A disturbing prospect: the Basilica of Ancient Kourion/Curium (Cyprus)

Do cities dream? You’d be forgiven for writing the idea off as nonsensical. But I would like to suggest that it is possible to talk meaningfully about the dream life of a city, and that this dreaming might actually matter quite a lot.

Before thinking about cities specifically in this regard, I should sketch out the cod-philosophical framework within which I am considering reality more generally here. This is built around the contention that there is a dreamy dimension to our lived spatiality, which is layered on top of a perceptual one.

By ‘lived spatiality’, I mean the world as it appears to us. I have no way of knowing whether ‘reality itself’ exists prior to our perceiving it (or whether space exists prior to our inhabiting it). By ‘material’, or ‘objective’ reality, then, I mean the external reality that I seem to perceive, which is given shape through my perception.

To take things a step further, the world seems to us (or at least to me) to contain many people, and there seem to be enough commonalities in the way we all perceive this world for a spatialised interactive process of co-existence within it to be possible. Its reality, then, is objective insofar as we all seem to perceive it in the same way. At the same time, though, this objective reality is always inflected, and structured into meaning, by our individual emotions, interpretations and imaginations. In this sense, we can only ever live through a sort of dream of reality; without our dreams, material reality has no meaning.

Do we each create our own world, then? Dreams, it might be argued, are only ever personal; and to think of them otherwise would be at best an intellectual conceit. And yet dreams don’t begin and end within an individual’s mind; they work in more interactive ways. First, in that the ‘raw materials’ of our dreams are collectively perceived; each individual’s dreams are grounded in what at least appears to be a shared external world. Second, in that individual dreams may congeal into collective discourses; we may have, or come to have, similar dreams to other people’s, and influence each other’s dreams through our words and actions. Third, in that, because our dreams shape our actions, and these actions have tangible effects on the physical space that we share, they (or at least their reflections) become visible for all to see. The broader sphere of dreams, then, seems to be a paradoxical one, at once personal and collective, subjective and objective, or flipping backwards and forwards between the two.

So then, onto cities. The other day, I visited the ruins of ancient Kourion with various family members. It’s always a little unsettling to walk around abandoned human settlements of any sort; they seem like very strange types of places. I was there, but was it there?  Is ‘Kourion’ a real place, or perhaps an ex-place, or an image of a place? All of these in different ways? I was dreaming about it – trying to understand what it is, and imagine what it was – so what roles might dreaming play in a place of this type? My intention here in any case is not to engage with the theoretical debates about the nature of ‘place’; I am consciously using the term in a lazy way. My circling thoughts grouped themselves together instead into the following question, which is still far from unproblematic, but which I have tried to answer below in simple terms:

In what senses does the ‘city of Kourion’ still exist?  

Socially, first, the city of Kourion clearly no longer exists. It doesn’t function as the setting for, or describe, the ongoing effects of, cultural, economic or political processes. (Of course, it does play host to, and is affected by, the activities and interactions of its maintenance staff and visitors, and is located within broader regulatory, academic and economic networks, and so on – but all this relates to its existence as a visitor attraction, rather than as a city.)

Materially, then? On balance, yes. Okay, its physical structure is degraded to such an extent that it would be unrecognisable as a city were it not for the immense amount of archaeological work that has gone into ‘restoring’ it. In fact, what now exists is primarily a selective, conceptual map – a static representation – of an evolving complex of material forms sharing the same space long ago. And yet that space is the same one, and (at least some of) the stones are the same ones; although mediated through excavation, rearrangement and representation for general consumption, they haven’t entirely been abstracted.

And dreamily?  Sort of. The real citizens, of course, who once gave meaning to the material space around them through their dreams, are long gone, and with them their ability to shape and reshape its physical form. Nevertheless, and in a partial sense only, this city does still exist as a space of dreams; what is left of its materiality induces subjective interpretations and daydreams in the visitors who perceive it. Almost as if, as a frozen artefact, it is able still to emit dreams but no longer to soak them up.


