Uncertain Ontologies in Twenty-First-Century Storyworlds – Style 55:3

Delighted to see the publication of this special issue of Style on uncertain ontologies in twenty-first-century storyworlds. This special issue identifies ontological uncertainty as a key concept for the study of contemporary fiction. I feel privileged I could co-edit this together with Marco Caracciolo, and for the inspiring group of scholars involved in putting together the special issue.

Editors Lieven Ameel & Marco Caracciolo, with articles by both editors and Merja Polvinen, Pieter Vermeulen, Alison Gibbons, Alice Bell, Brian McHale.

I’d be happy to send a pdf of the articles to anyone interested – just send me a mail at lieven.ameel [a] tuni.fi

From the introduction abstract:

“From climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic, the present moment is defined by the destabilizing effects of uncertain and urgently threatening futures. The articles collected in this special issue explore literary narratives that stage different aspects of this destabilization. We suggest that contemporary fiction’s emphasis on uncertainty differs from the ontological questions raised by postmodernist literature, because the “earnest ontologies” of twenty-first-century storyworlds do not primarily evoke detachment or self-referential playfulness; rather, they tend to take on direct real-world relevance.” 


Introduction: Uncertain Ontologies in Twenty-First-Century Storyworlds
Lieven Ameel and Marco Caracciolo 
Warped Writing: The Ontography of Contemporary Fiction  
Pieter Vermeulen  
Ontological Instability and Nonhuman Presence in Twenty-First-Century New York Fiction
Lieven Ameel  
Ontological Instability and the Place of the Subject in Contemporary Fiction  
Marco Caracciolo  
The Dark Inside the Prologue: Enactive Cognition and Eerie Ontology in Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance 
Merja Polvinen  
Interpreting Fictionality and Ontological Blurrings in and between Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting and there’s no place like time 
Alison Gibbons  
“It all feels too real”: Digital Storyworlds and “Ontological Resonance”  
Alice Bell  
Afterword: Earnest Ontology in the Year of the Flood  
Brian McHale

Thanks to everyone at Style and Penn State University to make this special issue happen!

Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/style.55.3.issue-3

Redemptive Scripts in Planning and Fiction of the New York Waterfront

I’m speaking today (23 Aug) at the closing symposium of The Changing Environment of the North research project. I’ll be a brief (15 min) presentation on the subject of redemptive scripts in the context of planning and fiction of the New York waterfront, building on my earlier work on metaphors and modes of emplotments with which to approach the waterfront. 

The closing symposium also serves as the inofficial launch of the recently published book coming out of the project: Visual Representations of the Arctic: Imagining Shimmering Worlds in Culture, Literature and Politics, edited by Markku Lehtimäki, Arja Rosenholm and Vlad Strukov (Routledge 2021). The book features a.o. my article on balloon perspectives on the Arctic: “Balloon Explorers, the Panorama, and the Making of an Arctic Nomos in Contemporary Fiction.”

Book abstract:

“Privileging the visual as the main method of communication and meaning-making, this book responds critically to the worldwide discussion about the Arctic and the North, addressing the interrelated issues of climate change, ethics and geopolitics. A multi-disciplinary, multi-modal exploration of the Arctic, it supplies an original conceptualization of the Arctic as a visual world encompassing an array of representations, imaginings, and constructions. By examining a broad range of visual forms, media and forms such as art, film, graphic novels, maps, media, and photography, the book advances current debates about visual culture. The book enriches contemporary theories of the visual taking the Arctic as a spatial entity and also as a mode of exploring contemporary and historical visual practices, including imaginary constructions of the North. Original contributions include case studies from all the countries along the Arctic shore, with Russian material occupying a large section due to the country’s impact on the region.”


Nonhuman Presence and Ontological Instability in Twenty-First-Century New York Fiction

Interested in the nonhuman, ontological instability, unseasonable weather, and/or New York fiction? My latest article, published open-access with Routledge, examines all of these – and more. The article, “Nonhuman Presence and Ontological Instability in Twenty-First Century New York Fiction” is part of an exciting set of texts that look at how nonhuman spaces are narrated, the edited volume Narrating Nonhuman Spaces: Form, Story, and Experience Beyond Anthropocentrism. Some of my personal highlights of the volume include Sarianna Kankkunen‘s work on monomaniacs of the Anthropocene, Brian J. McAllister’s article on space-time in poetry, and Laura Oulanne on Woolf and Mansfield. Thanks to Marco Caracciolo, Marlene Karlsson Marcussen and David Rodriguez for bringing this volume together.

open access download link here

Thanks to Marco and the NarMesh group for inviting me to the workshop on nonhuman space in Ghent, 1 Dec 2017, where early versions of the articles were presented and where we could get to know each other in person in a convivial and stimulating environment.

