Reconfiguring, Repurposing the City: Urban Ecotones in the Global South
After conferences at Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, Université de Poitiers and Université de La Réunion (France, 2015, 2016 and 2018), at the Centre for the Study of Social Sciences of Calcutta (Kolkata, India, 2018), Manhattanville College (NY, USA, 2019) and Concordia University (Montreal, Canada, 2019), this international scientific event at UCT will be the 7th opus of this conference cycle.
An “ecotone” initially designates a transitional area between two ecosystems, for example between land and sea. The “Ecotones” programme (2015-2020) is a cycle of conferences which aims to borrow this term traditionally used in geography and ecology and to broaden the concept by applying it to other disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. An “ecotone” can thus also be understood as a cultural space of encounters, conflicts, and renewal between several communities. This interdisciplinary conference will focus more specifically on colonial and postcolonial cities as “ecotonal” dialectics between places and nonplaces (Augé).
Cities can be imagined as estuaries made of the sedimentation of drifting populations over a long period of time. They are powerful matrices of aggregation and segregation transforming and transformed by people coming from various horizons. As permanently renewed moving sites of uniting differences (Lefebvre), cities are lived experience and constantly defined by their margins. Perhaps more than other spaces, they empower people’s identities and generate shared social references, yet in different and unequal ways. Cities of the South often include affluent populations living in distant suburbs and gated communities while subalterns may remain captive in city centres. Conversely, cities of the North tend to expel lower and middle class at their margins while estate price in their core can only be afforded by wealthier populations. In that regard, cities are “situated”, endowed with thick historical and environmental forces shaping the populations living in their confines. But cities are also hubs connected with long-distance elsewheres. They are privileged sites of disjunctive flows in the global cultural economy (Appadurai), crossroads of a strikingly new interactive system of real and imagined topographies. And while growing postcolonial cities are privileged loci for the emergence and negotiation of new identities, increasing transnational mobility and migratory movements turn even smaller urban geographies into complex “contact zones” (Pratt): sites of both fruitful entanglements and novel forms of segregation.
Whether “global” or “glocal”, cities are thus part and parcel of wider archipelagos, including archipelagos of memory and the imagination. In that regard, cities can also be “nonplaces” in which people come and go anonymously, suspended in a permanent state of transit. The front windows of “exotic” groceries, shops, and restaurants contribute to the transformation of multicultural city spaces; they open onto hybrid public locations and visually indicate the presence of diaspora businesses supported by international networks. Yet, although transitory and often anonymous, nonplaces “accept the inevitability of protracted sojourns of strangers”, on condition however that these passing or temporary people are conceded a mere physical presence and have their “idiosyncratic subjectivities” erased (Bauman); for indeed, no symbolic expression of history and identity, no significant social relations emerge from nonplaces. In today’s urban configurations, they are nevertheless not entirely devoid of meaning, in opposition to “empty spaces” (Kociatkiewicz & Kostera), the waste-products of architectural projects and the forgotten fringes of urbanist vision, which are not prohibited, but “inaccessible because of their invisibility”. Besides, in the context of global centre-periphery relationships, urban identities are increasingly shaped by phenomena of creolization, with multiple forms of cultural continuums and their inherent dynamic ambiguities (Hannerz). Beyond the old colonial and now postcolonial Western “metropoles”, South American megalopolises and Asian global cities, where one can locate forms of “alternative cosmopolitanism” (Mayaram), many African cities epitomize the urban revolution in the Global South over the last two decades. Examples comprise Cairo, Lagos, Dakar, and notably Johannesburg, the polycentric “elusive metropolis” (Nuttall & Mbembe), but also Cape Town whose complex multi-ethnic and multi-cultural configurations harbour many ecotonal mechanisms which contribute to the emergence and negotiation of original modes of (global) citizenship.
These circulations do not, however, prevent cities from falling (back) into – or reproducing and consolidating – new “identity traps” (Agier), in the sense of socially and racially based negation of certain subjectivities. With rising security concerns in many cities, this can be seen with the replacement of frontiers by walls, which are indeed the “negation of the frontier” (Agier) in that they deny the reciprocal recognition of self and other, and which contribute to new forms of precariousness (Butler) in urban settings. Therefore, in spite of – and because of – globalization and increasing mixing, people (re)create pockets of homogeneity and new forms of urban “heterotopias” (Foucault), “spaces of the other” that have “the power to juxtapose in one real place many spaces and locations which are by themselves incompatible”.
