria up to differentials he catches a glimpse of at any moment. Under the auspices of phantasmagoria, he perceives reified bodies, and under reified bodies, he perceives a real historical experience. Under phantasmagoria’s horizontal temporality, he perceived fetishism’s cyclical temporality, and under the latter, he reveals the vertical temporality, constantly interrupted, of anthropological materialism.

The ragpicker’s dislocated walk answers thus to jerks of the real life, and that is why he forms a sociology at each dislodged moment. Sociology, here is no longer the sociology of rationality, or of the interests of the actors, as in Weber, or the sociology of crystallized institutions, as in Durkheim, but, rather, the sociology of the conflict between these interests and these institutions. It is a sociology at the contact point between action and reification, a contact point by which, in a dialectical and unorthodox conception, society lives and transforms itself, a contact point crossed by collective imaginary, dreams and myths.

This thesis inaugurates this walk and this sociology dislodged by the necessity of emancipation. Holding together, in the same attempt, Benjamin’s materialist and utopic dimensions, it rehabilitates Benjamin’s historical-sociological reasoning.

We first advance the hypothesis that The Arcades Project has to be read with the perspective of a new type of scholar who corresponds best to Walter Benjamin’s last intentions. This new type of scholar sets himself up against the flâneur. He is the ragpicker. (Chap. I. A Ragpicker’s Reasoning. A Hypothesis of Lecture).

Next we see how the ragpicker pays attention to utopic images that spring up from the collision between machinism and the “originary history” stored in the “collective unconscious”. He brings out a dynamic relation between a world vision that comes with this emergence , the “anthropological materialism” (and in particular in its collectivist French version, ripe with socialist utopias), and the social movement of 1830. He gives a sense to this social movement in the frame of an atypical progress, a “vertical” progress, which succeeds in the explosion of mechanic time (Chap. II. Social Movement and Anthropological Materialism).

Then we analyse the fight between the worker speech, which the ragpicker tries to recompose from its scattered fragments, and the nascent bourgeois imagery. We analyse in particular this imagery in the form of philanthropy and in the form of the illusion of the union of all producers that each composes ; in The Arcades Project, this refers to the phantasmagoria of civilisation. The phantasmagoria of civilisation tries to evoke dream symbols from the social movements of the 1830’s and the 1840’s in order to monopolize them. With its embryonic phantasmagorias, the bourgeois class then defused the power of  anthropological materialism. With a “strange severing of the time” that Walter Benjamin notices with a floating class, the “bohème”, the ragpicker tries again to put these dream symbols into contact with the tradition of the defeated, and to turn its recurring invisibility into a permanent visibility (Chap. III. Social Movement and Proletarians Phantasmagorias)

Afterwards, we observe how the permanent repression of social movement generated the phantasmagorias of the bourgeois interior, the phantasmagorias of the panoramas, and later the phantasmagoria of the modern style. All these phantasmagorias transformed the dreams of a future society in distractions from the present poverty. The ragpicker, collecting these scraps of dream in the real world and the scraps of reality in the dream world, is trying to reverse this tendency (Chap. IV. Social Movement and Phantasmagorias of the Interior).

We remark how much these phantasmagorias diffuse themselves, with the phantasmagorias of the market, to the other classes. 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 poetized merchandise. The ragpicker has to find in this poetry, under the fetishism of the merchandise, the imposing machinism from where Fourierist images of a human machinery sprang up, finally submitted to capital (Chap. V. Social Movement and Phantasmagorias of the Market).

At last, we go further, with the analysis of “Haussmannization”, into the phantasmagoria of the civilisation as a real phantasmagoria of history that only the barricades of the Commune de Paris could dissolve. This phantasmagoria of history reached its highest point and paradoxically betrayed itself in the same phantasmagoria: the phantasmagoria of the eternal return of the same. We see then that time in the hands of the ragpicker is something completely different than the time in the hands of the traditional historian or sociologist,  and also something completely different from the time in the infinite circle of phantasmagorias (Chap. VI. Social Movement and Phantasmagorias of History).

We seek, with this work, to re-open the space of the first critical theory with one of its “sharp forces”. With his ragpicker’s walk, Walter Benjamin joined the inaugural program of critical theory in its first stages. With a lot of empirical material, he reveals on the one hand the rationality of a harmonious society hidden in the irrational vitality of bodies and myths, and he reveals on the other hand the irrationality of a destructive economy hidden in the ‘‘rationality’’of modern history. In other words, the ragpicker invites us to consider a new historical-sociological method. He collects all the rejection of the merchandise-producing society in order re-find the use value, the social utility, the bodies which are tired of fabricating them, but also desires and hopes. He holds thus in his hand the loose fragments of a real historical experience. In re-finding use value, he catches a glimpse of all the repressed primary energies, while seeing in the space of an instant a real historical experience, a real society. The ragpicker integrates his object into a new historical system. He dreams that he collects his rags in an anthropological flow delivered from the exchange functions.

The ragpicker in this way instills new life in the dream scraps of nascent capitalism that triumphant capitalism abandoned. He brought out the discontinuity of an elective affinity, from 1814 to 1848, between the romantic imaginary of anthropological materialism and the social movement, and he brought out the continuity of an elective affinity, from 1830 to 1871, between the romantic imaginary of the phantasmagorias and the conquering capitalism.  But he reverses the continuity into a discontinuity, and the discontinuity into a continuity. He tries to save the romantic imaginary of anthropological materialism from the anaesthesia provoked by the romantic imaginary of the phantasmagorias. In this way, he establishes new sorts of relationships between machinism, phantasmagorias and the social movement, that is to say between the material structure of the society, its economic and political structure, and its figurative and dreamlike substance.

The ragpicker’s historical-sociological reasoning causes a new division of the lines of utopia and of social movement beyond themselves. The ragpicker divides them according to the “Apollonian section”: utopia is stored in the principle of construction as well as in historicizing masks. He only has to collect its scattered pieces. But this utopia is a utopia only as a possibility of extending anthropological materialism – this anthropological materialism that only creative men and playful children re-invent each day. Life re-invents itself at every moment in the symbol’s forest of “correspondences”, but is constantly stopped by the fetishism of the commodity, by jerks. These jerks form the ragpicker’s walk.

The ragpicker’s walk creates a “harmonic” game between the refuses of the society it collects, showing the harmonious society that society of fetishism and phantasmagorias repressed in permanence. This thesis is an extension of the fertility of an approach always in a space in-between, between reification and freedom, between a discipline and its other, of a sociology constantly dislodged by philosophy, mythology, history or, more simply, by what happens in reality.

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Cite this blog post
Marc Berdet (2010, January 15). Social Movement and Phantasmagorias (Abstract). ANTHROPOLOGICAL MATERIALISM. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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