Centre for European Studies
The city without us
In this seminar we will consider efforts to represent the modern city as a meaningless array of material objects, outside or after history. According to best-selling journalist Alan Weisman it is impossible to imagine the city “without us”, to think that its colossal, man-made monuments could someday be swallowed by nature. And yet, Weisman’s alleged inability to tell is little more is than a well-established generic convention: his glossy thought experiment – Manhattan five years, two-hundred years, one-hundred thousand years after homo sapiens – owes much to the specialist knowledge of architects, botanists and civic engineers, but just as much to the endless proliferation of dystopian, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic worlds in modern popular art, especially cinema. Our seminar will examine some of these peculiarly synthetic, eerie visions of the future, from Delaval North’s The Last Man in London (1887) to Thomas Glavinic’s Night Work (2008). We will discuss how modern apocalypse fiction draws from the Romantic topos of the city in ruins, and explore how empty urban space functions as a response to – and, arguably, a paranoid reflection, of – the complexity of actual social life, our daily experience of history and society as a bewildering chaos of multiple, contradictory and indiscernible forces.
Eugène Atget, Paris, edited by Hans-Christian Adam, Cologne, Taschen, 2008.
Thomas Glavinic, Night Work, translation by John Brownjohn, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2008.
Delaval North, The Last Man in London, London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1887 (available in the British Library Historical Collection: www.bl.uk/digital).
John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids, London, Penguin, 2000.
Last Man on Earth (1964), with Vincent Price, directed by Ubaldo Ragona, Sydney Salkow.
The Quiet Earth (1985), with Bruno Lawrence, Alison Routlegde, Peter Smith, directed by Geoff Murphy.
Giorgio Agamben “Judgement Day” in Profanations, translated by Jeff Fort, Brooklyn, New York, Zone Books, 2007, pp. 23-28.
Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, translated by J.A. Underwood, London, Penguin, 2008.
Mike Davis, Dead Cities: And Other Tales, New York, The New Press, 2002.
Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle (eds), Ruins of Modernity, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.
Alan Weisman, The World Without Us, London, Virgin Books, 2007, pp. 21-38.