In the nineteenth-century, the word phantasmagoria referred to a type of popular entertainment that made use of literal smoke and mirrors to produce an optical illusion. The viewers of these productions knew that what they were seeing was not real, but the phantasmagoria did not reveal how it was made. The means by which the illusion was created was completely hidden from the viewer. Later Walter Benjamin used the term in reference to commodities and capitalism. Slick commodities also hide their means of production and together they create a “fairy-land” of goods that appear as if by magic.

Guy Debord also theorized about commodities and capitalism in a way that, I would argue, is in the same mode as Benjamin. Debord used the word spectacle to describe the way that people and things relate in a late-capitalist society. Events are no longer experienced first-hand, only through images. Images are now the things that come into the world fully-formed, without revealing how they were made or what their motives are. Typically, the primary motive of such images is to attempt to sell a commodity (whether necessary or not) to the public who takes the images at face value instead of recognizing them as agents of the spectacle.

The photograph above by Gursky relates to the spectacle and phantasmagoria in very literal ways. The Chicago Board of Trade is a futures market and operates in the same way as the large stock exchanges. The trading floor pictured is where the actual trading of commodities happens symbolically – small pieces of paper stand in for large amounts of some other commodity. A trading market is both a spectacle and a phantasmagoria in that it is the place where capitalism happens, where alienated commodities are bought and sold, but it does not reveal anything about the actual economics at play.