Comparative Infrastructures, South and North Workshop Summary

English Faculty, University of Oxford, 24–25 September 2015

The fourth and final Planned Violence workshop took place at the University of Oxford on 24 and 25 September 2015, and succeeded in bringing together many of the main threads of enquiry that had run across the project: the capacity of urban infrastructures both to enhance and to limit human lives; the suggestive parallels between cities of the north and the south, and of late colonial and postcolonial domains; and the power of literary writing to interrogate and, on occasion, to resist these issues.

In the first months of the project there had been some concern on the part of the organisers because of the way that the Network’s programme appeared to place the small, University town of Oxford, alongside the sprawling global metropolises of London, Delhi and Johannesburg, where the previous three workshops had taken place. Whilst the first three Planned Violence workshops had focused primarily on the literary, cultural, social and political issues relating to the specific cities in which they were set, in the initial funding proposal it was anticipated that the final Oxford workshop would function more as an opportunity to bring the comparative dimension of the Network to the fore rather than offering a city-specific study. However, it transpired that there were not only more parallels between the minor and major global cities than we had anticipated (perhaps not surprising in our increasingly globalised planet), but that these also repeatedly confronted the scope of the response of the literary and the cultural (in the form of poetry, drama, film and a number of literary genres).

In order to look back to the previous three workshops and their respective post/colonial urban infrastructural focuses, the fourth workshop brought together experts and Network contributors from each of those cities, thereby creating a space for both a cross-disciplinary and cross-continental conversation that furthered the project’s ongoing comparative interrogation of the relationship between literature and forms of ‘planned violence’. These ideas were encapsulated in the workshop title—‘Comparative Infrastructures, South and North’—which spoke to some of the other workshop titles (‘Colonial Continuities, Postcolonial Discontinuities’; ‘Building the Global South’) and that emphasised the globally comparative aspect of the project. We also inverted the normative phrasing of global regions (‘North and South’) to emphasise the ways in which cities of the Global South have come to inform the infrastructural layouts of cities, as well as literary and formal responses to them, in the Global North.

Though there was at first an element of discomfort about slotting the city of Oxford itself into these comparative and cross-continental connections, simply because of its size and the ostensible wealth and privilege of so many of its inhabitants, it quickly became clear to Network Convener Elleke Boehmer and Facilitator Dominic Davies, both resident in Oxford, that there were in fact some very productive synergies between the small town and the larger global cities. The idea of Oxford as itself a starkly divided and unevenly developed city was first documented in their photo essay, ‘Two Oxford Spires: From Magdalen to Windrush’, a visual exploration of the city that has since been conducted in a number of other urban locations, from Milton Keynes and Bombay to Jerusalem and Johannesburg, all of which can be viewed on this website. (A number of these photographs, taken by the ‘Planned Violence’ working group, will be on display at the final exhibition that will accompany the Network’s concluding keynote lecture, to be held at the University of Warwick on 20 January 2016. Furthermore, Boehmer and Davies have also been invited to contribute discussions of the photo-essays to cultural and historical projects in Oxford and Milton Keynes in 2016.) This documentation of Oxford’s internal segregations and astonishingly systematic history of different kinds of planned violence, not to mention its legacy as a city historically tied to the British Empire, made it clear that the final workshop was justified in addressing the host city itself.

In these ways, the final workshop (PV IV) completed the Network’s movement from the Global North (London) to cities in the Global South (Delhi and Johannesburg) and back again (Oxford), whilst further emphasising these comparative, transnational links and looking beyond to other cities, including Tianjin in China, Lahore in Pakistan, Chicago in the U.S., and Manchester in the UK. In the process, some of the Network’s core questions were re-addressed and reassessed: in particular, to what extent can we draw continuities between planned violence in the South and the North? How can we learn from tactics of cultural resistance and patterns of literary experimentation and representation from the Global South even as we address methods of planned violence in the Global North, and vice versa?

Oxford Workshop 1

Thursday 24 September, the first day of the workshop, began with a short welcome and introduction from Network Convener Elleke Boehmer, Facilitator Dominic Davies, Working Group member Pablo Mukherjee and Johannesburg-based Wits academic Pamila Gupta, followed by an opening keynote from Michael Rubenstain (Stony Brook University, New York) on the concept of ‘Infrastructuralisms’. In this provocative talk, Rubenstein focused on the infrastructure of electricity, examining the notion of the ‘black out’ in cities such as Lahore, where electrical supply, so often taken for granted in the Global North, is sporadic and unreliable. After visualising his discussion of electrical infrastructure with a map of the Earth at night (demonstrating how the globe’s electrical output clusters around the world’s urban centres and rivers), he applied his discussion of infrastructure to a refreshing re-reading of Mohsin Hamid’s well-known novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). Kicking against the repeated tendency to read Hamid’s novel in its post-9/11 context, Rubenstein drew out the text’s overlooked obsession with black-outs to show how its socio-political commentary is in fact primarily directed at the globe’s uneven infrastructural development. When our perspective is shifted to the infrastructures in the text, Rubenstein showed, the literary narrative’s alternate and sub-textual politics can be brought to the fore.

