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The Crystal Palace's history of ideas

The Crystal Palace: The Story of a Livable Metaphor
Forfatter: Eirik Høyer Leivestad
Forlag: Lord Jim Publishing (Norge)
CITY ROOM / The 'greenhouse' a basic metaphor for control of the environment, that which has given man protection throughout history. A crucial question today is whether the ecological greenhouse can be reconciled with the capitalist, "exclusive and endlessly growth-oriented greenhouse".


The starting point for Erik Høyer Leivestad's new book is Crystal Palace, the building that housed the world exhibition in London in 1851. The event was celebrated in countless newspapers, magazines and pamphlets. The Norske Rigstidende (18.06. 1851) reproduced the Frenchman Michel Chevalier's report: The exhibition was an expression of the Western "Moral Superiority of the Human Race", "which is the source of and the justification for the supremacy it has acquired on Earth and which every day more fortifies". Knight was later responsible for organizing the World Exhibition in Paris.

Urban spaces in the metropolises have increasingly become exhibition and sales premises.

#The Crystal Palace was built from almost 300 glass plates that were fitted together by a cast iron framework. It was set up in less than six months in London's Hyde Park. The Crystal Palace was then dismantled and rebuilt in a newly laid out park in Sydenham, south-east London, where it was completed in 000. It served as an exhibition and pleasure venue. The building burned down in 1854, but Crystal Palace Park still exists.

"The spirit of the times"

Based on the world exhibition's demonstration of power, Leivestad will show that the Crystal Palace became "a kind of materialization of the spirit of the times". All self-images include both imaginary and real elements: the Crystal Palace was "both a historical building and a fantasy" and expresses "modernity as a dream come true. Castle in the air made of iron and glass". It expressed capitalism as a civilizational form. Karl Marx thought the exhibition was typical "of the period of bourgeois megalomania". The exhibition anticipated the utopia of consumer culture: a society of consumers free of class antagonisms and social tensions.

There were many critics of the exhibition, among them John Ruskin, Charles Baudelaire and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They reacted to faith in progressone and materialism and preferred spirituality, an aesthetic sense of life or withdrawal – like Dostoevsky's cellar man.

Leivestad gives a more comprehensive picture of the discussion around the exhibition than, for example, Britain Brennawith hi Disciplined dreams (1996) on the four world exhibitions 1851–67. Brenna emphasized that the exhibition emphasized the work itself, as it exhibited machines and work products and presented this as the nation's value base. It should gather the people around the work ethic of the middle class and the bourgeoisie, to which the working class could also aspire. This worked: the 'Mass' behaved exemplary when it visited the World's Fair in 1851, just three years after the revolutions of 1848 that shook much of Europe.

Leivestad has previously published an interesting book about the rise of mass democracy, Fear and loathing in democracy (Vagant 2020, see also note in MODERN TIMES). Those who visited the exhibition were not the rioting masses that Gustave Le Bon and Scipio Sighele analyzed in the 1890s.

Marx, Benjamin and the fetish character of the commodity

Walter Benjamin wrote in his unfinished passage work, translated into Norwegian by Arild Linneberg and Janne Sund, that "the world exhibitions are the places of pilgrimage to the fetish object". Benjamin expanded Marx's theory of the commodity fetishcharacter and claimed that humans entered into a phantasmagoria. The German philosopher wanted to wake us up from the dream world of capitalism and the mythology of commodities.

Urban spaces in the metropolises have increasingly become exhibition and sales premises. Production is isolated from consumption, and this creates unreality. For new generations of children, meat is something wrapped in plastic in the shop. They don't know where it comes from, because they've never been to a farm. And not in a factory either.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk is probably the most important source of inspiration behind Leivestad's book.

