London 4 June 2019 – Infrastructural reading workshop

Just arrived in London for the ”Infrastructural Reading. Fragments, Flows, Forms” workshop at the University of London – a workshop that ”sets out to explore how literary, visual and other narrative forms mediate and intervene into current debates on cities, urban spaces and sustainable infrastructure developments”.

Sounds like exactly the kind of thing I have wanted to participate in all these years!

The workshops includes participation and keynotes of a.o. Dom Davies, Matthew Gandy, Keller Easterling, Caroline Levine.

Really excited to have the opportunity to present my work to this interdisciplinary audience and to learn more from all the other attendants and from the artist’s and intervention speakers’ talks.

I’ll give a talk on ”Formal Adaptation and Retreat in Contemporary Fiction of New York and New Jersey” and on how in selected literary fiction, the engagement ”with climate change [and] … with disruptive practices in the twenty-first city, takes shape in literary form itself: in the adaptation of particular tropes and in the retreat of literary language through a deliberately sparser vocabulary, gaps at sentence level, or lacunae in the narration. Looking at such instances of retreat and adaptation on a formal plane may also reflect on non-fictional narrative models for living in a coastal city under threat, including those found in urban planning, policy, and future scenarios.” (Ameel 2019)
The talk is part of my broader project on future narratives of cities at the water in planning and fiction – more here.

A big thank you to the powers that be for freedom of movement and excellent train connections in Europe, which has given me the possibility to travel to Germany and now to London for work, and to France and Italy on holiday the past six months, all smoothly via rail.

Pamplona, Narrative2019 and ”Fraught Fictionality” in non-literary future narratives

Thanks to everyone at Narrative2019 – inspiring three days in Pamplona! Wide array of narrative research from different parts of the globe, lots of interesting talks, good discussions over coffee. I presented on what I call ”fraught fictionality” – the use of fictional elements in non-literary future narratives. Part of my broader project on future narratives of cities at the water in planning and fiction – more here. Hope to be able to make it to Narrative2020 in New Orleans next year!

Polyphony and urban planning: Peter Holvoet-Hanssen’s Quay Poem in Antwerp

Today I’ll participate in a workshop of the Texts ≈ Buildings networks, in Brussels in association with the Department of Architecture, KU Leuven.

I’ll present a paper on polyphony and urban planning. I examine Peter Holvoet-Hanssen’s Quay Poem, an in-situ poem painted on the Antwerp quays during Holvoet-Hanssen’s tenure as city poet, as an example for unpacking literature’s potential as a complex and always ambiguous, open-ended repository of knowledge, but also as a way to consider ways in which urban planning practices can work towards polyphony and narrativity.

My talk ties in with my broader research project on future visions of cities at the water.

Many thanks to Michael Vandebril, coordinator of Antwerp City of Books, for his extensive introduction of the Quay Poem during a recent visit to the site.

 

About the workshop:

“This workshop, organised in the framework of the WOG Texts ≈ Buildings, focuses on Choices and Strategies of Spatial Imagination as Ways of Knowing. By focusing on conceptual, contextual and disciplinary “transpositions” between disciplines, we intend to tackle the Texts ≈ Buildings from the angle of architectural and literary imagination as sources of knowledge of the built environment.”

 

“Governing the Future: Perspectives from literary studies” in Fennia

For the latest issue of Fennia, I wrote a reflection article about “Governing the future: perspectives from literary studies”, as a commentary to Rhys Jones’s article “Governing the future and the search for spatial justice: Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act.”

Part of my current research project on genres of future storytelling in the context of cities at the water.

Abstract:
“Taking its cue from Rhys Jones’s article “Governing the future and the search for spatial justice: Wales’ Well-being of Future Generations Act”, this commentary reflects on some of the challenges attached to attempts to govern the future. It proposes perspectives from literature and literary studies to enrich how we imagine the future. This commentary maps out how literary fiction and other forms of future storytelling associated with qualia – the “how it feels” of future possible worlds – may provide an important complementary to other, more distancing, modes of envisioning the future.”

