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.


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


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.

In Essen, Germany, for work with the Scripts Group

I’m in Essen, Germany, at the University of Duisburg-Essen for a session with the Scripts Group – a group of scholars working on transatlantic narratives of cities, city cultures, and urban planning. Very much aligned with some of my work on applying methods from narrative and literary studies to urban planning. Fascinating array of research projects, sources and methods.

Topics include narratives of urban waterfront development, trivial pursuits in postindustrial environments, counter-discourses in cultural scenes, narratives of sustainable and climate-friendly rehabilitation, and more – and most projects with a transatlantic perspective, with focus on US cities and German post-industrial urban regions.

[Zollverein, Essen]

Thanks to prof. Jens Gurr and prof. Barbara Buchenau for the invitation and the warm reception – and for all their good work on the scripts group.


Greetings from the KU Leuven!

Greetings from Leuven! From the beginning of 2019, I’m working at the KU Leuven, Belgium, for a six-month stay as Visiting Professor at the Department of Literature. The extended research stay is made possible by TIAS and the generous hospitality of the KU Leuven, who also assisted in providing housing. Thanks, in particular, to Pieter Vermeulen from English Literature.

(The beautiful Groot Begijnhof, where we’re staying; founded in the 13th c, most buildings from the 17th c)

I’m excited to learn more about the work being done at the Department of Literature – and beyond. At the KUL, Pieter Vermeulen’s work on contemporary American literature aligns well with many of my own research interests (ao. his work on Teju Cole and within the environmental humanities); Bart Vervaeck’s books on journey’s to the netherworld (Literaire Hellevaarten) and Handbook of Narrative Analysis (with L. Herman) have been an inspiration; and there’s plenty of new research I’ll be getting acquainted with. Very much looking forward to be able to present my current research about narrating futures of cities at the water and to focus on my research project during this time. And really excited, also, about the course I’ll teach starting from February – “Topics in Post-45 American Literature“, with a specific focus on “Futures of New York City in Contemporary American Literature”. An opportunity to test and discuss some of my ongoing research, in particular dealing with novels such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, Teju Cole’s Open City,Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, and Ben Lerner’s 10:04.

A return to Belgium after 20 years in Finland also provides the possibility to reconnect with friends, family, old colleagues; as well as with my mother-tongue and with literature and research written in Dutch. I hope to make the best of good train connections to also meet up with colleagues in the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, with a first planned visit to the University of Duisburg-Essen in February.


Tuomainen’s “The Healer” in the new Reader in Climate Fiction

The last few days of 2018 saw the appearance of a timely Cli-Fi – A Reader, edited by Adeline Johns-Putra and Axel Goodbody, and including my introductory article on Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer (Parantaja). Contributors to the Reader were encouraged to include reflections on how the novels in question can be used in teaching; the past few years I have taught several courses that included The Healer and from my experiences, this is a novel that opens up a range of perspectives for teaching climate fiction, but also beyond, and including questions in literary urban studies (how is the future city linked to Helsinki’s urban planning visions?) and literary genre studies (is the novel cli-fi, Scandinavian noir, a crime novel?). The Healer is widely translated; hopefully this article will be beneficial also for classrooms and researchers outside of Northern Europe in examining contemporary climate fiction outside of the narrow current Anglo-Saxon canon.

From the article:


“Antti Tuomainen’s Parantaja [The Healer], published in 2010, is set in a near-future Helsinki where climate change is wreaking havoc both in the Finnish capital and abroad. Incessant rains and floods are the most visible climate change-related curses in Tuomainen’s Helsinki, but there is also news of global pandemics, destructive forest fires and water wars. Society is breaking down, and amidst the radical upheaval, a serial killer, the eponymous ‘Healer’ – the ‘healer for a sick planet’  – is murdering people he holds responsible for accelerating climate change. The plot revolves around the endeavours of the protagonist, the Finnish poet Tapani Lehtinen, to find his lost wife Johanna, who is a journalist investigating the murders. As Tapani learns more about the mysterious Healer, he also discovers about the past of his wife, who turns out to have known the Healer intimately. In his journey through flooded Helsinki, Tapani guides the reader on a tour of how different areas in the city, as well as different affected citizens, are coping with the dramatic changes.”

