#FLthecity: Re-enchanting the city (2)

Weeks 3 to 5 covered things architectural, green and technological, while the final week zoomed in our old friend, human scale. Weeks 1-2 here.

Architecture in the city

What role do architects play in the city? How do architects engage with the development process? Exploring the question of design diversity and the ‘starchitect’ phenomenon.

Diversity in architecture in the city means having different types of buildings designed for different activities and realised in different historical times with a diversity of materials…when you visit a European city like Venice, Rome, Paris, London, at first you see a uniform, old city with a few contemporary buildings standing out. But on a more in depth reading, you realise that the story is quite different.

Urban design encapsulates the process of designing the broad infrastructure for our cities, towns and villages, while architecture focuses on individual buildings. However, often architects act as urban designers, contributing to broader plans of city-making.

Key considerations of urban design:

  • understanding of topography, solar access, wind, transport, people and connectivity
  • floor space arrangement and massing
  • (the key) challenge of diversity and consistency (cohesion, shared purpose, embodied social values)

In looking at how we could transform the masterplan for Central Park we carefully studied the buildings that existed already, the buildings that were under construction, and we tried to see whether we can pull this sequence together in a different way, in a way that created more meaningful open space, that actually created a more generous interface with the adjacent community.

…making roads that could connect heritage items to give people a sense of memory so they could understand that it’s not all new. That as you turned a corner, you could see something old that you knew from before the site was developed. That idea of building in time is an important part of urban design processes.

Two examples of how heritage items were integrated at Central Park:

  • designing with heritage architecture – the Australian Hotel, a key listed building from 1938, created challenges for Foster+Partners (critique); heritage considerations were addressed through the idea of a city datum line, “expressed as a recess in the building that acknowledges and expresses the Australian Hotel’s original height”; the design process considered sensitivity to scale, a response to a sense of place, and influences of function and light for the facade (very reminiscent of that hotel in Rotterdam, where F+P were also involved – see the Gdn’s out of place city buildings feature and contributions)
  • adaptive reuse – the Irving Street Brewery (award citation) ties Central Park back to its early history, with the redevelopment influenced by the technology of the building and merging new, in the form of the trigeneration plant, with old; the trigeneration is expressed and designed into the building, including its distinctive roof

How do architects strike the balance between responding to context and pursuing the dream?

Starchitects are criticised for rolling out their habitual style on any site in any country without genuine response to the individual place, climate, or culture, and getting away with bigger (or higher, different use) buildings than governments would otherwise allow. Their buildings are frequently controversial. Do they have an unfair advantage, or is it a reward for fine design? See documentary.

Is the distinction between star and other architects spurious? The question of what is local, what is specific, what is regional is a very elusive thing…we work (increasingly) in a truly global context (critique).

Discourse from comments: “global design…befits Australia’s identity…inspirational…a fitting tribute to Australia’s multicultural identity”…

(St)architecture’s role in city creation is to engage with what exists while also taking people toward a future they cannot imagine. It does this both by fitting in and standing out, considering the nature of place from outside in, and from inside out. It must accommodate the individual and the larger group, pursuing beauty, economy, and structural integrity with architects, both servants and shapers of the planning system.

Diversity – except when it comes to buildings:

Many postmodern urban theorists have argued that the essence of the traditional city is uniformity, yet Australian cities, being relatively young and brash, are distinguished by their diversity, with terraced houses next to warehouses next to skyscrapers, and so on. Even in their oldest and most uniform parts, they’re still way more expressive than most.

The result is a sort of diversity within uniformity. At best, this could be very successful – more interesting than the rigid uniformity of say Georgian London, and more coherent than the random placement that modernism often encouraged.

How should a contemporary city precinct like Central Park replicate that balance? Should there be one design hand or many? If many, should they be briefed to fit in or to stand out? The design excellence requirements for Central Park specified visual diversity. This was to be achieved by using a variety of local and international architects and urban designers…The creative tension that resulted is one of the secrets of Central Park’s succes

Two Padlet exercises:

  • Different or popular? – take a closer look at the town or city in which you live and locate an example of diversity (range of different architectural styles in one location; you’ll be lucky) or starchitecture
  • Iconic architecture (disappointing directory) – a symbol of a city, a statement about its history, ambition or how it wants to be seen; what buildings are iconic in your city or town; what make it a signature building? (how many are new, how many heritage)

The weekly summary highlights:

  • a green grid as an additional layer to urban design representing the ecology of the city
  • modern vs post-modernist approaches to ornament for buildings
  • the relationship between residents and green space, including the balcony plantings.
  • sensitivity and respect to heritage – what represents successful integration of old and new
  • the value and drawbacks of starchitects

Being green

Focuses on significant sustainability initiatives, on sustainable urbanism and the inclusion of nature into the city. It examines design innovations in green technologies, and environmental building services.

Being green is:

  • about integrating nature into our cities and constructing our urban habitat in ways that mimic natural systems and remembering that human beings are just one of the species that lives in the cities – includes renaturing the city, bringing more plants and green landscape elements into urban areas
  • involves using green building materials and technologies for better water management, reducing temperatures associated with the urban heat island effect, and remaking post-industrial sites to create new urban precincts for living, working, and recreation
  • as residential neighbourhoods get more dense it will be increasingly important for people to have access to nature, outdoor green space for exercise and recreation, and even views into green areas that provide visual relief – designed urban landscapes are cultural products that reflect shared social values and attitudes

“Landscape architects work basically on the horizontal plane. And architects are working on the vertical plane. The outdoors not the indoors, materials that change over time not static, natural not cultural”. More trees, water features and quiet places, obvs, but see also the landscape architecture padlet – it doesn’t have to mimic ‘nature’ in a tamed way. I’m thinking  the High Line, Central Park’s vertical gardens; and from my own experience the gardens in the Walkie Talkie and Copenhagen Towers in Ørestad. Last but not least, the Green Walkway (architects) behind Rigsarkivet, at the moment CPH’s most enchanting place for me.

Some comments re the absence of the sustainability word. Back to resilience, which feels rather less agenda driven and more multi-dimensional. The Gdn’s recent article on Vejle (“the Manchester of Denmark”), with lots of references to Rotterdam, highlights issues around social resilience with some stonking comments.

The weekly summary was perhaps a little on the defensive, stressing that “many different approaches will be required to implement ‘green’ planning, designing, and building for cities of the future” – I couldn’t agree more. A number of comments centred round cultural differences and the need for a “‘both and’ not ‘either or’ approach to culture” – ditto.

Technology in the city

What role does technology play in creating an enchanting liveable built environment? We will explore this question via our case study, the Central Park development, and look through the lens of industrial design and its connection with other design and planning professions.

There’s a section on 3D printing, but nothing on smart cities. Padlet activity: Identify your favourite product or object that you love and cannot live without. The product should have been designed for a specific purpose. Tell us why this product or object is indispensable for you.

More interesting, a section on the poetry of technology and “the role of technology in making cities beautiful”, which at Central Park consists of a wind driven public artwork called Halo, living walls and the heliostat. Activity: Identify a vital technology in your environment. It could be visible or hidden. Discuss what ways it enhances your life.

Largely skipped. The comments are going to be centred around Central Park being technology driven, there’s not going to be a meeting of the minds. It’s an important theme though – tech ain’t going away and we can’t wind the clock back. See the sections on re-storying nature from #FLremaking.

The weekly summary took the “technology embraces a broad sweep of topics and concerns” line, with an interesting point around technical obsolescence.  In Central Park the overall site (landscape), buildings and technological elements (Heliostat, Trigen and green walls) will all experience differing lifespans, of which the tech’s “no doubt” will be the shortest.

The human scale: the relationship between the inside and the outside

“In Week 6, Inside Out, we zoom to the human scale and talk to the concepts of the interior room vs urban room (exterior).” I was so excited about this, implying as it does that not everything has to be human scale (that’s anthropocentric talk!) that I got stuck in a week early. Inevitably it was a bit of a disappointment.

Three themes are central to interior architecture:

  • interiority – all the pieces that shape an interior and the way that interior coherently and creatively is ‘place-making’ through its setting of interior; the way we operate and live in these places; encompasses all the facets that unite to form great interior environments
  • human scale – a relationship created of people to purpose to rooms, and the appropriateness of a scale to a purpose; public space versus private space, a town hall versus a lounge room; the scale of a private place is usually more related to human scale and people at a fine-grain level, the way people engage with a space through the level of touch, and at a relationship of hand scale; public space is a scale that relates to cities or urban proportions, a much larger grain, large meeting places for many people
  • circulation – the patterns that people move along in life, and specifically how these patterns are crucial to the success of interior spaces that we conceptualise and design; also relates to scale and how people circulate vertically and horizontally in an effective and poetic way in our interior spaces

A discussion of the One Central Park apartments, interior versus urban, presents a view of the nature of scale and how the room is defined from the scale of people to the scale of a city and how these relationships of scale to ideas are utilised by interior architects as underpinning qualities of these rooms:

The corridors of One Central Park are an example of the way poetry is being used in the conceptualisation of the design. They build a drama and an enchantment to the way that people would experience those corridors as they move through them. The theatrical nature of the corridors of One Central Park have been used as a design device to really amplify the difference between the public spaces and the private spaces.