From the article:

“… : what can fictional texts contribute to our thinking of the future? The example of Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a literary novel that in its time was influential within urban planning and policy, provides one obvious reference, illustrating how utopian literature, nineteenth-century scientific romance, or science fiction can posit alternative societies. But literary fiction, in its various forms, has always been concerned with counterfactuality – with imagining the not-yet; with juxtaposing different possible worlds and with considering possible futures, from small-scale deliberations about whom to marry (the famous dilemma of Rastignac, in Balzac’s Le Père Goriot [1835]), to momentous changes in world history (such as in Dick’s The Man in the High Castle [1962]). Westphal (2007, 59, 63), in Geocriticism, considers literature as “experimental field of alternative realities,” and a “laboratory of the possible”. More generally, literature does not only describe possibilities, it is arguably also about extending an awareness of the possible into the world of the reader, providing readers with an expanded sense of possibility (Meretoja 2017). Literary studies has in turn long developed methods and frameworks to speak of possible worlds, also in relation to future possibilities (see Ameel & Neuvonen 2016).”

Source:

Lieven Ameel. “Governing the future: perspectives from literary studies – commentary to Jones.” In Fennia 197/1, 2019, 145–148. OA link

Teaching New York 2140 – thoughts on the Land Ethic and Stewardship

Teaching Kim Stanley Robertson’s New York 2140 today for my ”Topics in Post-45 American Literature”  class – we discussed the future storyworld in the novel ao. in the light of concepts such as Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic (referenced in New York 2140) and stewardship.

Some of the questions that formed the basis of discussions today:

“Aldo Leopold’s text proposes a “land ethic”, a concept which is also mentioned in New York 2140. If we examine the actions of the protagonists (and others) in New York 2140 from the perspective of the “land ethic”, how do these actions live up to the ideal of Aldo Leopold?”

“The key concept for today’s class is “stewardship”, a concept that (to a degree) can also be related to the Leopoldian land ethic. Can you relate the concept of “stewardship”, as it appears from your theory reading, to New York 2140?”

Lively discussion today – which also left me wondering to what extent key concepts within environmental thinking such as stewardship and the land ethic have been applied by others to contemporary literary fiction.

I already wrote on the question of agency in Robinson’s New York 2140 here;  one forthcoming article also examines the Land Ethic (currently under review).

Thursday 25 April in Ghent: “Peopling the Future City – Embedded and Embodied Futures in Planning, Policy, and Fiction”

This Thursday April 25, 2019 at the Ghent University: “Peopling the Future City: Embedded and Embodied Futures in Planning, Policy, and Fiction”, in collaboration with NARMESH.
16:00-17:30, Blandijn, second floor, room 120.025.

Thanks to Marco Caracciolo and everyone at NARMESH for the invitation.

I’ll be talking about my current research project, in which I examine how different kinds of textual genres, from literary fiction to planning and policy texts, imagine future cities at the water and the possibilities to act towards particular futures, and how they differ in imagining a sense of agency now and in the future.

Literary fiction provides more in the way of qualia, more of a sense of how it feels to be in a particular (future, or speculative) world, than most planning of policy texts set in the same future cities. But how exactly are these experiential, fictional elements situated within the texts, and what meanings do they convey?

One key differentiation that interests me in these different kinds of text is the difference between a panoramic, aestheticizing perspective, and a more grounded, embodied experience.

A second, largely aligned differentiation, is the one between an emptying perspective of the future as field of empty possibility, and the perspective of a future as already in part locked in, and inhabited by embodied and embedded beings within future presents.

While it could be assumed that such differentiations are aligned with the [literary fiction] / [non-fiction; planning & policy] divide, this is not exactly the case, and I examine also planning and policy texts that incorporate fictional elements, as well as fictional texts with a strong emphasis on panoramic perspectives and narrative strategies that in effect empty the future.

In focusing on situated, embedded and embodied experiences of the future, I am indebted to Future Matters (2007) by Barbara Adam and Chris Groves, in which the authors warn against an “emptying of the future” (2), in which the future is “emptied of content and extracted from historical context” (13). They emphasize the importance of approaching the future not in terms of “present futures” – “futures that are imagined, planned, projected, and produced in and for the present” (28), but rather by way of “future presents”, a future that is already partly locked in by our current actions, and peopled with embedded and embodied presents we have the duty to imagine.

