The fantasy of cultural history

In Arcades, reading on June 23, 2009 at 10:11 am

“…fashion…this semblance of the new is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the semblance of the ever recurrent. The product of this reflection is the phantasmagoria of “cultural history” in which the bourgeoisie enjoys its false consciousness to the full.” (Benjamin 2002: 11)

Benjamin launches himself against the fantasy of cultural history here. This is an attack against aesthetics, good taste and capitalism that seeks to collapse these categories into each other at the same time as exposing them to the light of critique.

As a good materialist, Benjamin refuses to accept the narrative of a transcendent culture, a universal aesthetic sense which floats above the social conditions of the day. The false consciousness of the bourgeoisie is the self-referential ideal of cultural superiority, hidden behind fantasies of taste, education and inheritance. This consciousness is false, not because it is not real, but because it is not true.

The high-priest of this doctrine is Kant, who provided a legitimation of the fantasy under the guide of of ‘disinterestedness’, a universally accessible state of being in which the most complex representations become sensible through an aesthetic sense, allowing us all to experience the beauty of the aesthetic object equally. Of course, those of us unable to access this state of disinterestedness must be hindered in doing so in some way and it is a marker of the bourgeoisie that they have taken the time and made the moral commitment to do so effectively.

Most Marxists tend to relegate cultural production and consumption to the superstructure, or assign it some other subordinate role that props up the system, as with Gramsci’s (1998) concept of hegemony. Cultural materialists however, take their cue from the Marx of the Theses who states that the essence of man (sic) is the “ensemble of social relations” (1845 / 1998: 570), and not solely the physical and economic conditions of the age. This version of materialism both elevates social relations to the states of ‘real objects’ and, at the same time, subsumes them into the “practical” (ibid: 571); a productive dialectic that allows to move back and forth between the social conditions and social practice within the same conceptual framework and without having to prioritize one over the other. Embodying this dialectic are those cultural objects which are made by us to exemplify our culture whilst also speaking to us about what our culture is. The cultural object exposes the conditions of its production just as it tells us what cultural production is and is for. The fantasy of cultural history is made explicit in the fantastic objects of cultural production and consumption.

A cultural materialist perspective on Paris’ Arcades leads Benjamin into discussions of the development of iron manufacturing, the textile trade, mechanization, empire, urban planning and poetry. To extend this method to the promenade will necessitate drawing on history, sociology. Economics, cultural studies, literature and other media. Establishing a productive dialectical understanding of the cultural form of the promenade will be important and I hope that Benjamin’s Convolutes, the next section of the Arcades Project text that we are working from can be instructive here.

  1. There is a very Foucauldian feel to the idea of ‘man’ as “the ensemble of social relations”. It has often struck me that very often different social &/or cultural theorists are saying the same thing about society and culture but with a different vocabulary. We ought to expect this, however, as society is their (our) object of study and there is a fundamental similarity to all human societies (as suggested by Mann 1986 ch2 amongst others).

    Objects are always located a framework of meaning as to use and it is essential to highlight this – as you have done – to stop production being the only focus of study. A far too frequent problem.

  2. re: theorists saying the same thing – we should expect (hope for?) this as materialists…everyone is theorizing the same reality as you say. As capitalism extends itself spatially and ideologically, we might even expect divergent theory to converge around a common core.

  3. Yes – I think that’s right.

    We should be careful about our use of ‘cultural history’ as this means something very different in History then Benjamin’s usage here.

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