Jamin Rowan: Cities in the Humanities

Jamin Rowan, assistant professor of English, presents his research on urban sympathy and developing a new urban imaginary during the Humanities Center Colloquium.

PROVO, Utah (Sept. 25, 2014)–In the year 2008, the planet became more urban than rural for the first time in history, according to the United Nations. In light of this event, English professor Jamin Rowan’s current and upcoming research projects are concerned with addressing issues of urbanization through the concepts of urban sympathy and urban imaginary.

Rowan began, “I want to speak today about what those working in the humanities might say about the issues that will continue to arise as a result of the urbanization of the planet.” Rowan shared his interest in understanding urban theory of the past century and finding ways to work through the inadequacies of many of its assumptions about cities.

One concept he has researched is the idea of urban imaginary, a term that refers to the lived experience of people in cities. In particular, Rowan is interested in the complex social interactions of city dwellers and how those interactions might serve as a way to rethink the urban imaginary.

He said, “I’ve been really interested in the ways our culture has made sense of the kinds of relationships and social interactions people engage in when they’re in the city. We tend to think of urban relationships as at best emotionally inferior to those that take place in small towns. I’ve tried to find a way to get around that by thinking of this term, ‘sympathy.’”

Rowan explored the concept of urban sympathy in one of his earlier projects on urbanization. He used the example of protocooperation in ecology, in which two species simultaneously benefit from interaction with each other even if they have no need to interact, or even no knowledge of their interaction. He said, “This was a structure of thinking and feeling that a lot of urban intellectuals began to pick up on in the mid-20th century to use to make sense of urban relationships. As cities became larger, you had this problem of people who had to imagine themselves in relationship to people that they never encountered or never would encounter but still value those people and feel some sort of emotional connection to them.”

Rowan is also interested in identifying ways in which the process of narrating new kinds of urban spaces will change during the 21st century. The rise of urbanization is creating many different urban settings across the globe, necessitating the need to break away from assumptions about cities that stem from U.S. and western European urban theory.

“[Urban intellectuals] are thinking about these cities not as a homogenous expression of globalization but about what it means to make a life for oneself in this kind of city,” Rowan concluded. “I think the possibilities for what it means to live in a city will open up when we can consider urban life from a new perspective.”

Contact Jamin Rowan for more information about his research on urbanization and the humanities and his upcoming projects.

Sylvia Cutler (BA English ‘17)

Images courtesy of Jamin Rowan