“Reimagining the City” – A talk by Dr. Jonathan Jae-an Crisman

Photo by Octavian Rosca on Unsplash

A night with good food, great weather, and some of the most important scholars in the humanities in the Southwest, this is how the “Next” Tucson Humanities Festival started this year. At an uncanny location too: the Playground, a downtown bar in Tucson usually full of music and young people dancing until late hours, transformed into a delightful, peaceful rooftop in the middle of Tucson with a cool breeze and great company.

The night started with the words of the Dean of the College of Humanities of the University of Arizona, Dr. Alain-Philippe Durand, who tackled the theme of this year’s festival: Next. This year, the Humanities Festival will be discussing the future of humanities and the direction that humanities scholarship will take in the following years to maximize its impact during the digital age. “We don’t want the machines in charge, we want humans to be in charge,” said Dr. Durand during his speech

This year’s festival was inaugurated by the talk of Dr. Jonathan Jae-an Crisman titled “Urban Humanities: New Practices for Reimagining the City”. In it, Dr, Crisman offered a refreshing point of view on several of the most critical urban challenges of our time.

“What will the city of the future look like? Many of the most innovative urban practices shaping our cities today, from modes of transportation to housing patterns, can be found in cities of the past. Consider cycling, co-housing, and night markets: urban technologies that have been with us from hundreds of years, yet are now seeing a renaissance in cities all around the world. But their past forms also inform us about important considerations for the environment, for equity, and urban vitality. If we want to imagine and make the next city, we can do so by exploring the past, by going back to the future.” – https://humanitiesfestival.arizona.edu/

The Humanities Festival is a yearly month-long event that started in 2009 through a series of outreach events. This year, the festival includes fourteen events with topics like “transforming lives”, “politics and poetry”, and “space and wondering”. The acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros will also be part of this years’ festival with a reading on October 24th.

The talk was introduced by Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who enthusiastically talked about the many events that the city hosts, emphasized the importance of the festival: “events like this are why we live here… What a great city we have!”. And I agree with the Mayor. Tucson does have a rich cultural and intellectual life, and it is thanks to all the people who make this and other events happen. However, the city of Tucson just got better. Allow me to introduce to you the newly appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Public & Applied Humanities and the Institute for LGBT Studies, Dr. Jonathan Jae-an Crisman.

Dr. Crisman is an expert urbanist who focuses on the intersection of art and urban design. He is the proposer of the concept of imminent speculation, which is “the practicing of an inherently unknowable future in order to create the conditions for that future to unfold”(Crisman: Practicing the Future, 2016). A concrete example of this would be a project called “Peatoniños” ( I will tell you about this project in the near future) where Dr. Crisman worked as part of a research team from UCLA. “Peatoniños” is an answer to the high mortality rate of children in Mexico City due to preventable traffic accidents. In this case, the practice of immanent speculation would ask: what kind of conditions do we need in order to create a future where children are safe on the streets of Mexico City?

The concept of Immanent speculation comes from what Dr. Crisman calls “the projective imperative”:

“As scholars and as people living in society we have an imperative to really think about the future. Especially in academia, we often have a tendency to be very comfortable engaging with the past […] or perhaps the present […], but what does it mean to actually engage with the future? It’s a little scarier; it’s a little more open-ended; it’s a little more abstract. And nevertheless, I think there is still a moral-ethical obligation to actually engage with the future.”

Speculative humanities do not need to be intimidating. Although it is not common practice to look at the future within the disciplines of humanities, there are firm reasons to believe that applied humanities is the fertile ground where much of the seeds for the future of the world may be planted. The practice of immanent speculation draws from the knowledge of the concrete culture and places where it needs to be applied. The future already stems from these places and cultures; it is immanent to them.

Dr. Crisman provided case studies of how many modern urban practices are far from being new “modes” of urban life, like the use of bicycles or the reinvention of buildings into high-end markets, for instance. Long-standing cultural traditions are being reimagined into new practices. This is the case of street vending, a practice that has resulted in the birth of Uber Eats or the legalization of street vendors in Los Angeles. And it is precisely this knowledge of cultural traditions, urban spaces, and the human condition that provides the humanities with the tools to speculate and reimagine the future.

The talk ended with a round of questions for Dr. Crisman, the announcement of a possible future project for improving bicycle culture in Tucson, and a great selfie moment (below) in which you can appreciate the excellent work that the Playground, the College of Humanities and the sponsors did into turning a night club into an academic space.

