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Review: Violence in Place. Cultural and Environmental Wounding

Kearney, A. (2017). Violence in place, cultural and environmental wounding. New York, NY: Routledge

Violence in Place, Cultural and Environmental Wounding takes on a specific type of human-generated trauma: cultural wounding. Cultural wounding is the intentional harm and violence (physical and symbolic) against members of a culture, as well as their way of life. It is enacted from a motivation to destroy or damage beyond repair the past, present, and future of a culture. In this volume, Kearney specifically locates cultural wounding in place, where place is a “relational co-presence envisioned as a vital shaping element in human life” (p. 1). Using this definition, place is imbued with its own agency and even sentience. In moments of trauma and cultural wounding, place is not just the setting; it is witness, participant, and victim. Indigenous epistemologies of place are said to demonstrate this hyper-relativist perspective, and Kearney sets out to argue that, in the wake of colonialism and neo-liberalism, a return to a kincentric ecology of place is necessary rectify the Western dualism of nature and humanity.

Generally, Kearney’s goal is to present a conception of cultural trauma that relies on the actions and interactions of humans and place. More specifically, Kearney provides accounts of 15 years of ethnographic study with an indigenous group in Australia, Yanyuwa, to show how colonization destroyed the kinship between people and place. She uses these observations to develop a phenomenological approach to diagnosing “patterns of place harm” in order to “recognize their presence in contexts all over the world and track back from this awareness to examine the axiologies that support not only cultural wounding, but also its greater effects as violence and trauma in place” (p. 95). To avoid criticisms of romanticism or anthropomorphizing, Kearney sets out to develop a methodology informed by indigenous epistemologies and decolonizing principles, acknowledging our inability to ‘listen’ outside of its relationship to humanity. Place has its own emotional geography that humans within place can relate to and read, and Kearney claims that trauma narratives told in place carry more weight and offer more opportunities for understanding across culture because of this emotional geography.

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The Social Life of Infrastructure

On Friday, October 27, 2017 Dr. Rob Shields gave a talk on “The Social Life of Infrastructure” for the Space and Culture Research Group at the University of Alberta. Below is a brief description of Dr. Shield’s talk along with an audio recording.

What are the social effects of built infrastructure? Changing public interaction with civic infrastructure accumulates to changes in Canadian social forms. Infrastructure affects social integration, accessibility, and inclusiveness. Infrastructure choices affect the relations of core and periphery, and the exercise of sovereignty and Canadian values.

Listen to Dr. Shields’ talk here:

Podcast: Conserving the Future, Precipitate Ecologies and Architectures

On Sept 29, 2017 Dr. Paulina Mickiewicz gave a talk entitled “Conserving the Future, Precipitate Ecologies and Architectures” for the Space and Culture Research Group at the University of Alberta. Below is a brief description of Dr. Mickiewicz’s talk, some related links, and an audio recording.

What does it mean to archive nature? The growing unease about cetaceans and other species in captivity echoes our increasing unrest and mounting need to reintroduce “nature” back into our urbanized, industrialized, and technologized lives. This presentation will explore the increasingly complex relationships between conservation and preservation, media technologies, architectural design and the reconceptualization of the environment, and how these issues are bound up with states of saturation that inevitably (and materially) precipitate novel organizational and architectural responses.

Before listening to the talk, check out this New York Times article on the race to preserve nature and Shannon Mattern’s website on infrastructure, architecture, libraries, etc…

Canadian Utopianisms – Design from the 1967 centennial

Over the summer, Contemporary Gallery Calgary had a wonderful exhibition looking back 50 years to the futurism of late 60s designers who were commissioned to produce buildings for the Centennial of Canadian Confederation in 1967.  Architecture and National Identity: The Centennial Projects 50 Years On, curated by Marco Polo & Colin Ripley for Confederation Centre Art Gallery of Charlottetown is currently at Paul H. Cocker Gallery, 325 Church Street, Toronto until Nov. 10 2017.

C Gallery Calgary

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Review: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity

Lorinc, J. and Pitter, J. (Eds.). (2016). Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity. Toronto: Coach House Books. ISBN: 9781552453322.

Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity (2016) is a collection of essays taken from a varied source of contributors writing about their experiences of diversity living in Toronto edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc. The book attempts to unpack the municipal and national mantra of “diversity is our strength” by exposing the reader to a myriad of unique experiences and world views and complicate the narrative of Toronto as the most multicultural city in the world. As Pitter writes, the reality of hyper-diversity demands a recognition of “diversities within diversities within diversities” and of the intersectionalities of the identities associated which make up that diversity.

Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity (Lorinc and Pitter, 2016)

Neither of the editors belong to the discipline or the profession of urban planner or have been involved in municipal governance, they are better described as city-builders: writers and activists that have invested personally and professionally in advancing progressive action in Toronto. Pitter has worked (and grew up in housing) with the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and both have written for publications such as Spacing and Walrus, among others. The rest of the contributors make up a diverse group of writers, urban planners, journalists, and lawyers among others.

