European intellectual history, Georgetown University Research Interests: Critical theory, philosophy of history, trans-local global commons Professor Buck-Morss is a trans-disciplinary scholar whose political theory emerges out of a constellation of historical material, visual images, and contemporary events. She lectures and collaborates worldwide on the editorial boards of several journals and has been an invited lecturer at dozens of universities worldwide. Her numerous international awards and fellowships include a Getty Scholar grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds an M. Her website is susanbuckmorss.
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It is more important than I am. 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, 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. Passegen Werk expose in 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, 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.
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 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, 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". 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 , cited in Buck-Morss, 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, 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, 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 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 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, 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, Benjamin relates fashion to women since he thinks that female figure symbolizes creativity just like fashion continuously generates the new.
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, 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.
The "temple of commodity capitalism" has shifted from arcades to a different world, into an imaginary space with the internet. 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. 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.
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The Dialectics of Seeing : Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project