Adam and Groves foreground the importance of traditional forms of divination and imaginative methods from futures studies that would allow a focus on “future presents”. Literary fiction can be seen as one important complementary resource for imagining future presents. It has long been emphasized to be crucially about providing readers with qualia – about “how it feels like” to be in a particular, embodied and embedded situation. When so many of the dominant perspectives with which futures are currently imagined take a distancing view, with an emphasis on numbers and quantitative data, on abstract diagrams and on panoramic views of future flood plans or future ice sheet extension, literary resources may allow access to the exact opposite: a sense of what it feels like to be within a situated future present, embedded within particular context and tied to embodied experiences.

Some of my recent articles that are engaged with such questions include “Agency at / in the waterfront in New York City: Vision 2020 and New York 2140” in Textual Practice, and the forthcoming “Governing the Future: Perspectives from Literary Studies”, a reflection paper in the geography journal Fennia (the two previous paragraphs are part of that Fennia paper).

The ‘valley of ashes’ and the ‘fresh green breast’: metaphors from The Great Gatsby in planning New York

Out now: my article “The ‘valley of ashes’ and the ‘fresh green breast’: metaphors from The Great Gatsby in planning New York”, with Planning Perspectives!

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02665433.2019.1602847

The article is part of my current, three-year research project, in which I look at narratives of cities at the water across different kinds of texts, from literary fiction to planning and policy documents.

Thanks to everyone at the University of Duisburg-Essen, where I gave a lecture 24 May 2018 that included some of the material that was reworked in this article. Thanks, in particular, to the Script Group, and prof. Jens Gurr and prof. Barbara Buchenau, for inviting me to Essen.

From the Introduction of the article:

“Visions of what a city could or should be tend to be constructed around metaphors, rhetorical tropes that crystalize the idea of a preferable future city. Such metaphorizations are never innocent: they draw on pre-existing cultural narratives and activate particular frames of expectations. Examinations of metaphors in urban planning have tended to focus on how they are used to insinuate a natural or causal logic to legitimize disruptive development. Zygmunt Bauman has traced the implications of metaphors, such as that of the garden, in legitimizing processes of exclusion, of ‘weeding out’ otherness. But metaphors are never straightforward: they are shifting and malleable, and as imaginative transposers of meaning, they are necessarily ambiguous. One and the same metaphor used in planning can be used for different, even opposite purposes in different historical contexts.

This article examines two metaphors used in the planning of New York City: the spectre of the ‘valley of ashes’ and the dream of the ‘fresh, green breast’. These metaphors, inspired by F. Scott Fizgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925), recur intermittently in the planning of the New York shoreline, from Robert Moses’s vision for Flushing Meadow to the 1967 policy report Threatened City by Mayor Lindsay’s urban task force, to Mayor Bloomberg’s waterfront development plans and Eric Sanderson’s 2009 propositions for a 2409 New York in Mannahatta. The implications of these metaphors for how they activate particular cultural narratives about the city’s relationship with its natural environment have so far remained underdeveloped, even in more recent critique of their use. Drawing on a reading of The Great Gatsby, and including critical responses by Louise Westling, Leo Marx, and others, this article examines how the metaphors of the ‘valley of ashes’ and the ‘fresh green breast’ have been adapted throughout decades of planning of New York City to accommodate changing relationships, conflicts and ideals, always infused by a pastoral undercurrent that is already questioned in Fitzgerald’s novel. For planning historians, an examination of these metaphors may offer important insights into how different historical planning contexts draw on the same metaphors for varying purposes.”

