“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.”

“Translocal Narratability” – Disputation of Lena Mattheis

In Germany today for the disputation of Lena Mattheis’ dissertation “Translocal Narratability in Contemporary Anglophone Fiction”, at the University of Duisburg-Essen. It’s an honor to have been the examiner of this fascinating dissertation.

In her dissertation, Lena Mattheis starts out from the observation that “contemporary Anglophone novels are increasingly characterised by a global, transcultural and complex quality that becomes particularly tangible in their spatial settings and narrative voices.” She sets out to examine the communalities of such translocal texts, focusing on the narrative strategies involved in bringing out what she calls “translocal narratability”. This key concept is examined in an impressive corpus of 32 novels, and from six distinct perspectives: simultaneity, palimpsest, mapping, scaling, nonplace/silence/absence, and haunting.

Mattheis makes a compelling case not only for the central importance of the translocal in contemporary Anglophone literature, but also for the importance of a new toolbox and new conceptualizations to address translocal novels. With this dissertation, Mattheis provides readers with a set of original methodological approaches, and with a helpful and clearly articulated toolbox that promises to generate exciting further research.

For readers who want to know more, one starting point is Lena Mattheis’s recent article in Narrative: “A Brief Inventory of Translocal Narratability: Pamlipsestuous Street Art in Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames” (Narrative vol 26, 3, 2019, pp. 302-319).


article abstract:

“This essay aims to fill a gap in the current research on translocal narratives by providing a concept that structures and defines the typical strategies found in contemporary global writing: translocal narratability. Translocal novels narrate side by side two or more different places, such as Lagos and Princeton in Adichie’s Americanah, and thereby show how places and cities can permeate each other as well as the world of the reader. Since contemporary Anglophone novels are increasingly characterized by a global, transcultural, and complex quality that becomes particularly tangible in their spatial settings and narrative voices, translocality has become an important field in literary research, but often responds to questions of ‘what’ rather than of ‘how.’ This essay will therefore illustrate how novels such as Chris Abani’s The Virgin of Flames, or Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For use specific sets of narrative techniques in order to layer urban spaces from diverse parts of the globe to create trans-local stories and to make them accessible and relatable for a wide readership. After briefly explaining which narrative strategies typically produce translocal narratability and which three areas of research inform the concept—translocality, narratology and urban studies—this essay provides an in-depth analysis of how Chris Abani, in his East LA novel The Virgin of Flames, employs the palimpsest as one of the most central tools of global urban narratives. This close reading aims to illustrate some of the techniques that are typical for translocal writing and further expand on the concept of translocal narratability.”







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).

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.

Contested Planning, Persuasive Storytelling – with James A. Throgmorton – 15.8., Helsinki

Ever since I began to be interested in the narrative structures in planning, I have been quoting, teaching, and using the work of James A. Throgmorton. Throgmorton’s texts on planning as a form of persuasive storytelling are still some of the most accessible and lucid reflections on the fundamentally narrative features of planning – and they remain part of the foundation of any narrative theory of planning.

(source: Chicago UP)

So I’m understandably exited to participate in the event “Contested Planning, Persuasive Storytelling”, with James A. Throgmorton, in Helsinki, 15.8. The event is organized by the Academy project SCENSLECO – “Strategic spatial planning with momentum gaining scenario storytelling: legitimacy contested?”, with ao. colleagues from the time when I was a visiting researcher at the YTK Land Use Planning and Urban Studies Group at Aalto University.

I will present on metaphors in the planning of the New York waterfront, and in particular on how metaphorizations from The Great Gatsby have had a continuous influence on thinking of New York’s development.

More on my current research here – and on my publications here.

“‘Citiness’: Networks, Scales and Hierarchies in Literary Urban Studies”, Orientations 2018

Speaking today together with Jason Finch at the #Orientations2018 conference on narrative and place in Nottingham.

We’ll present some of the ideas that developed within the Association for Literary Urban Studies and in relation to work within the Palgrave series in literary urban studies. Our aim is to emphasize (in the context of literary fiction and literary urban studies) the concept of “citiness”: the elements that are specific to the city and the urban condition, and an awareness of what this “citiness” brings to the source material and what it implies in terms of methodological avenues of inquiry. One approach is to move from quantitative to more qualitative features of the (literary) city experience and, eventually, toward cutting across functional, inter-relational, and scalar complexities.

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/


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).

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

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.