Humanities and the City

Very much looking forward to tomorrow’s “Humanities and the City” conference at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, where I will give a keynote on “City Scales and the Urban Humanities”. Thanks to Nazry Bahrawi and everyone at Singapore University of Technology and Design for making this event possible.

“This one-day conference proposes yet another angle that can possibly inject fresh perspectives to discourses about the city. What if we factor in the humanities? Here, we invite policymakers, academics, scientists, engineers and curious city dwellers to think with us how humanities disciplines such as philosophy, literature, history, art, cultural studies, and others can play a role in the constitution as well as the development of a city. Our conference will attempt to rise to that challenge by engaging with international speakers and Singapore-based researchers.”

Conference Programme

  • 8.30am-9.00am Registration with refreshments
  • 9.00am-9.10am First opening address
    Prof. Sun Sun Lim
    Head of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS)
    Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)
  • 9.10am-9.20am Second opening address
    Prof. Chan Heng Chee
    Chairman, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC)
  • 9.20am-10.50am Keynote Discourse/Roundtable Discussion
    “The Good City: Justice and Technology in 21st Century Capitalism”
    Dr. Paolo Di Leo (HASS, SUTD)
    Dr. John Powers (LKYCIC)
    Dr. Nazry Bahrawi (HASS, SUTD)
    Moderator: Prof. Jane M Jacobs, LKYCIC/Yale-NUS
  • 10.50am-11.10am Coffee Break
  • 11.10am-11.50am “City Scales and the Urban Humanities:
    New Perspectives for Developing and Understanding Cities”
    Prof. Lieven Ameel, University of Helsinki
    President, Association of Literary Urban Studies
  • 11.50am-12.30pm “The Communicative City in Asia”
    Prof. Audrey Yue, National University of Singapore
  • 12.30pm-1.30pm Lunch
  • 1.30pm-3.00pm Film screening at Albert Hong Lecture Theatre
    The Sound of Old Rooms (2011), a documentary set in Kolkata
    Post-film discussion with Dr. Sandeep Ray (SUTD HASS), Director
  • 3.00pm-3.40pm “Maps in Post-Reunificaiton Hong Kong”
    Dr. Elizabeth Ho, Assistant Professor, University of Hong Kong
  • 3.40pm-4.00pm Coffee Break
  • 4.00pm-5.00pm Panel discussion on literature and the city
    Prof. Philip Holden, NUS (on Singapore)
    Dr. Pallavi Narayan, NUS Press (on Istanbul)
    Dr. Nuraliah Norasid, author of The Gatekeeper (on Singapore)
    Moderator: Dr. Rhema Hokama, HASS, SUTD
  • 5.00pm-5.20pm Closing remarks by Drs. Paolo and Nazry
  • 5.30pm End of conference

Describing Nonhuman Spaces

I’m participating on 1 December in a workshop by NARMESH (“narrating the mesh”) on Describing Nonhuman Spaces. Great to be back at my Alma Mater – Ghent University – for a discussion on experiences of nonhuman space in literature, organized by Marco Caracciolo.

I’m speaking on “nonhuman presence, environmental change, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction – Folding Cities”, with a focus on threatening nonhuman presences in Open City, Chronic City, Odds Against Tomorrow, and 10:04.

With ao Sarianna Kankkunen, Nathan D. Frank, Laura Oulanne, Marlene Marcussen, Carolin Gebauer, David Rodriguez, Kaisa Kortekallio, Brian J. McAllister, Ridvan Askin, and Michael Karlsson Pedersen.


Panoramic Perspectives and City Rambles


Interesting new volume out now, in the field of spatial humanities: the Routledge volume Teaching Space, Place, and Literature (ed. by Robert T. Tally Jr.). Including my article on teaching the city walk and the panorama. Introduction below.

Thanks to my students of the course “Space, City and Literature” at the University of Tampere, whose assignments and contributions during the course are part of the material discussed in the article.

Ameel, Lieven 2017: “: Teaching Urban Literary Studies.”  In Tally, Robert Jr. (ed.): Teaching Space, Place, and Literature. London: Routledge, 89-98.

The city hung in my window . . .

In an early scene in Sylvia Plath’s The Ball Jar (1971/1988), the protagonist has returned to her hotel room in New York after a confusing outing in the city. Unable to fully open her hotel window on the seventeenth floor, Esther Greenwood tries to get a view of the city where she has only recently arrived:

“By standing at the left side of the window and laying my cheek to the woodwork, I could see downtown to where the UN balanced itself in the dark, like a weird green Martian honeycomb. I could see the moving red and white lights along the drive and the lights of the bridges whose names I didn’t know.

The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.

I knew perfectly well the cars were making noise, and the people in them and behind the lit windows of the buildings were making a noise, and the river was making a noise, but I couldn’t hear a thing. The city hung in my window, flat as a poster, glittering and blinking, but it might just as well not have been there at all, for all the good it did me.”

