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Issue 122

Polyphilo's Dream

How has the Internet affected new definitions of a contemporary culture industry? The imaginary architecture in a 15th-century book may provide the answer

BY Diedrich Diederichsen in Features | 04 APR 09


Some years ago, I came across a most peculiar book by the Mexican-Canadian architectural theorist Alberto Pérez-Gómez: Polyphilo or the Dark Forest Revisited – An Erotic Epiphany of Architecture (1992). Pérez-Gómez belongs to a phenomenological school of architectural theorists for whom architectural normativity is based not so much on abstract properties, functions, material constraints and technical developments as on the individual experience of the built and non-built environment as mediated by the body. In his book Architecture and the Crisis of Modern Science (1983), Pérez-Gómez argues that instead of orientating itself solely towards the task of protecting and containing bodies, architecture must provide a mysterious and gradually unfolding stage for life as it evolves.

In Polyphilo, Pérez-Gómez puts this theory to an exacting test, based on a now-obscure classic of architectural literature: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream, 1499). Purportedly by Francesco Colonna, the text has been attributed by some scholars to the influential Renaissance thinker and architectural theorist Leon Battista Alberti. This illustrated incunabulum introduced several valuable innovations in typography and layout that are still with us, including the narrative use of line breaks to give the text a shape that helps to tell the story. It is also one of the first works to make modern use of illustrative images by considering their position in relation to the flow of text. Moreover, in a mixture of Latin, Italian and several other idioms, the tale recounts an erotic fantasy that takes place in a dreamed forest surrounded by architecture. The plot is complicated by several dreams within the dream, one of which is told by the additional voice of Poliphilo’s beloved, Polia. Poliphilo dies and is brought back to life, dreams again and wakes up, and so on – but all of these events are driven forward by the continual deciphering of an allegorical architecture (ruins, overgrown temples, fragments of inscribed masonry, reliefs, frescoes) that is also experienced as erotic. Or, as Poliphilo expert Liane Lefaivre puts it: ‘The hero makes love to architecture.’

Of course, the idea of arranging buildings to create sequences and tell stories wasn’t invented during the Renaissance. Passages and pathways have always been connected with ideas and with rituals of becoming. One passes through specific gateways and walks along specific paths towards specific temples, arenas or other markers of public space. In this traditional concept, however, the story is known in advance: the ritual and the architectural markers of its progress offer an experience not of individuality, but of self-renunciation, of the inscription of an individual body into the history of a state or religion. This recalls aspects of the classical Japanese aesthetic that aims to follow a particular established experience rather than evoking it anew in each individual: for instance, the view of a garden and the mountain scenery behind it from a particular spot, at a particular time of day, in a particular season.

Josef Strau, installation view. Courtesy: Greene Naftali and the artist.

Long before Romanticism emerged, there already existed the proto-Romantic opposite of this self-inscription into state or religious ritual: the experience of radical vulnerability in a forest, of being thrown back on one’s own resources in a darkness where nothing was foreseeable; this was an established literary topos, revived from the traditions of antiquity at the time Poliphilo was published. What was new about Poliphilo, however, was the linking of these two perspectives: individual adventure story and architecture synthesized into an architectural forest. It was the first, remote inkling of what would come to be known as the urban jungle: the idea that I experience my profoundly individual fate, punctuated by adventures both formative and destructive, in and among buildings that embody social conditions and frozen narratives. And that the social meaning of my individual life is enclosed in this architecture as a secret or published in it as a hymn. That I must set objects and objectivities in motion by participation, discovery, reading, reception. But that, conversely, my personal story can only lead somewhere if I do that. Dreams and desire are not governed by unfounded, solipsistic laws of movement: they always fix on an object, and whether this object is made of stone or of flesh and blood is of secondary importance.