My article:

Ameel, Lieven. “Nonhuman Presence and Ontological Instability in Twenty-First Century New York Fiction.” In Marco Caracciolo, Marlene Karlsson Marcussen & David Rodriguez (eds.):  Narrating Nonhuman Spaces, Form, Story, and Experience beyond Anthropocentrism. London: Routledge, 71-88


This article explores ontological instability in three contemporary New York novels. Drawing on Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction and on the concept of the fold as developed by Gilles Deleuze, it examines Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and looks, in particular, at how occurrences of nonhuman presence and menacing weather conditions threaten the ontological stability of the narrated storyworld.

From the conclusion:

“Human consciousness, and its ability to connect with the world, is at once “blind” and, paradoxically, capable of visionary “insight,” as the protagonist of Open City, drawing on Paul de Man, infers. The visionary experiences of Ben, in 10:04, driven by something close to hallucination, and the insights provided by “blots on vision” and by looking out of the corner of one’s eye in Chronic City, point to a similar fawed yet insightful sensitivity, in a way that defes binary oppositions or causal hierarchies.
The real, the possible, and the imaginary are described as continuations of the same plane, coeval with human perception. In 10:04 and Chronic City, in particular, there are endeavors to extend that folding of inner and outerinto the world of the reader, such as the hiccups of Perkus in Chronic City, visualized on the page in blank spaces and the freworks above Brooklyn Bridge, in 10:04, which are imagined on the physical page in the hands of the reader, thus extending tangibly into the reader’s physical world.
Approaching ontological instability and the interaction between human perception and nonhuman environment through the concept of the fold helps home in on those elements that spill out from the fctional representation into the actual world. Such spill-over effects re-enact the Baroque breaking of spatial boundaries; Deleuze was intrigued, following Wölffin, in how Baroque form was “always put in motion” ending “in the manner of a horse’s mane or the foam of a wave,” and how “matter tends to spill over in space” (4). The endeavors to reach out into the reader’s referential world, evident especially in Chronic City and 10:04, are one particularly tangible example of such overspill. In language, a tentative overlap between the consciousness of reader and narrator is attempted, a moment of “coeval readership” (Lerner 93). Similar to Perkus’s view of New York City, which becomes for Chase an “ellipsistic” experience that starts to affect his own perception of the surrounding world, some of the
visionary experiences in these novels may color the reader’s view of the referential world, enabling a sense of interconnection with the nonhuman environment, in the way of a fold connecting inner and outer, actual and possible.”(p. 86)


A shorter and amended version of this article appears in Style 55 no. 3 under the
title “Ontological Instability and Nonhuman Presence in Twenty-First-Century
New York Fiction.”

MyHelsinki and Helsinki’s shoreline

Some of my work on the cultural and literary meanings of the Helsinki shoreline have  made it to the MyHelsinki website, the city marketing site of my home city. Featuring a great picture of a researcher in action on the Helsinki shores.

(Photo Jirina Alanko)

The photo is shot on the southern shore of the Helsinki island where I live. Hard not to like Helsinki for promoting its shores with this realistic picture of conditions in Helsinki in the month of May (it was raining relentlessly).


I’ve personally always liked the way in which MyHelsinki presents the city through insiders’ stories, and I’ve also used their website for discovering new places, so glad to have been involved.

Myhelsinki text below:

“The seashore is a place of change”

For literary scholar Lieven Ameel, Lammassaari Island is one of Helsinki’s finest locations.

“Helsinki’s maritime environment is a place for metamorphosis and new opportunities in literature. Fictional characters visit the sea to imagine what their future lives might look like. Many social changes have also begun by the sea.

For instance, it is by the sea that the protagonists in Arvid Järnefelt’s Veneh’ojalaiset (1909) receive a vision about a better future. In Anja Kauranen’s Pelon maantiede, the headquarters of a feminist guerrilla fraction is located on Lammassaari Island.

