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Cultures of Exhibition
2005 MLA Meeting
Washington, DC
27-30 December


Rolf J. Goebel
University of Alabama in Huntsville

"Phantasmagorias of Capitalist Culture": Visual Technologies of Early Globalization in Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project


Do not cite without permission of the author.



Nowhere can we study the phenomenon of globalization better than in the space of today's metropolitan centers. Here, some of the most controversial features of globalism—the hegemonic power of transnational capitalism, cultural imperialism, the virtual information flow propagated by telecommunication media, but also political action initiatives, lifestyle formations, and cultural movements—manifest themselves most visibly. In order to promote and sustain itself, globalization relies not merely on political power, economic transactions, and rhetorical arguments, but also on an ever-increasing proliferation of visual surfaces, material technologies, and experiential spaces that seem to capture crucial aspects of globalization in a variety of signifiers easily consumed by a wide range of audiences. Futuristic Skyscrapers for corporate headquarters, sprawling airports, multiplex cinemas, and expansive shopping malls are sites where the abstract processes of globalization promise to become spatially comprehensible through a technological apparatus whose pragmatic functions—providing office space, satisfying consumer needs, getting travelers to faraway places, offering popular entertainment—are often superseded by their symbolic value: they suggest global interconnectivity and even solidarity, a sense of international culture across geopolitical boundaries shared by people who have otherwise little or nothing in common.

World exhibitions are among the most spectacular examples of these visual technologies of globalization. In the following remarks, I construct a mutually illuminating constellation between the present and the past by juxtaposing EXPO 2005, this year's world exhibition in Japan, with Walter Benjamin's description of the nineteenth-century exhibitions of London and Paris in The Arcades Project (1927-40), his quasi-surrealistic collage of excerpts and commentaries for a monumental book on Paris as the capital of nineteenth-century modernity that exile, financial constraints, and suicide never permitted him to write . My purpose is not to postulate a seamless continuity between these historically and culturally distinct events; especially I do not want to suggest any kind of “progress” from the Eurocentric ideologies implicit in the London and Paris exhibitions to the emphatically non-Western position taken by the Japanese exhibition. Rather, I wish to show that world exhibitions past and present participate in a particularly modern scenario where visual technologies are systematically employed for the propagation and representation of utopian ideas of global collaboration and world peace. Thus, world exhibitions participate in what may be termed the spectacularization of globalism, i.e., construction of physical spaces to be experienced primarily through perceptive immediacy and visual consumption. The purpose of these spaces is the promotion of political, social, economic, or ecological aspects of globalization that may otherwise be deemed too abstract or complex to be understandable by a touristic mass audience. The comparison of EXPO 2005 with Benjamin's account of its precursor events shows that world exhibitions past and present rely heavily on concrete visual stimuli that project utopian ideals of global harmony (or crisis) while self-referentially drawing attention to the technological apparatus necessary to communicate these ideals. As a result, globalization now and then becomes understandable as a process that is deeply implicated in what Benjamin calls the phantasmagoria of modern capitalist consumer society.



Phantasmagoria is a central, if highly elusive concept in the Arcades Project (see also Buck-Morss 78-109). I n the densely argued and highly allusive exposés for the project (1935 and 1939), especially in the second (French) version, Benjamin suggests that all of Paris presents itself as an urban spectacle, viewed through the eyes of the flâneur , the collector of the fleeting impressions of modernity. High capitalist commodity society produces materialist desires for ever-new objects whose values are manipulated by the market and by its display attractiveness; mythic allusions, historicist imitations of past styles, and exotic images imported from colonies intermingle with new technologies, industrial progress, and utopian visions. These phantasmagorias center on the nineteenth century's illusion that technological advances automatically lead to social progress and human liberation; for Benjamin, this basic error manifests itself in a wide range of utopian visions, escapist dreams, and theatrical surface spectacles that are exhilarating on an aesthetic level (catering to entertainment, distraction, and desire) while masking real social problems. In fact, Benjamin views nineteenth-century capitalism as a quasi natural phenomenon that, like a “new dream-filled sleep” of the collective, brought about a “reactivation of mythic forces” (391) and from which one could presumably awake only through the force of continual critical reasoning. To that end, Benjamin's montage technique seeks to rescue the marginalized or half-forgotten debris—the “rags, the refuse”—of history in order to identify subversive counter-images to the ideology of progress (460).