This point is important with regard to large-scale cultural phenomena – especially those promoted by the culture industry – which are said, on the one hand, to hinder us in our approach to objects and other people, leading us nowhere and making us dream in the negative sense, but which, on the other hand, have often been compared with anticipatory, political dreaming in the Utopian sense as discussed, among others, by Ernst Bloch. Are the complexes created by the culture industry no more than a succession of dreams with ever more sophisticated media technology and ever more drastic effects on reality? Or do we also learn, as we dream in and through them, to advance towards the other, towards the object, to initiate a praxis?

Pérez-Gómez transfers Poliphilo into the present. In addition to his dream narrative, he gives him a time-frame. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Pérez-Gómez’s Polyphilo lives through exactly one day, one chapter for each hour. He barely speaks in the tongues of the dreamers who feature in the story, nor does he reinvent these figures. Instead, he speaks with the voice of a tradition of Modernism in which experience and mystery were key categories: Surrealists such as Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico, solitary philologists and poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry and Jorge Luis Borges. He soars and wanders through post-humanoid, hi-tech worlds and explores ancient towers. ‘Shining with metaphysical radiance, the city resonates harmoniously. Every stone is an offering to transcend human mortality. This is no longer the city of my childhood, but it could certainly be the original abode of humanity. My heart begs to sing in praise of a vision of hope.’

Pérez-Gómez retains the high-flying, hymnic tone of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, even if he has changed almost everything else. His ‘erotic epiphany of architecture’ attempts to synthesize libidinous fixing on objects and love for another person, in a crazily post-human style, with a touch of sexist kitsch, like a cross between The Matrix (1999) and Chris Cunningham’s video for Björk’s All Is Full of Love (1999), but in places absolutely daring, generous and full of humour. Having discovered Polya as a perfect body in a synthetic temple of love, they sit side by side, she in Levi’s overalls, and they silently eat their post-coital synthetic food: ‘She shares with me the outstanding hamburger of universal taste.’ While referencing the Renaissance, Pérez-Gómez clearly wishes to develop a new cultural format – a format that currently is being worked on everywhere, with the most varied intentions. It concerns a conquest of architecturally defined and constructed outside, public space in the name of experience: both the kind of overwhelming experience that renders us speechless, and the more enlightened, aesthetic and, subsequently, intellectual experience.

Until relatively recently, the domain of experience and of human history was a sphere of conquest and expansion, slowly opening up ever further. Colonizing subjects set out into unknown worlds where anything could happen – anything, that is, which didn’t call into question the structure and continuity of their experience. At worst, there was a bewitched Captain Kirk, a fake Spock, but no lasting destabilization. This continuity of the adventurer’s experience was matched by the continuity of space. The space age treated the universe as something that could be crossed, mapped, conquered and experienced as a world of adventure – like the ocean ploughed through by Colonna’s contemporary, Christopher Columbus, around the time when Poliphilo was being written. It was possible to keep travelling ever further, but this distance could still be measured in stable units such as light years.

Today, the way we imagine outer space has been obscured by increasingly complex physical models no longer accessible to any form of intuitive understanding. At the same time, Utopian visions of society have become ever more unattainable. Interest has consequently shifted away from endless expanses of conquerable space towards space that has long since been occupied and often architecturally defined. For Pérez-Gómez, the real adventure lies in an eroticized decoding of what has already been identified at some point in the past. But he is also plagued by concerns that our present-day, hi-tech world of airports, malls and Postmodern buildings may render impossible the true phenomenological experience and prevent the dreamer from breaking through to the other side.

Christop Buechel, 2005. 

Pérez-Gómez’ historico-phenomenological narrative of love and adventure is only one of many in recent decades to focus on space – architecturally defined, outside space – as the true territory of love, adventure, art, politics and, not least, the culture industry. Uniquely, however, in his book these themes are approached collectively from the point of view of the dream, which is based not on political action but on the constant activity of libidinous desire. By contrast, the Situationists, with their critique of urbanism and their counterproposals for a revolution of everyday life, understood the status quo of architecture, town planning and life as one long sleep corresponding to the freezing of history during the Cold War. This view was for example elaborated in the essay ‘Geopolitics of Hibernation’, published in the Internationale Situationniste in 1962, which presented waking up as the ultimate metaphor. The few friends of dreaming on the Left – such as Bloch or the US philosopher Norman O. Brown – were faced with hosts of early risers in the name of consciousness.