A theatre with no audience


A public space with no public

An entirely different ‘partial city’ is depicted in Neil Gaiman’s (2012) Tale of Two Cities, which I first read about in Steve Pile’s (2005) Real Cities. The hero of Gaiman’s comic-book story – Robert – travels home from work one day on a different train to usual, after working late at the office. This train, unfortunately, doesn’t stop in the normal places; Robert gets off as soon as he can, at an unknown station. On leaving the station, however, he is unable to orient himself (or even find the way back to the station). He walks and walks, and seems to half-recognise much of what he sees and smells, but the city’s geography no longer makes sense to him, and his sense of time is lost. He is in fact unable to decide whether or not he is still in the city he knows. He looks longingly at the marvellous goods on display in the shop windows, but all the shops are closed. There are no other people around, except that “from time to time he could feel eyes on him from the windows and doorways”, and “there were certain other people in the city, but they were brief, fleeting people who shimmered and vanished” (32). On a bridge, he does find an old man, who explains what has happened: Robert is, it turns out, still in the city he knows, but “the city is asleep, and…we are all stumbling through the city’s dream” (35).


Robert’s city and Kourion complement each other rather nicely. Both constitute partial representations of urbanity, but while Kourion coincides materially with, and corresponds conceptually to, a tangible reality, Robert’s city floats free – to the extent that it is entirely based on the author’s fantasy. Kourion is forever frozen; Robert’s city is entirely fluid. If Kourion can only shape dreams, Robert’s city can only ever be shaped by them. A ‘real city’ would encompass both of these aspects of reality; the physical city and the subjectivities of its individual inhabitants. The relationship between the two would be a dynamic one, with dreams continually translating each into the other. In this sense, the idea that a city might dream is more of a useful idea than it might sound at first.

I’m thinking about dreams here in a very broad way: imaginations, daydreams, longings, adulations. Dreams of all sorts seem to be magnified in cities. Religion, for example, might be viewed as an important form of urban dreaming. Empirical definitions of the ‘city’ often refer to the tendency for cities to be significant sites of worship (see, for example: Moholy-Nagy, 1969; Lynch, 1981; Short, 2002) – and religion often features in theories of how the earliest cities emerged, and what defined them as cities rather than villages. In such theories, causal links are made in different directions between religious worship and factors such as economic surpluses and social stratification. Somehow, though, power structures emerged, naturalised through religious worship, and reinforced through monumental architecture (Chant, 1999). There was a dynamic relationship between the adulation of the citizens and the existence of this monumental architecture. Did the stones of the city shape their dreams, or was it the other way round?

Cities continue to play host to of all sorts of yearnings and adulations, focused on different types of shrines: overtly religious in many cases, but also political, commercial, and cultural. Again, such shrines do exist elsewhere, but they are more obviously concentrated in cities (often in potentially contradictory ways). And it is not the case that the city has a pre-existing objective form which simply ‘acts on’ us, which we simply dream about (like Kourion) – rather, the city is also built by us in certain ways that reflect our fears, hopes, and longings (like Robert’s city). I’m jumping around randomly here, but we might also consider the way that housing markets are fuelled by our dreams for a better life: we buy or build particular types of houses, and decorate them in certain ways, for reasons extending far beyond the instrumental. Our own physical presence in a city, as resident or visitor, may well constitute the expression of a dream of what the city will be like; we may seek to realise these dreams in the way we live in the city, and thereby reshape it through our actions.


“Hmm, I think this design would look nice in the lounge”

Specific dreams may come eventually to be understood as illusions. But the perceived physicality of the city can never entirely be separated from its dreaminess. If the urban ‘sphere of dreams’ is somehow simultaneously subjective and objective, a bridge between the two, it may function in the same way as what we call the ‘public sphere’ does, or – since publics are generally thought of as multiple – what might be called the ‘sphere of publics’. In this respect, I am interested in nature of Robert’s fellow citizens: either temporary, flickering forms; or vaguely perceived strangers whose are watching him. His partial city seems to end where what I think of as the public dimensions of the city begin. Although alone in his city, Robert can comprehend the fact of the connectedness of his subjectivity with unpredictable, various others, and the fact that his actions are often observed by unknown others. The physical reality of these other human beings, however, eludes him; he has no way of knowing if they are anything other than imaginary.