Importantly, urban imaginaries and the world’s major cities, notably port cities, are now heavily affected by the climate crisis and its consequences. In The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Amitav Ghosh explores how coastal cities from Mumbai and Kolkata to New York and New Orleans represent concentrations of great risk and vulnerability in a future of climactic instability, increased storm activity and sea level rise. Tracing how the establishment of major ports on the coastlines of the world was often a consequence of 18th-century imperialism and trade networks, he speculates about the “managed retreat from vulnerable locations” that many major urban centres will need to undergo in the coming century. More broadly, what will the climate crisis mean for the 21st-century city? And how might ecological and environmental change unravel the technocratic confidence and carbon-based economy that informed the urban imaginary of 20th-century, modernist city planning?
Eventually, cities not only produce culture, but culture re-produces cities. Literature, film and other forms of artistic representation possess myriad ways of conveying and negotiating a “cartographic imaginary” (Westphal) where urban identities, their challenges and predicaments, become major signifiers, locations for debating our current living-together and imagining the future. Particularly, in the wake of the larger spatial turn and other disciplinary reconfigurations (e.g. the ethical turn, the social turn), literary representations and the arts are not only informed by or reflections of our urban ecotones, but contribute to inform and shape their contours.
Following up on Ecotones #6 at Concordia University in October 2019 focused on “Post/Colonial Ports: Place and Nonplace”, Ecotones #7 will review, revise and revisit such notions as place and “nonplace”. Other concepts such as “espace lisse” and “espace strié” (smooth space vs striated space, Deleuze and Guattari), or “heterotopia” (Foucault) may also be useful in the context of the urban ecotone, reflecting upon the urban space as shaped by movement and events, imaginaries and affects more than by fixed bearings and measurable objects, as more intensive than extensive. We will be particularly interested in examining the multiple ways spaces are de/formed, reconfigured and repurposed, be it for economic, social, industrial and financial aims, or artistic and creative ones, homogeneously or heterogeneously.
We seek papers from a broad range of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences that engage with these multiple formations of ecotone spaces within colonial and postcolonial cities, past and present. We encourage proposals on topics such as (but not limited to):
- Cities as assemblages of environmental, historical and political forces shaping populations and social relations;
- Cities as areas where districts, zones, and neighbourhoods are reconfigured and repurposed; where abandoned spaces are taken over and readapted for different uses (with what impact, cost, meaning etc.);
- Cities as sites of mobilizations, confrontation and solidarity between local and migrant populations;
- Urban spaces as sites of hyper-invisibility or hyper-visibility;
- Cities as spaces where the non-urban and the rural encroaches on the urban, the non-human on the human, etc.;
- Cities as sites of cultural confluence and continuum in the context of global centre-periphery relationships;
- Cities as nodal points in wider networks (regional, national, global);
- Cities as a confluence of heterotopias;
- Urban geographies as shaped by – and shaping – imagination, language, the arts and literature;
- The urban ecotone as a new “geocritical” topos within fictional and non-fictional forms of representation;
- Cities as nodal points of the tension between processes of creolization and (re)homogenization, of integrative and differentialist topographies;
- Fringes, informal spaces and in-between locations that (co)fashion the urban ecotone;
- Cities as generators of ideological formations, identity projects and conceptual tools (“Cosmopolis”, “Zéropolis”, “Afropolis”, etc.);
- Cities as “discursive matrices” for sociolinguistic dynamics and creativities, and/or sites of polyglossic encounters between native and non-native speakers;
- Cities and environmental crisis: ecological degradation, climate change and the urban as site of waste, air pollution, toxicity and “slow violence” (Nixon).
We invite contributors to upload their proposals (a 250-word abstract, title, author’s name, a 150-word bio, and contact information) to the conference website:
Each presentation will be 20 minutes (followed by discussion time). A selection of papers will be considered for publication at the conclusion of the series of Ecotones events.
- Deadline for abstracts: 15 Jan. 2020
- Notification of acceptance: 1 March. 2020
A/Prof Markus Arnold, University of Cape Town
Dr Hedley Twidle, University of Cape Town
A/Prof Markus Arnold, University of Cape Town
Dr Shari Daya, University of Cape Town
Prof Corinne Duboin, Université de La Réunion
Dr Divine Fuh, University of Cape Town
Dr Nomusa Makhubu, University of Cape Town
A/Prof Arnaud Richard, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3
Dr Anna Selmeczi, University of Cape Town
Dr Hedley Twidle, University of Cape Town
A/Prof Sandra Young, University of Cape Town
Ecotones programme coordinators:
A/Prof Judith Misrahi-Barak, Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3
Prof Thomas Lacroix, La Maison Française d’Oxford
Prof Maggi Morehouse, Coastal Carolina University