Call for papers: Energy, Ecology, and the Culture of Cities
International Symposium at National Chung-Hsing University, Taichung, Taiwan
November 23-24, 2018
Keynote Lecture: Ursula K. Heise (UCLA)
There is a long tradition conceiving of the city as a kind of parasite – the seat of powerful elites which, as geographer Guy Brechin has argued with respect to San Francisco, syphon food, raw materials, and labor from the “contado,” as medieval Italians referred to the territory controlled by a particular city state. Marx and Engels described this uneven relationship in terms of a “metabolic rift,” where the natural fertility of the soil is flushed down urban sinkholes. Contemporary theories of uneven development continue this line of thought. Forests are cut, hills strip-mined, oceans depleted, and the countryside depopulated to feed the city’s maw. The greater the city, the greater its hunger for energy and labor, and the larger its ecological footprint.
But if a city is the visible expression of the energy system which made it possible, it can never be just the opposite of the countryside. Rather, their relationship resembles that between the sporocarp and the mycelium of a fungus: far-flung, barely visible filaments gather nutrients which the fruitbody assembles into a tangible shape – and eventually disperses in the form of spores.
What does the city give back? The obvious answer would be: culture. Athens, Alexandria, and Rome; Xi'an, Beijing, Shanghai; Paris, London, New York – what the great urban centers of history took from their surroundings, they transmuted into forms of intellectual and artistic splendor whose brilliance outlasts the times when they exercised real political or economic power. They are the places where high priests, novelists, stock-brokers, and other folk specialized in the manipulation of symbol systems reside. They are the sites of royal courts, museums, libraries, or centers of scholarship. The larger a city’s ecological footprint, it seems, the greater its cultural footprint.
Seen from the standpoint of energy and ecology, however, the culture of cities cannot be understood merely as a matter of elite culture. James C. Scott describes the earliest conurbations of the late Paleolithic as “multispecies resettlement camps.” Cities have never ceased to be that – they are places where all kinds of creatures flock together, feeding on converging flows of energy. These flows constitute the geography of daily life – sites of vitality and decay, suburban gardens, inner city slums, but also metropolitan parks, empty lots, lakes, and water courses. They shape and are shaped by where people shop for their groceries, which species they gather in their gardens and refrigerators, how much noise and pollution they are able to put up with, how far they are willing to commute in order to escape from these things. It is in the weaving of these patterns that different socio-ecological positions – of class, race, and gender, but also of pets, pests, and food products – take embodied form. Finally, the culture of cities has to do with the ways in which urban life is imagined, and the meanings attributed to the welter of experiences it affords – meanings articulated in poetry and prose, visual art, music, and film.
For this symposium, we invite papers that examine cultural expressions of urban life in terms of their energetic and ecological implications. Topics to be considered include, but are not limited to, the following:
- Literary and artistic representations of the interdependencies between cities and their “contado” (G. Brechin)
- The impact of race, class, and gender on how urban space is experienced and represented
- Comparative urbanism and the role of cultural difference in shaping urban space
- (Post-)colonial perspectives on the city
- The city as a site of “trans-corporeal” encounters (S. Alaimo)
- Stories and images of ecological urbanism (or suburbanism)
- The transformation of urban space through digital media and new information technologies
- The role of the city in the utopian and dystopian imagination
- Theories of urbanity and urban life, from G. Simmel through L. Mumford and M. Bookchin to D. Massey
- Environmental and multi-species justice on a “Planet of Slums” (M. Davis)
- The city as laboratory of modernity and modernism (e.g. in Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern)
- Eco-architecture and urban planning
- Images of the ruined city in post-apocalyptic science fiction
Photo above by Ben Dumond