From the Conclusion:

“Since their appearance in The Great Gatsby, the tropes of the ‘valley of ashes’ – the dreadful nightmare of a pastoral landscape turned into a wasteland – and its counterpoint, the ‘green breast’, with its dream of a fresh start, have continued to haunt the planning of New York and its shores. During almost a century of planning New York, these metaphors have been adapted to fit a range of purposes, from early expansion (Moses’s parkways) and redevelopment (1939 fair) to more recent efforts at reframing the post-industrial city as green metropolis. But seen through the lens of The Great Gatsby, these tropes in planning also convey contradictory cultural meanings not necessarily intended: the destructive and disruptive impulses of the American dream, and the fraught pastoral gaze that continues to aestheticize the environment, lamenting its destruction while preparing it for renewed exploitation. Unlike what Moses, Bloomberg, Sanderson, and others, imply, the metaphors from The Great Gatsby remind us that past mistakes, lurking in the environment, cannot be redeemed – they have to be lived with.”

 

Note:

If anyone from Taylor & Francis is reading along: Planning Perspectives is a Taylor & Francis journal. The recent developments (time of writing: spring 2019) in the dispute between Taylor & Francis and Finnish national and university libraries have caused me, and most academic researchers I’m aware of, to reconsider whether or not we will want to continue publishing in Taylor & Francis journals. Current publishing practices are not sustainable and a move to increased open access publishing will be necessary, hopefully in collaboration with publishers and with university research assessment schemes.

 

Teaching “Open City” today; palimpsest, multiple temporal layers, and the city

Teaching Teju Cole’s Open City today as part of my course ”Topics in Post-45 American Literature – Futures of New York City in Contemporary American Literature” at the KU Leuven. The aim of the course is to provide students with the concepts and theoretical frameworks to explore the (often contradictory) meanings of 21st century literature of New York City, with specific reference to future-oriented literature. In the previous lecture, we discussed Odds Against Tomorrow together with theoretical texts from futures studies. Today, Open City will be approached with the help of the key concept “palimpsest” and with some reading from Burton Pike’s The Image of the City in Modern Literature. The idea is to ground readings by the students in a broader awareness of how different temporal scales tend to function within literature of the city, before moving into reflections on how future (or possible) worlds are hinted at in Open City.

I’ve published on Open City in other contexts (see my article > “Reading Signs of Uncertain Times in New York and Brussels” [pdf]), and this lecture as well as the whole course are part of my current research project on future visions of cities at the water. Looking forward to discussing the different angles of my research with the students today.

Source:

Ameel, Lieven. “Open City: Reading Signs of Uncertain Times in New York and Brussels.” In Polvinen, Merja; Salenius, Maria & Sklar, Howard (eds.): Mielikuvituksen maailmat / Fantasins världar / Worlds of Imagination. Turku: Eetos, 2017, 290-308.

 

Out now! “Agency at/of the waterfront in New York City”, in Textual Practice

Really glad to see the latest article in my research of future narratives of cities at the water, “Agency at/of the waterfront in New York City: Vision 2020 and New York 2140” just being published in Textual Practice. The article approaches the question of narrated agency in future narratives through the lens of the New York waterfront, explored as a site for enacting and critiquing the possibility to act towards the future. Who is described as having the possibility to act at the waterfront, and to what extent is the water seen as a force in its own right? These questions are addresses by examining two key texts imagining a future New York City: the New York Comprehensive Waterfront Plan Vision 2020 (2011) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017). I argue that both texts gesture towards an acknowledgement of possible agency of the water, while continuing to reiterate an instrumental relationship with the environment that focuses on processes of appropriation, distribution and production. Ultimately, this article considers the implications for the implied readers’ agency, and for their possibilities to take meaningful action to interact with, and make changes in, their relationship with the water.

Ameel, Lieven 2019. “Agency at / in the waterfront in New York City: Vision 2020 and New York 2140.” Textual Practice. ahead of print

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0950236X.2019.1581250

From the introduction:

“The future, in the words of Bertrand de Jouvenel’s The Art of Conjecture – a founding textbook of futures studies – constitutes a ‘field of uncertainty’ and a ‘field of liberty’ – the domain of the not-yet, onto which everyone is free to project anything one wants. But the future is also a ‘field of power’, and, as de Jouvenel points out, ‘the future is our only field of power, for we can act only on the future’ (emphasis added). In a time of global warming and radical climate change, I would add, the future has also become the field of both a shared and individual ethical responsibility. Examining narratives of the future is one important way to address this interplay between uncertainty, liberty, power, and responsibility. From literary fiction to planning and policy visions, narratives frame, question, and shape the future and our possibilities to act upon it. Crucial for how different forms of storytelling act as storehouses of knowledge with which we approach the future is the question of agency. Who is described as possessing the possibility to act, and how is this ability carried out?