We residents of Helsinki’s Lauttasaari district have traditionally had a close-knit connection to our home island. I, however, find that the finest maritime environment is to be found on Lammassaari.

The experience begins from the moment of departure toward the island, as the view from the duckboards opens out over a layered vista of the city looming in the horizon. The city of Helsinki was founded in the Vanhankaupunginlahti bay area. The rapids area at the mouth of the Vantaanjoki river also offers a vignette of 19th century industry.

Those who walk along the same duckboards can also cast their gaze over urban visions of the 1990s in the Arabianranta district, as well as toward something completely new in the Kalasatama district.”

Literatures of Urban Possibility

Out with Palgrave: our latest volume Literatures of Urban Possibility (eds. Salmela, Ameel & Finch). The book is the third volume in a trilogy of literary urban studies books that developed around the Association of Literary Urban Studies (previously Helsinki Literature and the City Network) and the international conferences we organized every other year. Earlier books were Literature and the Peripheral City (2015) and Literary Second Cities (2017).

Thanks to Markku and Jason, to all contributors and the participants in the conference (Im)Possible Cities in Tampere, to Palgrave and all encouraging members of ALUS in supporting work within literary urban studies!

Some of my personal favorites among the articles are “From Utopia to Retrotopia: The Cosmopolitan City in the Aftermath of Modernity” by Chen Bar-Itzhak, “Possibilities of Translocal Mapping in Tendai Huchu’s The Maestro, the Magistrate & the Mathematician” by Lena Mattheis (who recently published this brilliant monograph in our Literary Urban Studies series), and Anni Lappela’s “‘Cartographic Ecstasy’: Mapping, Provinciality and Possible Spaces in Dmitrii Danilov’s City Prose”.

Literatures of Urban Possibility also includes my latest article “Rising Towers, Rising Tides: Competing Visions of the Helsinki Waterfront in Planning and Fiction”. Abstract:

“This chapter examines the Helsinki waterfront as a site of the possible, a space onto which possible futures of the city are projected and where competing visions of future urban possibility interact. The first part examines Niniven lapset (‘Children of Nineveh’, 1915) and its connection to the cultural narratives of the waterfront in twentieth-century Helsinki, as well as its relation to more recent developments, such as the plans for a Helsinki Guggenheim. The second part examines near-future novels such as Beta: Sensored Reality (2018), De hemlösas stad (‘City of the Homeless’, 2011), Totuuskuutio (‘Truth Square’, 2015) and Parantaja (The Healer, 2010), and focuses on the interaction between the pessimistic vision of a possible future Helsinki in fictional texts, and the optimistic visions as presented by the Helsinki City Planning Department.”




Future cities in literature: perspectives on climate change

Speaking today (2 June 2021) at the Climate Conference of Finnish Communes on perspectives from literature on future cities and climate change.

A few takeaways from my talk:

  • Literary perspectives are not (primarily) about communicating climate change or climate action. Rather, literature and other cultural representations provide important insights into the frames and language availabe to envision our complex relationship to the environment, about our agency towards the future – frames and language that guide how we can work towards solutions
  • Future literary cities provide important information on the “what” and “how” of future urban infrastructure, but also about the qualia or “what it feels like”, including contextualized perspectives on possible turning points along pathways to the future
  • Quotations from literary texts always need to be embedded in the broader framework of a particular literary work, genre, and period if we want to understand their functions and meanings.
  • Future-oriented literature tells the reader first and foremost about the present moment (of publication), about the frames of knowledge at our disposal today, about what may be lost, and about our current possibilities of agency.

More on the subject in my recent article:

  • “Rising Towers, Rising Tides: Competing Visions of the Helsinki Waterfront in Planning and Fiction.” In Markku Salmela, Lieven Ameel & Jason Finch (eds.): Literatures of Urban Possibility. London: Palgrave, 2021, 45-64.

Interview on the subject (in Finnish) here.

La Ville dans les Fiction Climatiques – 5-6.5.2021

Participating today in a “mosaique” session as part of the colloquium “La Ville dans les Fiction Climatiques”, organized by the PARVIS project at University Gustave Eiffel, Paris. My own brief intervention will examine cities in climate fiction on the basis of my research project on cities at the water in planning in fiction, with a focus on New York, Helsinki, and cities at the water in the Netherlands and Belgium.


