Notes for Susan Buck-Morss “Dream World of Mass Culture”
Key concepts: arcades, commodity fetishism, dialectics of seeing, dream, montage, panoramic representation, Urphenomena.
Related theorists: Adorno, Aragon, Benjamin, Freud, Marx, Piaget.
Dream World of Mass Culture
Susan Buck hyphen Morss
Benjamin dialectics of seeing.
These fragments—an enormous compendium of research notes and
commentary—suggest a critical theory of modernity based on a
materialist philosophy which, because it is concentrated in the
experience of vision, can perhaps best be described as a “dialectics
(309) Benjamin saw in Paris arcades “the original temple of commodity capitalism,” all of the characteristics of commodity culture in embryonic form. . . . The passages “are the precursors of the department stores.” The phantasmagoria of display reached its apogee in the international expositions.
To play Benjamin through this cast with two generations of computing, personal computer and Internet, must be kept in reference to the temporal operation proposed in Benjamin.
(310) At the fairs the crowd was conditioned to the principle of
advertisements: “Look, but don't touch,” and taught to derive
pleasure from the spectacle alone.
(310) This physical transformation of urban space gave material form to the utopian drams of the bourgeois Enlightenment the century before.
Public access to urban brilliance and luxury via Paris arcades, in which crowd itself became spectacle; tempting link to Internet. Will come again.
(310-311) Urban brilliance and luxury were not new in history, but secular, public access to them was. . . . The City of Light, it erased night's darkness—first with gas lanterns, then with electricity, then neon lights—in the space of a century. The City of Mirrors—in which the crowd itself became a spectacle—it reflected the image of people as consumers rather than producers, keeping the class relations of production virtually invisible on the looking-glass's other side.
(311) Following a principle of panoramic representation, the Arcades project provides a sense of that false, fetishized construction of history which Benjamin sought to interrupt with his use of critical, “dialectical” images.
Mass publication emblem books influence montage panoramic representation of dialectical images intuited as Urphenomena.
(311-312) The Passagen-Werk's pictorial representations of ideas are undeniably modeled after those emblem books of the seventeenth century that had widespread appeal as perhaps the first genre of mass-publication. . . . The images were to provide a critical understanding of modernity by juxtaposing, “stereoscopically,” images of two time dimensions, his own world and its nineteenth-century origins, according to the cognitive principles of montage. Nineteenth-century objects were to be made visible as the originary, Urphenomena of the present.
Is this reality transforming charged force field vestige of Socrates divine sign logotropos as like not only hyperlink but all programmed control operations; perhaps my contribution is to foreground technical competence over metaphorical critical interpretation.
(312) The presentation of the historical object within a charged force-field of past and present that produces political electricity in a “lightning-flash” of truth, is the “dialectical image.” Unlike Hegel's logic, it is “dialectics at a standstill.”
Conceptual extremes illustrated by quadrant diagram: petrified/transitory nature, dream/waking, fossil/fetish, wish-image/ruin.
His unfolding of concepts in their “extremes” can be visualized
as antithetical polarities of axes which cross each other, revealing
the dialectical moments of an “image” at the null-point. . . . If
the termini are to be antithetical extremes, we might name those on
the axis of reality, petrified
while in the case of consciousness, the termini would be
At the null-point where the coordinates intersect, we can place that
“dialectical image” which by 1935 stood at the “midpoint” of
the project: the commodity.
. . . The diagram represents this invisible inner structure of the
The fossil names the commodity in the discourse of Ur-history, as the visible remains of the “Urphenomena.” . . . The fetish is the key word of the commodity as mythic phantasmagoria, the arrested form of history. . . . The wish-image is the transitory dream-form of that potential. In it, archaic meanings return in anticipation of the “dialectic” of awakening. The ruin, created intentionally in Baudelaire's allegorical poetry, is the form in which the wish-images of the past century appear, as rubble, in the present.
Under conditions of capitalist industrialization, reenchantment of social world through reactivation of mythic powers at dream level; Arcades project intended to practice dialectics of seeing to enable waking from that dream.
(317) In contrast, and in keeping with the Surrealist vision, Benjamin's central argument in the Passagen-Werk was that under conditions of capitalism, industrialization had brought about a reenchantment of the social world, and through it, a “reactivation of mythic powers.” . . . Underneath the surface of increasing systematic rationalization, on an unconscious “dream”-level, the new urban-industrial world had become fully reenchanted. Hence, Benjamin's Arcades project was to practice a dialectics of seeing that would enable people to wake up from that dream.
Functional project description resembles medical machinery.
(318) For Louis Aragon's peasant, the miraculous emanates from the most mundane phenomena: a furrier shop, a high-hat, an electroscope with gold leaves, a hairdresser's display.
(319) In order to understand Benjamin's theory of the dreaming collective as source of revolutionary energy, we need to consider the significance of childhood for his theory of cognitions.
(319-320) Children, according to Benjamin, are less intrigued by the preformed world that adults have created than by its waste products. . . . Benjamin's cognitive approach to the discarded, overlooked phenomena of the nineteenth century was not different. No modern thinker, with the exception of Jean Piaget, took children as seriously as did Benjamin in developing a theory of cognition.
Theory of cognition based on childhood tactile, active, experimental experience of world wonder; compare to Lyotard.