This paper approaches the question of narrated agency in future narratives through the lens of the New York waterfront, explored here as a site for enacting and critiquing the possibility to act towards the future. In the texts examined here, the urban waterfront appears as an arena of transformation, both in material and in allegorical terms, the place where the city’s – and city dwellers’ – coming-of-age rituals are performed time and again. But this is also an area where the water itself appears as a force in its own right, acting upon the environment. The texts examined here are the New York Comprehensive Waterfront Plan Vision 2020 (2011) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017).”

From the conclusion:

“Rather than an optimistic and ‘surprisingly utopian’ view of human defiance, as some critics have it, I would argue that New York 2140 offers a bleak examination of the limits set to action by monetary structure, and the power of financial liquidity to embrace even the noblest of causes and have them enmeshed in the ebb and flow of global finance. Such a view is in part compatible with a range of recent research, critical of the prose novel’s affordances to describe meaningful possibilities for action beyond the immediate personal circle. Similarly, Vision 2020 can hardly be blamed for doing what a planning document is supposed to do: setting out how it will order, arrange, and develop the planning area for the overt benefit of its citizens (and that of the less explicated vested interests jostling for predominance). If neither of these two texts give exactly cause to celebrate the possibilities to act towards a better future of and at the waterfront, Vision 2020 and New York 2140 do provide a number of insights. Citizens can act, in Vision 2020, to propose change, protected as they are by the New York charter and in the form of ‘197-a plans’ that enable communities to initiate development initiatives. In both texts, the water can be thought of as possessing legal status and independent agency, even if only as a thought experiment. The waterfront, even if relentlessly reclaimed, appropriated, redistributed, capitalised upon, does retain a measure of its transformative power regardless; a sense of openness from which a new order can arise, only partially shaped by conscious and intentional efforts – and so does the future.”

Thanks to everyone at the research seminar of comparative literature, University of Turku, and Tintti Klapuri, in particular, for helpful comments. Thanks are due also to the anonymous reviewers.

Many thanks to everyone at Textual Practice for excellent work on the volume and providing a stimulating forum for literary research.

If anyone from Taylor & Francis is reading along: Textual Practice is a Taylor & Francis journal. The recent developments (time of writing: February 2019) in the dispute between Taylor & Francis and Finnish national and university libraries have caused me, and most academic researchers I’m aware of, to reconsider whether or not we will want to continue publishing in Taylor & Francis journals. Current publishing practices are not sustainable and a move to increased open access publishing will be necessary, hopefully in collaboration with publishers and with university research assessment schemes.

Presenting “Simultaneity as Urban Multi-scalar Complexity” – ALUS symposium, Essen, 15 Feb 2019

Presenting today at the University of Duisburg-Essen at the ALUS symposium “Simultaneity in the City”. In my talk, “Simultaneity as Urban Multi-scalar Complexity: From the Modernist Poem to the Climate Novel”, I discuss “citiness” as urban multiscalar complexity, simultaneity as synchronicity, simultaneity as coexistence of different temporal frames, simultaneity and literary form, simultaneity as readerly synchronicity, and simultaneity as cutting across scales in the contemporary novel.

Fascinating array of topics in the symposium, including Jason Finch on Liverpool and St. Louis; Maria Sulimma on simultaneity and seriality; Lena Mattheis on translocal narratability; Chris Katzenberg on Colum McCann’s Thirteen Ways of Looking, and more. Full program here.

Many thanks to Lena Mattheis and Saskia Hertlein for organizing the symposium, and Jens Gurr and Barbara Buchenau for facilitating the cooperation between ALUS and the Scripts Group’s work at the University of Duisburg-Essen.