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.

“Folding City” at ENN2017, Prague

Thanks to everyone at ENN2017, Prague, for inspiring presentations and discussions. My own presentation is part of broader research on urban futures, the relationship between imagined and actual cityworlds, and urban (future) crisis. Happy to have had the opportunity to develop ideas ao. with Laura Oulanne, David Rodriguez and Marco Caracciolo, with a view to develop a book project on (ao.) space and non-human presence in literary fiction.

Experiencing the weak house: Modernist interior descriptions beyond domesticity
Laura Oulanne (University of Helsinki)
Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction
Lieven Ameel (University of Tampere)
Aerial description and environmental imagination in narrative landscapes
David Rodriguez (Stony Brook University)

Abstract below:

Folding city: Environmental change, ontological instability, and urban crisis in 21st century literary fiction

This presentation will explore ontological instabil­ity in a range of contemporary New York novels. I am particularly interested in the implications of poten­tially apocalyptic undercurrents in the narrated space for an understanding of how fictional texts come to grips with complex environmental threats and non-human agency. The literary texts are Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City (2009), Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (2014) and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow (2013), novels that thematize palimpsestic layers of meaning in urban space, as well as ambiguous temporal structures, and that are informed in particu­lar by an interest in the impact of the future on the present. In these fictional texts, a sense of threat and ontological instability is realized in continuous refer­ences to unusual weather conditions (in all four novels), and, more specifically, in Chronic City, the appearance of a gigantic tiger rummaging underneath New York, and in the novels by Rich and Lerner, by the intimations of coming catastrophic flood. In terms of methodological framework and theoretical approaches, my presentation will draw on Gilles Deleuze’s concept (in his work on Leibniz) of the fold (Deleuze 1993), with reference also to Brian McHale’s “flickering effect” (1987) and Bertrand Westphal’s “heterotopic interference” (Westphal 2005: 101). The fold will be one key conceptualization with which to approach representations of urban space in crisis, enabling a connection – rather than a polariza­tion – between inner and outer, immaterial and mate­rial, possible and present.

Moving towards Possible Cities

Moving towards Possible Cities: Future Urban Waterfronts in Contemporary Fiction
Speaking at the Association for Literary Urban Studies conference (Im)Possible Cities about my current research: future urban waterfronts in contemporary fiction, and what literary texts of the waterfront can tell us about the future and about our possibilities to prepare for and act upon the future. From the abstract:
“In contemporary fictional texts describing the urban waterfront under threat, crossing urban borders is conditioned by competing pathways towards the future, which appears in early 21st century literature as a crucial conceptual and ontological border zone for understanding the present. Moving into this border zone thus also entails becoming aware of questions of agency and moral responsibility, as is exemplified by the trajectory of the protagonist in Odds Against Tomorrow, who moves from the question “What was possible? What should we be afraid of?” (Rich 2013: 7) to asking: what would be “the right thing to do” (Rich 2013: 161)?”

Planning for the Future – Narratives of Urban Waterfronts at Plannord2017

Speaking today (17.8.2017) at Plannord2017 on the topic of “Planning for the Future – Narrating crisis and agency in literary fiction and planning narratives of the urban waterfront”

From the abstract:

“What can be known about the future, what is there to fear, and what role is there for human agency, individually or collectively – for acting upon the future? These questions are addressed here from the perspective of narrative frames, with a specific reference to the stories that are told of the near future of the New York waterfront in. Drawing on a range of textual sources, from policy documents and strategy texts to literary novels that dwell on the challenges and possibilities of the urban waterfront, this paper wants to sketch a move, in narratives and research, from knowledge to action, from preparing for the future to acting upon the future. In doing so, this paper also traces the narrative limits of policy and planning texts, and of fictional texts, when envisioning slow-burning crises.”

The paper is part of my ongoing research of future visions of cities at the water: more about that here.

Toponyms in Helsinki novels

The most recent Norna-Rapporter features an article by Terhi Ainiala and me (in Swedish) that examines readerly experiences of place names in Helsinki novels. Thanks to Terhi for the inspiring cooperation and to my students at the University of Helsinki who answered our questionaires!