Passing over the “the approach of raw, organic luxury” and “high speed luxury design approach influenced by sports cars and yachts” in the apartments brings us to a Padlet exercise: “Thinking about your own home or an interior you like, the materials and finishes, describe the character that it represents. Does this space correspond to a raw, organic luxury like Koichi’s design, or the contemporary and sophistication of William’s approach, or something very different?” That’ll be the last then.

Moving on, a discussion of interior and urban rooms:

Each type is defined by boundaries. However, the interior room is about shelter, order and comfort, the urban room is about civic activity.

Padlet exercise: “Drawing on what you have learned, select a building with which you feel a close connection, and share the experience of moving across the inside-out threshold. Do you sense a change of scale? Do the materials and lighting influence the experience? What emotions does the circulation pattern evoke?”

Finally, how do we make hyperdense cities of the future green, liveable and poetic? Can you identify the parts of your city that are green, liveable and poetic, as you now understand these considerations in light of this course? What if you had the power and influence to change things, what would you propose to make your city more green, liveable and poetic?

Enchanted?

The course glossary (see week 1) highlighted issues of discourse. The content and hence tone of the course was different and wider than prevailing sustainability dogmas, leading to some discontent. But just what is enchantment?

The course team may have taken their enchanting inspiration from Jane Jacobs, who got a nod in week 1, but the rest of it certainly didn’t feel classic Jane. Some participants’ expectations of enchantment were not met, and many criticised the emphasis on one, rather gentrifying, site. For me the course challenged Gehlite Danish discourse in a refreshing way, although the end result did not enchant.

Enchantment is a recurring theme in UK place and nature writing as well, kicked off perhaps by Towards re-enchantment: place and its meanings (2010; The Ecologist).

In his essay in the book, A counter-desecration phrasebook, Robert Macfarlane calls for “a vast glossary of Enchantment that would comprehend the whole earth, that would allow nature to talk back to us and would help us to listen” (source), while in Landmarks (2015) he expresses his anxiety for the way that technology “has bequeathed to us an inadequate and unsatisfying relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves too”. Read him on Generation Anthropocene, and see The Big Interview with Adam Scovell.

David Cooper took issue with some of this on the Poetic Places launch event, and convened an event on Digital re-enchantment (Eventbrite) on 11 June to explore whether digital technologies can, for writers and readers, facilitate a re-enchantment with the world, looking at how landscape writers have drawn upon digital technologies in their creative practices. Examples:

  • experimental use of Twitter as a literary space, viz: take a photo of where you are in the Peak District – sum it up in one word – tag with #enchantthepeak – tweet
  • creative use of digital technologies to reimagine the Peak District

See also Richly Evocative’s review of the Balham Literary Festival.

#FLthecity: Re-enchanting the city (1)

Time for another city MOOC…Re-enchanting the city: designing the human habitat from the UNSW Built Environment team kicked off on 2 May for six weeks. Over 5k registered.

Most people now live in cities. With populations growing, how do we make these dense future cities green, liveable and poetic?

The city is humanity’s most complex and extraordinary artefact. As the world population grows and becomes ever more urban, the making of future cities is no longer just about aesthetics or convenience. Questions of sustainability and culture are more and more crucial. In fact, it can be said that the future of the city is the future of the species.

Uses an interdisciplinary approach, exploring the interdependencies of assorted professions (aka urbanists) via an investigation of the development process behind Sydney’s Central Park, a “a cutting-edge, high-density urban infill project”, “zooming in and out from the human scale to the broader context of human activities”.

Of most interest for answers to the question of what it takes to make a great city, not least “how we keep our heritage while creating a green and sustainable future”. Perhaps less so for “how we engage local democracy to make urban density both sustainable and poetic” and (the “core question”): “how do we design our way into an ultra-green, ultra-urban future?”.

Defining terms (see the nine page glossary):

  • built environment – a spatial product of culture, history, technology and materials; all man-designed and man-made environments that provide a platform for human activities
  • built environment professions – about the public interest; their primary goal is to make more liveable and sustainable cities, well-designed, efficient, effective, enjoyable, beautiful – also serving everybody (if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how can you serve everybody?)
  • enchantment –  captivation, fascination, intense attraction, with an element of surprise, something beautiful and of magical quality, together resulting in feelings of wonder and delight
  • gentrification – not in the glossary; “an often violent process by which a complex and diverse urban environment becomes more homogeneous and exclusionary. It does to neighborhoods and cities what climate change is doing to the earth” (Rebecca Solnit)
  • heritage – a building of great historical or artistic value that has official protection to prevent it from being changed or destroyed
  • liveability – in the context of dense cities refers to them being fit for people of all ages and levels of abilities, providing all the necessary amenities for a healthy and balanced lifestyle, including walkability and accessibility, attractive public places, affordability and effective transport systems (defining liveability | Liveable City)
  • living green – a sustainable way of life reducing our negative impact on the environment
  • poetic – what appeals to the imagination and something that has a sensitive, evocative style of expression that will speak to the human emotions
  • resililence – vs sustainability qv
  • suburban – not in glossary
  • urban – settlements are usually designated as urban once they have grown large enough to support industries which are not rural in nature
  • walkability – a measure of how accessible and easy an area is for walking; generally calculated as a composite of factors which includes at least net residential density, street connectivity and land use mix

I fear we are in trouble here, with Lisbon’s dancing traffic light manikin making an early appearance, plus music-making swings in Montreal. My enchanting cites at the moment: Ghent, Rotterdam and, always, Milton Keynes. Rowan Moore on Little Atoms was a reminder of the complete London, the truly global city.

Cue padlet exercise: “identify some part of your city or hometown that you find enchanting”, hmm. Post a pic/vid and write a 100-150 word justification, like and comment on three and then select the three most important elements of a city that contribute to enchantment from a Gehl-like list of nice things. In my current context it is diversity, variety of scale and the iconic (which may also be the historic) that mean the most.

Central Park Sydney (Twitter | YouTube), our case study, sits on the historic site of the former Carlton United Brewery, and includes Jean Nouvel’s Twin Tower, declared best tall building in the world by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in 2014, equipped with vertical gardens. (Lots on this, largely skipped.) It looks quite err…enchanting, as I commented:

On one level I like the look of Central Park. The mixed use element has a definite appeal and the reuse of heritage elements looks successful. The “dare to think big” approach appeals.

But it does all look rather shiny, and as mentioned by others below I’d like to know how much of it is quasi-public space, how affordable the housing is, etc.

Reminiscent of Finlayson in Tampere, but not really of what’s going on down at Carlsberg. And how about Rotterdam’s Timmerhuis? There is an issue however with eg the ‘curated’ (nashes teeth) Brewery Yard Markets, which don’t sound gentrified at all, honest: “a Sunday market in which stallholders offer produce, fashion, flora, wares and other products”).

Interesting binary observation:

Many of us have a love/hate relationship with our cities. On the one hand, cities can seem crowded, dirty, and noisy. On the other, they could be rich in history, vibrant, and energising. The upside– the magic– is often more apparent in older, historic cities, while modern cities can seem like a concrete jungle…we need to recreate that magic.

The beauty of historical cities usually derives from qualities like human scale, ornament, composition, and architectural articulation, from relationships between outside and inside, from the poetic use of technology, and the elegance of sustainable, or nature-sensitive design

Small is beautiful? Birthday girl Jane Jacobs got a shout-out for being “one of the first to recognise that good cities comprise not only the big, the fast and the shiny, but also the slow, the small, the old, the local, and the communal”, but at the moment it’s eggs: basket.

Hyperdensity, civic delight – and the suburbs

Hyperdensity seems to be the MOOC’s big thing. My civic delight is somewhat limited, but FWIW Vishaan Chakrabarti defines hyperdensity, ie density sufficient to support intensive public transportation systems, typically 75 dwelling units per hectare or 30 units per acre, as good urban design, contributing to the health, prosperity and sustainability of cities. The #FLthecity team goes further: “density can be positive for cities in terms of beauty, joy, public health, economy and the environment”. And if people don’t like it, they can be nudged into it *hackles raise* (is this MOOC designed as a nudge??).

Density is a measure of the number of dwellings or population size in a given land area, often visualised in terms of the building height/number of storeys in relation to the amount of open space – see the visualising density infographicUrban Density Simulator and Measuring density, plus Chakrabarti’s Building hyperdensity and civic delight and vid,

Some density figures from my collection (200+/km = urban):

  • 1800: 83/ha, 1945: 53/ha, 1988: 30/ha, 2010: 24/ha (dunno!)
  • London: relatively low density: 5K/km2 (lots of terraces); see London’s high life?, a London Society event on 5 April; a Gdn piece shows English city density ranging from 15% (Leicester) to 5.2% (Leeds, Bradford), with London at 13.3%
  • Barcelona: 103 road intersections per sq km, compared to Brasilia’s 41 or Shanghai’s Pudong area with only 17; Barcelona: 15,685 people per sq km, compared to London’s 5,491 or Copenhagen’s 1,850 (WTF?)
  • Ghent: 7703/km2 (centre), 1109/m2 (suburbs)
  • Paris: 20K/km2

Whose density is it anyway? As reflected above, there are many ways to measure it.

