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A Review on Susan Buck Morss' "The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project"


By Beste Alpay


The Montréal Review, October 2011


 "The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project" by Susan Buck Morrs (The MIT Press, 1991)


While Walter Benjamin was carrying his heavy briefcase as he was crossing the Pyrenees to escape from Nazi occupation he said "It is the manuscript that must be saved. It is more important than I am." Unfortunately his cultural inheritance which could probably give us a full picture of the Passegen Werk (Arcades Project) could not make it to this day. In The Dialectics of Seeing, Susan Buck-Morss tries to combine the pieces of a puzzle to give an understanding of Benjamin's project that he could not live enough to finish. She also adds her own reflections on how Arcades Project should be analyzed and understood.

With the Passegen Werk, Walter Benjamin aimed to create ideas about how to make up a history out of visual phenomena, which is not a history that is not based on stories and text but the images of the visual characteristics of the 19th century modern society that reflect the social characteristics. A history of visual phenomena is not a result of stories people construct in a specific period of time, those stories are constructed by people who are affected by the time they live in and the social positions they are in. Nevertheless a history of visual phenomena could be interpreted and understood differently by people who live in different times and environments. According to Benjamin, what he tries to achieve in Passegen Werk is a Geschichtsphilosophie (philosophy of history), this means that history develops in a philosophically meaningful way and this demonstrates a teleological plan. On the other hand Buck-Morss claims that Benjamin does not try to create a philosophy of history, instead he aims to reconstruct historical material as philosophy and create philosophy out of history. The philosophy mentioned here was actually reflected in the historical visual material Benjamin focused on. These visual materials are objects which carry "discontinuous" ideas because they do not create a full picture even if they involve the same concepts, so these materials should be looked at separately (Buck-Morss, 1991). It is possible to say that visual materials which are produced in different environmental settings in different times would have different meanings and thus separate philosophies, as they are the result of different thinking and historical events. They are discontinuous in the same manner that history and thinking is discontinuous.

Walter Benjamin's Passport Photo, c. 1928
Berlin, © Akademie der Künste, Archives Walter Benjamin

Each chapter in Buck-Morss' book deals with a specific concept in Passegen Werk's Konvoluts. These Konvoluts do not have clear cut divisions but Buck-Morss tried to lay emphasis on specific main subjects that form the basis of Benjamin's project. Passegen Werk expose in 1934-1935 based the project in Marxist terms and the idea of "fetish character of commodities" came into the fore, which is the main theme this essay aims to focus on (Buck-Morss, 1991). This essay aims to analyze Walter Benjamin's ideas taking Buck-Morss' interpretation as the basis and also making a brief comparison of commodity fetishism in 19 th century modern society with that of 21st century's society as a conclusion.

Paris and the Myth of Progress

Benjamin, rejects the premise of progressive development, he criticizes Darwinian natural selection because it makes people think that progress is automatic and he also blames natural selection for making the idea 'progress' seem related to all human activity. "Progress" is demonstrated as a positive outcome here: and natural history in Benjamin's eyes, does not necessarily have to have a positive outcome, moreover, it might not have a social outcome because class relations might stay the same although there is a progress in terms of industry, and technology vice versa (Buck-Morss, 1991). So if we could accept that progress is automatic and ordered then we would be able to say that natural history should be accepted as it is and it is God given, also human beings are not responsible for the history they make. Thus Benjamin's work has a political side which asserts that, blindly accepting this myth of progress would be dangerous for people since it would make people ignore what is not progressing, and make people accept a situated bourgeois discourse which covered up class inequality. According to Benjamin, the world fairs and new urbanism served the same purpose; former did this by creating some kind of "utopian fairyland" full of expositions which showed this historical progress and the latter modified the streets and buildings which deluded the proletariat as if Paris was a city of equal people. Benjamin wrote that the state's purpose was to prevent any revolution that might have arisen from the lower class (Buck-Morss, 1991).

Benjamin sees Paris as the "capital of nineteenth century" and "a looking glass city", which becomes the dream world of a newly emerged capitalist society. This is a world made out of "commodity fetishes" (Buck-Morss, 1991).

What he describes in Passegen Werk is the changing city of Paris full of people with the illusion of unity in front of the "myth of progress", which is the city exactly where "heaven on earth" is created. Then he creates another metaphor in his mind, which is "modernity, the time of hell". What he means by this metaphor is a situation where the "newest" doesn't change and comes with a "sadistic craving for innovation" (Buck-Morss, 1991). Benjamin probably means that there is always a "newest" that shifts from one commodity to another until it drives the person who desires the "newest" crazy. Moreover he might be referring to a continuous meaning generation and the simultaneous and actual lack of meaning in things. Since it is the people who construct the meanings of objects, we are the ones who attach meaning to the dazzling new object which might lose its light in our eyes pretty soon. It is always us, who make ourselves believe in its value, and again it will be us who will think that it is outmoded, and when this object would lose its value is determined by the "measure of time" as Buck-Morss calls it, which is fashion.

