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Troubling the Urban Institution

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Organizer: Keegan Cook Finberg

Co-Organizer: Davy Knittle

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This session considers recent approaches in literary and cultural studies to ask how urban life simultaneously participates in and exceeds the institutions at the center of its production. We are particularly interested in how urban institutions (universities, schools, hospitals, community centers, religious institutions, carceral facilities, etc.) interact with city government and informal and non-governmental city making practices. We welcome approaches that think between institutional contexts and how they relate to urban space, systems, culture, and policy, as well as work that attends to how and why literary forms and literary criticism enliven this discussion.

We follow Shannon Jackson’s suggestion that when scholars use the term “social,” they do not often define it and therefore do not understand how and where they disagree. We ask what role the methods of literary and cultural studies offer to clarify differences in our “assumptions about the role of aesthetics in social inquiry.” How does analysis of social practice travel across and beyond the boundaries of specific institutions, and how might a focus on literary and cultural texts that take the city as a subject give us tools to expand institutional critique? 

We approach this question from several perspectives. One is alongside recent work in Critical University Studies and Black Studies that considers the simultaneous imperative for institutions like universities to change and the necessity of social and political work to occur outside the university. As Robin D.G. Kelley argues, “Certainly universities can and will become more diverse and marginally more welcoming for black students, but as institutions they will never be engines of social transformation.”

Another perspective is from Urban Studies scholarship that considers the impossibility of any single institutional or policy history to offer a genealogy of a given social problem. As Thomas Sugrue writes in The Origins of the Urban Crisis: “No one social program or policy, no single force, whether housing segregation, social welfare programs, or deindustrialization, could have driven [the urban crisis]; there is no simple explanation for the inequality and marginality that beset the urban poor.”

What tools do literary and cultural studies offer for doing urban institutional critique, while also tracing social problems beyond the bounds of any singular institution or policy history?

Some topics of inquiry could include:

–literature that reflects or represents systemic assemblages of support in cities

–inquiries into how institutions shape current literary and critical labor concerns 

–rethinking support during Covid-19 

–institutional processes of what Sophie Lewis calls “privatizing care,” their relationship to city making practices, and their ripples into creative and critical life 

--modes of city, state, and philanthropic support for state surveillance 

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