An Assembly of Phantasms.

by florence cheval

This article has recently been published in In-Residence Magazine #02, an artist publication by Katrien Vermeir & Ronny Heiremans in the form of a lifestyle magazine, which offers background information on the concept of “value” in the worlds of finance and contemporary art. The magazine is published in the framework of the production of their new video work Masquerade.


An assembly of phantasms1

Even the hardest, coldest, most calculating men of finance are men of faith, men of credit, who believe in ghosts.”2

In the 1790s, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, there appeared in Paris a popular spectacle of a new kind. Initiated by a showman and inventor from Liège, Etienne-Gaspard Robertson, in the abandoned cloisters of the Couvent des Capucines whom revolutionaries had driven out a few years before, the Phantasmagoria was a son-et-lumière picture show descending from the numerous “panoramas, dioramas, cosmoramas, diaphanoramas (…)”3 of that time. Indeed, the Phantasmagoria derived from the camera obscura and magic lantern shows, providing the spectator with the impression that miraculous events were happening before his eyes. But its specificity resided in the fact that it was a moving image show and, most of all, that the means used to give birth to the illusions were concealed from the spectator’s view, therefore producing brand new optical effects.

Robertson immersed the spectator in complete obscurity, making use of a magic lantern in order to give birth to image projections on an invisible screen. The lantern moved towards or away from the screen, which allowed the abandonment of the traditional procession of images in favor of animated looming figures that seemed to be charging out at the audience or withdrawing from view. Robertson intended to stir both fascination and horror in the spectator’s mind. He “added to the spectacle in a number of other ways, such as by projecting three-dimensional, mechanically operated figures and tableaux, and by projecting live actors into the scene. Other innovations contributed to a more frightening atmosphere: electric shocks, ventriloquism, life-size masked figures, the use of incense and smoke, and so on.”4

The Phantasmagoria literally took place on the threshold between science and superstition, between Enlightment and Terror”5, displaying “a divided consciousness that was peculiarly modern”6. Not only did it only play on popular superstition while displaying scientific experiment, but it also induced “a kind of maddening, contradictory perception”, concealing a “profound epistemological confusion”, which “derived from the ambiguous notions of the ghost. What did it mean, after all, to “see ghosts”? Were ghosts themselves real or illusory? Inside the mind or outside it? (…) The phantoms they subsequently produced had a strangely objective presence. They floated before the eye just like real ghosts. And in a crazy way they were real ghosts.”7
Furthermore, Sophie Thomas has shown how the magic lantern show echoed the “
lanterne” – the scaffold used to cut heads off during the revolutionary period8, and that the Phantasmagorias “made excellent use of the severed head among other disembodied forms”9 – like the one of Danton adapted from his death mask, but also of Medusa, which is in itself particularly telling in relationship with the question of looking and with fear of sight.

The rhetoric of suspicion connecting optical illusions and the Enlightment critique of superstition were closely related at that time, and survived up to the XIXth century. Tom Gunning observes that Karl Marx frequently used “optical metaphors to describe the process of false consciousness under capitalism”10; but that the metaphor of the Phantasmagoria has passed unnoticed. In his famous passage describing the commodity fetish in Capital Vol. I, Marx wrote: “(…) the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”11 The German version, “phantasmagorische form”, has long been ignored, therefore weakening the power of the metaphor and putting aside an important aspect: “first, by focusing on the technology of the device and not simply its fantastic effect, Marx emphasizes ideology’s central task: to transfer agency from the effective causes (in the Phantasmagoria, the operator and the magic lantern behind the screen; in the case of the commodity fetish, the social labor of human beings which creates the commodity) to the actually inert effects (images on the glass that appear alive; commodities which seem to take on power).”12 Once explicit, Marx’s Phantasmagoria also highlights his recurrent reference to the ghostly and the spectral13, in particular his choice of the table as an example of the commodity, which is also related to Spiritualist séances of “table-turning”.

Today, it seems the Phantasmagoria, which “not only conceals the human agency and the technical process involved, but operates directly on human perception”, appearing therefore “not only as an optical phenomenon, but as a powerful spectatorial effect”14, has now taken the form of free-floating capital, which, as Fredric Jameson puts it, “in its frantic search for more profitable investments (…) will begin to live its life in a new context: no longer in the factories and the spaces of extraction and production, but on the floor of the stock market (…). But it won’t be as one industry competing against another branch, nor even one productive technology against another more advanced in the same line of manufacturing, but rather in the form of speculation itself: specters of value, as Derrida might put it, vying against each other in a vast, world-wide, disembodied phantasmagoria. This is of course, the moment of finance capital as such.”15

Florence Cheval

1 Coined from Greek, phantasmagoria means an “assembly of phantasms”.

2 John D. Caputo, Deconstruction in a nutshell. A Conversation with Jacques Derrida, Fordham University Press, 1997, p. 168.

3 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 527.

4 Sophie Thomas, Romanticism and Visuality: Fragments, History, Spectacle, Routledge, 2007, p. 160.

5 Tom Gunning, Illusions of Past and Future: The Phantasmagoria and Its Specters, a text for the First International Conference on the Histories of Art, Science and Technology, 2004, p. 3,

6 Tom Gunning, Illusions of Past and Future: The Phantasmagoria and Its Specters, op. cit., p. 6.

7 Terry Castle, “Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern”, in Critical Inquiry,Vol. 15, No. 1 (Autumn, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, p. 49.

8 “Les aristocrates à la lanterne!”

9 Sophie Thomas, Romanticism and Visuality: Fragments, History, Spectacle, op. cit., p. 152.

10 Tom Gunning hints in particular at W.J.T. Mitchell’s analysis of the camera obscura as a metaphor for ideology in Iconology. Image, Text, Ideology, The University of Chicago Press, 1986.

11 Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 164.

12 Tom Gunning, Illusions of Past and Future: The Phantasmagoria and Its Specters, op. cit., p. 10.

13 SeeJacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, Galilée, 1993.

14 Tom Gunning, Illusions of Past and Future: The Phantasmagoria and Its Specters, op. cit., p. 10.

15 Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998, Verso, 1998, p. 142.