perspectives for teaching:

“One possibility would be to approach the novel in terms of its reception and genre, with a specific focus on how the novel’s implications for climate change depend on the generic prism with which it is approached – Nordic noir or crime fiction; dystopia or climate fiction? A discussion of The Healer in tandem with other Finnish dystopian novels, or as a part of a selection of Nordic speculative fiction, would attune students also to the importance of the cultural and historical specificity of literary responses to climate change outside of the English-speaking world. As a novel set in a recognizable real-world setting, the novel could also be integrated in courses that examine the interaction between fictional texts and urban planning narratives. A last approach would be to examine the novel as part of a course on representations of agency and responsibility in climate fiction. Who is held responsible in this novel for catastrophic climate change, and what room is there for mitigating strategies? Given the role played by climate terrorism in the novel, The Healer could also provide insights in changing (and often genre- and culture-specific) depictions of ecological terrorists.”

From the conclusion:

“The Healer plays on the fear of the future in dystopian and apocalyptic scenarios. Rather than offering concrete insights into the dynamics and the possible effects of climate change, it presents a chilling rendering of what it feels like to live in a society disrupted by radical climate change. The presence of recognizable and everyday environments being turned into war zones, such as the iconic Stockmann department store in central Helsinki during Christmas shopping period, is particularly gripping.”


“Antti Tuomainen: The Healer.” In Johns-Putra, Adeline & Goodbody, Axel (eds.): Reader in Climate Fiction. Oxford: Peter Lang, 2018, 165-170.

The Sixth Borough – Metaphorizations of the Water

Excited to see the appearance of the first article of the New York City part of my research project on future narratives of cities at the water. This new article, published with Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, examines Foer’s story of the Sixth Borough in view of other metaphors of the New York waterfront, and with reference to the comprehensive waterfront plan Vision 2020, in particular.

In my research more broadly, I examine metaphorizations and future narratives of the urban waterfront across disciplines, with cross-readings of planning, policy, and literary texts.  A number of articles on the Helsinki waterfront in literature have also been published so far, with a few forthcoming. One study I also look particularly forward to seeing published soon is an article forthcoming with Textual Practice in which I look at Vision 2020 in connection with Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and drawing on Carl Schmitt’s concept of nomos and Deleuze & Guattari’s smooth and striated space.

The Sixth Borough: Metaphorizations of the Water in New York City’s Comprehensive Waterfront Plan Vision 2020 and Foer’s “The Sixth Borough”



In visions of future New York City, the waterfront appears as a highly symbolic space, a site of possibility and transformation, imbued with complex cultural meanings. Crucial for the understanding of the urban waterfront and its development are the metaphors used to describe changing relationships to it, across genres. This article focuses on one specific metaphorization of the watery edge of New York City, that of the “Sixth Borough.” It examines the 2011 New York comprehensive waterfront plan Vision 2020 and Jonathan Safran Foer’s short story “The Sixth Borough,” part of the novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, but published as a separate short story in the New York Times (2004, 2005). Read side by side, these texts offer a compelling—if contradictory—view of how the words to describe the city engage with eruptions in the material world.

Free access to the first 50 readers here:


Picture Source: New York City, Vision 2020.

Balloon explorers, the panorama, and the making of an Arctic nomos

Thanks to everyone at last week’s “Water, Animals, and Arctic Climate Change” conference in Joensuu, 12-13 December 2018 (pdf programme here). Special thanks to Markku Lehtimäki and Arja Rosenholm of the Changing Environment of the North project, all the organizers at Joensuu, and Scott Slovic for an inspiring keynote and feedback on the presentations.