“Ortnamn kan spela en viktig roll i skapandet av den litterära världen i romaner,
men deras betydelse undervärderas ofta. Ortnamn kan ha t.ex. sociala,
moraliska, och estetiska betydelser utöver de enbart geografiska. På
vilka sätt skapar ortnamn i litteraturen den litterära världen och de litterära
platserna? På vilka sätt hjälper ortnamnen läsaren att lära känna den litterära
världen? Och vilka konsekvenser får det om läsaren inte känner till
de ortnamn som används? Läsaren lever kanske i en annan tid eller på en
annan plats än den avsedda läsaren (se t.ex. Iser 1978) eller är avskärmad
från den litterära världen på grund av språkliga och kulturella skillnader. I
denna artikel försöker vi svara på dessa frågor och undersöker ortnamnens
roll som indikatorer i vissa Helsingforsromaner.”

Ainiala, Terhi & Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Känslan av namn i stadslitteraturen: ortnamn som indikatorer i Helsingforsromaner.” Norna-Rapporter 94. Namn och identitet Handlingar från NORNAs 46:e symposium i Tammerfors den 21–23 oktober 2015, 133-146.

Futures of the Urban Waterfront, 23.5., Jyväskylä

On my way to Jyväskylä for the Finnish Literary Society yearly seminar, this year organized together with the Cultural Studies days, in a themed “Environments” conference.

Speaking tomorrow (23.5.) on the subject of futures of the urban waterfront in literary fiction of New York, with a focus on Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and Nathaniel Rich’s Odds against tomorrow. Examining how knowledge (of the future) turns into experience in fictional narratives, and the importance of assessing present futures and future presents.

Conference programme (in Finnish) below.

Interview with Radio Moreeni – what narratives for urban planning?

I was interviewed (in Finnish) by Radio Moreeni (Tampere/Finland) about my research, and specifically about my research project on urban planning narratives.

A list of my recent publications with immediate reference to my post-doctoral research project on narrative and urban planning can be found here:

The interviewed aired yesterday (19.4.), and is available on soundcloud:



Happy Birthday, Bo Pettersson!

(With some delay), my best wishes on the anniversary of Bo Pettersson, professor of the literature of the United States at the University of Helsinki. Professor Pettersson was one of my mentors during my English studies as exchange student at the University of Helsinki in the late 1990s, and I am honored to have had the opportunity to contribute to the excellent Festschrift in his honor, edited by Merja Polvinen, Maria Salenius and Howard Sklar, entitled Mielikuvituksen maailmat / Fantasins världar / Worlds of Imagination.

My contribution examines signs of uncertain times in New York and Brussels in Teju Cole’s Open City, and is an endeavor to get to grips with the complex lines of flight between the rich, aestheticizing text by Cole, with its many echoes from earlier city literature, and the actual events in early twenty-first century New York and Brussels

Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Open City: Reading Signs of Uncertain Times in New York and Brussels.” In Polvinen, Merja; Salenius, Maria & Sklar, Howard (eds.): Mielikuvituksen maailmat / Fantasins världar / Worlds of Imagination. Turku: Eetos, 290-308

Contact me for the full text at lieven.ameel [a]

From the Introduction:

“In Teju Cole’s acclaimed novel Open City (2011), the young protagonist
Julius, a psychiatry intern who has moved to the United States from
Nigeria, wanders through post-9/11 New York, gauging the complex
history of the city and struggling to connect the stories he encounters
with his own personal history and identity. On his daily strolls, he meets a
range of marginal characters and repressed urban memories – the flotsam
and jetsam, it seems, of violent processes, often dictated by economic
upheavals. New York appears as a repository of uneasy memories that
spatialize the remembrance of a series of forceful dislocations – what
the urban sociologist Saskia Sassen (2014) has called, in her most recent
book, a logic of expulsions, and one of the most urgent global phenomena
currently taking place.