Full programme here.

Programme of the “mosaique”:

Série de d’interventions brèves, live ou vidéo, où chaque membre du comité scientifique dira ce de quoi la cli-fi est le nom. / Series of short interventions, live or video, where each member of the scientific committee will say what the cli-fi is about.

14h : Introduction

Intervenant.e.s/speakers :

14h05: Andrew Milner : Qu’est-ce que la cli-fi? / What is cli-fi?

14h13:  Carl Abbott :  La fiction climatique américaine : de l’élégie à l’urgence / American Climate Fiction from Elegy to emergency

14h21:  Lieven Ameel : Les formes futures de la ville contemporaine dans une perspective comparative / Future Forms of the Contemporary City in Comparative Perspective

14h29:  Pierre Schoentjes : Eviter le désastre : la cli-fi… sauvée par l’ironie?/ Avoiding disaster: cli-fi… saved by irony?

14h37: Simon Bréan : Cli-fi francophone : le cas J-M Ligny / French cli-fi : the J-M Ligny case

14h45:  Sébastien Févry : La cli-fi, un grand dérangement narratif ?/ Cli-fi, a great narrative derangement?

14h53 : Irène Langlet : Les kaléidoscopes formels d’une folksonomie / The formal kaleidoscopes of a folksonomy

Many thanks to Irene Langlet, Nadege Perelle, and Sami Cheikh Moussa for putting together the programme!

The Antwerp Quay Poem as interrogation of urban open form, polyphony and radical dialogue

Out now: “‘A stream of words’ the Antwerp Quay Poem as interrogation of urban open form, polyphony and radical dialogue”, in Textual Practice. The article is published open access here.

The article looks at questions of open and closed urban form by examining Peter Holvoet-Hanssen’s Quay Poem, an in-situ poem painted in 2011 on the floodwalls of the Antwerp quays.

The article is the final part of a triptych of articles I wrote on Low Countries urban flood narratives, with the other articles:

Ameel, Lieven & Stef Craps 2020: “Flooded Cities in Low Countries Fiction: Referentiality and Indeterminate Allegory in Renate Dorrestein’s Weerwater and Roderik Six’s Vloed”, published in Green Letters 24 (1): 36-50.

Ameel, Lieven 2020: “The Destruction of Amsterdam: Flood Allegories in Contemporary Dutch Literature.” Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde / Journal of Dutch Linguistics and Literature 136 (4): 224-243.

The articles are part of my research project on future visions of cities at the water in planning and fiction.


“This article examines polyphony and open form as key concepts connecting literary theory and urban planning. It focuses on Peter Holvoet-Hanssen’s Quay Poem, an in-situ poem painted in 2011 on the floodwalls of the Antwerp quays during Holvoet-Hanssen’s tenure as city poet. The long poem in public space provides important insights into how literary city texts and the discourses of urban development draw ultimately on similar narrative structures, in close dialogue with past layers of urban meaning and in the shadow of future material transformations. The poem gestures also to insights planning can gain from literary forms of storytelling, in particular in the way Holvoet-Hanssen’s poem produces a remarkable openness of form; in the way it articulates a radical variety of different voices; and in the way it continues to speak after the text itself has disappeared from the public built environment.”


“The Quay Poem was originally commissioned as an act of communication by the planning department of Antwerpen, with the intention that it would be a temporary poem in public space to communicate the redevelopment of the waterfront. But when the destruction of the quay walls on which it was written began, in 2018, the sudden and violent disappearance of parts of the poem took many by surprise. Members of the public had become attached to the poem; Holvoet-Hanssen was dismayed by the fact the demolition began without prior warning or announcement, and lamented the fact that no efforts had been made to preserve some parts of the poem. But the Quay Poem was never merely a one-directional act of communication. In its formal openness, its polyphony, and in how it enacts a radical dialogue with the city’s material environment and its immaterial layers of meaning, it constitutes a powerful and tangible intervention that produces new perspectives on the city, its past, and its future development. It foregrounds formal questions of open and closed form in ways that go at the heart of contemporary discussions about city form and about social and political forms of entrenchment. In its remarkable polyphony and in how it includes unfiltered and contradictory voices of the city, it provides a blueprint for possible polyphony in planning and policy. It enacts a compelling dialogue with other structures in the built environment, with previous experiences of the waterfront, ‘carried on the winds’, and with the palimpsestic remnants of past moments of political contestation. When visited on the ground along the river, it proposes a profound material and physical positioning within urban space, inviting the reader to scale walls, to take new perspectives, even to breach the concrete on which the text is written. Finally, in its ecocritical gestures towards the powerful agency of the river, it questions not only the rationale of floodwalls, old and new, but cuts away at the roots of its own literary materiality.”


