Imre Szeman research visit to TIAS

Over the next few weeks, professor Imre Szeman from the University of Waterloo, Canada, will be visiting TIAS. Really looking forward to connect with his work with the environmental humanities and energy humanities.

We’ll have several research workshops, meetings with other scholars, and also two guest lectures – the lectures are open to the public, but please register if you plan to attend the Turku event:

Quitting (the) Habit: Fossil Fuels, Governmentality and the Politics of Energy Dependency

Guest lecture by Prof. Imre Szeman and Round Table

31 October 2019, Time: 14h-16h Place: Porthan Hall, Maaherran makasiini, University of Turku (Henrikinkatu 10, Turku)

Round Table with Imre Szeman, Pia Ahlback, Heikki Sirviö, Tere Vaden & Lieven Ameel

More information here

Energy (and) Humanities Seminar
hosted by UH Environmental Humanities Hub and HELSUS, University of Helsinki
Time: November 5th, 2019, at 2 pm – 6 pm,
Venue: Porthania, room 224, HELSUS Hub Lounge

Imre Szeman: “Eight Principles for a Critical Theory of Energy”

16.00-17.15: Prof. Imre Szeman (the University of Waterloo, Canada)
Imre Szeman conducts research on and teaches in the areas of energy humanities, environmental studies, critical and cultural theory, social and political philosophy, and Canadian studies. His most recent work has focused on energy humanities and petrocultures.
17.15-18.00 – panel discussion “Energy Humanities’ Agenda”

More information here

Research Trip to New York – October 2019

I’m off to New York City for a research trip of a bit more than a week. I’ll be visiting a range of waterfront sites I’m examining in my research project “Imagining City Futures“. A.o. Hudson Yards, Riverside Park, Battery Park in Manhattan; Greenpoint, Red Hook, Rockaways and Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn. I’ll meet up with several people at City University of New York, and will talk about my work at the Department of City Planning.

(source: wikicommons)

Any thoughts on what lesser-known sites to absolutely see at the NY waterfront? Or people to meet who are working on planning narratives/waterfront futures/literary New York? Let me know! lieven.ameel [a]

More on my New York waterfront research so far:

“The ‘Valley of Ashes’ and the ‘Fresh Green Breast’: Metaphors from The Great Gatsby in planning New York.” Planning Perspectives 2019, 34:5, 903-910. link

“Agency at / in the waterfront in New York City: Vision 2020 and New York 2140.” Textual Practice 2019. link

“Metaphorizations of the waterfront in New York City’s comprehensive waterfront plan Vision 2020 and Foer’s ‘The Sixth Borough.’” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 2018. link



Syncopated City: Mobilizing and Immobilizing Dynamics in Twentieth-Century Literature of New York – Padua, 27 September

In Padua for ”Mobilities of/in the book” (27th September 2019), a mobility and the humanities seminar series, DiSSGeA, Centre for Advanced Studies in Mobility and the Humanities, University of Padova.

I will be speaking on the subject of ”Syncopated City: Mobilizing and Immobilizing Dynamics in Twentieth-Century Literature of New York”, with a specific interest in how particular urban spaces and modes of transportation appear as mobilizing and/or immobilizing protagonists and plot dynamics in twentieth century literature of New York. How do particular forms of mobility, and of transport infrastructure, structure urban experiences in literary fiction? And what happens to such experiences when transport network breaks down, as happens in strikes or in the case of natural disaster? I will look at a range of novels, including Wharton’s House of Mirth; Howells’s A Hazard of new fortunes; Dreiser’s Sister Carrie; Plath’s The Bell Jar; Robinson’s new York 2140; Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow; Lethem’s Chronic City; Lerner’s 10:04.

Many thanks to Tania Rossetto and her colleagues at the University of Padua for organizing the seminar and for inviting me to Padua!

This afternoon, we will also have the Association for Literary Urban Studies symposium Mobilities of/in Urban Narratives. Thanks to Giada Peterle for organizing the symposium. It’s the first ALUS symposium in Italy, and a great opportunity to take forward existing collaboration in the field of literary urban studies with scholars from Italy and beyond.

“A Geo-Ontological Thump” – Ontological Instability and the Folding city in Mikko Rimminen’s Early Prose

Really happy to see the appearance of this article, in an exciting collection on contemporary spatiality in Nordic literature:

““A Geo-Ontological Thump” – Ontological Instability and the Folding city in Mikko Rimminen’s Early Prose.” In Malmio, Kristina & Kurikka, Kaisa (eds.): Contemporary Nordic Literature and Spatiality. London: Palgrave, 2019.

The collection should be available open-acess soon.

I’ve always had an interest in how the work of Mikko Rimminen approaches, evokes, and distorts the spatial coordinates of Helsinki. Pussikaljaromaani (“The six-pack novel”) has a particular place for me, also because it was the first longer prose text I ever translated (published as Drinkebroersroman with Arbeiderspers in 2007), and several of the strange sayings and events of the book has stuck with me ever since. Work on this article provided a great opportunity to return to this Helsinki classic, and to two other works by Rimminen – and also a way to revisit Deleuze’s reading of the fold.

Thanks to Kristina Malmio and Kaisa Kurikka for the excellent work on this collection.

Key takeaways from my article: 1. Mikko Rimminen’s early prose texts can be read in terms of escalating ontological instability, moving toward, and beyond, urban apocalypse; 2. the instability between competing worlds can most productively be described by way of Deleuze’s concept of the fold, which posits a continuing plane of meaning between storyworlds, rather than by drawing on binary oppositions.