I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Crisman in person. I was delighted with the projects he is working on including the study of multilingual cities, as well as with the prospect of a future interview for Urban Cultural Studies.

It is clear that designing urban spaces based on our understanding of the present is a necessity, but how applied humanities can contribute to this and other conversations about our collective future is the very topic of this year’s Humanities Festival: Next.


  • If you would like to learn more about Dr. Jonathan Jae-an Crisman, you can visit his profile at the University of Arizona’s Department of Public and Applied Humanities.
  • If you want to learn more about the Department of Public and Applied Humanities, where Dr. Benjamin Fraser, Chief editor of the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies and this blog is an affiliated faculty member, you can visit their website here.
  • To learn more about other projects from Dr. Crisman and the Urban Humanities team at UCLA, make sure to visit their website here.

Lefebvre on Culture: Sleeping Beauty image

I’m working on a much larger project about Lefebvre and the humanities and came across this quotation embedded in a discussion of Marxism and aesthetic questions:

“It so happens that the word ‘culture’ also evokes a magical image for me, that of Sleeping Beauty. She does not doze on flowers and on fragrant grass but on a thick mattress of texts, quotations, musical scores—and under a vast canopy of books, sociological, semiological, historical and philosophical theses. Then one day the Prince comes; he awakens her and everything around the forest comes to life along with her—poets poetizing, musicians musicking, cooks cooking, lovers loving, and so on. Singers? Songs? Yes, they are a part of culture, yet they must not be considered in isolation but within an ensemble that also includes dance, music, cartoon strips, television, and so forth. Moreover, culture is not merely a static palimpsest of texts, it is lived, active, which is what the fable of the wakened princess suggests to me.”

Take it for what it’s worth, but what I like about this image is how it expresses Lefebvre’s central position on culture–which of course dispenses with the ‘base-superstructure’ model that people like to equate with Marxism more generally (and which Lefebvre contradicts head-on in the Critique of Everyday Life). Not merely do a variety of cultural products form a (complex) ensemble, they also spring to life in that very moment when “Sleeping Beauty’s” “sociological, semiological, historical and philosophical” knowledge is awakened (and not a second later).

Cities in the Graphic Novel

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As I get more and more into Graphic Novels, it seems there is a great opportunity to read them from an urban cultural studies perspective. For example, I have been working with a colleague on an Argentine graphic novel called the Ethernaut (here’s a full page Eternauta FULL PAGE ej) where aliens invade the city of Buenos Aires–various landmarks in the center of the city are a prominent part of the war that ensues (our piece should be published soon in Revista Iberoamericana and references work by Fredric Jameson on science fiction as a ‘spatial genre’–see earlier post).

It seems the same topic of city representation might be relevant to discussion of the series by Jason Lutes (City of Stones, City of Smoke) that takes place in Berlin (also above in image gallery).

Looking forward to hearing if others are interested in graphic novels from an urban perspective…!

Coming Soon: Journal of Urban Cultural Studies

Coming (relatively) soon, with an international publisher:

Journal of Urban Cultural Studies

Launching with its first issue in late-2013 or 2014, the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies is a peer-reviewed publication devoted to research centered on urban themes and cutting across both the humanities and the social sciences. Articles (between 7,000-10,000 words including works cited) should give more or less equal weight to: a) one or more aspects of urban studies (everyday life, built environment, architecture, city planning, identity formation, transportation…) and b) one or more specific forms of cultural (textual) production (literature, film, music, art, graffiti…) in relation to a specific urban space or spaces. The journal is open to studies that deal with culture, urban spaces and forms of urbanized consciousness the world over.

Please contact the editor at urbanculturalstudies@gmail.com.

Train graffiti and the urban


Steven Spalding and I wrote about train graffiti and its relationship to urban process and identity formation for a chapter in the recently published book Trains, Culture and Mobility.

The book had some phenomenal contributors in it: including Alexander Medcalf, who just won an award, congrats!

[the info. below is re-posted from T2M]:

The 2011 winner of the £250 (pounds Sterling) prize is Alexander Medcalf, a PhD student at the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History at the University of York. His submission forms part of his research into the commercial cultures of one of Britain’s best known railway companies in the first half of the twentieth century. The thesis title is “Picturing the Railway Passenger as Customer in Britain: the Great Western Railway, 1903-1939”.