Narratives of Body and Mind – Young Researchers Conference April 2021, Aachen

I’m presenting a keynote lecture at Aachen, Germany, at the “Narratives of Body and Mind” conference, a Young Researchers Conference, April 8-9, 2021.


The title of my talk is “Knocking on the Door: Presence in Literature”.

image source: aachen.de


“How is a sense of presence created in literature? And how are presence and embodied memory tied to a reading-for-meaning in the interaction between reader and literary text? I will address these questions by examining instances of fateful knocking on doors, from Plato’s Symposium to Shakespeare’s Macbeth and more recent historical young adult fiction. In my readings, I will draw on enactivist approaches to literary studies, as well as on the work of Thomas De Quincey, James Wood, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, and Agneta Kuzmicova.”

Conference abstract:

“Since the cognitive turn in narrative theory opened up a new research field for literary
studies, new and innovative approaches have been developed in various research areas,
including the study of narrative. Starting from computational models that gave rise to
situational or mental models, to the recent move towards embodied approaches in
cognitive literary studies and empirical research with actual readers, cognitive literary
studies turned into a broad field that lends itself to complex combinations of different
research areas. In this interdisciplinary conference, we examine the various research areas in which narrative theory meets narratives of the body, narratives of the mind or the common ground between them.”

It would’ve been great to come in person to Aachen, hopefully another time!

Many thanks to Kai Tan and her colleagues at Aachen University for the kind invitation.

La Puissance Projective

For more than two decades, I’ve been working on and off together with scholars of the Ghent Urban Studies Team, and in particular with Bart Keunen, on questions of city literature, narrative urban planning, and the urban humanities. As part of that collaboration, I’ve been involved in collaborating on the volume La Puissance Projective – Intrigue narrative et projet urbain, which has just (5 March 21) been published with the Geneva publisher MétisPresses.

The book examines the narrative properties of urban planning, drawing on a wide range of examples, from post-I-World War Ypres to Disneyland Paris. As can be expected from a book published with an architectural press, the book is beautifully illustrated. Throughout, it connects well-established narrative theories of plot structure and narrative rhetorics with in-depth analysis of particular planning cases. The book brings together, in particular, long-standing work of Pieter Uyttenhove in the field of architecture and planning (architecture, Ghent University), the extensive work of Bart Keunen in the field of chronotopes and urban planning (comparative literature, Ghent University) with some of my more recent thinking on narrative and planning (see, in particular my recent book The Narrative Turn in Urban Planning).

With the collaboration of Johanna Godefroid, Noemi Loeman, Hendrik Sturm, Sofie Verraest & Tom Ysewijn.


“L’imagination narrative, telle qu’envisagée en littérature, joue un rôle tout aussi important dans la conception urbaine et paysagère. Concevoir l’environnement urbain, n’est-ce pas aussi raconter et imaginer un réseau qui réunira en une trame consistante des personnes, des espaces, des objets, des activités, des images éparses?

Depuis les années 1990, le «tournant narratif» nous aide à mieux comprendre les processus créatifs qui accompagnent la conception de projets urbains et de paysage. Par le récit, urbanistes et paysagistes anticipent des situations futures, les organisent en des ensembles cohérents composés d’une multiplicité d’images et de leurs interactions — comme le ferait un écrivain.

Le présent ouvrage, faisant référence à des figures mythologiques comme à des penseurs modernes, jongle entre textes, projets et images, analyses et analogies et approfondit par là ce parallèle littéraire. Différentes disciplines sont conviées: l’anthropologie, la chronophotographie, l’art de la promenade, la philosophie, la sémiologie, la mythologie et l’histoire de l’art. Des ruines du Saillant d’Ypres à Disneyland Paris, de la périphérie romaine à la Défense, cet ouvrage développe des études de cas variées et crée ainsi un terrain fertile pour repenser l’urbanisme et ses enjeux.”

More information here.