From the introduction to : “A Geo-Ontological Thump”:

“In the Finnish author Mikko Rimminen’s novel Pölkky (2007; “Woodblock”), set in present-day Helsinki, one of the most disturbing occurrences is the appearance of a gradually widening hole in the skating rink in Kaisaniemi Park. The skating rink is under the supervision of the protagonist of the novel, and the threat posed by the hole is not only directed at the skaters, or at the hypothetical sense of achievement of the protagonist. As is suggested throughout the novel, the expanding hole and the steam rising from it are potentially of much more far-reaching consequences, intimating the possibility that not only the skating rink, but perhaps fictional Helsinki itself is being subjected to a slow but world-threatening upheaval. This event which threatens the storyworld’s spatial environment in Rimminen’s second novel echoes similar events in a range of postmodern literary texts. One parallel is the giant tiger roaming New York’s underground in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), which causes the sudden appearance of gaping holes in the city—a reference which is of particular interest for its disturbance in the referential relationship with an identifiable urban environment. Like the hole in Pölkky, it presents an unreal and ultimately inexplicable occurrence that contrasts the narrated space and the referential world, but that also threatens the stability of the storyworld itself. Such disturbing events in late modern literature will be examined in this chapter as instances of ontological instability, and approached in terms of folds in narrated space. I will focus on Mikko Rimminen’s early prose texts. One of the aims of this chapter is to propose a new reading of his early prose from the perspective of the texts’ apocalyptic undercurrents, which have remained largely unappreciated, and to take into account a little-studied extract from an unfinished novel by Rimminen.

The focus in this chapter is on how the relationship between the fictional city and its referential counterpart is both foregrounded and undermined in a way that destabilizes the ontological status of the storyworlds in question. The texts under discussion here display intimations of apocalypse, inviting the reader to consider whether the ontological instability is located in the perception of the focalizer or narrator, in literary space, or both. The key concepts that will be explored in the analysis of the literary space and storyworld are Brian McHale’s flickering effect (1987) and Bertrand Westphal’s heterotopic interference (Westphal 2011, 101). Gilles Deleuze’s fold (1993) will be proposed here as a heuristic concept to describe how ontological instability in postmodern storyworlds is shaped. I argue that one of the advantages of this concept is the way it defies binary opposites, moving instead toward an understanding of spatial environments in postmodern storyworlds as acting on a holistic, if often paradoxical, continuous plane of meaning.”

From the conclusion:

“In a conversation with the author (27.1.2017), Rimminen agreed that there is some basis for interpreting his first three prose texts as an apocalyptic trilogy (or trilogy moving toward the apocalypse), centered on Helsinki: “If I had published a novel written on the basis of that PROSAK extract, there would have been this structure, in which in Pussikaljaromaani there are hints; in Pölkky, it is already feared, and in the next novel, it would have already happened.” This narrative structure also sheds some light on the thematic understanding of these prose texts. Rimminen pointed out that in the three prose texts there is an important social context: Pussikaljaromaani posits the importance of a community, while Pölkky deals in part with human loneliness; in the last (unfinished) novel, with only one man left, it would not even have been possible to be lonely in company. The development in Rimminen’s early prose texts can be seen from the perspective of the author’s interest in the precariousness of community in late capitalist society, or in terms of his preoccupation with labor in its many forms (see Mäkelä 2015; Ojajärvi 2013). What I have tried to suggest here is that the development in Rimminen’s first three prose texts can also be read in terms of gradually escalating ontological tensions, which are also integral to the author’s experiments with language and the role of the narrator. The spatial environments, although upon first encounter firmly referential to actual Helsinki, are presented as subject to incomprehensible forces that are hinted at, first, as a possibility in the linguistic realmby taking metaphor literallybut that gradually appear as actual interferences in the ontological storyworld. In the course of the three texts, the spatial environment and its referential mode move, in the terms proposed by Westphal, from homotopic consensus—a close relationship to actual Helsinki—to a threatening sense of heterotopic interference, in the form of the hole in the ice rink, and eventually, in the “Extract,” to a full-blown utopian excursus: a world in which the threatening intimations from the two novels seem to have become realized in a process of gradual unfolding.”

“The treatment of the urban spatial environment in Mikko Rimminen’s early prose texts raises a number of issues that are of relevance for our understanding of space in postmodern literature in more general terms. An examination of Rimminen’s prose texts confirms the notion, proposed by Brian McHale, that postmodern literature displays a conspicuous ontological instability: what at first appears to be a recognizable storyworld in the texts, with a firm referential relationship to actual Helsinki, turns out to be increasingly undermined by intimations of ontological disturbances. The distinction made by Bertrand Westphal between three types of “coupling”—“homotopic consensus,” “heterotopic interference,” and “utopian excursus”—is a helpful typology with which to examine the various kinds of referential relationships displayed by these texts. These relationships defy an understanding as being either true or not true—both in the internal coherence of the storyworld and in their relationship to the actual world—but can be approached more productively through the concept of the fold, as proposed by Deleuze: a concept that challenges binary oppositions, and that emphasizes the simultaneous presence of possibly contradictory worlds evolving on the same plane of meaning. Crucially, such an understanding of literary space and its referential relationship to the actual world that refuses to make a dramatic distinction between actualized (or the real) and potential (or the imaginary) also draws attention to how the ontological instability of postmodern literature may in turn feed into readers’ perspectives of their actual world, and may urge us to consider it in questions of real and unreal, possible and actual.”

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.

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.”


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).

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.


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.