Modernity, the Greatest Show on Earth
Thoughts on visibility
Roosevelt Academy, University of Utrecht
Why is it that the commodity is pervasively visible, while common people are marginalized and remain invisible? By looking at the nineteenth century, this article drafts a genealogy of the modern/colonial regime of visibility. It is a step in the wider effort of tracing the genealogy of modernity’s hegemony over representation. The article starts by interrogating the omnipresent visual rhetoric of the commodity. It looks at how the commodity spread its rhetoric in the realm of the visual. To address this question we look at entwinement between Marx’s fetish character of the commodity, Baudrillards’ principle of simulation and Benjamin’s phantasmagoria of modernity. The second part of the article looks at specific nineteenth century practices of display and spectacle. The color lithographic poster is a concrete historical example of the nascent technologies of display that enabled the entry of the commodity into the realm of the visual. These technologies transformed the physiognomy of the city and the experiences of everyday-life. Then we speak of the circus that sits at the birth of the modern entertainment industry. The circus with its ethnographic exhibitions illustrates a particular operation of the visual regime of modernity, namely that of turning the other, the non-western, into a spectacle. The circus reveals the coloniality of the regime of visibility. Both the poster and the circus show the constitution of the modern/colonial regime of visibility; a regime that at one and the same time produces perceptible experience and veils other social realities.
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© borderlands ejournal 2010