More specifically, Benjamin argues, phantasmagorias are the result of a view of the history of civilization that classifies “humanity's life forms and creations” as if they were tangible objects with a stable identity fixed in time, instead of revealing them as constructs produced by changing social forces. “Our investigation,” Benjamin writes, “proposes to show how, as a consequence of this reifying representation of civilization, the new forms of behavior and the new economically and technologically based creations that we owe to the nineteenth century enter the universe of a phantasmagoria.” As he continues to argue, the “pomp and the splendor” of nineteenth-century “commodity-producing society,” embracing social progress and technological victories over nature uncritically, created an “illusory sense of security,” which was severely threatened by the collapse of the Second Empire and the rise of the Commune of Paris. Equally devastating to the myth of universal progress was the philosophy of the radical socialist activist Louis-Auguste Blanqui (1805-81), who proposed that all seemingly new events are nothing but recapitulations of previous things; thus, no liberating force can be expected from newness, and humanity is damned to relive itself in continual reoccurrence of the same: “Blanqui's cosmic speculation conveys this lesson: that humanity will be prey to a mythic anguish so long as phantasmagoria occupies a place in it” (15; see also 25-26).

The Arcades Project traces these phantasmagoric effects in a wide range of visual urban phenomena typical of the nineteenth century. The shopping arcades that appeared in Paris after 1822 display the newest products of industrial luxury and capitalist commodities; they also provide the model for the French social theorist Charles Fourier's (1772-1837) vision of the phalanstery, the central edifice of a utopian community, where instead of the exploitation of natural resources by technological modernity, “technology appears as the spark that ignites the powder of nature” (15-17). In the over-decorated interiors of the bourgeois apartment, people create for themselves an illusory alternative to the pragmatic reality of their offices through the collection of exotic artifacts and decorative imitations of past historical styles; the “true resident of the interior” is the collector, who assembles objects desired for their purposeless connoisseur value, rather than their manipulated commodity value (19). For the flâneur , the urban crowd is a “veil” transforming the “familiar city” into a strange phantasmagoria, creating a sense of “drunkenness” accompanied by the illusion that one can decipher the character of pedestrians by the fleeting appearance of their physiological appearance, thus reducing even the most idiosyncratic individuals to mere types (21-22). And in Baron Haussmann's megalomaniacal transformation of medieval Paris into a modern city, the true political motivations—aiding Napoleonic imperialism, making impossible the erection of civil war barricades, and driving the proletariat into the suburbs—are masked behind the theatrical spectacles of monumental boulevards, where street perspectives were “screened with canvas draperies and unveiled like monuments”; here, the Parisian “phantasmagoria was rendered in stone” (23-24).

