Architecture, Phantasmagoria, and the Culture of Capitalism

Architecture, Phantasmagoria, and the Culture of Capitalism

Reviews: Symposia

Libero Andreotti and Nadir Lahiji, organizers:

Architecture, Phantasmagoria, and the Culture of Capitalism

Libero Andreotti and Nadir Lahiji, organizers
Georgia Institute of Technology, College of Design, Atlanta
March 31, 2017

Architecture, Phantasmagoria, and the Culture of Contemporary Capitalism - Panel

Architecture, Phantasmagoria, and the Culture of Contemporary Capitalism - Panel
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Following the release of Libero Andreotti and Nadir Lahiji’s book, The Architecture of Phantasmagoria: Specters of the City (Routledge, 2016), the symposium, Architecture, Phantasmagoria, and the Culture of Capitalism, was a marked departure from Georgia Tech’s usual fare, focusing on architecture, technology, and politics from a historical, critical, and theoretical perspective.  The symposium’s intention, according to the organizers, was to consider how the notion of phantasmagoria might be used as a unifying category of analysis for the cultural logic of architecture today, at a time similar to that of late eighteenth-century Paris when Etienne-Gaspard Robertson staged the first “assemblies of ghosts” at the Couvent des Capucines using a movable magic lantern. The main premise of the book, on which the symposium was based, was that the already well-developed theoretical discourse on phantasmagoria can serve to critically reframe the new subjectivities that have accompanied the latest phase of technological change.
     Consistent with this approach, the talks correlated roughly with one (or more) of three themes taken up in the book: the “hyper-mediated” condition of the city; the resulting formation of new “anaesthetized” subjects; and the call for a critical “hauntology” to recapture the city’s historical consciousness. Thus, while Douglas Spencer looked at the city’s landscapes of indifference and its infrastructure of big data, and Joan Ockman explored circulation from the point of view of the “distracted” subject, Margaret Cohen and David Kishik, moving from a historical approach, as if following Lacan’s après coup, evoked remote places and times for a fresh take on these familiar themes. Finally, underscoring the main theme of the symposium, Graeme Gilloch advocated for the past to repossess the city through a network of “haunts.” 
     In his keynote talk, a self-titled “eulogy to phantasmagoria,” Graeme Gilloch argued convincingly against two current interpretations of the phantasmagorias of urban space—Marc Augé’s “non-places” (non-lieux) and Pierre Nora’s “sites of memory” (lieu de mémoire)—showing how the first overemphasizes contingency, while the second underestimates individual experience. Moving beyond both partial perspectives, Gilloch proposed an alternative (Barthian) idea of the “urban punctum”—the city as a map of “painful recollection, wounds, sore points, and scars.” Much in the spirit of André Breton, however, he suggested a new “poltergeist as zeitgeist,” advocating for a network of “urban haunts” that would welcome “those who refuse to go quietly.”

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     David Kishik was interested in how urban experience can be traced to theological sensibilities that have long since been secularized. In a fresh reading of the book of Genesis to locate the provenance of contemporary urban conditions and states of mind—division, restlessness, distraction, and so on—Kishik speculated that the introduction of written language was the first apparatus to mediate and later divide the city, finding in the story of Babel and its attendant diaspora the roots of a contemporary wanderlust. Dense, provocative, and original, Kishik’s talk may have been better placed later in the symposium, when many of his finer points could have been better assimilated into the larger discourse.
     In marked contrast to Kishik’s philosophical speculations, Douglas Spencer considered the everyday forms and effects of hyper-mediation that occur within a larger contemporary urban “landscape of indifference.” Upholding Walter Benjamin’s and Jonathan Crary’s view that architecture is received in a state of distraction—contrary to the “focused gaze” implicit in the discourse on spectacle—Spencer, however, noted that contemporary urban experience is marked by a new kind of distraction quite different from that of Benjamin’s mediated city. While Benjamin was most concerned with the nuanced experiences of the masses, circumstances today, according to Spencer, suggest the “disappearance of the conditions of the masses.” Picking up on Crary’s seminal reflections on the centrality of information over image, Spencer described how remote surveillance, data mining, and the application of big data in the service of corporate interests have transformed the masses into data sets and anonymized the power structures that surveil them. In this contemporary state of “algorithmic governmentality,” power no longer needs to “speak to the masses, appear spectacular, or require concentrated forms of attention; power doesn’t need to appear at all.” 

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     Spencer’s “disappearance of appearance” served as a point of departure for Joan Ockman’s revisiting of Gehry’s architecture in a “latter-day society of the spectacle” marked by a dizzying proliferation of the “strangely familiar.” While architectural discourse of past decades lamented the excessive emphasis on visual reception, Ockman focused instead on the implicit effects of this primacy: a new typology in which “everything courses through.” An emerging trend to aestheticize circulation is a marked departure from the participatory role the iconic, yet fundamentally pragmatic, stairs, ramps, and architectural promenades played in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier. Ockman noted that while Le Corbusier’s architectural promenade was “dialectical” (post-and-beam rigidity was set against the aleatory path of the visitor, and vice versa), Gehry’s circulation is instead “post-dialectical,” suggesting only the “illusion of freedom of movement.” Thus, while Le Corbusier’s architectural promenades were activated by their users, Gehry’s spaces of circulation (in this instance, those of the Fondation Louis Vuitton) address a diminished kind of user, a tourist stripped of intellectual faculties and made to course endlessly upward along a predestined yet destination-less path.

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     Supplementing such reflections was Margaret Cohen’s rich literary perspective, with its focus on environments that attenuate the line between fantasy and reality. In a fascinating history of the phantasmagoria, Cohen developed the connection between the literary and architectural gothic genres, showing how the literary manipulation of architecture became an essential component to the creation of psychological thrills and suspense. Descriptions of winding passages and corridors were marked by dread and anxiety as sight lines were obscured by “haze, vapors, and flickering or uncertain flashes of light” that colluded to create hybrids of the real and unreal. Capitalizing on the genre’s popularity, Etienne-Gaspard Robertson’s phantasmagoria, first staged in a former cloister occupied only by the grave markers of its former residents, was a visual translation of the gothic novel, but, as Cohen noted, the gothic of Robertson’s day—the old, “‘hot’ form of fire, blood, and candle wax”—was markedly distinct from the new, “‘cool,’ banal, virtual, and anesthetic” gothic of today.  Citing one example of the latter, Cohen described the surreal underwater “dreamspaces” of shipwrecks that eerily showcase the ruins of technology. In this inhospitable environment the phantasmagoric illusion is further complicated: voyeurs of voyeurs, we watch the hazy footage of deep-sea submersibles navigate desolate promenades.
     In the lively discussion that followed the presentations, it was possible to appreciate the importance (and risks) of bringing together such a wide range of perspectives around a common theme. Surely a result of the gathering’s intimate scale and the diverse interests and approaches of the speakers—each one a leading voice within his or her own discipline—the symposium was a much-needed alternative to the stiff, black-suited affairs that tend to materialize when architects gather. For several hours, amid the steady end-of-semester hum of rapid prototyping machines at this school of technology, it provided a welcome forum for thoughtful critique.

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