Pérez-Gómez answers both sides with a clarification: the dreamer–lover is not alone in some projective–masturbatory orbit; instead, he is dreaming of an object, a separate, distinct counterpart that is read or loved. His dream is a dream, and yet it possesses reality. Connected to this is the dystopian threat that this object will at some point no longer be discernable – not in the dream, but in the architectural reality to which the dream refers.


Many writers revisiting the concept of the culture industry after Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, make the mistake either of simply declaring it obsolete or of preserving it in its historical version on the grounds that not retaining its diagnosis – despite the changed technical media reality – would mean abandoning the concept’s underlying critical position. If, however, one takes into consideration that the original concept of the culture industry was based on analyzing the combined effects of two very specific media – radio and cinema – then any claim of it being of equal validity for all forms of cultural and artistic production under conditions of capitalism becomes obsolete. This consideration allows for the concept to be modified. It is now possible to look at a particular version of the culture industry in terms of distinguishing its media-related specificity from other aspects of culture and capitalism and vice versa; to identify the culture industry aspects of specific media constellations. Thus it becomes possible to move beyond the widespread position of ignoring media aspects and/or limiting oneself to an ideological critique of content.

After the collaboration between radio and cinema that had been in operation since the 1920s, the second phase of the culture industry – from the mid-1950s in the USA and, thereafter, in the rest of the world – was the combination of television and pop music. Looking at these two constellations, it is striking that they both install the outside world in the bourgeois interior at the same time as mediating a participatory public sphere. Television and pop music are reactions to particular, oft-bemoaned shortcomings of the first phase of the culture industry. As so often in Western parliamentary capitalism, this involves a blend of revolt or rebellion on the one hand with a technological bureaucratic reaction on the part of industry on the other. Compared with cinema, pop music increases the participatory element of fan worship. It also increases the likelihood of stepping into the limelight oneself, without undue technical or bureaucratic preparation, opening up the entire star-worshipping religion to a kind of Lutheran reformism. Television, on the other hand, not only improves on radio in terms of the naturalism and illusionism of what is broadcast, but also decentralizes the authority of radio’s subjugating, commanding voice.

The mixture of advertising and commands, of hidden and open ideologies, of which Adorno and Horkheimer spoke, has shifted. What remains accurate, however, is their delightful diagnosis that the culture industry produces ‘fungible modules’: small units of meaning that can be painlessly combined not only with other such units – as witness commercial breaks – but also with what the other medium produces. Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan’s famous claim that a new medium always contains an old one, or even its immediate functional predecessor, one could say that one side of a culture industry double-act always amplifies and broadcasts the other: radio transmits one aspect of the star world of cinema, the special quality of the voice; and in its architecture, cinema reproduces the centrality of the authoritarian radio voice. Television broadcasts images to accompany pop music, and these images become of the utmost importance to the participatory audience who, in turn, introduce the style of musical fashion into everyday life via their clothing and behaviour. At the same time, a new culture industry model is founded on reactions against the previous model. Such reactions come mostly from art or countercultures. The forms developed in the course of these counter-reactions – especially organizational and media-related achievements – often make crucial contributions to these new models. The moment formerly known as ‘co-opting’ – when a form ceases to be true to the meaning and function it had in its original context and becomes part of the culture industry – is often hard to pin down in individual cases, especially since (and this is not a new observation) the autonomous arts and activist countercultures often use those cultural formats that have been rendered obsolete by media-technological progress.

A constant factor in each development of the culture industry over the past hundred years is an increase in audience participation.

