As a place of possibility, aspiration and futurity, the city is often figured in the contemporary imagination as the site of individual fulfilment. Across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, people have been enthralled by the promise of the metropolis. But this enthrallment has often been as alienating as it has gratifying. Anomie, dislocation, and disillusionment are as much a condition of urban life as any feelings of contentment. To recall Lauren Berlant, there is a cruel brand of optimism at the root of the contemporary urban experience—a structure of hopeful feeling that forever postpones any reckoning with the injustices and inequalities that urban space also upholds.
This project begins by understanding the city not as the site of optimism but of melancholy, a term that draws particular attention to the structures and feelings of loss that pattern urban space. By drawing close critical attention to the experiences of urban life narrated in contemporary creative non-fiction writing and photography, it stages a comparative, interdisciplinary study of the contemporary city, one that takes lessons from the fields of psychoanalysis, literary criticism and critical urban theory alike. As such, it works against the architecture of happiness supposed by some to underpin the aesthetic and experiential form of the city in order to consider the ways in which the urban age has, instead, conditioned a globalised network of estrangement and disaffection.
Comparative in its ambitions, this project will examine key sites drawn from within the deracinated inner urban centre of present-day cities. Metropolitan Melancholia builds on an earlier project that investigated Johannesburg. (see archived link)