With a narrative form and personal stories, Subdivided is aimed at a broad audience. While the inclusion of more theoretical and ideological language might distance some readers, the personal tone of the contributions anchors their stories in a very real and relatable way.

Although the stories shared in the book are very different, what they and the editors share is a desire to critique the current conception of diversity in Toronto and to explore the socioeconomic realities of the divisions separating those diverse groups. An interesting thread that the book picks is the universality of the impact upon these disparate groups relating to the changing economic realities of Toronto as housing prices skyrocket and government programs have been curtailed or abandoned completely. While reaching few conclusions, this exploration of the meaning of diversity in a changing economic and social context does accomplish its intended purpose – to start conversations. Exposing the reader to experiences of the “diverse” living at the margins of the popular and institutionally supported conception of Toronto’s diversity as a fait accompli (an attitude the transnationally wealthy in Toronto like to pat themselves on the back for), this anthology raises the question of what that attitude really means for those living that diversity without the power to challenge the accepted rhetoric.

Kieran Moran (University of Alberta)

Spatial Machinations

A shoutout to Sam Kinsley’s site Spatial Machinations.  Its reach across contemporary theory and global issues more than fulfills it ambitious mandate to chronicle and catalogue how media produce temporalities and spatialities.  Recent discussions of affect theory and geography, American military visions of cities as dystopic are typically engrossing and on point.   However, taking the time to archive a missed event – I just picked up “Paramatta”, so inferred its not only past  but was far away (suburban Sydney Australia), gives us not only an echo of an event but flags important insights such as the declining rate of innovation.

A typical gem of a post is the 2009 A Vision – Simon Armitage’: which draws on Simon Armitage‘s Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid a lyrical contrast between a found architect’s rendering and a bleak-looking photo of Thamesmead, a huge Brutalist housing project in SE London.

Thamesmead was the setting for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.  There is little online in photographs that capture the social life of the development.  Thamesmead seems stuck in black and white 60s and 70s, including the outstanding photography of George Plemper.

  Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Rating the Walkability of cities

Walking is not only one of the most natural activities the human being is able and willing to do, but also an activity whose effects have a profound impact on the public sphere, specifically on urban development. Since urban population growth made cities spread out until they reached a non-human scale, people living in urban areas switched from walking to using automobiles in order to travel long distances in less time. Therefore, urban design became more car-oriented than people-oriented, resulting in a poor integration of public space and the functional ways in which people use it. There is a concern that large urban areas where people travel more in cars than they do in public transport or alternative means of transportation are unsustainable. The planning agenda is therefore focusing on how to retrofit urban areas in order to facilitate and promote walking.

However, walking is not only a functional matter of urban mobility and transport; it is important to the improvement of peoples’ health and even the promotion of leisure. Planning approaches address walking both as a personal experience and choice, and as a public issue. When people decide to walk they are choosing a specific way to use the public space and to interact with the city, therefore their choice affects the city but also what happens in the city determines their experience at walking. As a result, there is an indivisible and double feedback loop between people walking and the city, and caring about walking is not just a matter of helping people individually but also contributing to improve public issues.

Walking is a spatial phenomenon. Thus the concept of walkability refers to the relation between spaces and the people who walk through them or, in other words, how does these socially-created spaces facilitate walking or not? Consequently, the chief issue of walkability is to determine what features of the public space, and specifically the streets, make a city more walkable. There is a wide research on the topic that suggests that walkability depends on the “friendliness” of the space, which includes connectivity, accessibility, functionality, safety, security, comfort, convenience and availability of pedestrian infrastructure.

As there are so many definitions of walkability and friendliness of space, there have been several attempts to condense the related concepts in one single approach, such as the Five C Approach that includes connectivity, comfort, convenience, conviviality and conspicuousness as the main characteristics to make a space walkable. There are many others approaches and definitions, but most of the aspects that can make a space walkable can be determined only by the people that actually use the space to walk. That is why the measuring or rating of walkability depends largely on the contributions of people and relies precious little on the estimations that can be done with the macro-scale variables of the city, such as the continuity of the grid or the level of mixture of land use.

The project that we are developing addresses walkability as a public and spatial issue, and engages people as the main source of data. We are trying to involve pedestrians in developing of a walkability rating tool that allows comparisons of the conditions for walking within and between different cities. This will help cities to realize what walkability related problems they have, and especially where these problems are located, so that infrastructure and walking spaces can be improved in favour of pedestrians. This project contributes to the common good on the sidewalks by collecting people’s opinions, and helping them create a local and global database about the pedestrian experience of cities — day and night, winter and summer — so that they can improve the quality of everyone’s daily walks.

Washington-Moscow: A New Geopolitical Bilateralism?

Trump has emphasized the bilateral in his thinking and approach.  This is in contrast to the multilateral world of the globalization era that is now at an end.  This includes an end to multilateral trade in favour of a network of focused bilateral economic interactions.  As a thought experiment, imagine that a Trump United States seeks to align itself strategically with other powers, ie. with Russia, even against the interests of its citizens (henceforth expendable in the interests of a monarchic state) or past allies (inconvenient obligations).  In this vision, the US and Russia would be economically similar, as highly divided countries, rigidly ruled.