The third culture industry – the successor to the television installed in the living room – is, of course, the Internet. Undoubtedly, this constellation has greatly enhanced the options for being connected to the outside world and the public sphere, without calling the fundamental structure of the culture industry’s modular character into question. On the contrary, the fungible module of meaning, unbound by context or media, is the heart and soul of Internet culture and its connection to the wider world. Any sense of media specificity has become largely obsolete: against digitality, the inherent laws and indexical quality of photography, film and phonography are all powerless.

Attributed to Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Polyphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream), 1499. Illustration from book. Courtesy: Posner Memorial Collection, Carnegie Mellon University Libraries, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The question is: what is today’s external counterpart to the home computer screen? In the same way that cinema and pop music were not invented – emerging instead as a bundling of existing cultural forces and influences – what will take their place needs to be identified from among the attempts made by the arts to articulate certain new experiences long before they can gel into a mass-manufacturable, larger whole. A culture industry model comprises various elements of differing status: one or more media that can be connected; a certain social and cultural usage; cultural and artistic genres, such as the daily soap, but also the star as developed in the 1920s and ’30s. These are existing formats that not only suit and are modified by the new model, but which actually induced it to gel in the first place. Also required are new topics that, for the many people not actively engaged with ‘high culture’, first find articulation in this culture industry model. And, finally, a particular manner of involving the audience: as the sum of many solitary individuals addressed emotionally and consoled (to quote Valéry’s description of the radio listener); as a group of people dreaming together in the cinema; as listeners acting via identification, as in pop music; as a globally controlling, pseudo-sovereign subject always giving ratings on the Internet.


So, let’s start looking for the emerging outdoor counterpart to the computer screen at home – the new culture industry. The general direction is clear. Let’s take it as given that the outside world is the location of adventure (but also of the lost adventure). Architecture shapes this outside world and symbolically marks its boundaries, as well as the places outside and on the margins of what it physically encloses. Rather than the boundless universe or the endless ocean, the outside world is now a terrain, an open space arising directly in relation to the world defined by architecture.

What we are looking for is a new coherent presentation of this outside world as a substitute for previous adventures, ideas of love and publicness, as a narrative capable of instilling meaning. We are also looking for new connections between media, new themes that can be linked via the Internet. Finally, we need to look for a new active role for the audience. One constant factor in each development of the culture industry over the past hundred years is an increase in audience participation, or at least of a certain participatory effect. (We don’t want to pass judgement on the quality of this participation here: it may be precisely the architecture of participation that contains the mass deception that Adorno and Horkheimer rightly attributed to any culture industry.) This has been accompanied by a heightening of reality effects – partly by the use of new media with ever-higher resolution, and partly by a suspension of mediation via objects and works in favour of purportedly ‘ordinary’ individuals. A shift can be observed, for instance, from the rave and techno culture of the 1990s – where instead of staring at a band, audience members focused on themselves and those like themselves – to reality television and tools for one-to-one network communication, such as webcams, in which the ordinary individual is fetishized and sexualized. The emancipation of everyday life as a party is replaced by the desire for an imitation of everyday life as a fetish.

Before we turn our attention to this new kind of love, however, we must first take a look at the new aestheticized public spaces it inhabits – and, subsequently, examine visual art and its influence on architecture. Because ultimately, these new spaces are the result of a practical critique of the white cube – albeit before that term existed. Long before installation art was known by that name, and long before criticism of the neutralizing and demarking function of the convention of white gallery walls had found its definitive expression in Brian O’Doherty’s famous essay ‘Inside the White Cube’ (1976), there were artists who worked on the architectural marking of the exhibition space and beyond. But if one thinks, for example, of Kurt Schwitters’ several Merzbau structures, of Jean Dubuffet’s painted cave constructions, of the Cavern of Anti-Matter (1959) by the inventor of ‘Industrial painting’ Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio, of Mark Rothko’s chapel (1964–71) or of Yayoi Kusama’s psychedelic mirror mazes, then one will note that these artists were not primarily concerned with the kind of anti-illusionist marking implied by a critique of the white cube and developed by Conceptual art. On the contrary, they were concerned with using an expansion and architectural, three-dimensional intensification of visual art to build a reality beyond the protective space confines of the exhibition.