Compare reterritorialization of mundane objects to salvation of standing reserve of decades past, now orbiting free, open source software and expiration of all copyrights.
revolutionary power because it is tactile, hence tied to action, and
because, rather than accepting the given meaning of things, children
get to know objects by laying hold of them and using them creatively,
releasing from them new possibilities of meaning.
(321) Adults who observe children's behavior can learn to rediscover a mode of cognition that has deteriorated phylogenetically, and in the adult has sunk into the unconscious.
(322) These technologies [camera and cinema] provide human beings with unprecedented perceptual acuity, out of which, Benjamin believed, a less magical, more scientific form of the mimetic faculty was developing in his own era.
(322-323) Now for the first time an analysis of this “unconsciously interwoven” space is possible. . . . It is in this way that technological reproduction can give back to humanity that very capacity for experience which technological production threatens to take away. . . . Film provides the audience with a new capacity—to study modern existence from the position of an expert. The printed word shows itself more vulnerable in contrast.
Modern computer technologies democratize producer potential of unconscious analysis, where participation limited to interpretations based on mass consumption only.
(323-324) To recreate the new, technologically-mediated reality mimetically—to bring to human speech its expressive potential—is not to submit to its given forms, but to anticipate the human reappropriation of its power. Moreover (and this is the political point), such practice reestablishes the connection between imagination and physical innervation that in bourgeois culture has been snapped apart.
(325) Hegel's “cunning of reason” literally deifies history, affirming the myth of progress. For Benjamin, cunning is the trick whereby the human subject gets the better of mythic powers.
Trick in fairy tale is to interpret unconscious past of collective out of mass culture discards; compare to Lyotard parology.
(325-326) The “trick” in Benjamin's fairy tale is to interpret out of mass culture's discards a politically empowering knowledge of the collective's own unconscious past. He believed he could do this because it is through such objects that the collective unconscious communicates across generations. New inventions conceived out of the fantasy of one generation, they are received within the childhood experience of another. . . . At this intersection between collective history and personal history, between society's dream and the dreams of childhood, the contents of the collective unconscious are transmitted: “Every epoch has this side turned toward dreams—the childlike side. For the preceding century it emerges very clearly in the arcades.”
Turkle may be the first to attach to digital objects the transgeneration communication of socially formed collective unconscious fantasies.
Do with early personal computers, including the potential of learning programming as a home economic, having become part of human experience the way writing and other basic activities did for the United States, noting arcades the early Internet that arose from the prior generation of personal computing: I am trying to recover fantasies from that former era, including the radically democratizing potential of habituation to working code to solve problems and pleasurably hobby as a basic intellectual activity.
(326) Slumbering within objects, the utopian wish is awakened by a new generation, which “rescues” it by bringing the old “world of symbols” back to life. . . . When the child's fantasy is cathected onto the products of modern production, it reactivates the original promise of industrialism, slumbering in the lap of capitalism, to deliver a humane society out of material abundance.
Utopian wish slumbering within objects reactivated through child fantasy play.
(327) At the moment of the collective's historical awakening, it was to provide a politically explosive answer to the socio-historical form of the child's question: Where did I come from? Where did modern existence, or more accurately, the images of the modern dream-world come from?
(327) In his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” Benjamin described the fairy tale as a mode of cultural inheritance that, far from participating in the ideology of class domination, keeps alive the promise of liberation by showing that nature—animals and animated forces—prefers not to be “subservient to myth,” but rather, “to be aligned with human beings” against myth.
Preference formation in concrete, historical archetypes.
(328) The world of the modern city appears in these writings as a mythic and magical one in which the child Benjamin “discovers the new anew,” and the adult Benjamin recognizes it as a rediscovery of the old. The impulses of the unconscious are thus formed as a result of concrete, historical experiences, and are not (as with Jung's archetypes) biologically inherited.
(330) There is no doubt that Benjamin took Adorno's criticisms of the 1935 expose seriously. There is little doubt that he attempted to stick to his position despite them.
Freedom as ability to consume as bourgeois dream of democracy now expressed as media access, the digital divide.
(332) Commodity fetishism (as well as urban “renewal”) can be viewed as a textbook case of Freud's concept of displacement: Social relations of class exploitations are displaced onto relations between things, thus concealing the real situation with its dangerous potential for social revolution. It is politically significant that by the late nineteenth century, the bourgeois dream of democracy itself underwent this form of censorship: Freedom was equated with the ability to consume.
Compare this non-bricoluer confidence in montage design to directedness of software engineering.
(334) His was a radical reconstruction of materialism that drew its inspiration from premodern theology, nineteenth-century socialist thought, and twentieth-century Surrealism, all three. He brought elements of these discourses together, not as a bricoleur who makes a pastiche out of conflicting traditions, but—almost Platonically—as someone convinced that “truth” lies in the elements themselves.
Imagine as a project for augmented reality, transforming visual perception of built environment through complex processing of dialectical images.
(334) His “dialectics of seeing” is a powerful materialist method
of transforming visual perception, one that he believed could compel
a collective “awakening” from the soporific effects of mass
culture, and inform and inspire revolutionary politics.
(335) If modernism as an aesthetic “style” has expressed utopian and aesthetic form, postmodernism has acknowledged their nonidentity and kept fantasy alive. Each position thus represents a partial truth; each will recur “anew,” so long as the contradictions of community society are not overcome.
Buck-Morss, Susan. “Dream World of Mass Culture.” Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision. Ed. David Michael Levin. Berkeley: University of California, 1993. 309-335. Print.