See Peter Rees on density: “The idea that to increase density you have to build high is, frankly, bollocks. To achieve high density, you build around the edges of a site, put a nice garden with trees in the middle, five to seven storeys tall. Cities from Helsinki to Naples have developed like that over 100s of years. When you build a high-rise block in the middle of a site, the open space is in the wrong place, it’s around the outside of the site where the traffic is. It doesn’t feel private. You don’t want to sit in your deck chair looking out on Vauxhall Cross.” Build up or move out? Let’s hear it for medium density.

But see also Joel Kotkin on urbanism for the rest of us (The Urbanist, 28 April | Urban Review | New America | New Geography), who argues for a dispersed and less homogeneous city: when asked, the vast majority of people want space when they reach their 30s and 40s. Not everyone wants to be hip and glamorous. Could density (tæthed) turn out to be the new concrete – public responses to several developments locally have been resistant to the number of houses being crammed in.

The density and other characteristics of the suburbs also popped up in Victor Enrich’s exhibition Stad van morgen: over de rand in Ghent’s STAM: “Cities are a mixture of various elements, and so are their suburbs…the distinct identity of suburbs is precisely what offers possibilities for the future and the standard of living in our cities”. See his series of images, which aim to demonstrate the “undiscovered potential of the suburbs as players of an important role in formulating valuable answers to some of the needs of the contemporary city”.

Centre or suburb? was the title of a Royal Academy event aimed at “locating the soul of 21st century London” and taking place on the day Tooting’s Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London. Exclusive hyperdense city centres are well and good in Monocle’s lifestyle cities, targeting hipsters (aspiring and otherwise) and to be consumed out of hours and by the city break crowd, but is it not the suburbs where we should be looking for solutions to the problems of the city?

Uses the end of week wrap-up model (which really ought to be mandatory or it’s all too easy to ignore the social – it needs proper curation!), posted on a Saturday. Key points from week 1:

  • Does enchantment fade over time? While examples like the dancing traffic light are fun and engaging the first time people see and interact with it, its captivation and magic may not be as significant after seeing it over an extended period. How do we maintain enchantment over an extended period? Ideas shared included:
    • When a story becomes embedded into the experience
    • When public places become platforms for inhabitants to share ideas
    • When an object/the environment responds in an ‘intelligent’ way to users
    • Is moving on an emotional level
    • Art integrated with participation
    • …which you might be tempted to call the ‘whimsical unfolding of civic life’ rather than the ‘living culture of a city’
  • Issues around hyperdensity:
    • affordability and cost of services
    • backyards and their value to families
    • busyness/crowding nature of high density, lack of areas for solitude
    • crime
    • economic constraints of some cities/countries
    • geographic issues
    • privacy
    • size of apartments – liveability on inside
    • social problems of isolation
    • plus applicability to eg developing countries

After all that week 2 was a bit meh, centred around the development process which led to Central Park, a pretty classic property development saga with a hyperdense layer. Long series of vids from stakeholders – the timeline is enough for me. Of most interest is the response from local residents, more akin to Hvidovre Bymidte than the picture painted elsewhere. Note also that the Valby Grønttorvet development was made less dense during the planning process. (But more often it’s a case of if you can’t get the residents you want, just decant ’em.)

We are invited to comment on a local controversial development, but of course DK doesn’t really do controversy. Ørestad? Papirøen? and to pen 150 words, Like three comments, etc, as a Central Park stakeholder.

Also to identify who ‘owns’ your city, ie “the extent to which individuals or groups influence and implement decisions around the design and workings of the city”, from a pick list, but heavens, I don’t know, is it meant to be an opinion or fact based? Like new followee Duncan Mackay I could not proceed. Government won, followed by community/local residents, built environment professionals, activitists and other. Still doesn’t make much sense to me.

Key points from the week were the role of women in the built environment, including the need to increase their presence and representation, the nature of healthy cities, the challenge between planners and planning authorities, and the affordability of housing with increasing density.

New post calls – see the #FLthecity tag.

#FLdigireading: Reading literature in the digital age

Reading literature in the digital age from the University of Basel, on FutureLearn, ran from 28 March for six weeks. Led by Philipp Schweighauser, Head of American and General Literatures.

How do we read literary texts today? Learn new ways of interpreting texts, from time-tested methods to computer-assisted practices such as distant reading.

In the course you will:

  • learn how to interpret a work of literature without using any contextual information
  • reflect on the costs and benefits of online reading
  • encounter a method for reading thousands of literary texts with the help of computer algorithms
  • think hard about the feel and smell of books

How we read today: different media

Offline and online, print book and ebook…reading always implies the use of a specific medium of reading, and  the technological possibilities of the medium fundamentally shape our reading experience with far-reaching cognitive and social effects.

Reading habits have changed substantially over the last three decades. A National Literary Trust 2013 survey found that today’s young people “are now much more likely to prefer to read on a computer screen rather than a printed book or magazine”, while a 2015 survey found significant gender and ethnic divides between online and offline readers: “girls continue to outpace boys in their enthusiasm for reading outside school at all age levels, with black girls in particular showing a prodigious appetite for literature”.

How do the new forms of reading impact the cognitive processing of the texts we read? When we read texts online or as ebooks, do we get as deep an understanding of them and remember as much of them as we do when we read a print book? See Anne Mangan’s 2014 study, which suggested that ebook reading impacts our cognitive processing negatively.

See posts on ebooks and digital literature, reading long form and reading the Berlin ebooks.

In our learning community, ebook readers and print books seem to be the favorite reading media. A sizeable minority has abandoned reading print books altogether, be it for reasons of space, mobility, or money. A majority treasures print books for their sensuous and aesthetic qualities, valuing their look, touch, and smell…reading literary texts in different media means reading literary texts differently. We could even say that it means reading a different literary text.

How we read today: new strategies

See post on different ways of reading.

Lay reading techniques, products of and responses to the digital age. What do you do when you read texts online?

  • hyper reading – unlike ‘linear’ reading takes us into multiple directions which cannot be foreseen at the beginning of the reading process
  • social reading – a collaborative form of online reading that incorporates discussion into the reading process and turns it into a communal experience; see post on tweeting about reading

Professional reading techniques:

  • close reading – deliberately ignores all historical, social, political, and biographical contexts to focus on the text itself, zooming in on the words on the page and teasing out all the subtleties of the literary forms, and devices, and structures that make up a text; as practised on #FLHouseLit; see Sarah Dillon on R4’s Open Book (also connection with digital reading techniques in its forensic intensity, perhaps)
  • historical contextualization – placing texts in their literary-historical context – part of which is the literary-geographical context – see stedssans category and page, #FLwordsworth and #FLfairytales
  • distant reading – Moretti; surveys, analyses, and describes even thousands of literary texts to identify general patterns and large scale historical developments across centuries and national borders, drawing on the methods of the natural and the social sciences; some of the most interesting outputs are not interpretations but visualisations (graphs, maps, trees); relationship with text analysis
  • surface reading – also not interested in interpreting literary texts, but focuses on a variety of things inc the materiality of books: some interesting stuff here; relationship with experimental writing

Close reading is one of the most widespread scholarly methods in literary criticism and constitutes an indispensable tool, the bread and butter, for professional readers. Formalist, ahistorical, too strenuous, too reductive, relevant to scholars only, not well suited to the digital age with its information overload, or a useful tool for interpreting literary and other texts?

Developed from a 1920s experiment by English literary critic IA Richards, but today more closely associated with the (American) New Critics, who dominated literary scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s. Poems that bear out such a close examination are characterised by multilayered relations between words, sounds, and meanings, with ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies, and tensions contained within the organic unity of the text. Literary texts don’t need to serve any psychological or social function, to educate us or strive to make the world a better place – instead, they carry their value in themselves.

My classic 1980s degree in German was studied almost exclusively through close reading, although no one ever called it that. A module on the literature of the Weimar Republic, employing historical contextualisation techniques, was considered rather risqué and not quite proper.

Hyper reading is the type of reading you perform when you look anything up on the web, eg skimming webpages, following hyperlinks, downloading files, cutting and pasting text you find useful. See James Sosnoski’s 1999 essay, Hyper-readers and their reading engines, classing hyper reading as screen-based, computer-assisted reading practices. Hyper reading takes place online and is a non-linear form of reading, where hyperlinks can take us into any kind of direction, instead of proceeding smoothly from page one to page two, and so on. (Hmm not convinced this only takes place online.)