This NASA image from a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012 shows the earth's city lights at night. It took 312 orbits to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth's land surface and islands at night.The new data was mapped over existing Blue Marble imagery of Earth to provide a realistic view of the planet. The image was made possible by the new satellite's "day-night band" of the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which detects light in a range of wavelengths from green to near-infrared and uses filtering techniques to observe dim signals such as city lights, gas flares, auroras, wildfires, and reflected moonlight. (AP Photo/NASA)

This NASA image from a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012 shows the earth’s city lights at night. (AP Photo/NASA)

Continuing this exploration of the relationship between literary and cultural production, infrastructure and different forms of anti-colonial and anti-imperial resistance, the workshop’s first panel, ‘Literary Cities, Cultural Resistance’, included four papers that expanded on the kinds of cultural production that might respond to and resist urban violence in the post/colonial city (many of them extra-literary). Focusing on networks of Indian anti-colonial nationalism in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, Ole Birk Laursen showed how infrastructures were appropriated by a number of anarchist groups to build and enhance their resistant practices. Florian Stadtler then introduced Bollywood cinema as a cultural form, focusing on Milan Luthria’s 2010 film, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, to show how the artificially constructed harbour in Mumbai actually functions as a kind of infrastructure for the criminal networks that operate there. Exploring yet another kind of cultural production, Louisa Layne’s paper discussed the poetry of Linton Kwesi Johnson in relation to ‘bass culture’, exploring how the ‘sound-system’—large stacks of homemade speakers—might function as a form of informal infrastructure that produces enclosed autonomous spaces of enjoyment and leisure within an otherwise tightly regulated and surveilled urban environment. Stuti Khanna’s contribution to the panel completed this mapping of alternate cultural forms by documenting the way in which print and television media coverage, as well as films such as No One Killed Jessica, portrayed a real life act of murderous violence that took place in a Delhi nightclub in 1999.

Whilst this first panel offered a cross-disciplinary cultural analysis, the second, which shared the workshop’s title, ‘Comparative Cities, South and North’, focused specifically on comparisons between two of the Network’s focus cities, Delhi and Johannesburg, balancing this juxtaposition with one eye on other similarly constructed cities and another eye on literature. Loren Kruger (University of Chicago) subverted some central notions about Johannesburg as a segregated city by contrasting it with Chicago in the 1930s—the two cities have shared similar architectural experiments and have comparable histories of aspiration and deprivation, and these case studies allowed Kruger to show how bringing cities of the Global North and South into one analytical frame can be an illuminating practice. Presenting some newly discovered archival material, Stephen Legg’s paper turned its gaze to pre-Independence Delhi, bringing both that city and British imperial urban policies back into the discussion, whilst also assessing the damaging ramifications of those policies on post-Partition Delhi. Extending the panel’s comparative oscillation, Pamila Gupta’s paper then turned back to Johannesburg once more to argue that, in the city of the car, driving might be a subversive act comparable to the way in which spatial theorist Michel de Certeau first conceptualised walking in Paris and other European cities. Her discussion further highlighted the traces of immigrant Portuguese culture that can be found all over Johannesburg, emphasising the way in which cities can be read in different ways and from alternative cultural angles. Terence Cave’s concluding paper helpfully brought the literary back into the panel discussion through a study of the syntactical idiosyncrasies of China Miéville’s science fiction or fantasy writings. Cave’s close textual analyses focused on Miéville’s use of ‘collocations’—jarring turns of phrase that are simultaneously alien and recognisable to readers, and so interrogate spatial arrangements—and complemented the more historical and urban theoretical surveys of the other papers on this panel.

The workshop’s second keynote presentation was delivered by experienced urban explorer and researcher Bradley Garrett. This thoughtful presentation rooted the practice of urban exploration—the often illegal invasion into and exploration of abandoned or forgotten subterranean city spaces scattered throughout the city—in a longer historical trajectory by discussing it through the prism of London’s sewers. Shifting provocatively between the historical archive of the library and the contemporary archive of the city, Garrett contrasted the astonishing pride that the city once took in the construction of its astonishing underground sanitary infrastructure in the nineteenth century, which at that time was the first of its kind in the world, with the contemporary invisibility of these infrastructural systems to the public eye, as they remain unseen and largely ignored (and therefore neglected) beneath and behind the city’s outer surfaces.

The first day’s formal events ended with a dramatic performance by the Oxford youth theatre group Mandala (directed by Yasmin Sidhwa), a company comprised of young people from different parts of the city brought together by their shared interest in theatre, who had given up their time to improvise and rehearse the performance. Through a varied series of sketches and dramatic modes, which ranged from mime to monologue, the performance adapted and sometimes parodied the story of Alice in Wonderland to excavate the kinds of violence present in Oxford that are often overlooked or obscured from view in those parts of the city produced for tourist and student consumption. Drawing on tropes and narrative structures from Lewis Carroll’s famous story, which is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its publication this year, the short performance piece took its audience on a journey through Oxford, deconstructing the image of the city’s ‘dreaming spires’ by dramatising the oppressive violence of institutions such as Campsfield House, a local detention centre for asylum seekers, as well as celebrating the more positive multicultural atmosphere of Cowley Road. The young people stayed on afterwards to respond to questions from delegates, ranging from insights into their creative processes to reflections on how they, as local Oxford residents, respond to and experience the city in different ways. The PV IV delegates then partook in a very sociable workshop meal, which was attended by more than twenty speakers and participants and where the day’s discussions were continued.

