‘DISRUPTING’ THE CITY:

URBAN CRIS(E)S IN CONTEMPORARY BRITISH LITERATURE AND ART

Avignon Université, 8-9 October 2020

Colloque de la Société d’Études Anglaises Contemporaines /ICTT (EA 4277)

Henry Lefebvre famously established the individual’s “right to the city” as “a cry and a demand. This right slowly meanders through the surprising detours of nostalgia and the return to the heart of the city, and the call of existent or recently developed centralities.” (158). In a social and political context where crisis has been the dominant mode of experiencing the city and/or the urban environment, one may wonder what the “right to the city” has become and whether nostalgia still represents the emotional framework through which the city is apprehended. Is “the heart of the city” what the contemporary urban, or rural individual longs for?

In the last few decades, crisis itself has often been redefined as the meaning inducing concept named “disruption”. The term “disruption” was first popularized as an economic concept applied to marketing and advertising. The “disruptive methodology” coined by Jean-Marie Dru originally referred to a transformation of markets initiated by a new creation, or rupture that would challenge the established order of markets. In a book tellingly entitled How Disruption Brought Order, J.M Dru breaks down disruption into three steps: after identifying the mechanisms of an established system, the innovative creation that goes against the grain will challenge those conventions. The final step of such innovative disruption is the creation of a new order, a new system that takes after the initially disturbing or altering creation. According to its proponents, disruption is not simply a process that challenges an established order, it is first and foremost an innovation that ultimately allows the advent of a new order. In one of the first studies of disruption in arts, Koch and Nanz insist that “the first thing that needs to be emphasized is the productive character of disruptions” (ix).

The economic dimension at the heart of the term “disruption” itself underlines the hegemonic presence of market theories and economic imperatives in contemporary life. Transferring and applying this concept in art and literature necessarily entails questioning the porosity between economic theories and art and leads the critic to consider subsequent epistemological issues. Before becoming popular under this acceptation, the adjective “disruptive” originally referred to a form of rupture or fracture, from the Latin “which is used to break, or explode”. We can therefore question all forms of ruptures, fractures or crises and their representations, whether they occur within the urban space or whether they inform urban identities and bodies. 

With this concept in mind, we would like to use the connected notions of crisis and disruption as prisms to study the representations of cities and urban networks or frameworks in contemporary British literature. The choice to consider disruptive phenomena in connection with the urban environment stems from the natural affinity of cities (or urbanity) with reconfigurations and paradigm shifts. As Jean Christophe Bailly explains, “le langage comme la ville sont des équilibres qui vivent des perturbations qu’ils engendrent, des systèmes ouverts” (Bailly 39).

It will be fruitful to consider the spatial realisation of these processes, both in terms of architecture and urban planning, conflictual manifestations in street art or contemporary art, or radical rewritings of urban space, such as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station or Will Self’s Grey Area or Walking to Hollywood, for “an emerging body of novelists are taking responsibility for creating a poiesis of space that can re-envision the landscape of everyday life, receptive to the social and historical forces under which new habitats are forged.” (James 168).

From this perspective, one should also question the matter of artistic disruption, for “in the aesthetic domain, disruptions can occur as the results of intentional strategies, that is, as ‘artistic means’, as effects of the medium-bound conditions of a work of art, as effects of interference between different logics of the media” (Koch & Nanz x). Is all disturbance fated to become “disruption”, or in other words, is not any logic of destabilization of an established order (pre)determined to being reclaimed and institutionalized, in a word, re-stabilized? In that respect, how is the process of disruption in literature and the arts represented? Is the writing of disruption necessarily performative, or are there other textual strategies to represent it? Can Modernist art be considered as the template after which all urban representations of the crisis have been modelled on (one may think in particular of Woolf’s writings on the city, but also of visual reconfigurations of the representation of the city such as Wyndham Lewis’s)? Could 21stcentury “neo-modernist” novels, and their resolutely urban anchoring, (Umbrellaby Will Self or Ian McEwan’s Saturday, …) belong to an aesthetic of disruption rather than crisis? 

One may finally question the fate of the individual immersed into an urban environment dominated by crisis, or plagued by “disruption”. Is the advent of the new order evoked by Dru necessarily accompanied by ontological disruption? What are the sensory markers of urbanity in crisis? Are nostalgia and melancholy the inevitable consequences of the perception of a city in crisis? Could literature also be the place of resilience, or even resistance to disruption?

The following topics may be considered

  • Taxonomy of the crisis, differences and porosity between crisis and disruption. Evolution of archetypal figures such as Benjamin’s flâneur
  • Origins of disruptive and crisis phenomena: interaction between capital, society and literature especially in urban areas
  • Perceptions of crisis and disruption: resistance, resilience and adaptation strategies, 
  • Rhythms, interruption and ruptures in an urban environment 
  • Crisis writing and the limits of performativity
  • New disruptive strategies in literature: new narrative processes, e-writing and multiverse features
  • Interaction between dissensusand disruption
  • Urban art: street art, norm and margin(s) tension, recuperation of marginal art forms
  • Incarnation(s) of disruption and crisis, how the body interacts with the urban environment. Potential renormalization(s) of gendered and racialized minorities.
  • Nostalgia and urban melancholy

Proposals in English of about 300 words, together with a short biographical note, should be sent to Justine Gonneaud (justine.gonneaud@univ-avignon.fr)and Elsa Cavalié (elsa.cavalie@univ-avignon.fr)before May 10th2020.

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