Sosnoski’s eight hyper reading strategies:

  • filtering – selecting what texts or what parts of the text you read; with the help of search engines we filter the countless pages that make up the web and select but one or a few
  • skimming – locating the parts of a text you find most interesting, eg via a table of contents
  • pecking – a less structured and more random activity; randomly reading a bit here and a bit there, without respecting a text’s internal structure or coherence
  • imposing –  we attribute less coherence, unity and authority to hypertexts than eg a poem or a novel; we impose our interest on the text and use it for our ends, imposing our own specific significance on it
  • filming – privileging visual materials over texts; hyper readers film hypertexts
  • trespassing – ‘textual burglars’ raid hyper-texts and cut and paste whatever they find interesting; the danger is plagiarism and related
  • de-authorizing – authorship on the web is often difficult to determine; hyper readers don’t really care who authored a website and tend to treat them as if they were completely in the public domain; any link a website has to another website is an act of de-authorizing that website by putting it to one’s own uses
  • fragmenting – breaking texts into smaller units, relevant to purpose, thus fragmenting the text

Two more from Katherine Hayles’ How we think: digital media and contemporary technogenesis (2012):

  • juxtaposing – opening two windows, placing them side by side to eg cut and paste text; reading across two or more texts
  • scanning – rapidly reading through a website to identify interesting parts

Which of these go beyond stating the obvious? But still useful for typology lovers.

How does constant exposure to hyper reading affect us and what we can do about these changes?  Benefits and risks:

  • several studies show that people read less print, and they read print less well (Hayles)
  • other studies find that people, including digital natives, are reading more novels again – how to convert the increased digital reading into increased reading ability, and how to make effective bridges between digital reading and the literacy traditionally associated with print’ (Hayles)?
  • Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994) warns against the disappearance of ‘deep reading’, the experiential equivalent of close reading, the cognitive and emotional effects that solitary, close, concentrated reading has on readers
  • much more of this from Nicholas Carr and The shallows: what the Internet is doing to our brains (2010; article); continual on-screen reading changes the neuronal structures of readers’ brains

Can online social reading sites turn reading into a whole new communal experience? “Social reading is a form of collaborative reading that takes place online, incorporating discussion into the reading process and thus turning it into a community experience”. Hmm…depends v much on the ‘community’ – not ideal for the anti-social.

See Glose, SocialBook (and the Open Utopia pilot project), The Golden Notebook Project (2008), book clubs…and Bob Stein’s (founder of the Institute for the Future of the Book) essay A taxonomy of social reading: a proposal.

  1. Does the collaborative practice of social reading truly enhance our understanding of literary texts?
  2. Does social reading allow for a free exchange of equals?
  3. Will social reading ever replace solitary reading?

How can historical contextualization help us understand a literary work? Investigating the historical contexts of a literary text is one way to make sense of it. The literary-historical contexts of a work include, among others, the institutional aspects of its publication, its relation to the dynamics of various literary and artistic movements, and the connection of its author to other authors.

New Historicism has been a leading theoretical school in the humanities over the last three decades. New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt and Jane Tompkins developed a new historical approach to literature and culture.

New Historicists no longer believe that any historical era is dominated by one worldview shared by all – any era is shaped by competing worldviews and ideologies. History is neither progressive nor teleological. The world is not continually improving, for if that were the case, something like the Holocaust could have never happened. Likewise, history does not move toward a telos, an end or a goal. A teleological view of history would for instance argue that eventually, all the world will resemble Western liberal democracies, while New Historicists propose that history is much rather shaped by competing forces and changing power relations.

Historians’ desire to fully know and understand the past is illusory. The past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. Louis Montrose: the historicity of texts and the textuality of history. When we read literary texts we need to take into consideration that they were written and read at a specific moment in history, at a specific time and place whose social and cultural configurations were different from our own. The texts that historians and literary scholars write are also shaped by their time and place.

The textuality of history means that the past is the past and as such, never directly accessible to us. In most cases, the past comes to us in the form of surviving texts. Those texts that historians call sources. The texts from the past that historians call sources always already interpret the past, provide a certain perspective on the past that needs to be interpreted by us. New Historicists also note that the texts from the past that we actually have access to today are only a minute fraction of the texts that were actually produced and only give us certain perspectives on the past.

Perhaps the most important notion of New Historicism is cultural work (Jane Tompkins), going against the idea that literary texts simply mirror or reflect the world. For New Historicists literary texts are an integral part of the world in which they are read. They negotiate, comment on, and intervene in social and political debates of the time. Hence historical contextualisation is also good at providing opportunities to deal with questions which are related to literature only indirectly but which nonetheless strongly influence our perception of it.

Distant reading is a quintessentially digital method of analysing literature, relying on computer programmes. In many ways it is not reading at all – or at least not in the traditional sense of the word. Moretti: “We know how to read texts. Now let’s learn how not to read them.”

Computer programmes, with the help of methods borrowed from the social sciences and natural sciences, are breaking new ground in dealing with literary texts and provide fascinating insights about literature. This strategy, developed by Franco Moretti, represents an attempt at utilizing big data analytics for the purposes of literary scholarship.

Three main arguments for distant reading:

  • not “years of analysis for a day of synthesis” (Marc Bloch) – instead of embarking on close readings of the semantic and syntactic intricacies of single individual literary texts literary scholars can now use large databases, scan thousands of literary texts and identify recurring patterns and large scale historical developments
  • traditional literary scholars tend to focus on a rather narrow selection of literary texts written by eg dead, white males; distant reading promises to pry open the canon to also include largely forgotten works of literature
  • a promise of greater objectivity – traditional literary scholarship tends to be subjective in the end, shaped by the literary scholar’s own norms, values, and prejudices

Try out the Google Ngram Viewer (about) or Euterpe, an examination of French scientific poetry from the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 20th century, led by Hugues Marchal. Or not.

Surface reading is not unitary method or a school of thought, but rather a general attitude towards literature that manifests itself in a set of heterogeneous practices linked by common presuppositions about the nature of cultural experience in general, such as the one claiming that by focusing on the meaning of literary texts we exclude and lose sight of another important dimension of literature.

Is the medium the message? To what extent do different media determine or preconfigure our reading experience and our interpretation of individual texts? The medial, material and technological preconditions of all communication forms, including reading.

The emergence of new media has a transforming effect on both society and the human psyche. What is the message of your cell phone? What psychological and social consequences does it have? How has it changed the way we think and act? How has it affected the structures and interactions of local, national, and global communities? What is the message of ebooks? Health effects, how the reading experience is enhanced or diminished by features not available for print books, the legal, political, and economic consequences of the increasing distribution and use of ebooks.

Why does the materiality of books matter? Since the 1980s scholars of modern literature have begun to devote increasing attention to those features of books that medievalists and Renaissance scholars have always considered crucial: the stuff that books are made of (their size, weight, type of paper, and binding) and the texts that surround the text proper (the cover, the copyright pages, marginalia).

  • in 1997 French literary theorist Gérard Genette coined the term paratext to name all those texts; paratexts are the portals through which we access the text proper, ‘thresholds of interpretation’ ‘thresholds of interpretation’ which significantly shape our reading experience, including our attempts to make sense of what we read
  • in the 1980s and 1990s Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Ludwig Pfeiffer invited us to focus on the ‘materialities of communication…all those phenomena and conditions that contribute to the production of meaning, without being meaning themselves’
  • in a more recent special issue of Representations (108.1 (2009): 1–21) Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus introduced the term surface reading to name a kind of reading strategy that focuses on the surfaces of texts, ‘what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts; what is neither hidden nor hiding; what, in the geometrical sense, has length and breadth but no thickness, and therefore covers no depth. A surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through.’

How is print culture responding to the challenges posed by digitalisation? One way is via remediation, the dynamic relation between older and newer media and the way they refashion and adapt to each other. In 1999 J David Bolter and Richard Grusin published Remediation: understanding new media, aiming at updating McLuhan’s insights for the 21st century. One of their central claims is that new media do not simply replace older media. Instead, they rework and redeploy older media, retaining some of their features and functions while discarding others. Media history is, in other words, not a series of radical breaks and ruptures, but rather a series of continual refunctionings and redeployments of older media by new media.

Remediation is defined as ‘the formal logic by which new media refashion prior media forms.’ It’s not only that new media remediate old media. Old media such as films and books also remediate new media such as computer games and hyper texts (retrograde remediation).

See eg McSweeney‘s Issue 19, Old Facts, New Fiction, & a Novella, which imitates and puts to new uses the multimedial quality of newer media:

By giving us the freedom to read these various texts and images and look at them in any order, this literary cigar box gives us the freedom to combine text and images in multiple ways. And that’s precisely the kind of freedom that we have learned to appreciate from hypertext. But this literary object here, all of this together, does something more than imitate hypertext and the world wide web.

It also does something that these newer media cannot do. It gives us a very sensuous and haptic access to these texts, these images here. We take these various artefacts into our hands, marvel at how well they’re made, and position them on the table next to each other, combining them in various ways. So McSweeney’s meets the challenge of new media by creating beautiful tangible literary objects. These material haptic qualities are well-nigh impossible to reproduce on the computer screen. McSweeney’s takes up the glove and competes in the medial arena, following its own maxim to create ’little, heavy, papery, beautiful things’.

Bolter and Grusin outline two major strategies in the medial competition between old and new media:

  • hypermediality – a ‘style of visual representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium’; an early example of hypermediacy would be medieval books of hours, which contain beautiful illustrations that draw readers’ attention to the materiality of the book itself
  • transparent immediacy – where the goal is to make the reader or viewer forget the medium and give in to the illusion that what they experience is immediate and direct, eg 3d movies and fantasy novels

Verdict: the number of linked posts on reading and related shows that much of this was useful revision. An efficient FutureLearn MOOC, then, if not groundbreaking for me. My strategy remains curated reading, the introvert appropriate approach to social reading, which all too often though tends towards half-reading.