Most of Open City is set in New York, and imbued with a keen
understanding of how the urban layers are suffused with ethnic and
racial trauma. Halfway through the novel the scene switches to Brussels,
where Julius spends a few weeks on holiday. In reviews, interviews, and
scholarly research (Breger 2015; Genç 2014; PBS 2011), the scenes set
in Brussels have been considered as particularly relevant for the way
in which they could offer insights into the experience of dislocation,
migration, identity and cosmopolitanism against the backdrop of recent
ideologically and religiously inspired global violence. Contemporary
commentators have pointed to the link between the radicalizing of
the characters Farouq and Khalil in the novel, and the attackers of the
November 2015 attacks in Paris and the March 2016 attacks in Brussels
(see Pitts 2015; Kleinpaste 2015). Teju Cole himself engaged in the debate
about the ideological roots of the Paris and Brussels attacks in media
interviews and social media posts, publicly reacting for example, in a
widely reported Facebook post responding to a Charlie Hebdo editorial,
and effectively accusing Charlie Hebdo, one of the victims of the Paris
attacks, of gross bigotry (Facebook 2015a; see also Huckmagazine 2016).
In a number of recent instances, the novel, its literary setting and its
characters, then, have become enmeshed in the interpretation of real-life
events, in ways that were in part stimulated by the author. Exemplary is
a discussion on Teju Cole’s Facebook profile in answer to the Paris 2015
attacks, a discussion which drew explicit links between the conditions of
some of the disenfranchised and radicalizing youths encountered in the
novel and the events in Paris. The discussion starts when Cole links to a
blog post by art historian Terry Pitts, who states that “in the wake of the
Paris terrorist attacks […] I couldn’t help but recall a long and prescient
section in Teju Cole’s novel Open City” (Pitts 2015). One commenter
to the post, Claudine, immediately disallows this referential relation:
“the concerns of the characters he talked to had nothing to do with
those of the terrorists in Paris. ‘Pas d’amalgame’! [‘don’t mix things’].”
Pitts and Cole, in their reactions, agree with Pauline, leaving open,
however, the possibility that the novel may present insights into realworld
complexities. As Pitts puts it: “The fifty-page section on Brussels
in ‘Open City’ does provide a window into communities like Molenbeek
that astute observers like Teju can share with all of us” (Facebook 2015b).
The lines between literary fiction and the author’s personal opinion
concerning the actual events are further blurred when considering an
article by Cole in The New Inquiry, which presents an argument about
Belgium’s (or Flanders’) historical cosmopolitanism in the context of the
current political climate. Referring to Jan van Eyck’s fifteenth-century
self-portrait with turban, Cole argues that the turban symbolizes a nowlost
cosmopolitanism; the very same thought also appears in the mind
of the narrator of Open City when encountering the radicalizing men in
Brussels (Cole 2012; Cole 2011, 106).

The idea of the novel as a “window” into some of the political and
societal questions of the early twenty-first century is shared by several
recent literary scholars and publicists: Karolina Golimowska (2016,
30), for example, in The Post-9/11 City in Novels, argues that Open City
tries “to explain and imagine how radical Islamic movements come to
existence in the context of a Western metropolis”, while Adam Kirsch,
in a 2016 article for Foreign Policy, singles out Teju Cole (on the basis of
Open City) as one of the novelists who “have provided crucial insights
into the political temper of the moment.”

In the way it addresses urban and global traumatic memories, as
well as the possibility of cosmopolitanism in the face of the challenges
of the twenty-first century, Open City has “managed to hit a nerve in
contemporary literary culture” (Vermeulen 2013, 40). But to what
extent can we draw on the novel to shed light on current, real-world
ideological conflicts? Or, to put it in more provocative terms, is it
possible for Khalil, the young Moroccan whom Julius meets in the
Brussels municipality Etterbeek, in Open City, to speak for the motives
of Khalid – one of the actual Brussels bombers, also of Moroccan
descent, and staying for a short period in the actual Etterbeek? I am
aware, of course, that such questions are essentially provocative (or, from
another perspective, perhaps bordering on the naïve). No current literary
studies paradigm allows for Khalil to speak for Khalid – and in terms
of referential relationship, Etterbeek, Belgium, and Etterbeek in Open
City are located in effect in different countries (cf. Pike 1981; Westphal
2011). “Pas d’amalgame”: let’s not mix worlds with different ontological
status. And yet the brief reference to how Open City has been read in
the wake of the Brussels and Paris attacks, as well as the fact that it
has widely been read as a 9/11 novel, illustrates the readiness of (some)
literary authors to have a say in current social and political affairs, and
the keenness of (some) readers and critics to draw on literature to give
meaning to real-world events.

