Chronotopic Imaginaries: The City in Signs, Signals, and Scripts

It was the pulpit and the manuscript, the spoken and the written word quailing before the printed word.
– Victor Hugo, Notre Dame de Paris

The ubiquity of today’s connectedness, in addition to the ongoing production, collection, and curation of massive amounts of data, has produced a new textual medium. Made of tweets, posts, messages, chats, etc. (all associated with time, date, and longitude and latitude), this new medium now flows through a pervasive network of computers, tablets, smartphones, PDAs, media players, and GPS navigation units. This “text” needs a new reader, one as critical and perceptive as previous semioticians who interpreted the signs and signals of often equally disruptive literary scripts.

Unimaginable amounts of publicly accessible data reside on the databases of government agencies, corporations, and municipalities, from which a multitude of file formats can be downloaded, read, studied, and interpreted. It is perhaps due to this open access to digitally borne information about the cities we live in that Roland Barthes' maxim, "the city speaks to its inhabitants,” now operates at a much greater scale thanks to digital repositories that are, in fact, treasure troves for scholarly work.

If the humanities are the study and interpretation of the experiences, beliefs, constructs, behaviors, and artifacts associated with human beings—who happen now to be in permanent data mode and unable to move without leaving a digital trace behind—contemporary humanists face the unprecedented possibility of analyzing programming languages much as Ferdinand de Saussure once constructed a linguistic model made of signifiers and signifieds. Insights and solutions from multiple disciplines will inevitably be necessary in order to look at contemporary society and explore not only such phenomena as the “hyper-surveillance” of communication protocols, the “instantaneity” of transactions, the “immateriality” of production, or the “color” of profiling algorithms, but also more esoteric topics such as the “closetedness” of avatars, the “virility” of machines, the “coerciveness” of data validation functions, the “anonymity” of Anonymous, and the “reflexivity” of selfies—not to mention the style, syntax, and rhetoric of algorithmic bias in clouds made of zeros and ones.

As a site for such an investigation, the 2016-17 Rice Seminar proposes to look at specific nodes along a network of contemporary life. These nodes, or intelligent “end-points” able to communicate without hierarchical agency, are the very cities that today aspire to be mega, ideal, sustainable, virtual, smart, or resurgent formations. Interlinked by computers, mobile devices, and real timesensors, these are places where the implicit connectedness of how we ought to live together depends on distributed networks, rules, codes, protocols, and infrastructures, all bound by a paradoxical, if not panopticistic, social contract now located in Cyberia. In such cities, the social fabric continues to collude (and potentially collide) with the very resilience of disciplinary and control societies. The regularity of social or architectural form has, in fact, become far less relevant than the orchestration of the data that a city produces, collects, and curates. The promise of democracy in the connected city is also "always already" contradicted by a strict hierarchy that either structures access to information or that predetermines how (and by whom) the very tools of communication talk to each other. As Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, once put it, there is “one centralized Achilles’ heel” to the Web’s otherwise decentralized system: computers may be free to talk to each other, but only if they abide by given naming conventions. This means that the system can, in theory, be brought to a halt by whomever is in control of a limited number of root name servers, which until recently added up, ominously enough, to the mere number of 13.

In the same way that writers, novelists, theorists, filmmakers, critics, or other humanists once exposed cities—like Victor Hugo with Paris, Thomas Mann with Venice, James Joyce with Dublin, Roland Barthes with Tokyo, John Dos Passos with New York, Naguib Mahfouz with Cairo, Thomas More with Utopia’s Amaurot, Ha Jin with Muji City, Pedro Almodovar with Madrid, Denise Scott Brown with Las Vegas, Daniel Defoe with London, Machado de Assis with Rio de Janeiro, Leo Tolstoy with Moscow, Marguerite Duras with Hiroshima, Assia Djebar with Algiers, Maryse Condé with Pointe-à-Pitre, Ridley Scott with Los Angeles, or Nicole Brossard with Montreal (to name only a few)—so should a new generation of scholars delve into the digital production of the contemporary city. Significantly, this requires examining that which is neither settled nor stable—such as colonization, emigration, exile, contamination, wandering, and even economics—coupled with aleatory compulsions such as greed or longing. Only then can a new writer/reader begin to understand how cities evolve; how their social, political, urban, or even sonoric and olfactory histories are shaped; or how languages, ideas, and identities within them are disseminated.