A related issue is the dissemination of literature in the digital age, as seen at Danish public libraries. See IVA’s Ditte Balling and CROWD, including its INTRE:FACE conference (posts), for more.

Jan Christiansen’s Copenhagen

book cover

Cykelslangen, obv

Jan Christiansen was Copenhagen’s stadsarkitekt during the boom years of 2001-10, following the traumas of the 1990s when the city was declared bankrupt. His reminiscences, another of those too-big-to-handle style books where form beats function, were published in 2015 by Strandberg (300 odd pages, yours for ~£35; blurb | interview in Berlingske | Politiken review), with the support of Realdania and Dreyers Fond (I mention this because it seems to be the main economic model for Danish non-fiction). There’s lots of tasteful pics and a limited five page index, but no maps or owt. And, as ever, a tighter editor might have made for a more accessible product.

Jan was the functionary to Jens Kramer Mikkelsen’s overborgmester until 2004, when the latter resigned to become chief executive of Ørestadsselskabet (now By & Havn). Mikkelsen was replaced as mayor by billige boliger queen Ritt Bjerregaard (until 2009). Going down a level, Jan served under two sub-mayors with responsibility for things urban, Søren Pind (V) and Klaus Bondam (R; from 2006).

The library has obliged.

Introduction

The noughties saw an explosion of building and architecture in Copenhagen, a third modern gennembrud following the opening up of the city ramparts in the 1870s and the burst of funkis activity in the 1930s. Under Jan’s watch it was all about urban renewal, housebuilding and kulturhuse, plus the beginning of the process of transformation for the city’s former harbour and industrial areas, in particular Ørestad, Nordhavn and Sluseholmen.

This period also saw byens rum (public space), enter the picture, centred round the experience economy and the idea of a more recreational lifestyle, but by the end of Jan’s period of tenure tighter funds meant that a number of prestige projects were put on hold. Some, such as Koncerthuset, Operaen and Skuespilhuset, have come to fruition, while others have yet to see the light of day, and still others have been downscaled to suit the revised concept of the ‘storby’ we have today.

Jan reflects on the question as to whether he, and in particular the city’s politicians, were carried away by economic optimism generated by the boligboble (housing boom), in the process forgetting the solid and refined values of traditional Danish architecture. Were they too impressed by ideas and concepts, out of scale and even insensitive in the Danish context? Or were they successful in translating international ideas into that context?

Copenhagen’s egenart: scale

At the tail end of the 1990s the council sold off some pockets of land to developers at a knock down price, resulting in some projects commonly judged failures – Kalvebod Brygge and Fields usually get mentions in this connection. These projects were seen as going against Copenhagen’s egenart (let’s call it ‘essence’) which, often, comes down to scale.

It’s being small/er which is seen as CPH’s key quality – the historic buildings in the centre are one storey lower even than nearby Malmö (which might help explain why the latter has for me an immediate urban feel compared with CPH). Complementing the small scale is the flatness, oh the flatness, meaning no horizon and no layers.

Light and wind are also claimed to play key roles – the low sun for six months of the year means that buildings are designed to let the sun in, and the famous housing karréer developed as a way of shutting out the constant west wind. (Hmm…Edinburgh is on the same latitude as CPH and is known as the Windy City, but somehow it lacks the enervating qualities found on the other side of the North Sea.)  Copenhagen – making a virtue of the small and sustainable, rather than the more appealing (and perhaps diverse) resilient.

Buildings in Copenhagen have up to now, with a few exceptions, been kept deliberately low rise, in order to protect the city’s historic skyline of slender towers. In 2007 its politicians rejected Norman Foster’s proposed ‘luxury’ skyscraper at Tivoli as not Danish enough, leading Spanish architect Joan Busquets to comment that cities develop themselves over time and that skyscrapers are a sign of a dynamic modern city – resting on the laurels of the icons of the past is not enough.

Where skyscrapers did get an early seal of approval was in Ørestad City, in particular around the station. Nine were originally on the table, and a further 11 were pencilled for Amager East, with its views over the Øresund. Today a new højhuspolitik has opened the door for further clusters in the developing areas of the city, with the recognition that skyscrapers can help develop an identity, as well as create a critical mass of consumers for new facilities. Carlsberg’s højhuse are being placed in strategic points, with the highest a ‘point de vue’ from Søndermarken and other strategic points. New (supposedly) tall and slim towers of high architectural quality are being talked up as creating connections between the medieval city of towers, Denmark’s Golden Age, the industrial architecture of the recent past and the modern city.

All of which brings us to tæthed (density), seen as the essential for creating city life. Density levels in a parcelhusområde are 20-30%, in central CPH it’s 120-200%, but under the new tæt-høj model in parts of Ørestad, with tower blocks of 8-12 storeys, it’s up to 350% (where there are lots of tower blocks it can rise to up to 500%; at Teglgårdsstræde in inner CPH it’s up to 600%). Jan claims you can get away with increasing density without affecting quality of life when other essentials (shops, culture, transport, parks, byliv) are close at hand.

Finally, homes in CPH are small – the average size per person in Denmark as a whole is 60m2, while in CPH it’s 32m2.

New Copenhagen

There then follows a run-through of key projects masterminded by Jan, some familiar, some less so. Many are included in the Copenhagen X Gallery, another of Jan’s legacies. There’s lots on the minutiae of communal politics, plus ample room for Wikipedia fact listing.

Here are some titbits I picked up:

  • HC Andersens Boulevard – until 1954 known as Vester Boulevard, with a parkstrøg and haveanlæg; today a busy thoroughfare
  • the metro – seen as the solution to the traffic issues caused by CPH scale, so much so that a new area was built to finance it (although to save money the stretch along the Øresund to the airport was built over ground, or rather half buried behind screens)
  • the harbour, aka Den Blå Plan – what to do? it couldn’t just be a big park; issue re houseboats, seen as messy and making the harbour inaccessible, hence limited mainly to Sluseholmen; claimed these days as a success, in particular the improvements in water quality, but still lacks decent connections and a proper sense of its cultural heritage
  • Operaen on Dokøen – brickbats aplenty for not being bymæssig, and does rather loom seen from Amalienborg, but more unique than Skuespilhuset; maybe it’s just not CPH scale

Most interesting was the concept of Metropolzonen, a now unlikely sounding project coined in 2006 to transform the area around Rådhuspladsen, Tivoli and the central station (see Magasinet KBH’s map) into a bigger, higher and noisier byens foyer. Attention seems to have shifted away from this area of hotels, offices, restaurants and Tivoli, and it’s all the better for it. You can still wander round untroubled by much in yer face small scale CPHery, although there’s no denying it can feel rather empty – hordes of tourists dragging suitcases does not equal buzz. It remains to be seen what the opening of Axel Towers will bring, a project which has been on the go since 2012, but generally Denmark doesn’t scale up well, it lacks a bigger picture.

Hvad så, København?

So, what next? In the last couple of years there has been a particular stress on nature and landscape in the city, with projects to create cycle paths, rainwater solutions, pocket parks…but at the same time a lot of construction activity aimed at housing the estimated 1000 people moving to the city per month – although those figures are beginning to come under some scrutiny. Gentrification has entered the Danish vocabulary, and there has been a certain amount of muttering about the number of historical buildings being pulled down in Carlsberg.

The city is increasingly being pulled in two directions, and it will be interesting to see how long the current ‘happy CPH’ discourse can hold. Few dissenting voices are to be heard, but the point has recently been made in CityMetric:

The “cities are great but they could be nicer” band dominate everything…we are all being mocked when the case studies to forge 21st century urban policy are very modestly populated 15th century Italian towns like Pienza.

For more on New Copenhagen see the (undated) Linje C podride with Jan and the 2014 Sharing Copenhagen city walk with Tina Saaby, the current stadsarkitekt.

For more on Denmark’s special sense of scale, see Mastodonternes fremmarch, a recent article in Jyllands Posten, bemoaning the new architecture in Aarhus, and new find Nordic Design Review on scale and proportion, with showcasing inter alia Grundtvigs Kirke and Israels Plads.

See also an article by DF’s cultural spokesman critiquing contemporary architecture, plus responses from Arkitekektforeningen, KADK (calling both the National Bank and the SMK extension fejlplaceret/misplaced) and Politiken.

three towers

Carlsberg’s new skyline: Bohrs Tårn (completion date: 2017), Carlsberg Hovedkontor (1961/97). Kongens Bryghus (1957/97)

#FLremaking: eco-criticism, re-storying nature

Back half of Remaking nature – see front half.

Composing new natures

Having now introduced some of the reasons why nature must be remade, this week we move on to experiment with different ways of composing new natures.

How do we translate our concerns about nature into interventions that will make a meaningful difference? How can we both discursively (in the way we write, speak and think) and materially address questions of politics and ethics, history and justice, facts and values?