The view from above of the city, in this quote, is instructive of several of the effects achieved by the panorama in a city novel. It conveys and thematizes the protago­nist’s uneasiness with the city, her literal inability to hear its sounds, the distance she feels between herself and her surroundings. At the same time, there is also paradoxi­cally a connection since the view of the city resonates with her inner feelings: the total lack of noise in the panorama is literally the protagonist’s own silence. Dis­tance seems also concomitant with a particular kind of figurative language, which

translates concrete spatial features in metaphorical terms, as with “green Martian honeycomb” of the UN building.

Crucial to the panorama is the explicit way in which the perspective is framed – in this case, the extent to which the view is limited, obstructed, and partly closed to the protagonist. In a novel pregnant with forced enclosure, the inability to escape social and moral restrictions is made tangible in the failure to fully open the window, the difficulty, in “laying my cheek to the woodwork” to gain an unrestricted meaning-giving perspective. In drawing attention to its framing, the panorama underlines the artificiality of the view. To Esther, the city appears as a two-dimensional apparition, “flat as a poster.” Artificial to the protagonist, it alerts the reader to the broader constructed nature of the narration: the fact that the view the reader gets of the storyworld and the city within it is carefully framed and composed.

In the city novel, the panorama is a narrative strategy of the first order, often juxtaposed with and complemented by the city walk. In The Bell Jar, the panorama comes immediately after a reference to the protagonist’s long walk back to her hotel, a walk that is presented as much less problematic for the protagonist than the attempt to gain an overview of the city: as the narrator confidently notes: “walking has never fazed me.” Yet the reader learns that she has used a map – a bird’s-eye view of sorts – for her orientation, one indication that a high vantage point and the experience on the street are complementary rather than oppositional, and that the experience of the city oscillates between these two perspectives.

The panorama and the city walker

The city walker in literature, with its roots in the contested figure of the flâneur, and the panorama, with its intimation of a totalization of space, constitute together a crucial pair of hermeneutic approaches to space in the city novel and to the complex relationship between spatial surroundings, the protagonist, and their devel­opment. In this article, they will be taken as key conceptualizations in teaching literary urban studies. I will start out by examining some of the critical secondary literature pertinent to these conceptualizations. These will be complemented by a discussion of practical teaching assignments aimed to enable students to apply theoretical concepts from urban and literary studies to their own experiences of the urban environment, and to take the classroom material into the city.

(Ameel 2017, 89-90)


Ways of Telling the Future – limits to scientific texts and fiction for describing climate change?

The New York Times recently published a piece where scientists are asked to comment on climate fiction and to assess to what extent these depictions of the future are realistic.

image source: NYTimes / Jordin Isip

The short piece feels strangely inadequate and limited for a variety of reasons, the first reason being, perhaps, that literary fiction is exactly defined by not having truth-value in the referential world. If the starting point of the article is flawed, the researchers interviewed seem to point at that in their own answers, for example when one answers that “Humans are able to probe these issues in ways that are different through the lens of fiction.” What the article does, then, is have scientists tell us what literary fiction can do, by asking of literature what science can do.

The best point of the article comes in the end, when “Dr. Foley [executive director of the California Academy of Sciences] said that if he ever wrote a novel, it would be one in which “we all do the slow, hard muddling work of just pitching in, but no hero rides in on a spaceship to save us all.” It would be a terrible novel, he admitted. “No one would buy it, and Hollywood wouldn’t make a movie, but it’s the one I want, and it would surely save the world.””

The article is enlightening for the most part by the very questions it asks, emphasizing the difficulties we continue to have in imagining futures emanating directly from our current choices, and the way in which different kinds of texts are able to envision different aspects of such futures, from accumulating effects, numbers and figures in scientific data, to the “qualia” of what change feels like in literary fiction. Questions that are at the heart of much current work in the environmental humanities, and also in my current research project “Narratives of the Urban Waterfront in Crisis.

“Folding City” at ENN2017, Prague

Thanks to everyone at ENN2017, Prague, for inspiring presentations and discussions. My own presentation is part of broader research on urban futures, the relationship between imagined and actual cityworlds, and urban (future) crisis. Happy to have had the opportunity to develop ideas ao. with Laura Oulanne, David Rodriguez and Marco Caracciolo, with a view to develop a book project on (ao.) space and non-human presence in literary fiction.

Experiencing the weak house: Modernist interior descriptions beyond domesticity
Laura Oulanne (University of Helsinki)
Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction
Lieven Ameel (University of Tampere)
Aerial description and environmental imagination in narrative landscapes
David Rodriguez (Stony Brook University)

Abstract below:

Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction

This presentation will explore ontological instabil­ity in a range of contemporary New York novels. I am particularly interested in the implications of poten­tially apocalyptic undercurrents in the narrated space for an understanding of how fictional texts come to grips with complex environmental threats and non-human agency. The literary texts are Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), novels that thematize palimpsestic layers of meaning in urban space, as well as ambiguous temporal structures, and that are informed in particu­lar by an interest in the impact of the future on the present. In these fictional texts, a sense of threat and ontological instability is realized in continuous refer­ences to unusual weather conditions (in all four novels), and, more specifically, in Chronic City, the appearance of a gigantic tiger rummaging underneath New York, and in the novels by Rich and Lerner, by the intimations of coming catastrophic flood. In terms of methodological framework and theoretical approaches, my presentation will draw on Gilles Deleuze’s concept (in his work on Leibniz) of the fold (Deleuze 1993), with reference also to Brian McHale’s “flickering effect” (1987) and Bertrand Westphal’s “heterotopic interference” (Westphal 2005: 101). The fold will be one key conceptualization with which to approach representations of urban space in crisis, enabling a connection – rather than a polariza­tion – between inner and outer, immaterial and mate­rial, possible and present.