As these examples show, Benjamin is careful to emphasize that urban modernity relies primarily on visual channels of technological innovation that produce, promote, and legitimate social change and their ideological motivations. In the exposé and in convolute G of the Arcades Project , he proposes that the world exhibitions are particularly noteworthy examples of these visual phantasmagorias. As a History of Paris quoted by Benjamin notes, there were several national exhibitions between 1801 and 1849, held at various sites in Paris . Then, following the example of the first international exhibition of 1851, held in Great Britain, imperial France organized its own world exhibitions in 1855, 1867, 1878, and 1889. “It is characteristic of these enormous fairs to be ephemeral, yet each of them has left its trace in Paris .” The Trocadéro, the footbridge at Passy, the Galerie des Machines, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower were highly visible examples of such manifest changes in the urban physiognomy of the French capital (179-80). Benjamin draws attention to the tight connection of the world exhibitions with the commodification of industrial products and cultural meanings (17-18): “World exhibitions are places of pilgrimage to the commodity fetish.” Although promising to combine entertainment for the working classes with social emancipation, the exhibitions actually serve to manipulate the masses ideologically as they “provide access to a phantasmagoria which a person enters to be distracted.” These fairs are attractive to the socialist movement of the Saint-Simonians, who, “envision[ing] the industrialization of the earth,” match the ideology of the exhibitions by “anticipat[ing] the development of the global economy but not the class struggle.” Excluding the working classes from consuming the products they have manufactured, the exhibitions create visual spectacles that lure the visitors into identifying with the exchange value of commodities they cannot afford to buy (Buck-Morss 86). Benjamin also discovers parallels between the world exhibitions and the work of the caricaturist and illustrator Grandville (Jean-Ignace-Isidore Gérard, 1803-47). The artist “modernizes the universe. In his work, the ring of Saturn becomes a cast iron balcony on which the inhabitants of Saturn take the evening air.” Similarly fusing advanced technology and mythological universe, the world exhibitions achieve a magic effect of unreality: “By the same token, at world exhibitions, a balcony of cast-iron would represent the ring of Saturn, and people who venture out on it would find themselves carried away in a phantasmagoria where they seem to have been transformed into inhabitants of Saturn.” (18). Thus, the exhibitions offer visitors a kind of imaginary space travel that appeals to escapist desires at an age when the colonialist conquest of foreign territories foreshadows the technological conquest of outer space.

Benjamin cites the official illustrated guide to the Paris world exhibition of 1867, which invites the visitors “literally to travel around the world, for all nations have come here; enemies are coexisting in peace.” The event also celebrates the cast iron technology employed in the exhibition pavilions as the modern equivalent of divine creation: “Just as, at the origins of things, the divine spirit was hovering over the orb of the waters, so now it hovers of this orb of iron” (175-76). The exhibitions stress the combination of cutting-edge technology with stylistic echoes of mystically foreign cultures that are not merely meant as ornamental additions but lend historical depth and spiritual profundity to the amazing visual lightness of the design. Thus, the famed Crystal Palace built for the first industrial exhibition of 1851 in London is lauded as the “first monumental structure in glass and iron,” but, as one can tell from Joseph Nash's watercolors, “the exhibitors took pains to decorate the colossal interior in an oriental fairy-tale style” and even added “bronze monuments, marble statues, and bubbling fountains” (176-77).

Benjamin carefully registers the ideological conflicts and conceptual contradictions that soon were to undermine the seemingly harmonious fusion of futuristic technology, peaceful coexistence among peoples, and historical tradition. One the one hand, according to Julius Lessing, the London exhibition was ‘born of modern conceptions of steam power, electricity, and photography, and modern conceptions of free trade,“ while the Crystal Palace was a “fantastic inspiration for a temporary piece of architecture” that pointed the way to a “wholly new world of forms.” On the other hand, this enormous “wonderland” of advanced modernity, which even managed to preserve a “magnificent row of trees for the central transept,” together with the exhibition of artistic masterpieces and the galleries where nations represented themselves, appealed “more to the imagination than to the intellect”; in the provincial towns of Germany, the Crystal Palace evoked startling associations with the world of “old fairy tales—of the princess in the glass coffin, of queens and elves dwelling in crystal houses.” A testimony to technological progress and new forms of global trade, the edifice also appears wholly unreal, evanescent and durable at the same time: “It has taken fours decades, numerous fires, and many depredations to ruin this magic, although even today it is still not completely vanished” (183-84). Here, as elsewhere in Paris , the aesthetic spectacles of highly advanced technologies uncannily intermingle with the specters of a mythic past arising from the collective unconscious of the masses in ways that are at once frightening and fascinating. The world exhibitions' temporary design and their mythological irrationalism tend to undermine the seemingly self-confident ideology of universal solidarity and free trade: “The world exhibitions have lost much of their original character,” observes Lessing in 1900. “The enthusiasm that, in 1851, was felt in the most disparate circles has subsided, and in its place has come a kind of cool calculation. In 1851, we were living in the era of free trade…. For some decades now, we have witnessed the spread of protectionism,” with each participating national government turning into a “veritable entrepreneur” (183). Thus, the initial vision of early globalization, with its utopian aspiration to universal peace, has given way to the realities of national self-interest aided by capitalist practice. Additionally, the evanescence of the world exhibition's idealistic pathos reveals the ruthless power politics of imperialist hegemony and colonial exploitation: “No trace remained of the edifying impression made by the exhibition of 1851,” writes Lessing, but one of the “noteworthy results” of this event was that it showcased the art treasures pilfered by the British after the fabled Summer Palace in Peking had burned down in 1860 during the second Anglo-Chinese war (187). By 1933, in Hugh Walpole's The Fortress , the Crystal Palace has changed from a utopian fairy-tale site into a menacing display of machinery foreshadowing the apocalyptic disappearance of the age of human progress it was originally meant to celebrate: “There were in the machine-room the ‘self-acting mules,' the Jacquard lace machines, the envelope machines, the power looms, the model locomotives, centrifugal pumps, the vertical steam-engines, all of these working like mad, while the thousands nearby, in their high hats and bonnets, sat patiently waiting, passive, unwitting that the Age of Man on this Planet was doomed” (191).

