The Phantasmagoria as a Focus of Modernity: Genealogy and Function of a Philosophical Concept


Etienne Gaspard “Robertson’s Phantasmagoria in a sinister disused cloister of an old Capucine chapel in Rue des Champs, Cours des Capucines, Paris. 1797.”

The notion of phantasmagoria emerged in the late 18th century to describe performances of the laterna magica. The apparatus itself was hidden from the audience, the ghost-like images created with the use of mirrors, smoke, music, and voices. These images gained huge popularity and the laterna magica became the mass medium of the 19th century, with phantasmagoria being its dominant visual metaphor. It is no coincidence that this medium emerged in the post-revolutionary years after 1789 when science replaced the belief in miracles. To promote the ideas of the Enlightenment, scientific reasoning and advanced technologies were used to create amazing spectacles and to educate at the same time.
Karl Marx and Walter Benjamin both made use of the notion of phantasmagoria.
The former used the term alternately with “fetish” when speaking of the commodity. Walter Benjamin saw in phantasmagoria a phenomenon in which social perception and aesthetics met under conditions of modernity. Following these two impulses, the project investigates phantasmagoria both as historical and as systematic category at the interface
of aesthetics, economics, technology and politics. The phantasmagoric is explored in its potential to illustrate and to understand the specifically modern dialectics of enchantment and disenchantment.

Funded by the Austrian Fund of Sciences (FWF).

Research Director:
Christine Blättler, Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Kiel; Former Visiting Fellow, IWM