As Alexander Galloway points out in Protocol, this inevitably poses an epistemological and ontological challenge when information technology insists on fitting data within the positivistic parameters of discrete locations and closed polygons. Humanistic research is, by definition, open ended, not necessarily linear, and most definitely interested in meaning, not proof. Even false data in the humanities is meaningful. The fact, however, that people, goods, and ideas move across urban or geographic space makes something like Geographic Information Systems, for example, extremely useful to humanists who are able to mathematically integrate geometric abstractions of how we live together while transgressing underlying topologies made only of points, lines, polygons, and pixels. A spatial humanist would have to work against the very grain of GIS in order to privilege complexity and ambiguity over authority and certainty or reveal how a computer need not be bound by mutually exclusive categories in its data structures. Room ought to be made for chronotopic imaginaries, for the shifting of scale in both time and space, for selectivity, for simultaneity, all combined with emerging technologies in multimedia, GIS-enabled W3 services, geo-visualization, cyber geography, exploratory spatial data analysis, on-the-fly 3D modeling, and augmented reality.

To read and interpret available streams of code, however, requires “looping together several tastes, several languages,” as Barthes also wrote. Certain long-standing conflicts will need to be addressed, if not resolved, between the functional necessities of cities and the semantic charge of their histories; between the mathematical assimilation of urban form and the evidence that a city is not a fabric of equivalent elements; and between the reality of geography and the instability of meaning, lest we forget that a city is often experienced in complete opposition to objective data and lest we also forget that the meaning and value of quantitative assessments are often cloaked in veils of objectivity when they often add up to no more than forms of obliteration and censorship.

Farès el-Dahdah, Professor, School of Humanities
Melissa Bailar, Professor in the Practice, School of Humanities


Farès el-Dahdah, Professor of the Humanities and Director of the Humanities Research Center
Melissa Bailar, Professor in the Practice and Associate Director of the Humanities Research Center
Carroll Blue, Autrey Visiting Scholar 
Aimee VonBokel, Autrey Visiting Scholar 
Ademide Adelusi-Adeluyi, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
Shannon Dugan Iverson, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
Rex Troumbley, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow
Michael Miller, Graduate Student Fellow
Clint Wilson, Graduate Student Fellow
Magen Eissenstat, Undergarduate Student Fellow


4/20/17 | William Rankin | Assistant Professor of the History of Science, Yale University
The Map, the Grid, and the Politics of Space, 1915–2015
4:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

In the last hundred years, the authority of the representational map has been challenged from multiple directions. On the level of everyday spatial management, the god’s-eye view of the map has been supplemented and displaced by new kinds of coordinate systems that stitch together the urban and the territorial. On the level of spatial imagination, the one-size-fits-all topographic map has been upstaged by new forms of argumentative and activist cartography. This talk addresses both of these turns – the first historically, during World War I and the decades afterward; the second through my own urban mapping work.

Bio: William Rankin is an Assistant Professor of the History of Science at Yale University. His research focuses on the relationship between science and space, from the territorial scale of states and globalization down to the scale of individual buildings. He is particularly interested in mapping, the environmental sciences and technology, architecture and urbanism, and methodological problems of digital scholarship, spatial history, and geographic analysis (including GIS). His first book, After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century, is a history of the mapping sciences in the twentieth century. In addition to his historical work, Rankin is also an award-winning cartographer, and his maps have been published and exhibited widely in the US, Europe, and Asia. Most of this work is available on his Radical Cartography website.