This article presents one attempt to come to grips with the complex
frames of reference in Open City that would seem to point from the textual
world to the actual world. I will focus on how experiences of dislocation
are framed in the novel as part of its broader narrative strategies. I will
first look at how descriptions of dislocation, and people caught up in
dislocating processes, are framed in terms of an epistemological reading
of the narrator, a search for “signs of the times” which eventually leads
back to the narrator himself. I will then move on to consider questions
of literary genre, and the way in which the novel exhibits features of
the novel of ideas, the Young Man from the Province, and the “roots
trip” novel – and what these generic frames may mean for the possibly
moralizing conclusions drawn from the novel. I will finally consider the
dynamics between aestheticism and ethical imperative, which arguably
constitute a dialogic binary in the novel. This binary is retraced in some
of the literature on Open City, which is somewhat divided between a
reading of the novel as an aesthetic journey (in reviews, in particular,
see e.g. von Trotha 2012) or as an intellectual investigation of twentyfirst
century cosmopolitanism (see e.g. Breger 2015; Gerhmann 2016;
Hallemeier 2013) – although there are also readings integrating both
perspectives (see e.g. Haley 2015; Vermeulen 2013).
In this article, these issues are considered also for the way in which
they chime with broader questions within literary urban studies: the
referential relationship between the literary city and its counterpart
in the actual factual world, and the aestheticizing tendencies of many
of Open City’s modernist antecedents in city writing. One of the key
arguments I make is that the ambiguousness of the narration in the novel
makes it unusually problematic to draw moralizing conclusions from the
novel. The confusion and loss of moral bearing brought about by violent
dislocation does not stem only from the cities’ palimpsest memories, but
is arguably also found in the narrator’s exposition of his personal inquiry.
And yet I hope to show that this should not lead to complete referential
aporia. This article shares the concern voiced by Hubert Zapf (2016,
245) when he states that “ethics does seem to necessitate […] a move
beyond the self-referential aporias of language towards an involvement
of texts in questions of ‘life’ – even and especially in the depragmatized
sphere of aesthetics and literary studies” (see also Zapf 2008).”

Ameel, Lieven 2017: “Open City: Reading Signs of Uncertain Times in New York and Brussels.” In Polvinen, Merja; Salenius, Maria & Sklar, Howard (eds.): Mielikuvituksen maailmat / Fantasins världar / Worlds of Imagination. Turku: Eetos, 290-308

Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space

Just received my copy of the Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space, edited by Robert T. Tally Jr.

Kuvahaun tulos

A timely and well-balanced volume stuffed with interesting perspectives on the study of space and literature, with contributions by Marc Brosseau, Andrew Thacker, Eric Prieto, Peta Mitchell, Tim Cresswell – amongst many others.

The book has a separate section on literary urban studies, including my own chapter on “The City Novel: Measuring Referential, Spatial, Linguistic, and Temporal Distances.” From the introduction:

“The world has moved into the urban century, an era in which the majority of the human
population resides in cities. The centuries during which the urban condition, in all its myriad forms and varieties, has gradually become the most common mode of existence have also seen the consolidation and expansion of a vast literature of the city, evoking, scrutinizing and shaping city life in its many ramifications. The advance of the city novel as a genre has correlated with fluctuations in the urban condition, as well as in urban tastes. Similarly, the demise of the city as a dominant literary topos has been read as the equivalent, in literature, of the failure of the city to provide a focal point for radical aspirations. While a vast amount of research has been conducted on the images and experiences of the city in the literary works of individual authors, and on the literatures of particular cities and literary periods, less progress has been made to articulate what
distinguishes city novels from other literary texts. What kinds of generic characteristics are typical for city literature, and what are the consequences of these features for an analysis of the city novel? Given the close correlation between city literature and the interdisciplinary field of urban studies, such an enquiry could also have relevance beyond literary studies, with the potential to broaden our understanding of how city narratives are constructed in the context of education, history, urban planning and policy.

In this chapter, I will argue that the city novel is characterized by a measuring of distances:
distances in space, of course, but also distances between literary and actual locations; distances protagonists or communities cover, and distances felt by the protagonist(s) when confronted by the depth of personal memories and shared histories. My arguments will be substantiated by an analysis of selected New York novels.” (Ameel 2017: 233)


Below, the section dealing with cities in literature:

Part IV. Cities and the Geography of Urban Experience

21. The City Novel: Measuring Referential, Spatial, Linguistic, and Temporal Distances

Lieven Ameel

22. From the City of London to the Desert Island: Defoe and the Writing of Space and Place

Emmanuelle Peraldo

23. The Speculative Fictional Mapping of Literary Johannesburg’s Spaces in Beukes’s Zoo City and Grey’s The Mall

Irikidzayi Manase

24. Space of Difference in Subterranean Toronto

Amy Lavender Harris

25. On This Spot: Materialism, Memory, and the Politics of Absence in Greenwich Village

Elayne Tobin

26. The Following is an Account of What Happened: Plot, Space, and the Art of Shadowing

Jean-François Duclos