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.”
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.