Shopping and Consumption: Exploring the Féerie and Phantasmagoria of the Arcade

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Cultural critic and theorist Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was fascinated with the “shopping malls” of his time. Captivated by the sharp contrasts of light and shadow in the glass-roofed Parisian “arcades,” he saw these as enchanted replicas of the “world in miniature” (Benjamin 1999: 31). For more than a decade, Benjamin kept a series of folders (or “Convolutes”) containing scraps of notes with quotations, ideas, citations, images, and observations that became known as The Arcades Project. Legend has it that when Benjamin committed suicide in exile in 1940, a briefcase belonging to him went missing: it contained a completed manuscript drawn from the voluminous material related to the project (Taussig 2006: 9). Benjamin’s notes on the arcades are filled with the use of religious idiom. He refers to the arcades as “temples of commodity capital” and characterizes the structure of the arcade as “a nave with side chapels” (1999: 37). He calls the arcades “dream houses” or “dream cities”—glass-and-iron-trimmed rows of stores, enclosed and lit from above, filled with luxury goods and utopian promise. Piecing together Benjamin’s fragments, Margaret Cohen marks a transition from the earlier period of the project, when Benjamin cast the arcades as a kind of féerie or enchanted world of supernatural creatures and magical objects (Cohen 2004: 203). A theatrical genre popular in France, the féerie used special effects and dreamy aesthetics to draw audiences into a mystical world of fantasy creatures and otherworldly events. In the latter years of Benjamin’s project, his theatrical cognate for the arcades had become much darker and shifted from the image of the féerie to the phantasmagoria (ibid.: 207). Like the féerie, the phantasmagoria used special effects and the projection of light and shadow to create illusion, but instead of faeries, the phantasmagoria woke the dead, conjuring demons and ghosts. With the use of lanterns, candles, smoke, and mirrors, the phantasmagoria projected frightening images of a shadow world haunted by terrifying specters. For Walter Benjamin, the arcade housed both these cultural expressions of the mystifications of capitalism.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture
EditorsJohn C Lyden, Eric Michael Mazur
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781315724478
ISBN (Print)9780415638661
StatePublished - 2015

Publication series

NameRoutledge Religion Companions


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