Cities as nexus between social reality and imagination: Worlds of life in local spaces and spaces of flow

In this SIG (special interest group) meeting we would like to discuss potential collaboration between cultural studies researchers, urbanists, antropologists and sociolinguists. Through an analysis of multi-functional European city spaces we aim at generating insight in how city spaces are depicted and imagined in contemporary literature, what consequences spaces have for mechanisms of identification and belonging of their inhabitants, and how spaces are dealt with in the activities of policy makers and designers.

The analytical framework and the theoretical basis for this SIG can be found in the field of literary studies, sociolinguistic ethnography, and urban studies. Thus, the project relates more broadly to theories of identification and imagination. Two main concepts, super-diversity and scenario, are used as frames to examine various phenomena appearing in current cities, in particular in regard to the inhabitants, their communication and their experiences of belonging or lack thereof.

Super-diversity (Vertovec 2006, Arnaut et al. 2016) denotes emergent dimensions of social, cultural and linguistic diversity in the context of global mobility, and as such forces us to rethink notions such as community, neighbourhood, social cohesion and belonging. In line with Anderson (1991), here we take community as imagined. Super-diversity establishes a theoretical frame to observe social environments, constructed identities, and patterns of social and cultural behavior, communication and norms. The term is often used in a sociolinguistic context to point at the mixing and blurring of speech acts and language. As such, the term relates as well to Bakhtinian notions of the typical style and language of novels based on heteroglossia, polyphony, dialogism and multi-perspectivism (Bakhtin 1981). People currently living in European cities have to negotiate meaning-making practices of identification in order to belong to a particular culture and community. The project aims at describing, analysing and understanding how this is done in narratives on real and imaginary polycentric city spaces.

Scenario is the second theoretical frame used, and denotes a form of narrative in which an alternative reflection on current societal issues takes place. The scenario offers an idea or script, and as such encapsulates a ‘format’ for the experience of living together in a society. The concept is grounded on Taylor’s ‘social imaginaries’ as characteristic of Western modernity. In this research project we expand Taylor’s notion into an artistic complement (Esposito 2007), illustrating the critical and predictive dimension of scripting ideas in the work of contemporary literary authors as well as in the plans of architects and urbanists.

As Taylor argued, the social imaginary as ‘the way our contemporaries imagine the societies they inhabit and sustain’ (Taylor, 2007, 6) has a distant analogy to modern definitions of utopia, which refer to a way of things that ‘may be realized in some eventually possible conditions, but that meanwhile serve as a standard to steer by’ and provide ‘the hermeneutic clue to understanding the real’ (Ibid., 6-7). As regards literature, social imaginaries are about how authors imagine social and political surroundings and invent images and narratives of society or cities (e.g. Heynders on Calvino’s Invisible cities, 2015). The claim of this project is that Taylor’s modern imaginaries or ‘modes of narration’ (Ibid., 177) are in particular made relevant in some recently published European novels in which city spaces are evoked, but can also be distinguished in stories of ‘new’ inhabitants, as well as in projects of architects and urbanists in regard to gentrification and planning.

The first meeting will be held – somewhere in February 2017 – in Manchester following the kind invitation of Prof. Yaron Matrass, director of the Multilingual Manchester project

The second meeting will be held in Tilburg, following the scheme spelled out by the Int. Hum. NWO project

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