Moving towards Possible Cities

Moving towards Possible Cities: Future Urban Waterfronts in Contemporary Fiction
Speaking at the Association for Literary Urban Studies conference (Im)Possible Cities about my current research: future urban waterfronts in contemporary fiction, and what literary texts of the waterfront can tell us about the future and about our possibilities to prepare for and act upon the future. From the abstract:
“In contemporary fictional texts describing the urban waterfront under threat, crossing urban borders is conditioned by competing pathways towards the future, which appears in early 21st century literature as a crucial conceptual and ontological border zone for understanding the present. Moving into this border zone thus also entails becoming aware of questions of agency and moral responsibility, as is exemplified by the trajectory of the protagonist in Odds Against the Future, who moves from the question “What was possible? What should we be afraid of?” (Rich 2013: 7) to asking: what would be “the right thing to do” (Rich 2013: 161)?”

Planning for the Future – Narratives of Urban Waterfronts at Plannord2017

Speaking today (17.8.2017) at Plannord2017 on the topic of “Planning for the Future – Narrating crisis and agency in literary fiction and planning narratives of the urban waterfront”

From the abstract:

“What can be known about the future, what is there to fear, and what role is there for human agency, individually or collectively – for acting upon the future? These questions are addressed here from the perspective of narrative frames, with a specific reference to the stories that are told of the near future of the New York waterfront in. Drawing on a range of textual sources, from policy documents and strategy texts to literary novels that dwell on the challenges and possibilities of the urban waterfront, this paper wants to sketch a move, in narratives and research, from knowledge to action, from preparing for the future to acting upon the future. In doing so, this paper also traces the narrative limits of policy and planning texts, and of fictional texts, when envisioning slow-burning crises.”

The paper is part of my ongoing research of future visions of cities at the water: more about that here.

Toponyms in Helsinki novels

The most recent Norna-Rapporter features an article by Terhi Ainiala and me (in Swedish) that examines readerly experiences of place names in Helsinki novels. Thanks to Terhi for the inspiring cooperation and to my students at the University of Helsinki who answered our questionaires!

“Ortnamn kan spela en viktig roll i skapandet av den litterära världen i romaner,
men deras betydelse undervärderas ofta. Ortnamn kan ha t.ex. sociala,
moraliska, och estetiska betydelser utöver de enbart geografiska. På
vilka sätt skapar ortnamn i litteraturen den litterära världen och de litterära
platserna? På vilka sätt hjälper ortnamnen läsaren att lära känna den litterära
världen? Och vilka konsekvenser får det om läsaren inte känner till
de ortnamn som används? Läsaren lever kanske i en annan tid eller på en
annan plats än den avsedda läsaren (se t.ex. Iser 1978) eller är avskärmad
från den litterära världen på grund av språkliga och kulturella skillnader. I
denna artikel försöker vi svara på dessa frågor och undersöker ortnamnens
roll som indikatorer i vissa Helsingforsromaner.”

Ainiala, Terhi & Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Känslan av namn i stadslitteraturen: ortnamn som indikatorer i Helsingforsromaner.” Norna-Rapporter 94. Namn och identitet Handlingar från NORNAs 46:e symposium i Tammerfors den 21–23 oktober 2015, 133-146.

Review of Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative

My review of Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: where narrative theory and geography meet, in the journal Social & Cultural Geography, has just been published on Taylor & Francis Online.

A free eprint link to the publication can be found here:

From the review:

“Narrating Space / Spatializing Narratives is a book that will be of interest for everyone working on the interdisciplinary crossroads where questions of space and narrative meet. It will set readers from a range of disciplines on track toward new sources, methods, and their applications. The book exemplifies some of the challenges still to be overcome, in particular, in terms of transposing the concept of narrative to other fields of study without diluting its terminological precision. While the opening chapters will provide a well-structured conceptual toolbox to any newcomer to the field, more advanced scholars from a range of backgrounds will find in this book new directions for research in an exciting and burgeoning field that only recently has begun to fully explore the potential of a narrative analysis – on the basis of concepts and methods from narrative and literary studies – for questions of space.”

Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Narrating Space / Spatializing Narrative: where narrative theory and geography meet.” In Social & Cultural Geography.


Futures of the Urban Waterfront, 23.5., Jyväskylä

On my way to Jyväskylä for the Finnish Literary Society yearly seminar, this year organized together with the Cultural Studies days, in a themed “Environments” conference.

Speaking tomorrow (23.5.) on the subject of futures of the urban waterfront in literary fiction of New York, with a focus on Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds against tomorrow. Examining how knowledge (of the future) turns into experience in fictional narratives, and the importance of assessing present futures and future presents.

Conference programme (in Finnish) below.