Benjamin's analysis of the world exhibitions is an exercise in cultural deconstruction, revealing the internal contradictions that haunt these phantasmagorias of capitalist entertain industry. While ostensibly promoting the ideals social progress and technological advancement as historical facts, the exhibitions are actually elaborate spectacles whose visual allure appeals to the consumerist desires of distracted masses without really satisfying their needs. The exhibitions stir up exotic nostalgias for the strange and the foreign; they offer utopian visions of universal harmony and reconciliation between civilization and nature; and they evoke half-buried memories of magic and myth in the midst of high capitalist modernity. These effects are phantasmagoric because they appear real and authentic due their visual immediacy, their manifestation in specific buildings, machinery, and displayed artifacts, even though the cultural meanings projected by these displays are largely ideological and illusory. In the classic language of deconstruction, they are elusive signifieds that are forever deferred even though their material signifiers falsely suggest their (meta-)physical presence.


As Benjamin suggest, the world exhibitions' appeal is predicated on the colonial import of foreign artifacts, images, and ideas into the heart of the European metropolis of high capitalist modernity. For obvious historical and discursive reasons, the exhibitions not envision anything close to the postcolonial dialogue of today that seeks to grant political equality and discursive self-articulation to non-Western cultures. The Arcades Project, like other texts by Benjamin dealing with the representation of colonialism and foreign cultures, implicitly questions this Eurocentric ideology by critiquing the particular technologies and channels of representation that produce the one-sided import of stereotypical knowledge from the “foreign” territories for Western visual consumption (see also Goebel). This self-interrogating dynamic of Benjamin's text, I suggest, points forward to events like the EXPO 2005, the world exhibition currently taking place in Japan , which seeks to reverse the First-World direction of cultural production. Whereas the nineteenth-century exhibitions in London Paris cite/sight images of colonial or non-Western cultures for their vision of universal peace, the 2005 event anchors its postmodern vision of global eco-harmony in the privileged diversity of traditional Japanese culture.