Starting points:

  • what do you want to achieve – to address a specific problem, celebrate nature, acknowledge our interconnections with the wider world, or advocate for a particular outcome?
  • determine how you want your audiences or participants to respond – what do you want them to think, feel, or do?
  • what is your creative idea that will achieve your desired responses?
  • what will you actually do – will your intervention be artistic, discursive, or performative?

Four modes of intervention aka creative eco-activism:

  • challenging or disrupting ways of thinking about nature – increases mainstream awareness, but can you achieve what you want by creating a shared sense of collaboration, or open up public agendas and opportunities for action?
  • narrating possible natures – documenting and re-storying/writing nature, inc digital stories; discursive, but can be dualistic; how can we represent nature and make a voice for it?
  • creating a public sense of identification with nature – #some opens up possibilities for interventions that resonate with your audience’s concerns, values, and attachments: seek ways to create emotional connections and use everyday language that your audiences will identify with – no jargon!
  • motivating action – advocacy and activism
  • plus from comments: embedded and participatory

Challenges:

  • how to talk about environmental problems in ways that will resonate with your audiences
  • how to intensify and mobilise concerns about the more-than-human world
  • how to establish meaningful mechanisms for navigating and intervening in decision-making processes

Examples:

  • artistic representations – eg Nuclear Futures
  • eco-criticism and re-writing nature – see below
  • bio-art – artistic interventions at the nexus between plant science, art, plus earth jurisprudence (bioethics, or nature rights), reflecting on the possibility of plants and other entities having a different way of thinking, a different form of sentience and ultimately different rights, calling for a radical rethinking of humanity’s place in the world (Prue Gibson)

Next, drawing on the concepts developed in this course post a link to an inspiring example of an intervention, possibly relating to your topic. Why does it inspire you? Hmm…it just all goes back to reading Peter Singer aged 14. Any trees stuff? #labbeagles? See Walking with the more than human (and blog). I have an issue though with being anthropomorphic re animals. (From the week 5 discussions: Re anthropomorphism, aka the “*unwarranted* use of human-like characteristics in our descriptions of others. As such, the term tends to largely be used in question begging ways – as an insult that assumes that the animal doesn’t have these characteristics, when that is precisely what is at issue…[see also] anthropodenial…human chauvinism and human exceptionalism. They need not travel together”.)

And now create your own intervention based on yer week 3 issue – say something interesting, provocative, perhaps eye catching, about your issue and its possible futures, ideally in a way that might make a difference to how people understand and live with this environmental issue. Then add it to the creative interventions padlet, with details of  the theoretical context for your intervention – why do you think this is a good approach, and what have you hoped to achieve with it?

Eco-criticism and re-writing nature

Eco-criticism, a field of study that explores the inter-relationships of literature and the environment, is a tool for intervening in the way nature is understood, imagined and made – not simply as a mode of critique but also as a means of effecting change. How can, and do, literary and poetic forms help to trouble mainstream thinking about the environment?

Eco-criticism is a subfield of literary studies and cultural studies that looks at representations of the more-than-human world in poetry, film, and fiction. In the early days of the 1980s and 1990s, eco-critics didn’t have a very complicated idea of nature, but since then the real problem of naturecultures has been taken on.

Eco-critics can help in the project of reimagining nature in numerous ways. One important way is the historical perspective, looking into the history of artistic representation to show up how nature or the more-than-human world has been represented across time…there have been other ways of reading and understanding the more-than-human world in history, and that can help denaturalise the present.

There’s something quite apocalyptic about the mainstream imagining of climate change. We need to take the challenges of climate change seriously, but at the same time we can’t just imagine it in apocalyptic terms. Eco-criticism can show us how the apocalypse has had different incarnations across history. Every generation has had its own apocalypse story – our present crisis is just a part of this bigger history. But at the same time we need alternative visions for the future, and poets and artists, particularly operating in a speculative fictional sense, can help us to get out of this apocalyptic vision and think differently about the future.

Storytelling, and particularly narrative storytelling, is emerging as central to the EH project because it offers a different way of representing information. Eco-critics look at the structure of stories, the formal techniques, the history of different modes of representation and use story as a way of presenting and disseminating their research.

As Donna Haraway said in her recent article in Environmental Humanities it matters which stories tell stories. The stories we tell about the world, matter the world, and actually have an impact on the way that we behave, and the way that we live, and the way that we imagine the future. And so stories, both fictional and non-fictional are really important to this broad project. (Jennifer Mae Hamilton; from transcript)

  • narrating possible natures – documenting and re-storying/writing nature, inc digital stories; discursive, but can be dualistic; how can we represent nature and make a voice for it?
  • storytelling, particularly speculative forms that offer alternative visions of the future, is an important tool for engaging with environmental challenges, see article by Margaret Atwood, reflecting on the growing rise of speculative fiction, principally ‘cli-fi’; a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions, or just another part of the ‘entertainment business’?

Eco-criticism linkage:

Have to say, so far none of this does as much for me as I feel it ought to,  and others’ creative intervention projects don’t appeal either. Still, I wrote a bit on what now turns out to be EH in October 2014, summing up two events in Copenhagen from Energy Futures at ITU (@EnergyFutureITU; gone a bit quiet since). On Pynt eller politik?:

The debate on engagement stuck out, with participants highlighting the need for new forms of communication, perhaps reducing the dystopian angle on climate change in favour of something more positive. More idealistic was a call for more of the aesthetic, which in turn would emphasise the ethical in society and education (this works better på dansk), more solutions and positive stories, less of the victim, endless facts and figures – current discourse is too functional and economically driven. What is needed is collective action rather than passive individuals, a lifestyle and value system change away from consumption.

New narratives for new natures

This week we looked at the power of storytelling in composing new natures. We encountered the recurring idea that telling stories draws us into new connections, accountabilities and obligations. You invented your own creative stories about the future through the Game of Global Futures, which illustrated how different connections, or coalescences, lead to different environmental outcomes.

Sadly, this is where I lost the plot and reached my personal tipping point. Games don’t appeal, but thanks to a fellow students for posting some material re the dominance of storytelling, specifically  Galen Strawson in Aeon and Tyler Cowen via the medium of TEDx (really), who went from Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots to the three problems with stories (they’re simple and manipulative, they end up serving dual and conflicting functions, markets and politicians don’t always send us the right stories) – embrace mess!

We were also introduced to the concepts of re-making and re-worlding, “used within EH and a range of other fields which acknowledges that our understandings of the world are made and re-made through encounters between different imaginaries…art interventions and other forms of research — as forms of worlding — can envision new worlds that demonstrate greater ethics of care and concern, and can potentially open up more responsible imaginaries and ways of knowing”.

Moving on, there are four different modes or lenses for telling stories within EH:

  • justice – the social justice expression of environmental ethics; breaks down the division between the social and the environmental and acknowledges the role of social and political power in shaping environmental outcomes
  • care – affective, ethical and practical (a vital affective state, and an ethical obligation, and a practical labour), but care not without risk; what kinds of emotional, political, and epistemic frames orient our caring acts? what am I really caring for, why, and at what cost to whom? (come in, CPH Zoo)
  • art – what are the implications for knowledge and public engagement in environmental issues, when an artistic mode is adopted?
  • democratising knowledge – questioning existing public engagement approaches that concentrate on public acceptance of pre-determined, technology-driven responses to environmental problems and engaging with complex issues around who has access to framing environmental problems and driving change; what counts as facts and what counts as values? We’ve tended to value facts, which we assume are objective, over values, which we assume are sort of subjective or sort of irrational (comment from co-student: “the general public has ‘values’ right enough but these are often of the NIMBY variety or based on sentimentality…there is a whole industry grown up around public participation which keeps everyone in a fine state of ferment”)

Each of these storytelling modes offers a different framework for understanding and working through the stories humans tell — and hence the relationships we establish, with their world-making consequences. Together, these modes can help us to tell new stories that exhibit greater responsibility towards humans and the more-than-human world.

Where do these new natures take us?

Final week, a conclusion? Discussing the importance of care and responsibility in future-making, introducing the notion of ‘staying with the trouble’, and why it’s important to base our accounts in situated experiences of the world.

Forget utopias – the lure of hope as a form of denial or distraction can be very strong. Engage in practical and concrete modes of care and responsibility for possible worlds – what’s needed is a critical lens on, and more attention towards, what it is that we’re specifically hoping and working towards.

Forget apocalypse – use optimistic stories that provoke a sense of agency, rather than focusing on apocalyptic visions of the future. If the communication does not resonate with social norms, values or attachments that influence audiences’ sense-making processes, it cannot succeed.

We now leave you with a final provocation: What is your next step? How will you use the knowledge and connections that you gained in this course to influence change in a situation that you care about?

Overall, too many new concepts, too much jargon, too many earnest academics talking to each other – a rather more high minded MOOC than many.

EH linkage:

Finally, a new book on humans’ relationship with dogs looks worth a closer look. When I got my first dog my values were put into question by the rather different approach taken by his Danish breeder and associated trainers. Colin Dayan’s With dogs at the edge of life looks to offer some more challenging perspectives – see the LRB Bookshop and the Boston Review.