Modern art’s many and varied expansions, into architecture and elsewhere, have always had these twin effects: an increase in reality and an increase in illusionary effect for three-dimensional reality. If political, public and communicative reality are associated with the architecturally defined outside world that is visible in three dimensions, then these caves and shacks are territorial gains for an art that is confined within the supposed illusionism of representation, but they are also territorial gains for an illusion that is gradually conquering the outside world.

It is not just fine art that has moved outside its white cube in various directions, however. Sport – another major point of crystallization for contemporary public life and urban architecture – has also edged beyond its grassy oval or rectangle. And it has done so in a remarkable collaboration between sport represented in the mass media and popular participatory sport. The rise of extreme sports, such as extreme marathons and various severe forms of triathlon, has brought forth all manner of sporting disciplines (many of which originally possessed a sub- or countercultural connotation) that approach urban space and the surrounding terrain as an adventurous dream zone and a clearly defined enhancement of nature. Parkour and free-running – forms of athletic ‘flight’ across city walls and rooftops – are the most obvious examples in this genre, with others including flash mobs, MTV-sponsored treasure hunts and precursors such as skateboarding. In his description of happenings, Allan Kaprow, one of the founding fathers of artistic production that ventures out into everyday life, wrote that happenings should perhaps be spoken of in terms not of art but of sport.

Mike Kelley celebrates the irresponsibility and freedom of the cave and, ulitmately, the failure to attain enlightenment and reason that characterizes (for Plato, too) life in one.

As well as developing forms that stem from art and are interconnected by media, the culture industry models of the future will be shaped by narratives and definitions of love, by instructions and suggestions for libidinal investments. Like the above-mentioned sports, these narratives and instructions increasingly take their lead from computer games and/or fantasy literature, the two most dominating (though still comparatively little analyzed) mass-cultural phenomena of the past decade, which are paving the way for that coming, third culture industry integrating the Internet with the topographical outside. In these games and stories, one is always travelling a specific route, running through a predefined narrative, in order to obtain a coveted prize at the end. In the original Poliphilo, and even more so in Pérez-Gómez’ version, the protagonist is an active dreamer, someone who does not lose himself in something that is already finished – a passive consumer of illusions – but in something that, at least in his own illusion, he must constantly maintain and decode; something in which experience and even critical activity are linked.

But love, adventure and game-play are just three elements linking the private and public sides of this third culture industry. The fourth factor is the sense of the uncanny that lies rooted in a critique of the earlier elements. The empty house, the hidden passageway and the forbidden door are familiar models either for the subjectivity of the normally subject-less or, conversely, for the machine-like emptiness of something usually inhabited by a soul and a subjectivity.

This uncanny nature of the humanoid machine, a common theme in Romanticism, has returned not only because of the increased occurrence of suitable objects – houses that look and act like living beings, living beings that act and feel like machines, i.e. all kinds of intermediate states between object and subject – but also because this metaphor already contains a sense of discontent with the emerging culture industry and, more specifically, with its deliberate mixing of animate and inanimate interfaces, of industrially constructed ‘everyday’ faces that people actually encounter in their everyday lives. Fine art has produced guidelines and formulated models in recent decades for this too. In the future, it is likely that these proposals will be picked up and exploited as scenarios by the culture industry, but they can also already be considered – in spite of their very different means and objectives – as critiques of this anticipated exploitation: the corridors and tubes through which visitors have to crawl in Mike Kelley’s installations, Gregor Schneider’s globally successful houses of horror, their relatives in the work of Christoph Büchel and their predecessors in that of Ilya Kabakov, which were in turn critically parodied with cardboard boxes in Josef Strau’s recent installation at Greene Naftali in New York (Untitled, 2008). And, of course, all the stage sets that remove or ignore the fourth wall, telling the audience that they have entered another reality, that they are not merely looking at another ontology.

