Adorno was suspicious of Benjamin’s notion of a collective dream: ‘For who is the subject of the dream?’ he wrote to Benjamin in 1935, referring to the Arcades exposé, where in place of the individual subject of bourgeois psychology, ‘the collective consciousness is invoked, but I fear that in its present form it cannot be distinguished from Jung’s conception’.footnote141 Adorno claimed that Benjamin seemed to presume that present dream-consciousness could exist outside of capitalist society, rather than being the distorted product of it,footnote142 and he argued that such a position was not compatible with Marxism: ‘It should be clear and sufficient warning that in a dreaming collective no differences remain between classes.’footnote143 Adorno’s reservations concerning the exposé were not without reason, but Benjamin’s other writings indicate that Adorno was misreading his intent. The dialectical images were clearly not eternal archetypes, but socially specific constellations, inherited historically rather than biologically—and not via a linear genealogy. Benjamin compared their appearance in consciousness to Proust’s involuntary memory: ‘By contracting into an instant—into a dialectical image—it enters the involuntary memory of mankind. The dialectical image is to be defined as the involuntary memory of humanity.’footnote144 Whereas voluntary memory recalled events in sequential arrangement, the historical space of involuntary memory was ‘disorder.’footnote145 The image suddenly established itself ‘at a moment of danger,’ both for the object and the subject. Moreover, ‘This subject is by no means a transcendental subject, but the struggling, oppressed class in its most extreme situation. Historical knowledge exists for it alone, and only in the historical moment.’footnote146

Benjamin was not blind to the class differences with regard to the ‘collective’ dream. (As I have tried to demonstrate, the arcades were full of class contrast.) In his own recollections Benjamin quite frankly admitted that the Berlin which revealed itself to him was determined by his class origin: ‘I never slept on the street in Berlin. I saw sunset and dawn, but between the two I found myself a shelter. Only those for whom poverty or vice turns the city into a landscape in which they stray from dark till sunrise know it in a way denied to me. I always found quarters, even though sometimes tardy and also unknown ones that I did not revisit and where I was not alone. If I paused thus late in a doorway, my legs had become entangled in the ribbons of the street, and it was not the cleanest of hands that freed me.’footnote147 What Benjamin knew of manual labor as a child was limited to his aunt’s glass rhombus of a mine ‘in which little men pushed wheelbarrows, laboured with pickaxes. . . .’footnote148 He confessed his ‘stubborn refusal to form a united front, be it even with my own mother’;footnote149 and he considered solitude ‘the only fit state of man’.footnote150 Yet despite his upper-bourgeois class background, after his exile to Paris in 1933 Benjamin had to deal constantly with financial insecurity. His letters are full of references to it and to the anxiety it caused him, which affected his work. To supplement his stipend from the Institute which he feared (unnecessarily) would be discontinued, he produced for the market—for newspaper feuilletons and literary journals—in order to earn a livelihood. As a writer, then, Benjamin could count himself among those intellectuals about whom he commented: ‘Inevitably, one day many of its members had to become aware of the commodity nature of their labour power.’footnote151

For Benjamin’s present-day audience, historical images of the arcades as both Heaven and Hell would be perceived differentially: by the bourgeoisie as critical cognition of the market manipulation of their dreams and the eternal recurrence of desire; by intellectuals as awareness that social revolution represented their true objective interest. But only the exploited classes experienced the superimposition of the past on the present in a way which motivated revolutionary action, that is, with anger. For them, the arcades provided ‘the image of enslaved ancestors,’ who had produced the world in its material form but did not own it, and whose cultural inheritance had been usurped by the ruling class. For them alone, awareness of the market manipulation of dreams as a tool to keep them in their exploited place, evoked the motor responses of rage. Such illumination fostered their revolutionary ‘hatred and . . . spirit of sacrifice’.footnote152

Bourgeois dreams of material and sexual gratification had been democratized without being fulfilled. As illusions they held sway over all classes. One could indeed cite Marx: ‘Our motto must therefore be: Reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but through analysing the mystical consciousness, the consciousness which is unclear to itself. . . . Then it will transpire that the world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire if only it becomes conscious of it. It will transpire that it is not a matter of drawing a great dividing line between past and future, but of carrying out the thoughts of the past. And finally, it will transpire that mankind begins no new work, but consciously accomplishes its old work.’footnote153 But if each age, in dreaming its successor, ‘compels it toward wakefulness,’footnote154 then what would awaken the oppressed classes was the fact that the dream of a humanized world was the nightmare reality of their own lives. The total dehumanization of workers and whores was required to create illusory dream-symbols for the bourgeoisie.

Class distinctions clearly remained in Benjamin’s concept of the collective dream. Nonetheless, his focus on the point of consumption rather than production did lead away from Marx, at least in terms of his definition of the revolutionary subject. Although Benjamin always referred to this subject as the ‘proletariat’, the terms of his analysis did not necessarily limit that category to factory workers. If dehumanization was defined, not simply in terms of alienated labor which produced surplus value, but of alienated subjectivity which produced symbolic value, then the class of the oppressed might be far broader. It might include the physically persecuted ethnic groups upon whom a negative symbolic value was imposed in order to enhance the illusory superiority of the rulers. And, significantly, it might include women, whose positive symbolic value as sexual objects was one with their devaluation as human beings. Degraded as commodities—increasingly, within the context of bourgeois sexual ‘liberation’ this applied to all women and not merely prostitutes—their desires for material security and sexual happiness placed them in a position of oppressive dependency, so long as sex was the key to their economic survival.

The relationship between the degradation of women as commodities and their own desire, fostered by mass marketing, for commodities that adorned and beautified their bodies, was not necessarily a case of victims willing their own oppression. To be a sex object for a man who bought you was (and still is) a singularly unerotic experience, whether for whores or for housewives (who, despite a common existential situation, were held apart socially by the patriarch who bought them both). In contrast, commodities placed a palpable, if illusory eroticism at the disposal of women buyers, who adorned their bodies, perhaps far less as a sign of submission to existing relationships, than as an anticipatory celebration of utopian ones. The dream of erotic fulfillment, denied by the sale of the body, was kept alive by the sale of commodities albeit in a distorted form. There is evidence that women first experienced department store sales as a libidinal release: ‘[B]y spreading out laces, ribbons, and fine haberdashery and fabrics of every kind in tangled heaps . . . customers were given unbridled tactile access to goods. . . . [E]xternal pressure to buy is replaced by the prompting of individual libido freely operating in a highly informal sales situation. . . . [I]t requires considerable imaginative effort to visualize the utterly devastating impact which pioneer sales had on the late nineteenth-century female public when social transactions of any kind were highly formalised and the external display of inner libidinousness was rigorously suppressed by polite society.’footnote155

It may be noted that there are elements of a feminist political consciousness in Benjamin’s writings. This is evident in his sensitivity to the significance of prostitution as a form of worker oppression in the nineteenth century. It appears as well in several short texts.footnote156 Yet he never drew out these feminist implications, even when his material clearly pointed in that direction. The most conspicuous example is an essay presenting a series of illustrations from novels for women domestics (Dienstmädchenromane), a nineteenth-century popular literary genre, with titles like: Lady Lucie Gulford, the Princess of Revenge, named: The Hyena of Paris. One of the illustrations shows a group of girls dressed for a fashionable garden party, shooting with small flintlocks a young man tied to a tree; another depicts an upper-class woman, dagger in hand, her foot on the back of a fallen male victim, while a woman servant with a food tray appears in the background. The pictures tell the story of fantasized retribution for sexual oppression; but Benjamin, ignoring the fact that these were novels for and about women, made a comment that spoke only to class and not sex-class, thus remaining within more conventional Marxian categories. Noting with surprise that in the novels collusion existed between maidservants and mistresses, he provided the rather lame explanation, given the violence of the scenes depicted, that perhaps it was ‘because the servant classes at the time still felt solidarity with the bourgeoisie, and shared their most secret romantic ideals’.footnote157 But Benjamin, whose own love story was melancholy,footnote158 came closer to a feminist political consciousness than many other male members of the radical Left, whose active affirmation of sexuality has not been without an exploitative lack of regard for the inequities of power between themselves and the women with whom they have ‘freely’ associated.