Category Archives: Literature

The Subtle Details of Community and City

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.

November 13, 2014
From 1904 Dublin to the Megacity: Public Access in Ulysses and Katarina Schröter’s The Visitor
Catherine Flynn (English)

Presentation available here.
Video of the conversation available here.
Flynn’s talk raised the question of urban knowing and related it to the literary and filmic representations of the city and megacity.

by Yasir Hameed

Professor Flynn’s talk last week discussed works by James Joyce (Ulysses) and Katarina Schröter (The Visitor), both of which are accumulative accounts of unexpected detail providing vivid, sometimes surprising imagery of “places.”

They are highly impressionistic pastiches on a journey through the language of the imagination. One could describe them as wonderful, unconventional and occasionally fantastic concoctions of psychological states, physical states, sensory states, transcendence, and more.

Of what did the duumvirate deliberate during their itinerary?


Music, literature, Ireland, Dublin, Paris, friendship, woman, prostitution, diet, the influence of gaslight or the light of arc and glowlamps on the growth of adjoining paraheliotropic trees, exposed corporation emergency dustbuckets, the Roman catholic church, ecclesiastical celibacy, the Irish nation, jesuit education, careers, the study of medicine, the past day, the maleficent influence of the presabbath, Stephen's collapse.


- James Joyce, Ulysses

Some of the details captured in such prose are normally lost in the visual language of maps, technical drawings and illustrations. They are also invisible in the empirical descriptions and accounts of places. And yet, they seemingly carry a lot of weight in informing the sense of a place. They describe each city (on varying scales) by focusing beyond the dominant characteristics of its geographical situation and tangible built environment, highlighting instead more subtle matters like social practices.

Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.


- Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

From my point of view as an architect and planner in training, such a skill is not only essential in windshield and walking surveys to understand specific aspects of a community or city, but also to demonstrate a future vision for the same. Although this form of description would require some development and adaptation, it would provide an insight into the aspirations of the proposed designs, something rarely “felt” in the master plans, policies and manifestos written in a mixture of academese and legalese.

Yasir Hameed is a candidate for the Master of City Planning degree at UC Berkeley.

Crossroads Modernity: The Case of Tbilisi

Posted on by Genise Choy

As part of the Global Urban Humanities Initiative Colloquium called Reading Cities, Sensing Cities we have asked students and visitors to write responses to each of the weekly guest lectures.

October 9, 2014
Uneven Modernity and the “Peripheral” City: Between Ethnography, History and Literature in Tbilisi
Harsha Ram (Slavic Languages and Literature; Comparative Literature)

Video of the conversation available here.
Ram discussed the literary culture of Tbilisi as it relates to modernism and the unique history of Georgia.

by Elisa Russian

Tbilisi, the current capital of Georgia, was founded in the 5th century on one of the main trade and travel routes that historically linked West and East, Europe and Asia. It was for a long time the stage of important cultural encounters and economic exchanges, a city where goods and people from different areas came into contact and interacted in a variety of ways, shaping a unique environment. Due to its strategic location, Tbilisi was repeatedly contended for between empires, until its annexation by Russia in the early 19th century, a factor that is to be taken into consideration when accounting for the city’s complex ethnic identity and urban fabric. Professor Harsha Ram’s analysis of Tbilisi’s particular history casts new light on the center-periphery paradigm, leading not only to the rejection of this dichotomous model in favor of a crossroads one, but also to the rethinking of the very notion of modernity.

Trying to understand the late 19th century from the point of view of a reality like Tbilisi, a reality which is very different from metropolises such as London and Paris since it is neither a Western city nor an industrialized one, is a challenge worth taking on. In fact, this change of perspective may provide a new understanding of what being modern means and may lead to the discovery of how complex and multi-layered modernity is. Indeed, unevenness – or “the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous,” to quote the German philosopher Ernst Bloch – may be considered the defining quality of what we call modernity, and the crossroads model invites us to approach this issue in terms of hybridity and new discursive formations, where adaptation and resistance to novelty imply a collective renegotiation of meanings.

Elisa Russian is a first year Ph.D. student in the Italian Studies department.