Marx's concept of fetish has many dimensions. It is part of an economic theory that distinguishes between value and price: For Marx, the value of a commodity was conditioned by the socially necessary labor time needed to produce it. But in exhibition reality, the value seems to radiate from the goods themselves; they are seductive and attract customers. This obviously gives rise to a kind of consumer ideology, Leivestad points out:

"The commodity form envelops the work product in a mystifying layer called exchange value, which can be revealed through raising awareness of the social conditions that the product itself reveals nothing about. Where does the item come from? Who produced it? How is it produced? Who profits from the sale of the product? Who will benefit?” (p. 55)

But if you take off your Marxist glasses, this is no different in the pre-capitalist markets, e.g. in antiquity? The goods are offered and bought for money, but then the work process and production takes a back seat.

The mystification of the commodity not only implies the displacement of the production process, but also that it is created added value. Those who produce the goods do not get back what they put into value creation. But seeing that they got this and owned the means of production themselves: nevertheless you would have to exhibit goods and buy and sell them. Countries with communist rule still have a money economy: China has a picture of Party Chairman Mao on all its banknotes.

The fetish character of the commodity is a good term to understand that religion appears in a new form under capitalism. The dance around the golden calf becomes the new worship service, and growth and consumption society's core values. How much does the commodity market shape our consciousness? Neoliberalism has marketmade more by society. But Nancy Fraser nevertheless points out in the book Cannibal Capitalism (2022) that this market cannibalism has its limits. She criticized the tendency to talk about the total victory of the commodity form and reification, for example discussed by Georg Lukács.

The organic greenhouse

The gardener Joseph Paxton was knighted for his efforts in creating a crystal palace for the people. It is perhaps not so easy to spot the connection between the greenhouse as a source of inspiration and the Crystal Palace – except that both buildings are made of glass. But Leivestad emphasizes the greenhouse's imperial character – here plants from all corners of the world are gathered. Paxton modeled the Lily House building after a waterline from the Amazon, which he was the first to make grow in England. The plant was named after the queen and was named Victoria Regia. Although this inspired the Crystal Palace, it is still a big leap from plants to an exhibition of work products from the machine industry and crafts.

With increasing technical-economic mastery of nature, we live more and more in a bubble.

The German philosopher Peter sloterdijk is probably the most important source of inspiration behind Leivestad's book. His The human greenhouse (translated by Anders Dunker) was published by Existenz publishing house in 2022. Here Sloterdijk uses greenhousethe metaphor for the entire history of mankind. Sloterdijk also has a short essay on Crystal Palace in the book World interior of capitalism (2005), on globalization. The title could be rendered as Capitalism's Global Greenhouse.

At his best, Leivestad well connects the source-based with the essayistic-experimental and visionary. But the bold narrative of how greenhousea later one is repurposed, can be criticised. For Sloterdijk, the 'greenhouse' is a basic metaphor for control over the environment, that which has given man protection throughout history and made us 'spoiled', as he says. Completely independent of capitalism.

With increasing technical-economic mastery of nature, we live more and more in a bubble. But experiments in creating sustainable ecological survival bubbles have little to do with the Crystal Palace. This building was indeed modeled on a greenhouse, but functioned as an exhibition space, although the climate was regulated. If man lives in an ecological space based on recycling, this protective space is nothing more than a showcase for the self-glorification of capitalism. When the Crystal Palace is reborn as ecological modernism, this may be some of what we need in the future's more sustainable housing and living concepts.

This must happen with planetary awareness that the whole earth has become a greenhouse with greenhouse effect and climate crisis. A crucial question is whether the ecological greenhouse can be reconciled with the capitalist, "exclusive and endlessly growth-oriented greenhouse". Leivestad asks the question whether the solution is to be found "in the same source that caused the problems". The book ends by keeping this question open.

Leivestad is a well-read essayist who puts the historical material together in an innovative way. The juxtapositions can of course be criticized, but in an age of mass production of academic prose, this book represents a breath of fresh essayistic breath that dares to draw the broad lines. It creates room for imagination and problem solving in a time where surplus and optimism are scarce 'commodities', to use that word.

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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