Oxford Workshop 3

The workshop’s second day began with a third panel focusing on the idea of ‘Under Cities’. Sarah Harrison and Ankhi Mukherjee each offered a paper that explored the way in which fictional and non-fictional accounts of slum-dwellers’ experiences and practices in India’s cities (especially Mumbai) can illuminate, if not directly resist, certain kinds of violence. Mukherjee interrogated the way in which slums are simultaneously visible but unseen spaces, both integrated into and produced by, and yet also excluded from, the globalised neoliberal city. Harrison offered thoughts on how literary and other cultural forms might represent these spaces and asked whether they might describe and dramatise possible alternative modes of urban inhabitation. Interposing these papers, Maurizio Marinelli brought the contrasting urban space of China’s hyper-modern and meticulously planned Tianjin to bear on the discussion, triangulating the panel in rich and productive ways.

The workshop’s fourth panel drew on the wider discussions of violence in post/colonial cities and urban theories and specifically applied them to the city of Oxford, asking how the University town might be understood as ‘A Divided City’. Historian Stephen Tuck began with an animated discussion of Malcolm X’s 1964 speech at the Oxford Union, situating this historical event within the wider context of the colour bar that many black students experienced in University accommodation in 1960s Oxford. Tuck emphasised how the resulting local campaigns against institutionalised racism were woven into transnational resistance movements, most notably against apartheid in South Africa, thereby showing how Oxford’s planned violence was related to contestations taking place in other post/colonial cities. Will Ghosh’s paper on Oxford United Football Club brought the idea of the ‘town’ into the panel’s discussion of Oxford, showing how a history of the club tells a larger story about the changing physical and social landscape of the city. These different strands of Oxford’s urban division were brought together in Georg Deutsch’s paper on the very contemporary issue of the University’s Castle Mill accommodation developments, which have encroached in aesthetically and physically violent ways on the green space of Port Meadow. The panel concluded with a presentation of Dominic Davies’s and Elleke Boehmer’s photo essay of Oxford, which usefully visualised the issues under discussion.

In keeping with PV IV’s effort to draw alternative post/colonial urban spaces into comparative discussion, the fifth and final panel looked to the North of England, and in particular to the cities of Manchester and Leicester. Corinne Fowler began by introducing some examples of ‘landmark poetry’, physical installations that combine poetry with different kinds of sculpture and visual art in order to occupy parts of urban space. Fowler’s paper was then followed by two literary performances which brought examples of this poetry, along with other creative work, into an active dialogue with academic criticism. First, Divya Ghelani read from her flash fiction sequence entitled ‘An Imperial Typewriter’, a short story that highlighted Leicester’s postcolonial heritage and explored the varied architectures of racism and belonging that structure that city. After Ghelani’s compelling reading, performance poet SuAndi read from her work, which is itself landmark poetry, inscribed onto metal discs along Manchester’s Ship Canal Centenary Walkway. She also offered insightful reflections on her own creative process and related them to issues that the workshop had been exploring.

In a continuation of the theme of literary writing and performance, author and publisher James Attlee concluded the day’s formal academic events with a concentrated, impressionistic account of how he came to write his book Isolarion: Walking the Cowley Road, a non-fictional text that is one part journalism and another part psychogeography, and which collates a series of chapter studies on Cowley Road’s eclectic mix of different businesses and shops. Finally, in order to emphasise the physicality and reality of many of the issues that the workshop had tackled, delegates undertook one of the city tours that have become conventional practice for the project’s workshops. They left the English Faculty and walked down to Cowley Road itself, gathering at one of East Oxford’s most famous gig venues, The Bullingdon. Here they were greeted by poet and novelist Kei Miller, who gave a compelling reading of a number of poems from his recent collection, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, which once again explores how words help to navigate lived space. The event, which spilled out of the venue onto the bustling Cowley Road and drew in an audience that was comprised of members of the public as well as academics, broke down barriers between the academic room of the workshop and the physical space that it had been discussing.

Oxford Workshop 4

Following Kei Miller, James Attlee joined with a band called Non-Stop Tango to offer the workshop’s concluding event. Attlee’s readings from Isolarion were interspersed with musical experimental responses from the band, the charismatic lead singer pushing the boundaries of these alternative kinds of performance and physically challenging the ways in which cultural performance might negotiate and inhabit urban space. Throughout, the PV IV workshop combined critical academic discussion with literary readings and dramatic enactments of urban violence, opening up new avenues for exploration of the relationship between post/colonial urban infrastructures and literature. We aim to continue these explorations in the Network’s final keynote lecture and in future collaborations and publications.

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