As presented by its official web site (EXPO 2005) the Japanese world exhibition is taking place in Aichi Prefecture , from 25 March - 25 September, with an expected number of approximately 15 million visitors from all over the world. The choice of Aichi is no coincidence; the official website stresses that the prefecture is located in the “heartland” of Japan, featuring both agricultural and industrial production sectors (flower growing and Toyota corporation headquarters); thus the exhibition's theme—the global fusion of nature and technology—is firmly tied to the specific local culture of the hosting country. Choosing as its theme “Nature's Wisdom,” EXPO 2005 explores the collaboration of natural resources and cutting-edge technology for the solution to pressing ecological problems of the global world of today. A section of the exhibition's official website titled “What will you see at EXPO 2005?” notably employs an emphatic discourse of fantastic visuality. The exhibition is “an amazing showcase of cutting-edge technologies, which give us solutions to a myriad [of] global issues and enable the sustainable development of the world economy.” The design of the Japan Pavilion is featured as an outstanding example of the ways in which architectural surfaces function as symbolic signifiers for ecological sensitivity on a global level rooted in ancient local culture: The “outer shell” is made of bamboo, “which has long been used as a natural sunshade in Japanese communities,” while the building's roof “will be sprinkled with recycled water, which is another traditional method to significantly lower the temperature inside.” But, the visitors “will also see state-of-the-art eco-technologies everywhere around the Expo site,” such as hybrid buses powered by fuel cells, tableware at food courts made of earth-friendly “biomass,” or a “variety of robots moving all around the site; some of them will be ta[l]king to you like a friend, some of them will be cleaning up the site, and some of them will be playing trumpets.”

In agreement with postmodern notions of multiculturalism and transnational communication practices, EXPO 2005 represents nature as a “global kaleidoscope”: “People interact with nature in countless ways, and these interactions generate immense global diversity in lifestyles, cultural traditions, and traditional and modern arts. EXPO 2005 is a place where people of various countries meet together, communicate among each other, exchange and fuse the diverse ‘wisdom' they have, and create a brand-new tune of global harmony.” Although global in range, this vision is emphatically anchored in traditional Japanese culture, a discursive strategy that creates considerable internal contradictions. On the one hand, the website admits that EXPO 2005's theme was chosen to correct past mistakes made by Japan when its pursuit of industrial growth and economic prosperity neglected ecological sensitivity and the preservation of human values. Elsewhere, however, we read that the Japanese have supposedly always managed to achieve technological progress and economic development without exploiting their scarce natural recourses: “Our ancestors aimed to benefit from nature without harming it, and they developed ways of maintaining a mutually dependent and beneficial relationship with nature”. Moreover, “Historically, Japan has absorbed a huge volume of wisdom from the world into its domestic culture—from traditional Oriental philosophy to modern Western civilization, and from the cultural heritage derived from ancient Asia to contemporary ‘hip-hop' fashion…. This is the major driving force of Japan 's industrial development, and Japan is proud to play host to this grand intercultural symphony at EXPO 2005 with this background in mind.” Thus, Japan , an ancient Asian country with a First-World economy, promotes itself as a key anticipator of contemporary globalization, disconnecting the idea of the world exhibition from Euro-American hegemony while firmly repositioning it in the Non-West. In order to promote itself, this marriage of global vision and national self-legitimation must try to co-opt and glossing over Japan's own failures to live up to the ideals of ecologically responsible technology, even though self-critical awareness of these past shortcoming cannot be entirely banned from the official discourse. Combining political education with distracted mass entertainment, genuine enlightenment with strategies of ideological obfuscation EXPO 2005 presents itself as a highly contradictory spectacle of truth and illusion, whose full implications can be traced back to similar contradictions in the great nineteenth-century world exhibitions of London and Paris.

As my comparison shows, world exhibitions past and present generate phantasmagoric effects arising from gaps between ideological self-justifications and political reality. What unites world exhibitions across geographical boundaries and historical periods is the difference between their lofty ideals (free international trade, world peace, ecological awareness) and the manipulations of high or late capitalist consumer society in metropolitan centers. These gaps, contradictions, and incoherences produce effects of unreality, dreamlike magic and surface spectacle that are at once entertaining and deceptive to an extent that entertainment and deception become indistinguishable. Thus, the digital information provided by EXPO 2005's website alongside Benjamin's textual analysis of visual technologies opens up a conceptual space of interdisciplinary and multi-media dimensions that helps us forge a historically informed vocabulary for understanding today's ubiquitous spectacles of globalization.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project . Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 1999.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project . Cambridge , London : MIT P, 1989

Goebel, Rolf J. Benjamin heute: Großstadtdiskurs, Poskolonialität und Flanerie zwischen den Kulturen . München: Iudicium, 2001.

[EXPO 2005]



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