In the real city (or society more generally), publics – like dreams – are ontologically and epistemologically paradoxical. They seem to form a sphere which is neither personal, nor fully part of perceptual external reality, and yet they are both of these at once. I’ve been reading Michael Warner’s (2002) take on publics. On the one hand, he points out, publics – like Robert’s ‘flicker people’ – are notional and imaginary: “[a] public is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than the discourse itself” (67), and open-ended: “a public is by definition an indefinite audience rather than a social constituency that could be numbered or named” (55-56). On the other, they are empirically grounded: their “imaginary character is never merely a matter of private fantasy” (74); they “have become an essential fact of the social landscape” (65); and they have social effects, in that we can “attribute agency to a public, even though that public has no institutional being or concrete manifestation” (89). Publics, in short, like dreams, are simultaneously ethereal and agentive. And their significance for democracy lies precisely in the way that, as forms of association which emerge unpredictably and coalesce mysteriously out of the fragmented subjectivity of the social world, they nevertheless hover outside the institutions of state authority:

 “Imagine how powerless people would feel if their commonality and participation were simply defined by pre-given frameworks, by institutions and laws, as in other social contexts they are through kinship. What would the world look like if all ways of being public were more like applying for a driver’s license or subscribing to a professional group – if, that is, formally organised mediations replaced the self-organized public as the image of belonging and common activity? Such is the image of totalitarianism: non-kin society organised by bureaucracy and the law. Everyone’s position, function, and capacity for action are specified for her by administration” (Warner, 2002, p.69).

Perhaps, then, in talking about the dream life of the city, I am in fact thinking about its public sphere. In a way, that’s true – but dreams go wider than this; perhaps dreams are preconditions for the emergence of a public; perhaps they are also what is captured in the material effects that publics have. And there is no guarantee that a public will emerge from a dream; individuals may have the same dream but have no means of knowing that they share this dream with others. A dream may never be ‘publicised’ in the sense of being mediated through an address to a (simultaneously imaginary and real) audience of strangers. The individual, or the kinship group, may forever dream alone. But even the dream of one person may have social effects.

And the sphere of publics is in any case firmly associated with modernity. In pre-modern times, it is more reasonable to think that dreams underscored what Habermas calls the “publicness (or publicity) of representation”, which was “not constituted as a social realm, that is, as a public sphere; rather, it was something like a status attribute” (Habermas, 1989: 7, italics in original). There is little in this older form of publicness which is democratic; rather, it describes a situation where the “domain of common concern…remained a preserve where the church and state authorities had the monopoly of interpretation” (36). The dream of religion is, furthermore, still active in this sense: “In church ritual, liturgy, mass, and processions, the publicity that characterised representation has survived into our time” (8). I wouldn’t single out religion in this respect; our dreams go on supporting other ‘representational’ institutions and formations which have little to do with democracy. Our dreams, then, are just as likely to lead to authoritarianism, feudalism, demagogy, or nationalism.

It is only in a static utopia, or a perfectly realised totalitarian state, that all of our dreams would be identical, and in harmony with the physicality of the city around us: a city whose power structures were hegemonic and uninterrupted. Real cities will always go on dreaming in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Yet their materiality will always to some extent constitute a (shifting) landscape of power: dreams which are common to many, and/or backed by power, are more likely to be visibly represented in their physical form.

Of course, power takes all sorts of different forms. I see the workings of power in a society as rather closely related to the qualities of its dream life – to the particular mix of dreams (and nightmares) that it evokes, gathers together, gives concrete expression to, fragments, and represses. Cities, as intense concentrations of both artefacts and subjectivities, are the arenas where the sphere of dreams has always done most of its work. And if it is the particular qualities of this dream life, rather than its presence or absence, that have positive significance, then the post-Enlightenment emphasis on shedding our ‘illusions’ about life, on seeing things ‘as they really are’, seems misplaced. As an ambition, it relates only to the apocalyptic idea which so terrifies Robert on his return to the real world: the prospect – which places like Kourion present to us so disturbingly – of the city which has ‘woken up’.


15 August 2013, Lefkosia (or thereabouts).


Chant, C. (1999). The Near East. In: Chant, C. & Goodman, D. (eds.) Pre-industrial Cities and Technology. London: Routledge: 1–47.

Gaiman, N. (2012) [originally published 1993]. The Sandman Volume 8: Worlds’ End. New York: DC Comics.

Habermas, J. (1989). The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Lynch, K. (1981). Good City Form. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Moholy-Nagy, S. (1969). Matrix of Man: Illustrated History of Urban Environment. London: Pall Mall Publishers.

Pile, S. (2005). Real Cities: Modernity, Space and the Phantasmagorias of City Life. London: Sage.

Short, J. (2002). Three Urban Discourses. In: Bridge, G. & Watson, S. (eds.) A Companion to the City. Oxford: Blackwell: 18–25.

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and Counterpublics. Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books.