#FLRobert Burns: the Robert Burns MOOC

Quick look at Robert Burns: poems, songs and legacy (#FLRobertBurns) from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow kicked off on 25 Jan, obv, for three weeks.

Who was Robert Burns? What made Robert Burns a poetic genius? And what made Robert Burns a global icon?

You’ll examine archive material, original publications and manuscripts by Burns himself, recordings of Burns songs and examples of objects used to commemorate the poet. You’ll also look at and learn to interpret a selection of Robert Burns’ works in the context of Scottish history and culture.

Setting things in a wider context, you’ll also develop your understanding of Robert Burns’s reputation – from the rise of Burns Clubs and Burns Suppers following his death, to the continuing celebration of the poet today through Burns Night, Hogmanay (New Year) and beyond.

A counterpoint to #FLfairytales and #FLwordsworth, then.

Who was – and is – Robert Burns?

Rabbie wordcloudKicking off by debunking Rabbie related mythology, the first week proper had 21 steps, the sort of thing which makes me groan. Anyway, step 1 invited a one word response on something called AnswerGarden to the question: who was Robert Burns? I went with ‘Scot’. There’s quite a nice wordcloud emerging (see right).

How are we to understand the man and his reputation? What transformed him from the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ first discovered in the 18th century into the instantly recognised celebrity he is today? Burns occupies different roles throughout his life – poet, farmer, exciseman – and has indeed meant different things to different people at different times.

For some he is a ‘national bard’ and Scottish patriot; for others he is a major British poet; while others still might argue that Burns is a citizen of the world. Burns has also been regarded a somewhat contentious figure. His many romantic liasons, for example, have raised controversy, yet they have also provided inspiration for some of the most memorable love poetry ever written. For some Burns is more a radical figure, one who speaks on behalf of the common man (and woman).

Three things from the intro I didn’t know:

  • he brought Scots poetry back into vogue
  • he was an avid collector and editor of Scots songs, as well as writing many new ones himself
  • by the time of his death at the age of 37 he had made at least five women pregnant on at least 13 occasions and sired at least 12 children

Edwin Muir (1887–1959): Burns is ‘to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious’.

Hugh MacDiarmid (1892–1978) ‘Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name / Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ’!

Born in 1759, in April 1783 Burns began a first Commonplace Book (a type of scrapbook or notebook), marking the beginning of his sustained endeavours as a writer. In 1786 that he published his first volume of poetry: Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, printed by John Wilson in Kilmarnock. The success of the Kilmarnock edition put an end to his supposed plans to emigrate to the West Indies. Instead he travelled to Edinburgh to promote his poetry and prepare for the publication of a 2nd edition, the ‘Edinburgh Edition’, in April 1787.

In the years that followed Burns produced several of his most famous works, however in the latter part of his life he moved away from poetry, investing much of his time and creative energy collecting and composing songs.

Burns was a freemason and wrote numerous poems inspired by and for his Masonic brethren. The Freemasons played an important part in the posthumous commemoration of the national bard, securing the tradition of the Burns supper and commissioning and/or contributing to numerous statues and memorials.

 

 

Lots of poetry reading and textual analysis!

Poet or songwriter?

We take a closer look at Burns as poet and songwriter…We also take a trip to visit our friends at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway to look at some of the publications and manuscripts held in their extensive collection, and you’ll even try your hand at transcribing a manuscript in Burns’s own handwriting. Together, we’ll examine some of the influences on Burns and his career collecting and reworking traditional songs.

Robert Burns wrote or collected two songs for every poem he produced, and was clearly both a success as a poet and as a songwriter. It is probably true to say, however, that his song-writing is thought of as a subset of his work as ‘a poet’.

  1. It is probably Burns’s love of ‘rhyme’ that led him into an increasing interest in song from poetry.
  2. However it might also be noted that his first creative production was the song, ‘O Once I Lov’d A Bonnie Lass’ (1774), and that among his earliest work is a number of other songs.
  3. Burns selected and adapted tunes for his songs, but he did not write original tunes.
  4. Many of his works such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’ or ‘A Red Rose’ were often published without music in editions of his work as though these were poems.
  5. Burns refers to himself as ‘poet Burns’ and as a ‘rhymester’ rather than as a songwriter.

Among Burns’s most celebrated songs are his Jacobite pieces, such as ‘Charlie He’s My Darling’ (from the mid-1790s), his love songs, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ (1791) and ‘A Red Rose’ (1794), and also ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (1788). As with ‘Charlie He’s My Darling’, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ existed in a number of versions going back to the 16th century, but it is Burns who really popularises the title-phrase, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, reworking its emphasis and the material within the song. Burns made the song into something appropriate to a new age of emigration, a more universal sentiment where friends and families are rendered asunder.

What made Burns an international icon?

Hundreds of biographies, edited collections and critical studies of Burns’s life and works have been published since the bard’s death in 1796, and there are over 3000 translations of Burns’s works into foreign languages, but Burns’s literary works are just one aspect of his legacy.

Since the 19th century Burns has been celebrated at Burns Suppers, in Burns related statuary and memorabilia and at grand centenary celebrations such as those held across the globe in 1859 and 1896. Innumerable composers, artists and performers have been inspired by Burns.

Statues and public memorials to Robert Burns were being erected across the globe as early as the mid-19th century. By 1909 over 40 had been commissioned in the UK, and a minimum of five in Australia, three in Canada, one in New Zealand, and nine in the USA.

Some trivia related to Burns’s reputation:

  • Burns coined the popular phrase ‘Man’s inhumanity to man’ in his poem ‘Man Was Made to Mourn’
  • like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, the title of JD Salinger’s famous novel Catcher in the Rye comes from one of Burns’s poems – ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’
  • US President Abraham Lincoln was a real fan of Burns and could recite pieces of Burns’s poetry by heart

For dedicated fans only! It may be my heritage but I had no idea yer man was quite that huge, and it’s definitely not my period. Having said that, listening to the songs easily brings a tear to the eye.

Rabbie linkage:

#FLremaking: environmental humanities, nature and anthropocentrism

Remaking nature (#flremaking), FutureLearn’s Environmental Humanities MOOC from UNSW Australia, started 11 January for six weeks. Around 6.5K enrolled, with a great intro vid.

Learn how the new Environmental Humanities (EH) field is shaping how we understand environmental issues. You’ll get a broad overview of an emerging area of interdisciplinary research that reframes contemporary environmental challenges using approaches from philosophy, literature, language, history, anthropology, cultural studies and the arts.

EH places scientific knowledge in dialogue with the key concerns of the humanities: how people think, feel, protest, vote and create. Our main aim in this course is to consider and create new narratives about how humans and the environment relate to one another.

We’ll begin this course by identifying historical ways of thinking about the environment. Through a range of examples, we’ll illustrate how ‘nature’ is a human invention. We’ll then look at how the role of humans has been conceptualised in opposition to notions of nature, and assert that we were never at the centre, nor in control of the environment.

Having questioned these common ‘modernist’ conceptions about nature, we’ll examine some of the ways in which the natural world is being ‘remade’, both discursively (in the way we write, speak and think about it) and materially (for instance, in the alteration of DNA and the wholesale transformation of ecosystems).

Finally, we’ll ask you to join us in creating new narratives about nature that demonstrate greater care and concern.

EH at UNSW (Facebook | Twitter) has four main strands:

  • environment, technology and the politics of knowledge
  • multispecies studies and politics of life
  • social change, participatory politics and community engagement
  • rethinking the humanities through the environment

Of the eight course guides the work of Susie Pratt (artist and researcher, does sound walks; not traced), Paul Munro (Twitter; background in political ecology and historical geography) and Judy Motion (public discourses and engagement, inc #some but not self; investigating urban spaces) are of the most interest. Plus Matthew Kearnes, who doesn’t appear on the vid but blogstweets and is a co-editor of Environmental Humanities (@EnvHumanities).

What is environmental humanities?

The entanglement between facts and values, science and humanities, is at the heart of the emerging EH field. An activity in the first week asked participants to critique a newspaper article looking at the stakeholders, the kinds of knowledge being drawn upon (eg scientific, legal, aesthetic, cultural) and how scientific facts and human value systems interacted therein. This “generated some great conversations about clashes of value systems, the interaction between facts and values, and the rights of different human and non-human stakeholders”.

Next, an article by Stephen Muecke, drawing on the work of philosopher Bruno Latour, explained the shift from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ as an important step in taking action to counter ecological crises:

EH investigates the relation of facts to values – no fact is born without a set of values attached, and the separation of facts from values is an artificial separation. There was something quite artificial in the way that modern Europeans separated nature off from human society and made it the domain of science. The new story we tell about nature is not about its pure scientific facts, as if they are ‘just there’, but that facts come into being for reasons like curiosity, need, concern and necessity: human emotions and needs! ‘Matters of fact’ are also ‘matters of concern’ – we can’t necessarily prioritise the one over the other. What one can do is rank matters of concern in order of importance.