A US-Russia partition of global interests would be echoed regionally, suggesting balanced tensions between proxies in each arena that dominate international interactions, for example Israel-Syria in the Middle East.  Such states would seek to profit as not only proxies but champions for their respective sponsors in each competition.

However, what of China faced with this bilateral duopoly?  There are opportunities to innovate.  Perhaps China is the banker of this dialectic?  Closer China-India ties be a better strategy for both as it  may lay the basis for a future, post-carbon economic bloc.  India is otherwise too weak to influence the course of events.

As for Europe, it is now retired from the geopolitical stage as it is too internally divided.  2017 thus also marks the end of the long-duree of European colonialism.   The peripheral states produced by European empires as suppliers of raw materials, whether Australia, South Africa, Congo, Algeria, Brazil or Canada, become more unstable because tied to one of the duopolistic major players and held captive to what they are willing to pay.

Bilateralism would suggest rather different international institutions.  It certainly is not neoliberalism with its corresponding international institutions.  Promoting a reduction to market logics  seem to have destroyed civility, allowing tyranny to take root.

If such a thought experiment were to be realized, it would entail a massive forgetting of the 20th century and the lessons of the recent past.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)



High-Speed Train to Jinan

—– Slippery spaces of speed

Flying at 300kmh across the flat plain of Shandong, the high-speed train to Jinan offers an elevated view of harvests, factories and forests. The train crosses countryside and towns undergoing their second, third or fourth total reconstruction in under a hundred years. High-speed G-trains are lifted out of the landscape on elevated tracks which makes the experience different from European fast trains.

China’s walled garden is now laced with the tendrils of the national high speed railway that, as Chinese say, ‘links the south and the north’ integrating either bank of the Yangt’ze, and even the symbolic realms of lion and elephant. ‘What once took a day is now reduced to a commute of an hour and a half.’

The aggressive, 300kmh transportation and technological transformation of the Peoples’ Republic is not only a question of getting around faster. It introduces not only a new tempo but a new rhythm with its own metre. Speed reduces the old space and time distances to afterthoughts. Writers such as Innis and McLuhan and Grant have pointed to the shock of such changes from the old. But you don’t need to have previous experience of travel in China to appreciate the sense of speed. This arises through the contrast between the smooth stillness of the carriage and the a landscape scrolling past in which the mobilities below are pedestrian and agricultural equipment in rural areas, or traffic-congested streets in urban areas. Against the kinesthetic sense of the body sitting still, and the muted sound of the wheels, because of the elevated track, the eye registers the parallax of passing powerlines, roads and windrows. This combination is a prima facie experience of the new.

This contrast, sets the Fast Train to Jinan apart from the local space of everyday life on a line where the velocity is much faster. The contrast in tempos gives rise to the tentacular, tendril-like impression of these lines spanning the ground of everyday spaces and rhythms. On this train, are we ‘on’ a line, or ‘in’ this line – slipping down a linear, one dimensional, slippery space of speed?

In the same way that drawing a line creates a figure graphically, there is a figure-ground relation between the linear and territorial time-spaces.  As if from a quick sketch, we can gain an impression of this evolving character.

Innis’ political economy of Empire and Communications traces the evolution of governance through technologies such as train and telephone. The confrontation of all past and new modes of communication and transportation in China is a remarkable repertoire of not only velocity but of technologies that have temporal and spatial effects. For Innis, echoed by later authors — Virilio, Schivelbusch — speed has a binding effect on spaces, bringing far-flung regions and places ‘closer together.’ Of course, this is a virtual closing of geographical distance. The technologies extend the ‘reach’ of power and create a new topology of relationships. In the first instance this seems to be a closing of gaps between places, but it also affects the relationship between parts and whole, between place and space. The effect is to create a new figure against the ground of China understood as territory, economy and political space. This figure is not only the train, but the traveller, a mobilized citizen in counterpoint to an older, territorially-anchored citizen.

Perhaps the contrast of the space of high speed trains and travellers is most strongly marked by contrast with those who, for many reasons, refuse to acquiesce to this new infrastructure, insisting on remaining in their houses, refusing to move, contesting the terms of relocation – or perhaps more appropriately, dispossession. This time-space of dwelling, the rhythms of everyday life, is pierced by new roads, train lines, and ranks of highrise accommodations intended to ‘urbanize’ ambivalent workers and reluctant peasants. The ‘refusees’ are often forcibly removed by violently destroying their houses. They are labelled ‘dangerous’ and must plead their status as ‘good citizens’ who ‘merely want to be left a space to live’. The doubt cast on the respectability of one set of people contrasts with citizens embracing the new superimposition of rhythms and time-spaces that reorders routines giving daily life both greater reach yet rendering the new citizen rootlessness and alienated from the more sedentary pace and terms of the territorial ground.

The high-speed train to Jinan —–

Traces the linear space-time, rhythm and tempo of a new political subject. Is this still the People, or a Mobile Citizen? In the euphoria of the new, it is all too easy to miss the counterpoint.

—– Rob Shields (University of Alberta)