I presented a paper on “Balloon explorers, the panorama, and the making of an Arctic nomos in Robinson’s New York 2140, part of my larger research project on future narratives of cities at the water.
Abstract below:
Balloon explorers, the panorama, and the making of an Arctic nomos in Robinson’s New York 2140


In this presentation, I will explore the trope of the balloon explorer in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2017), with a specific reference to Carl Schmitt’s idea of nomos (as proposed in The Nomos of the Earth (1950/2003), and drawing on the idea of visual agency. How does the balloon paronama, and the panoramic visual agency over the Arctic expanse tie in with the process of appropriation, distribution, and production involved in the construction of a nomos of the arctic? What kinds of mastery, and epistemological order, does the balloon panorama attempt? I will focus on Robinson’s futuristic novel, but will also draw on Philip Pullmans’s His Dark Materials, and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, literary texts that utilize complex strategies of imaginative worldmaking that involve arctic balloon exploration as a way of assessing new kinds of knowledge of humans’ relationships to their environment, but also as means of territorial and epistemological control.

picture source: https://blogs.uef.fi/cen-aqua/events/


Reading Vis second- and third-hand

The Croatian island of Vis, and the fishers’ village of Komiza, are a thoroughly inspiring setting for a conference on wavescapes in literature and culture. As always, experiences of space are in part already mediated by contact with earlier stories – so a few (admittedly random, and entirely personal) thoughts on my earlier, non-bodily encounters with Vis:

I was introduced to the island of Vis as a child overhearing talk of my grandmother’s brother’s exploits during the Second World War. The family had escaped Ostend to England at the beginning of the war and my great-uncle Pierre Beauprez had enlisted in the British army, in what would become the legendary no. 10 inter-allied commando of the SAS forces, consisting of soldiers that had fled occupied Europe. 3rd troop of 10 i-a commando would form the loose inspiration for Tarantino’s movie Inglorious Bastards. 4th troop was the Belgian troop, and saw Pierre Beauprez in action in ao. Italy, Walcheren, and Vis. He would survive the war, later enlist in the Korean war, where he died in action in 1951.

Pierre Beauprez

source: http://hmc2.pagesperso-orange.fr/en/spotl/korpersonalia.html

And it was again the events of war that brought me in contact with Vis later – this time the 1930 and 1940s memoirs of Fitzroy Maclean Eastern Approaches. Maclean, who acted at one point as British liaison officer with Tito’s partisans, describes the idyllic environments of the island being leveled by the Allied forces to make way for air bases to support the partisans. In fact I always found the most gripping parts of Maclean’s book the chapters that deal with his time in Russia, in particular his first-hand witnessing of Stalin’s purges and his explorations of Central Asia, which conveyed an urgent desire to “take the golden road to Samarkand” (to quote Mika Waltari, Hagar Olsson, James Elroy Flecker, and Maclean’s A person from England all in one).

The most impressive, and most recent, exposure to Vis, and to Komiza, came by way of Olga Tokarczuk‘s book Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, which recently won the Man Booker International. It’s one of the most memorable books I read recently (although unfortunately I’m not able to read it in its original Polish). I found the scenes set on Vis and Komiza – a fuga-like, ever-returning bead of stories telling of small-scale marital tragedy – particularly haunting.

Narrative Responses to rising waters – presentation at Wavescapes conference in Split/Vis, Croatia

Presenting my research at the Wavescapes conference in Split and Komiža (island of Vis), Croatia.

I changed around the topic of my talk a bit, and eventually examined fictional responses to rising waters in Let me be frank with you, Odds against tomorrow, and New York 2140. More on that research here.

Fascinating range of perspectives, including presentations on art practice, conservation, ecological thinking, waterscapes in particular national cultures as well as across national borders.

One session that resonated particularly well with some of my own research interests was a panel that featured Christina Heflin, who spoke of “Surrealism, Marine Life and Non-Ocular Modes of Sensing” in interbellum French surrealist underwater movies;  Srećko Jurišić, who presented on  “Amphibian Humanoids of the Mediterranean” in movie; and Eni Buljubašić on “The Adriatic monk seal in Croatian Narratives”.

Other fascinating talks including a presentation on a walk along “the zero meter altitude line into the hypothetical new coast line of the Netherlands”, a project by Maud Canisius; Killian Quigley’s presentation on the “Seascape and the Future of Land: Aesthetics, Ethics, and the Anthropocene”; and the keynotes, ranging from Adeline Johns Putra’s on “The shapes of water in climate fiction” to Rebecca Giggs’s on narrative non-fiction of the whale, and Joško Božanić’s considerations of practices and words in the eastern Adriatic archipelago.