Examples of EH research:

  • Eben Kirksey on Living with parasites
  • speed bumps and other traffic calming devices as anti-modernist, a technology that enforces a morality and illustrates the embeddedness of scientific facts, technology and human value systems (and the ethics of pedestrian crossings, which can be extended to shared space and related)
  • remaking nature – the humanities can help us better understand and respond to contemporary environmental challenges, and the more-than-human world offers us a new lens for rethinking some of our core understandings about humanity; creative projects such as multi-species imaginings and an awareness of the liveliness of things  (eg built environment) can remake our understanding of ‘nature’ and our place within it.

A poll then asked “how do you understand nature”? A subset of response choices hinted towards humans as having a ‘stewardship’ or even Godlike relationship towards nature, with morals and duties. Looking forward to this being addressed in week 3.

Summary of key ideas in the EH field:

  • facts are interwoven with values
  • environmental challenges are wrapped up in ‘matters of concern’
  • the humanities can aid in remaking our ideas about environmental concerns
  • ‘reinstituting the collective’ is an ongoing process for EH researchers
  • the more-than-human environment can aid in remaking our ideas about humanity and ‘nature’
  • humans are interwoven with environments

Further reading:

The invention of nature

This week, we will explore ‘nature’ as a conceptual category, introducing the idea that nature as we understand it in the West does not actually exist — it is, in fact, a European invention. We then go on to discuss some of the implications of a nature-culture division in historical and contemporary situations.

First, a “fun activity that takes you on a walk outdoors” introduced by Susie Pratt, aka Padlet time. Not a fan – this kind of stuff creating doesn’t do much for this type of learner, who prefers to take notes. We were asked to go for a walk and search for and collect (or photograph) six small objects, then sort them into two piles: natural objects and cultural ones, or place them on a continuum. “What complexities occurred when you started to divide your objects into a nature/culture binary? Dividing these items into a nature-culture binary may actually contribute to some of the complex environmental crises that we currently have today.”

On to nature as a conceptual category. Raymond Williams famously said that ‘nature’ may be the most complex term in the English language, but there are two main ways in which the term is typically used:

  • nature as essence – the fundamental or inner character, or proper functioning, of anything and everything, the essential or proper features of a thing, eg human nature, the ‘nature’ of modern architecture.
  • nature as nonhuman –  the collection of nonhuman entities in the world, eg wilderness as the purest form of nature (see William Cronon, then Dan Allosso)

Moving on to:

  • confused natures – eg  if someone says that genetically modified foods are ‘unnatural’, what do they mean? to call something ‘unnatural’ implies that it is not proper, not how it ought to be
  • the nature/culture dualism – in Western thought nature has tended to be understood as dualistically opposed to culture or humanity, those parts or places that are (relatively) unaffected by people, positioning humans as fundamentally outside nature: “the foundational delusion of the West…a dangerous doctrine, strongly implicated in the environmental crisis…the love-child of the old dominant narrative of human mastery and centrality mated with the much younger circumstance of human experience of commodification in the global city” (Val Plumwood)

Next, a vid summed up the position that rather than a dualism there is a continuum, summing up neatly (again!) what as a vegetarian I have always perceived, plus touching on speciesism. But if nature never existed in a dualised way, how far can we go with J Baird Callicott: “We are animals ourselves, large omnivorous primates…We are therefore a part of nature, not set apart from it. Hence, human works are no less natural than those of termites or elephants. Chicago is no less a phenomenon of nature than is the Great Barrier Reef.”

I’m pretty much with JBC – climate change is hence natural, stop flapping.

Other dualisms relate to eg gender, sexuality and race, include male / female, mind / body, master / slave, civilised / primitive, human / animal. Obv.

Next, four implications of the invention of nature and the nature/culture dualism:

  • mastery over nature – different examples of forms of mastery of environmental and climatic systems, from grand visions such as the construction of the Hoover Dam, to everyday mundane forms of mastery — for example, the use of air conditioners to control temperature
  • nature and power – colonisation inc British appropriation of Australian lands, justified on the basis of terra nullius (no one’s land) and the racist conception that Indigenous people did not manage and occupy the land and therefore did not have rights over it
  • nature as wilderness – a protected, romanticised area separate from and excluded from human activities, exploring how notions of wilderness are bound up in the emergence of national parks, and the problems that occur when protected ‘natural areas’ are created
  • environmental determinism – the problematic claim that environmental conditions determine the character and attributes of (geographically distinct) cultural and ethnic groups, “a thin veil for a virulent form of Euro-centric racism” – overcooked for me, usual HE discourse

The end of ‘nature’ as a conceptual category might just be the beginning of a more sustainable and ethical engagement with our nonhuman, or more-than-human, world. OTOH, has the case really been made for the damage it does? See ‘Pristine’ landscapes haven’t existed for thousands of years.

So far the course as a whole is of a way higher level than most ‘baby steps’ style FutureLearn courses, but perhaps too much philosophy and rather trad academic in style – the four implications felt like each instructor’s pet peeve. Where’s the hums? Plus too little activity or ‘stories’ to maintain interest as a MOOC. And who would ever have thought I would have said that…

Beyond anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism characterises a position which accepts human beings as being the most significant species on the planet. Implicitly, humans are considered to have a moral status or value higher than that of other animals due to their level of sentience, their presence of a human soul, and notions of human dignity.

Such anthropocentric perspectives are deeply embedded in many modern human cultural and conscious acts, with human considerations being at the centre of environmental concerns. Nature, seen as an external environment, is generally viewed as having instrumental values. And thus, its preservation or conservation is premised on its value for human needs, such as its use as a resource or the ecosystem services that it provides.

Anthropocentrism is often contrasted with ecocentric perspectives, a term for a wide variety of beliefs that see humans as a part of, rather than as separate from, nature. In this conception, nature is understood as having an intrinsic value, value irrespective of its use to humans, and therefore human decisions must take this into account

There are, of course, shades of grey between these perspectives. For example, a custodian approach, where humans are seen as having some obligation to protect nature for its intrinsic value, yet human concerns still remain central. A form of human exceptionalism still exists. Perspectives can also vary in terms of subjects of study and across time.

In the Environmental Humanities, we seek to unsettle strong antropocentric perspectives, challenging the assumption that humans and society are somehow being distinct and separate from nature. We explore new stories and understandings of the world and the ways in which we can start to imagine different social and environmental futures.

Summed up in this handy framework:

  • Ecocentric – nature-centred. People with an ecocentric viewpoint tend to see nature as having its own intrinsic value, with a right to exist for its own sake.
  • Custodian – being responsible for the maintenance of something. People with a custodian or stewardship approach to environment tend to feel that humans have a moral obligation to protect nature, both in the present and future.
  • Anthropocentric – human-centred. People with an anthropocentric viewpoint tend to see nature based on its value as a resource to be exploited by humans for human benefit.

Now, is this a continuum, ie do the ecocentric perceive themselves as morally superior, even to the custodians? the poll found a trend of people tending to cluster around either custodian or ecocentric perspectives. Some see humans as having a moral obligation to protect nature; others want to see humans more part of nature. If it’s the moral aspect I have trouble with, Dan A suggests splitting the middle ground into Custodians, who believe humans have a moral obligation to protect nature for its own sake, and Stewards, who want to insure nature’s continued ability to meet our needs.

Next, An ecomodernist manifesto (32pp), as an example of anthropocentrism through a contemporary example of a nature-culture dualism. The manifesto supports “nuclear power, intensive agriculture and genetically modified crops — together with the suggestion that ‘positive decoupling trends offer hope for a ‘good Anthropocene'”.’ Its central claim is that humans need to de-couple from nature:

Humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature…Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts…Decoupling raises the possibility that societies might achieve peak human impact without intruding much further on relatively untouched areas. Nature unused is nature spared.

It’s a modernist concept of nature: the intensification of human activities will enable humans to extricate themselves from relations with nature.

  • can ecomodernism decouple itself from environmentalism?
  • can humanity decouple itself from nature?

See responses and Dan A (one | two | three | four): “an example of contemporary perspectives that continue to advocate a human-focused understanding of the world, perpetuating nature-culture divisions”. Piqued my interest, but sadly tl:dr.

Then a video on the Anthropocene, addressing some of the problems of this grand-planetary-scale narrative, inc what non-human agencies are also implicated in Earth futures. The concept of the Anthropocene is used as a means of raising environmental consciousness and highlighting the scale of human impact on environments, but if we wish to move beyond anthropocentric frames of inquiry is it wise to name a geological epoch after ourselves?

Next, pick a topical issue and link to an interesting news article, video or online commentary that engages with it. Do you see evidence of the nature/culture dualism and anthropocentrism at play in your issue? Two examples from the instructors, multispecies communities and liveliness (or agency) of things, are presented to offer a means of understanding or responding to your issue. There’s a dog owning thread (can’t find!) and nice accompanying article, (plus another on shared space), but you really need to engage straight away before things (and you) move on.

My issue of choice could have been Denmark’s public dissections, but couldn’t face it, particularly this week. (Plus would be going through the motions – know already how it would play out in this arena. Exhibit A: Pels-avisen.) Never mind anthropocentric, here it’s danocentric (see ethnocentrism, the belief that ‘our way is the right way’).

Generally, still pretty heavy on the theory, but from week 4 things got a bit more practical – see second post.