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Otherness: Essays & Studies 7.1

Edited by Maria Beville


Introduction: Otherness and the Urban

by Maria Beville



The city is a unique and subjective space. It is fragmented and indistinct. It is, at once, place and text: to walk the city is to read it. In “Semiology and Urbanism” (The Semiotic Challenge), Roland Barthes notes that the city is a discourse and a language: “[t]he city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by inhabiting it, by traversing it, by looking at it”. However, in this discourse, there exists “a conflict between signification and reason, or at least between signification and that calculating reason which wants all the elements of the city to be uniformly recuperated by planning”. Our desire to map the city is a desire to map and to write the self: a process without closure that constantly reminds us of our own inherent Otherness.


In this way the city is multivalent. It is both the location and the sign of the Other. And rather than merely existing as a physical place, the city is experience; individualised and multiplied in its alterity. While the city exists as a place to be read and is therefore unique in every individual reading, it is also a place to be written, inspiring writers, artists, and thinkers to become lost in city streets and locales as they struggle to find new ways to meet the challenge of representing the unrepresentable. Thus, the city is where the subject and space become intertwined. While the city becomes part of the subject and the subject a part of the city, urban space, in its resistance of representation, remains an unvarying challenge to notions of self, of sameness, of homogeneity. The city is therefore bound to exist in tension with identity, both individual and collective. Just as is the case with the self, there can be no cohesive vision of the city because the city not only resists mapping, it resists unified narrative; in its flux and in its phantasmagoria.

And yet the Otherness of the city remains a part of the definition of urban selfhood and understanding this is best achieved through a balanced view of the city’s physical and metaphysical dimensions. No examination of the textuality of the city should overlook the materiality of the city and its impact on the city experience. City design, city building, city governance and city use form the structures of the city which carry and mediate its otherness. The series of multidisciplinary articles in this special volume address these aspects of the city and Otherness to form a body of research which examines the nature of identity construction in relation to the Otherness of the city. By approaching the Other in the city, they also consider the city as Other. Topics explored include: urban otherness in literature, food culture and otherness in the city, the postmodern city, ethnicity, urban minorities and spatial identity, and animal otherness in an urban context. Spanning representations of the city in and of Asia, North and South America, and Europe, the articles in this issue present research which is positioned at the intersections of Gothic Studies, theories of postcolonialism and transnationalism, food studies, ethnic studies, media studies, and genre literature. What they share in common is a preoccupation with the imagined city, and with the magic of the urban: the potential of the cityspace to reflect and contain the multiplicity of identity in all of its fluidity and ambiguity.

Chris Jenks refers to the city as “a magical place”. However, “the magic is not evenly distributed” (2004). The intense flux that the city presents renders it impossible. It exists in a state of ontological non-conformity. As such it has been an ideal context and subtext for literary and artistic modes such as the Gothic, Science-fiction, and postmodernism. This is addressed in articles in this issue by Carys Crossen and Inger Dalsgaard. In her examination of Lauren Beukes’ novel Broken Monsters, Crossen argues that the author imbues her fictional city (Detroit) with the Gothic in order to reflect the upheavals of Detroit’s past, but also the ambiguity of its’ uncertain present. As the opposite of the romantic idyll of community, the American city, she argues is a space of corruption and stifled identity, haunted by the Old World values that modern America seeks to escape.

For Dalsgaard, the city of New York, as drawn in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, is less this den of crime and decay than a site for potential escape for the subject. It is a refuge: a sanctuary for those who inhabit it. Dalsgaard asserts that the city in the novel is a site of the subjunctive; of potentiality and possibility. Furthermore, by presenting various alternative or “Other” New Yorks in the novel, Pynchon uses the postmodern to explore the fissures between imaginative fiction and the factual world as these are experienced in the urban setting.

These opposing conceptualisations of the American city in literature revive Jeremy Tambling’s idea that the urban is ultimately “amorphous”. In literature, metropolitan settings frequently pose a challenge to definitive representation, reminding us that the city has no history. In conflict with efforts to generate an imagined community and by resisting national consensus, the city is, according to Tambling, economically and culturally global. This quality of the city de-centres the urban space even further (see Gottdiener & Budd) and the potential of the urban experience, enhanced through the technology and infrastructure afforded by globalisation, increases almost to the point of singularity. This has led many artists, thinkers, and writers in their quest to represent the city as a coherent space, to engage with the Otherness of individual cities in order to bridge links between the material city and local or specific cultures and traditions. Shelby Ward, in her article on Anthony Bourdain’s “Cosmopolitan Table” examines how the city becomes an “ethni(C)ity” and how it is mapped through street food culture and the representation of these in the media. Examining food-television personality Anthony Bourdain and his CNN show Parts Unknown, Ward discusses the intersectional mapping practices of food culture and television in a number of Asian cities. She considers how Bourdain performs the role of cosmopolitan moving within and consuming cities of the imagined Other while also examining how food television effects the viewer’s ability to view the city without being viewed themselves in what could be considered the ideal consumption of the urban.

