Kirjanduslikest linnauuringutest / On Literary Urban Studies

A1 Journal article (refereed)

Internal Authors/Editors

Publication Details

List of Authors: Jason Finch
Publisher: Estonian Literature Museum; University of Tartu
Place: Tartu
Publication year: 2019
Journal: Methis
Volume number: 19
Issue number: 24
Start page: 10
End page: 28
eISSN: 2228-4745


In the 2010s, a new Literary Urban Studies (hereafter LUS) has
developed. It combines spatial humanities scholarship with activism and
other public concerns. The Association for Literary Urban Studies (ALUS)
has been a key player in developing the new LUS. Publications produced
by scholars connected to ALUS have been geographically wide-ranging.
They have also developed interests in specific conceptual areas of LUS,
including second cities and ‘citiness’, or the cultural elements that
are specific to the city and the urban condition. Key issues arising
from contemporary ‘citiness’ include the operation of networks, scales
and hierarchies in urban cultures. Walter Benjamin called Paris the
‘capital of the nineteenth century’, but LUS looks beyond cities judged
the most primary or alpha-level. Studies in the new LUS so far produced
engage with and practice urban history and urban planning studies,
applying literary reading techniques to texts not commonly judged
literary (incuding policy and planning texts, or trial transcripts).
Literature has a particular potential for urban planners and activists
as a means of staging possibilities for one city or all cities.

Despite these boundary-crossing inclinations, LUS is coherent and
distinctive. This can be shown by contrasting it with several other
activities that somewhat resemble it. LUS belongs in the academic
humanities not, with urban studies, in the interdisciplinary social
sciences. It is in part an outgrowth of the ‘spatial turn’ associated
with names like Lefebvre, de Certeau and Anglophone critical
geographers, but it does not consider cities as mere instances of
spatiality, however socially produced. It draws on phenomenological
accounts of placed human experience but juxtaposes individuals’
perspectives with larger-scale ones. It is multidisciplinary and focused
on real-world objects, and cannot be classed as a type of literary
geography, which applies geographical methods to literary objects. Nor,
as outlined in this article, is LUS to be confused with other areas of
spatial investigation, from geocriticism and Deep Locational Criticism
to psychogeography and deep topography. It is more multi-polar and more
systematic than these approaches focused on the individual human or the
individual city over time tend to be. LUS functions in tandem with but
not as part of the current mobilities paradigm of the social sciences
(recognising the non-static nature of cities). It retains a belief in
literature as a primary material which distinguish it from urban
cultural studies and other multimedial methods in city investigation.

After outlining the emergence of the new LUS and distinguishing it
from these alternative approaches, the article examines another account
of the relationship between literature and the city, Franco Moretti’s.
For Moretti, city literature is essentially modern and a literature of
social (more than physical) mobility. The work of Moretti shares with
earlier research for example by Benjamin, or the Chicago School in
sociology, a belief that in the words of Bart Keunen ‘an impression of
magnitude’ was central in twentieth-century views of city cultures. LUS
contrasts with this by emphasizing relatively neglected cities,
literatures and neighbourhoods, often focusing on the more culturally
underdetermined areas in which populations live everyday lives and work.
Contra Moretti the image of the city varies across literary forms and
genres, and its later expressions are not just ‘a hollowing out’ of that
found in classics of nineteenth-century realism. Despite later work
foundational to literary spatial studies, the 1980s, at least, Moretti
seems now surprisingly unconfident about LUS as a discipline. In the
late 2010s, emergent disciplines fuel LUS in new ways, among them the
radical urban scholarship of AbdouMaliq Simone and Ananya Roy, and
advances in digital humanities research (including those with which
Moretti has been involved).

Next, the article glances at some foundational figures for LUS from
the personal perspective of the author: Jane Jacobs, Doreen Massey, Jeff
Malpas and Eric Prieto. Working in urban studies, critical human
geography, place philosophy and spatial literary phenomenology
respectively, all humanize actual city environments and challenge
simplistic conclusions about ‘the city’. Jacobs’s notion of ‘adventuring
in the real world’ could help form a manifesto for LUS. The conclusion
of the article emphasizes the capaciousness of LUS. This goes beyond
individuals of the artist and writer class, and the districts where they
have tended to live, opening up textual and experiential equivalents of
what Simone calls ‘urban majority’ areas. It may not be at all clear to
us what settlements appeared urban in earlier historical eras. LUS
enables comparisons between cities of different magnitudes, and the
restoration of personhood to city-dwellers and city areas that have had
it stripped from them.


city planning, literary urban studies, London in literature, urban


Last updated on 2020-22-09 at 06:04