Phantasmagoria of Commodities

Benjamin might have thought that what creates the "modernity as hell" is that lack of meaning, he might have thought objects should not be valued in the standards that modernity produces. As Jean Vaudal (1937, cited in Buck-Morss, 1991) says "Monotony is nourished by the new" this is the continuous meaning generation by capitalist standards and people in illusion; they are living in a dream world waiting to be woken up as in the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty (Buck-Morss, 1991). "The sin of the living is their own punishment"; the "mythic fate" that Benjamin argues against is in charge here. What Benjamin means by "sin" here might be something that brings the punishment; it does not involve the meaning of being evil in its nature. It is harmful and addictive possibly like a drug. The notion of desire here can be similar to the one of a drug addict who similarly blames fate because of his lack of choice. What Benjamin wants people to see, must be, that change is possible: that would be an awakening into the real world and an initiative to change. Instead of self-deception of the society with an endless pursuit for the fulfillment of desires in the state of boredom, Benjamin wants them to see the real problems in society by which the lower class is affected most, thus suffers most by the monotonous routine of work. That is why the worker class can reach the "threshold of great deeds" more easily because it is closer to the threshold. Yet another concern would be the continuous revolutions which have not changed this social structure of the society at all (Buck-Morss, 1991).

Fashion overcomes death in "Hell"

The fashion as the measure of time, was seen as one of the components of the "modernity as hell". As Buck-Morss (1991) interprets, fashion is where the commodities are closest to human body. The ever changing idea of new and desirable dwells on objects and becomes the basis of fetish in fashion. The idea of desirable keeps changing in the capitalist society, the perception of the objects is continuously shaped by advertisement. Buck-Morss (1991) states that, before 19th century, the class position was static, and there was a fixed hierarchy where lower and upper class got dressed in very different styles. Nevertheless in the 19th century, each class gained access to the same "phantasmagoria of commodities" and according to Benjamin, this must be what causes the illusion of equality, because everybody has the access to the same world, fashion changed the way working class was able to dress and this caused the idea of "a new social freedom" (Buck-Morss, 1991). Benjamin argues that fashion requires obliviousness to the past and he resembles it to the river Lathe in mythology, from which people drank and forgot their former life. Fashion makes people oblivious to the old and fulfills the thirst for novelty. It is possible to liken it to a river that people drink from and the place where they worship the commodities. It is a source which makes people throw away the past and always seek for the "new" as if this river gives the people a promise, that death does not exist. To cite Benjamin, "Fashion mocks death". And when it does this, it mimics death because the modern woman turn their body into mannequins which become a part of the inorganic world, the body becomes a walking corpse that sells itself to the inorganic world of commodities (Buck-Morss, 1991).

Benjamin relates fashion to women since he thinks that female figure symbolizes creativity just like fashion continuously generates the new. Nevertheless Benjamin thinks that women's continuous seek for the new is the punishment and he likens it to Haussmann's Paris where the real weakness was covered. In a similar manner, society which puts women into a weak position also covered this in clothes like buildings and shops of charming Paris covered up its reality (Buck-Morss, 1991).

21st century and Benjamin's "Eternity of Hell"

"Arcades were the original temple of commodity capitalism." (Gautier,1856 cited in Buck Morss). In the 21st century, the change is quite salient, when we compare the 19th century arcades which became the center of birth of modernization in Paris according to Benjamin. It would be interesting to hear Benjamin's thoughts on the change which was brought into capitalist society thanks to the technological advancements and globalization. The "temple of commodity capitalism" has shifted from arcades to a different world, into an imaginary space with the internet. Computer screens are the new shopping windows of our time, also they are the advertisement screens, where today's idols help to increase the value of products and reach every part of the world.

The "newest" Benjamin mentions changes even more quickly these days with the continuously increasing pace of technology. Fashion shows even more variety. The meaning people attach to objects is not only affected by the price value and brand of the object but also the idols capitalist society has created. They subconsciously give the idea "if you buy it you can have a social status like me" and vice versa about the fetish object. Benjamin mentions woman body which becomes inorganic. In today's society plastic surgery would be a good example of how human body (now both male and female) has become the parts of the commodity world. In some countries in East Asia a face which looks like a doll's face has become fashionable, lenses make human eyes look bigger, in variety of colors, namely inhuman. This is similar to what Benjamin pointed out. People are becoming fetish objects of commodity world and being alienated from their own nature day by day. These days even the characteristics of body are on sale. Buck-Morss writes: "In fashion phantasmagoria of commodities, presses closest to skin", in 21th century we have it even closer.

Fashion creates ideals, and those ideals are now affected by a broader environment than in 19th century. The meaning creation that affects commodities has become more global because of increased global communication and mobility also it changes quickly. People are affected by a fashion content which arises from another continent and spreads into the world in a short time and they have immediate access to it. To sum up, what Benjamin calls the "hellish repetition" still continues, there exists a continuous unfulfilled desire of people waiting to be fulfilled by the death and regeneration of novelty. The relationship between subject and object changes even quicker than before, boredom comes quickly. Not only there are salient technological changes in commodities, but also the new attachment of meaning directed towards the object can be constructed more quickly because of the increased global communication. Living in the phantasmagoria of commodities does not necessarily have to be a negative experience but one should not ignore what Benjamin wants to tell us in his Passegen Werk; people would absolutely benefit turning their heads away from the visual side of things and look into the inner reality of social life from time to time.


Beste Alpay is currently studying Global Studies (M.Sc.) at Lund University, Sweden. She received a B.A in International Relations and the EU, and also a B.S in Psychology in 2009 from Izmir University of Economics, Turkey. 


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