“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.

“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).”


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!


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.”



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.