Kelley examined the psychology of the cave, and of crawling and bending down in the pursuit of knowledge, in his classic artist’s book Plato’s Cave, Rothko’s Chapel, Lincoln’s Profile (1986). Among other things, he celebrates – borrowing the literary voice of a narrator to do so – the irresponsibility and freedom of the cave and, ultimately, the failure to attain enlightenment and reason that characterizes (for Plato, too) life in a cave. He makes a proposal for unreasonable goodness beyond the white cube and its bright shining modernist enlightenment, criticising ‘high art’ from the position of the cave. Büchel and Schneider, on the other hand, appear to find in the cave a possibility of ‘high art’ – a form of experience that the culture industry cannot offer. But what happens when these artistic models are subsumed into culture industry? As soon as something can be consumed, either from an auditorium or in any kind of participatory architecture, these models become indistinguishable in terms of their genealogy. Perhaps, in order to survive in a space truly devoid of reason, artistic ‘negation of reason’ requires a kind of modernist ‘high art reason’ – to which, after all, it originally had functioned as a complement.

Mike Kelley, Exploring, 1985. Acrylic on paper, 194 x 163cm. Courtesy: Galeria Emi Fontana, Milan, and the artist.

Finally, one last element is required if these formats, models and everyday activities are to combine into a new culture industry model: media. Satellite systems, GPS devices and mobile phones with ever-improved performance: wireless contact between a variety of interfaces offers many ways of adding media-technological connectedness to this new culture industry of the architecturally defined space. Culture industry models often evolve from the everyday aesthetics of dating or sharing cultures: this was the case with doo-wop and beat bands, and it applies equally now to the exchange of digital images and films. In the common ground between architecture, sporting routines and event centres, as experienced in the light of games and fantasy adventures, these media and cultural skills will be exploited.

There will, of course, be many abortive attempts before someone will manage to establish defining standards. However, there will not necessarily be that one standardized media conglomerate. Cinema initially was such a standard (the film projected in the cinema hall), but not pop music. In pop music, the relationship between individual involvement and a new kind of publicness applied equally to lonely teenagers, large groups at festivals, small and large nightclubs, and decentralized raves as it did to the temples of superstar adoration. Undoubtedly, it is crucial to identify the emerging logic of attraction on the basis of all these symptoms and conjunctures. And this brings us back to our friend Poliphilo.


Poliphilo dreams, but he is also cognizant. To the dreamer, a dream is like reality. It differs from reality in the degree of abruptness and unexpectedness of its sequences. Anxiously anticipated goals are attained without effort or physical cause. The mechanics of the dream are the mechanics of stupidity and passivity complained of by cultural critics. Its opposite is the Protestant work ethic, which you have to adhere to on the path to knowledge, but also on the way to the other, to the object. This binary model – austerity before pleasure – is not only at the heart of the distinction between high and low culture, it also perpetuates the sad dogma of the division between sensuality and intelligence as combated by critiques of alienation. The eroticism of decipherment in Polyphilo resists the phenomenon of being overwhelmed by passive dream logic. Cognition is portrayed as a constant, pleasurable liquefying of architecture, an ongoing transformation of being and cement into juices and music. This could be seen as a Utopian counterproposal to what currently looms: the transformation of public space into a dreamlike, aesthetically overwhelming zone of entertainment without an actual public role, and without knowledge, while criticism and knowledge are driven out of the last zones of the sensual cultures in which they still play a part: art, music, poetry. Before this scenario of an all-encompassing ‘Third Life’ becomes reality, it will be a matter of reconstructing the eroticism of knowledge, of rendering criticism musical, and of reconciling the dream with experience.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell