Futures of New York: Narrating Environmental Agency in Fictional and Non-Fictional Texts

I present a paper on my research project “Narratives of the Urban Waterfront in Crisis – Negotiating Possible Futures of Post-Industrial Harbour Cities” at Narrative2018 in Montreal, at the University of McGill.

How do metaphors emplot the relationship with the urban waterfront? How do different kinds of textual genres narrate agency – the possibility to act? What do such metaphorizations and narrated frames for agency tell us about how power relationships and the possibility to act are shaped in language, through language, and intimately entwined with developments in the material world? I address these questions in an examination of the New York comprehensive waterfront development plan Vision 2020 and Jonathan Safran foer’s story “The Sixth Borough”.

The paper, entitled “Futures of New York: Narrating Environmental Agency in Fictional
and Non-Fictional Texts” is on Friday afternoon 15:30-17:00, in the “Agency and High Stakes Storytelling” panel.

source: https://narrative2018.ca/

Urban and Environmental Justice in “Sybaris and Other Homes”

Speaking today at the conference “Nineteenth Century Studies and Visions of the Future” (Helsinki, 26.1.2018) on one of my favorite books – the little known utopian novel Sybaris and other homes by Edward E. Hale. I wrote at length about its utopian features in my 2016 article “Cities Utopian, Dystopian and Apocalyptic” (Palgrave Handbook of Literature and the City) – today I’ll speak specifically about the ways in which it frames urban and environmental justice.


Towards a Future in Balance: Utopian Visions of Urban and Environmental Justice in Edward E. Hale’s Sybaris and Other Homes (1869)

Lieven Ameel

In the little-known utopian text “My Visit to Sybaris”, in Edward E. Hale’s Sybaris and Other Homes (1869), the protagonist finds himself unexpectedly in an Italian-Greek city preserved from antiquity, whose inhabitants combine highly developed technology with ancient legal practices. The text’s concerns range from the problematics of urban housing and financial reform to urban and suburban planning. A particularly intriguing concept is that of “harpagmos”, a verdict passed for a crime when someone “has taken from a citizen what he cannot restore” (Hale 52). The crime includes the stealing of time, echoing contemporary discussions about labour and currency reform. There are interesting ecological dimensions, too, since the verdict of “harpagmos” can be passed for disturbing the natural and ecological harmony. In this respect, “Sybaris” prefigures later utopian/dystopian accounts concerned with ecological catastrophes. In my presentation, I will examine “My Visit to Sybaris” in its context of nineteenth-century utopian literature, with a particular interest in the environmental undercurrents in the text. My approach is further informed by a concern with how the paratextual elements of the text, its various time frames, as well as the intertextual references (including numerous references to texts from Antiquity) point to particular readings of the text.




Welcome to the SELMA seminar “INTERSECTIONS OF NARRATIVE STUDIES AND URBAN STUDIES”, where I will present ongoing research projects together with Jason Finch, with whom we’ve had a number of inspiring collaborations in the field of literary urban studies so far.

I’ll present my new research project, Jason will be speaking of mediations and representations of mass housing.

More information here.

18. JANUARY, 14.00-16.00, E325 (Minerva, Kaivokatu 12)
Jason FINCH: “Mediations and Representations of Mass Housing: Visions versus Phenomenologies?”
Lieven AMEEL: “Narrating Urban Futures: Cities at the Water in Fictional and Non-fictional Texts.”

A vital dimension of contemporary literary studies is increased engagement with real-world issues such as social policy and planning. Practitioners including urban historians and policy-makers gain understanding of aspects of human experience not readily available otherwise in collaboration with literary scholars. Also, techniques originating in literary studies can be used productively to read texts not conventionally labelled literary, including municipal plans and oral histories preserved in archives. On 18 January, SELMA presents two speakers with links to the Centre who work in this interdisciplinary area, and on the frontier dividing academic and extra-academic social analysis. Lieven Ameel and Jason Finch are founder members of the Association for Literary Urban Studies (ALUS), the most recent international conference of which was ‘(Im)Possible Cities’ (University of Tampere, 2017). They have jointly edited two volumes arising from the work of the Association and are editors of the Palgrave series Literary Urban Studies (http://www.springer.com/series/15888).

Starting a new project at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies!

Excited to embark on a new research project at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies, with an affiliation at comparative literature, University of Turku. In this three- year project, I will examine narratives of urban futures, with a specific focus on how the (near) future of cities at the water is negotiated in different textual genres, including literary fiction, future scenarios, and urban planning and policy documents. One of the key issues is the hypothesis that different narrative genres have different abilities (and different limitations) in how they can posit personal and communal choice and agency. At the background of this project is the notion that the stories we tell of the future are in large part responsible for how we see our own possibilities of action towards a possible future.

In this research project, I will focus on Helsinki, New York City, and urban futures in the Low Countries, in the period 1990-2030.

More information here.

If you would like to collaborate or want to hear more, please contact me at lieven.ameel [a] utu.fi – I’m interested in hearing more from other people (academics, policy makers, media) working with similar issues!

Literary Second Cities

Out now with Palgrave: Literary Second Cities (editors Jason Finch, Lieven Ameel and Markku Salmela). The volume grew out of the conference by the same name, organized at Åbo Akademi/Turku in 2015.

This book brings together geographers and literary scholars in a series of engagements near the boundaries of their disciplines. In urban studies, disproportionate attention has been given to a small set of privileged ‘first’ cities. This volume problematizes the dominance of such alpha cities, offering a wide perspective on ‘second cities’ and their literature. The volume is divided into three themed sections. ‘In the Shadow of the Alpha City’ problematizes the image of cities defined by their function and size, bringing out the contradictions and contestations inherent in cultural productions of second cities, including Birmingham and Bristol in the UK, Las Vegas in the USA, and Tartu in Estonia. ‘Frontier Second Cities’ pays attention to the multiple and trans-national pasts of second cities which occupy border zones, with a focus on Narva, in Estonia, and Turkish/Kurdish Diyarbakir. The final section, ‘The Diffuse Second City’, examines networks the diffuse secondary city made up of interlinked small cities, suburban sprawl and urban overspill, with literary case studies from Italy, Sweden, and Finland.

“Setting ‘second’ cities first, this is an impressive and timely reminder that complex literary cultures exist in many locations beyond more familiar metropolitan capitals. In a set of exciting interdisciplinary essays Literary Second Cities reminds us of the distinctive character of urban life as conceptualised by writers exploring cities such as Birmingham, Las Vegas, or Narva. This volume is thus a brilliant and original addition to the growing body of work on urban literary studies.” (Professor Andrew Thacker, Department of English, Nottingham Trent University)

“Urban literary studies has understandably focused attention on certain major, global cities — London, Paris, New York, Tokyo — haut lieux that dominate the spatial imagination. But what of the second cities, smaller, less revered, but perhaps more representative of urban life in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? The essays in Literary Second Cities address this blind spot by analysing the distinctive space and character of these ’secondary’ places. This is a vital and necessary collection.” (Professor Robert T. Tally Jr., Department of English, Texas State University)

From the first chapter, “The Second City in Literary Urban Studies:
Methods, Approaches, Key Thematics”:

”In urban studies, the notion of the “secondary city” has gradually come to prominence during the last decades of the twentieth century, especially in the study of cities in the developing world. Quantifiable factors have featured prominently in their definition and, following Kingsley Davis’s classification of Class II cities, some researchers have focused on population, in particular (typically 100,000 to 500,000), to define secondary cities (see Tan 13). While Davis’s classification from the 1960s is still applied, it is useful to note that more recent quantifying definitions label secondary cities as having populations between 500,000 and three million inhabitants (Brillembourg and Klumpner). Quantifiable factors, then, would seem to become fast outdated, offering only the crudest of methodological frameworks. In more recent studies, secondary cities have become increasingly defined in terms of their function, their relationships with metropolitan and other urban centres, as well as in terms of the specific kinds of urban experiences they enable. Still, when defined in relation to other cities, secondary cities tend to be understood, first of all, for what they are not—in relation to a “first” city (such as a capital or other clearly economically/culturally dominant city in a national or international context)‚ that is.

As more recent qualifications in urban studies testify, secondary cities are not only to be defined by their size or dependent relationship to a metropolis, but by their specific functions. Thus Brian Roberts and Rene Peter Hohmann, in a study supported by the United Nations Human Settlements Project UN-Habitat, define what they call “secondary cities” as “urban jurisdictions performing vital governance, logistical, and production functions at a sub-national or sub-metropolitan region level within a system of cities in a country” (3). Secondary cities may be specialized-function cities or draw their specific characteristics “on the basis of their urban function as focal centers of cultural, political, and ritual networking” (K. Hall 12). The function of a single city within a network of cities is understood not only as dependency vis-à-vis the metropolis. Even more important is a network of other secondary cities and urban centres, which “distinguishes secondary cities from the metropolitan centres” (K. Hall 3). In globalizing times, second cities are sometimes able to bypass “first” cities in the way they come to form networks of cities (as argued in Bart Keunen’s contribution to this volume). Ultimately, secondary cities are also set apart from the metropolis and smaller urban settlements by the kinds of experiences they evoke.

To illustrate how second cities produce specific kinds of urban experience, one can look at what Simon Parker calls the “‘the Four Cs’ of the urban experience—culture, consumption, conflict and community” (4). All these express themselves continuously in urban dwellers’ everyday lives. For example, the fact that second cities rarely have architecture associated with political leadership on the national level—parliamentary buildings, ministries, residences of heads of state—frees central areas for other functions and can be a fundamental factor shaping these cities’ public space in comparison with the capital cities of the countries in question. Furthermore, the same industries and resources that have often historically shaped second cities also facilitate specific ideological currents, consumption patterns, and ways of communicating, all discernible as particular “structures of feeling.” For Raymond Williams (Marxism 130–34) this concept was to be defined temporally, as characteristic of a given period or generation, but a spatial application based on contrasts between places seems equally useful. Although such city-specific structures may resist precise empirical description, they create, in relation to other cities, experiential worlds not reducible to stereotypical representation.

Recent urban studies have highlighted the importance of research into secondary cities, drawing, again, on both quantifiable and experiential arguments. More than 40 per cent of the world’s population is expected to live in secondary cities by the middle of the twenty-first century (Roberts 40), and various studies have argued that secondary cities may well be more competitive in economic terms and more desirable as living environments than the megacities which remain dominant in the literature on cities (see, e.g., Kresl and Ietri, Notteboom et al.). If secondary cities, mid-size cities and “second tier cities” have become increasingly foregrounded in urban studies as warranting a distinctive treatment (see, e.g., K. Hall; Markusen et al.), this also has relevance for literary urban studies, long preoccupied with narratives of the metropolitan urban condition (see Simmel; Wirth; Williams, Politics). From local urban service centres or specialized cities to networks of smaller cities, the notion of the secondary in relation to literary urban studies is a rich field demanding more attention from scholars.” (Finch, Ameel & Salmela 6-8)

Table of contents:

Part I Defining the Second City

1 The Second City in Literary Urban Studies: Methods, Approaches, Key Thematics 3
Jason Finch, Lieven Ameel and Markku Salmela
2 World Cities and Second Cities: Imagining Growth and Hybridity in Modern Literature 21
Bart Keunen

Part II In the Shadow of the Alpha City

3 Comic Novel‚ City Novel: David Lodge and Jonathan Coe Reinterpreted by Birmingham 45
Jason Finch
4 “A Sort of Second London in Every Thing but Vitiousness”: Bristol in Eighteenth-Century Poetry, 1700–1750 67
Adam Borch
5 Cities Within a Second City: The Case of Literary Tartu 89
Mart Velsker and Ene-Reet Soovik
6 Still Learning from Las Vegas: Imagining America’s Urban Other 109
Markku Salmela

Part III Frontier Second Cities

7 The Capital of Otherness: A Geocritical Exploration of Diyarbakır, Turkey 131
Francesco Marilungo
8 Narva: A Literary Border Town 151
Elle-Mari Talivee

Part IV The Diffuse Second City

9 Riku Korhonen’s Kahden ja Yhden Yön Tarinoita as Reflection on the Suburban Fragmentation of Community 175
Lieven Ameel and Tuomas Juntunen
10 “Away from Here to Tjottahejti”: Spatial and Sexual (Re-)Orientation in Places of Secondariness in Contemporary Swedish Fiction 195
Sophie Wennerscheid
11 Moving Beyond Venice: Literary Landscapes of Movement in Northern Italy’s “Diffused City” 217
Giada Peterle

Afterword 241
Marc Brosseau

more information: http://www.palgrave.com/us/book/9783319627182

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.

[image: dekrook.be]

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.