2013 Conference

The first international conference of the Helsinki Literature and the City Network (HLCN)

City Peripheries / Peripheral Cities Conference

Helsinki, Finland 29-30 August 2013


Conference report

Keynote addresses:

1.      Professor Tone Selboe (University of Oslo), ‘Hungry and Alone: Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) and August Stri3ndberg’s Alone (1903)’

2.      Professor Jeremy Tambling (University of Manchester), ‘The Periphery at the Centre: For the Use of Those Who Live in Cities’

With great weather in Helsinki and participants enjoying their discussions, the first international conference of the Helsinki Literature and the City Network was a success both in academic terms and in terms of city experiences. The conference began with Tone Selboe’s tightly-focused account of two varying but complementary works detailing and constructing the experience of the Nordic city at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The opening words of Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), with its acknowledgment that even peripheral cities such as Christiania leave no man untouched, resonated throughout the discussions and presentations of the following two days. Rounding off the conference, Jeremy Tambling gave a wide-ranging talk which brought together the bankruptcy of once-mighty Detroit in our own times, in which centre and periphery have been reversed, with the faubourgs and banlieues of Paris from Zola and Céline to the disturbances at Clichy-sous-Bois in 2005.

Three aspects of city peripheries were highlighted in the organizers’ opening words, and subsequently placed in specific contexts by many presentations during the conference. First of all, the notion of a periphery presumes an edge or a limit, where a city stops and something else starts. Secondly, there are the social and moral peripheries, the non-respectable areas: slums, red-light districts, skid rows, skate parks, bedsit lands, railway yards, canalside paths. What these have in common is that the people in power would be unlikely to proclaim them to outsiders as the key points in their city. They include sites such as pubs, fairgrounds and brothels which could be understood in the terms of Foucault as heterotopias: spaces of difference within which, on one account, we gain a momentary critical distance from the everyday. But for their inhabitants, such marginalised sites are the environment in which everyday life is lived out. Seeing them as peripheries and not heterotopias means developing an understanding of them that is topographic rather than synoptic. Thirdly, in our times the imaginative distinction between the urban and the rural—the country and the city in the formulation of Raymond Williams—is actually disappearing. You might have trees and fields outside your window but be online all the time and be thirty minutes’ drive from an airport—if you are wealthy enough.

The other half of the conference title manifested itself in equally heterogeneous forms during the two days. From the viewpoint of the Western literary canon, some cities have self-evidently been more central than others. However, as several papers suggested either explicitly or implicitly, valid analysis of the urban condition requires not only the inclusion of non-Anglophone and non-European cities but also a thorough reconsideration of that default viewpoint. The evolving networks of a globalised economy are merely one factor influencing how peripheries are defined at multiple levels. The conference site itself—the very centre of a capital city in a globally rather peripheral country—served as a good example of the relativity of both centrality and peripherality.

All of these aspects were made tangible in the various presentations. From the notion of a peripheral urbanity, in relation to the prose of J.G. Ballard (in the presentation by Sofie Verraest), to the very definition of city-ness in early modern poetry in the Netherlands (Marcin Polkowski) and the branding of a Turkish city today (Emek Yilmaz); from the experience of Stockholm in a peripheral genre such as adolescent fiction (Lydia Wistisen) to examinations into the border between nature and the city in Nordic literature (Topi Lappalainen, Marie Öhman, Katarzyna Tunkiel). Geographically, presentations discussed urban environments located from South Africa (Marita Wenzel) to China (Louis Lo, Joan Chiung-huei Chang), Turkey (Mehtap Doganca) and Argentina (Yoel-Rimmer). The literary peripheries of such “central” cities as London, Paris and New York were addressed in a range of papers (Aleksejs Taube, Mirka Ahonen, Catharina Drott, Susanna Suomela, Lieven Ameel, Markku Salmela), as were the urban experiences in the literature of specific peripheral cities such as Tartu (Berk Vaher), Tallinn (Ivo Heinloo, Elle-Mari Talivee) and Helsinki (Silja Laine). Throughout, considerable attention was drawn to the possibilities of innovative methods to gain insights into spatial experiences, from the creative use of maps (Eva Norrman, Lisbeth Larsson, Jason Finch) to the analysis of sensescapes (Susan Jung Su).

Following Professor Tambling’s concluding talk, the conference closed with a panel discussion in which overall themes and possible future directions were considered. On the panel were the three organisers of the conference, Lieven Ameel (University of Helsinki), Jason Finch (Åbo Akademi University), and Markku Salmela (University of Tampere), Professor Tambling (Professor Selboe was unable to participate), and the cultural historian Silja Laine of the University of Turku.

Several possible future directions were indicated. A future conference could focus on a tighter theme, for example smaller cities, or even shanty-towns. The question arose of the post-urban, of a world where everywhere is in effect urban thanks to mass communications and in which the vast majority of the world’s population will by 2050 be living in what are defined as urban areas, but in which cities have become decentralised, diffused over much greater physical areas than in the past. This could also be a focus for future discussions. At present, there is a certain politics implied in our decision to examine notions of what is peripheral both in terms of specific zones within cities (city peripheries) and of some cities seen in relation to others (peripheral cities). This political aspect could, in future meetings, be either further developed or moved to the background.

On the basis of the panel discussion, several ways to develop the network’s activities were identified. In order to be able to keep the calendar with upcoming events and CFP’s, as well as the bibliography with relevant material up-to-date, the network will need active input from all members. The network could be used more actively in drawing up specific international research projects; if members want to develop research projects, they are encouraged to either get in touch with the HLCN coordinator, or to contact other individual members working on the same thematics. One way to develop the website could be to add information kits about the various cities in which network members are living: each member could provide a personal take on the city he or she lives and works in, including reference to books and films set in the place. This could become a lively section of the website which would also serve to publicise the network. Another suggestion that came up during the panel discussion is that the HLCN could be more involved in developing material on teaching the literary city, since several members are teaching courses with similar foci. The HLCN aims to organise a workshop on teaching the city in literature, and to provide links to relevant course material.

The HLCN will also be more involved in cooperation with other networks, such as the Ghent Urban Studies Team (GUST) of the University of Ghent, Belgium, which is already an associate institute of the HLCN. Specific interests of the GUST include: diffuse urbanity and in particular, as opposed to notions such as that of non-place associated with Marc Augé, the development of understandings of this as a positive phenomenon; mid-sized urbanity as potentially a new ideal; links between architectural theory and literature in the apprehension of the urban. These notions will be taken into account more explicitly when developing key concepts in literary urbanism within the HLCN. Possibilities for cooperation with other existing research units and centres will also be explored.

Thanks to all the participants, and hope to welcome you back for our next conference (scheduled for 2015)!

See the sessions and the original programme: sessions booklet

For more information contact:

Lieven Ameel, University of Helsinki (lieven.ameel@helsinki.fi)
Jason Finch, Åbo Akademi University (jfinch@abo.fi)
Markku Salmela, University of Tampere (markku.salmela@uta.fi)