Staying with the Asian city, Shana Sanusi situates representations of Asian urban cultures within the discourses of colonialism and modernity. By offering a reading of the Pang Brothers’ 2002 film The Eye (Gin Gwai), Sanusi elaborates on the spatial uncanniness that affects Hong Kong in her analysis of how culturally specific constructions of the city’s urbanity are revealed in the film. This leads us back to the supernaturalism and the haunted quality of the city which is further explored in essays by Michael Moreno, Courtney Lynn Whited, and Helena Esser, who explore minority identities and the urban Other in relation to the ghostly, the miraculous, and the retrofuturistic. In Moreno’s article on Chicano fiction set in Los Angeles, we are offered an insightful commentary on the manner in which the systemic displacement of minorities in an urban setting has cultivated new sites of discourse in the city, which in turn shape the broader identity of the cityspace. As such, the city can be a site of empowerment but often at the expense of homogenous notions of home and ethnic identity.

Whited posits a similar discussion in her article on the Native American experience of the urban environment as depicted in the fiction and non-fiction writing of Susan Power. In Power’s writing, she argues, the urban and the rural (reservations or tribal lands), are never entirely separated from one another, reminding us that “cities often span traditional Indigenous homelands, which, in their natural features, may have spiritual and historical significance” (Smith 2009, 151). Identity in the city is formed through a recognition of the multiple layers of histories and stories that both situate us in and allow us to transcend geographical space. Understanding this allows us to re-negotiate our mappings of the city and the identities and communities that coexist within it.

Helena Esser’s article on the steampunk cybercity takes a similar approach but to a very different kind of city, and mode of literature. Focusing on the “smog-choked alleys of Victoria’s duskless empire”, Esser reminds us of how steampunk re-creates the British city as retro-speculative playground, disrupting and re-mapping the urban imaginary. For Esser, the city creates, as well as harbours, the “Other”. By re-evaluating identity, alterity, and hybridity through the metaphor of the steampunk city, which Esser argues is presented as a non-human entity (like the computer, it is both human-made but also fundamentally Other), steampunk fiction offers a discourse on the unknowable qualities of the city and its potentials for autonomy of identity.

The non-human in the city and of the city is further examined in Nathaniel Otjen’s article on the fire ants of Hurricane Harvey. With a focus on themes of displacement and belonging, Otjen engages with media representations of Otherness in the city of Houston and how these effect urban concepts of the human. Otjen presents the idea that the city is often a contemporary risk society, built upon “unknown and unintended consequences”. After the devastation of Hurricane Harvey, the physical space of Houston underscored human vulnerability and future uncertainty. The city, in this way, became a site for staging encounters between humans and more-than-human others, allowing for the perpetuation of damaging and inadequate explanations of the role of non-human species in both the imagined and material city space.

Otjen’s article, like others in this issue is evidence of a renewed interest in the city as a site of simultaneous order and chaos and of inclusion and exclusion. As a shared space, experienced on both an individual and collective level, the complexity of the city is frequently represented in relation to its unconscious effects on the subject. Tim Keane considers the city as a disorienting locus of deceptive images, commodity fetishes, multifaceted icons and symbols, and hybrid interior-exterior spaces (Keane 2018, 81). It is this language of the city – its signs, symbols, and personal mappings, which holds the nebulous concept of the city together. This brings us back to Barthes who reminds us that there is, in the city, “a conflict between signification and reason”. The city of the imagination is fluid and unstructured, inherently subjective and beyond totalising concepts and processes and yet we all possess a desire to contain the city in uniform, ordered maps and descriptions.

The research presented in this special issue is offered as a critical response to this problem of representing the city of the imagination, where the potential of the subject, and therefore of the city endures. While the city is often obscure, and a site of diverse cultures and geographies, it is a place where the subject and the artist can identify and respond to Otherness. It is the place where the Other can be itself.


Many thanks to our contributors.




Barthes, Roland. “Semiology and Urbanism.” In The Semiotic Challenge, translated by Richard Howard. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988. P191-201.

Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings 1938–40. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

___. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 2007.

Gottdiener, Mark and Leslie Budd. Key Concepts in Urban Studies. London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2005.

Jenks, Chris. Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. London: Routledge, 2004.

Keane, Tim. 2018. In Beville, M & Flynn, D (eds) Irish Urban Fictions. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Smith, Lindsey Claire. 2009. “'With These Magic Weapons, Make A New World': Indingeous Centered Urbanism in Tomson Highway's Kiss of the Fur Queen.The Canadian Journal of Native Studies 29: 144.

Tambling, Jeremy. The Palgrave Handbook of Literature and the City. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.