4/10/17 | Franco Moretti | Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University
Patterns and Interpretation
4:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

Digitization has completely changed the literary archive. Historians of the novel used to work on a few hundred nineteenth-century novels; today, we work on thousands of them; tomorrow, hundreds of thousands. This new size has had a major effect on literary history, obviously enough, but also on critical methodology; because, when we work on 200,000 novels instead of 200, we are not doing the same thing, 1,000 times bigger; we are doing a different thing. The new scale changes our relationship to the object of study, and in fact it changes the object itself, by making it entirely abstract. And the question arises: what does it mean to study literature as an abstraction and by means of abstractions? We clearly lose some important aspects of the literary experience. Do we gain anything?

Bio: Franco Moretti is the Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature in the Department of English at Stanford University, where he also founded the Center for the Study of the Novel and the Literary Lab. Moretti is the author of several prominent books including Signs Taken for Wonders (1983), The Way of the World (1987), Modern Epic (1995), Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900 (1998), Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005), The Bourgeois (2013), and Distant Reading (2013). Moretti is also chief editor of The Novel (2006) and also contributes regularly to New Left Review. Moretti's works have been translated into over twenty languages and his recent work is notable for incorporating quantitative methods from the social sciences into domains that have traditionally belonged to the humanities.

3/21/17 | Colson Whitehead |  New York Times Bestselling Author and Recipient of the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction
On The Colossus of New York and The Underground Railroad
6:30pm, St. Paul's United Methodist Church 
Open to the Public, Registration Required

Colson Whitehead has established himself as one of the most versatile and innovative writers in contemporary literature. From the secret lives of elevators to international poker tournaments, Whitehead takes on the marginal, the strange, and the surreal. Whitehead will speak about his latest New York Times bestselling , The Underground Railroadwhich also won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and was selected for Oprah's Book Club 2016, and his nonfiction study of urban landscapes The Colossus of New York.

Bio: Colson Whitehead is the New York Times bestselling author of The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, The Colossus of New York, Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One, and The Noble Hustle. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Harper’s, and Granta among other publications. A Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, he is the recipient of both a MacArthur Fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has taught at universities across the country.

03/09/17 | Saskia Sassen | Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University
Who Owns the City?
4:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

This presentation engages some of the commonly used markers to identify the city and its transformations. I argue that the familiar terms of gentrification and density are not quite useful in capturing what is happening today in a growing number of cities worldwide. To take just this past year, from mid-2014 to mid 2015, over a trillion US dollars was invested in buying (not building) properties in 100 major cities across the world; these numbers include only properties priced at over $5million and exclude investments in urban development/new construction. Gentrification does not quite capture this new phase, nor does it quite capture the fact that, for example, the Qatari Royals now own more of central London than does the British Queen. Nor does density quite work today as the identifier of cities it once was. The massive corporate buying and build up of pieces of our cities threatens the urbanity of a city: a vast concentration of high-rise buildings used to be a strong marker of a city. But today it may actually be signaling a vast privately controlled megaproject in the heart of a city. Thus density of this sort may actually have the effect of de-urbanizing cities even as it raises their density. Density by itself is no longer a good indicator of urbanity. The corporate buying of vast stretches of city centers along with the expanded footprint of privately controlled mega projects brings with it a de-urbanizing of the center of these cities. My concern is not with the issue of foreign versus national investments, nor is it with high-rise buildings per se, including a significant concentration of them. It is with something I call “cityness.” And one key element of cityness is precisely the sense that nobody can own it, that no matter hos much private ownership of buildings and housing, the city is a complex but open system. The city as cityness belongs to all and to no one. In that sense then also, a second key marker for cityness in my work is that the city is a place where even those without power get to make a history, an economy, a culture.

Bio: Saskia Sassen is the Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology and Chair, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University ( She is the author of several books and the recipient of diverse awards and mentions, ranging from multiple doctor honoris causa to named lectures and being selected for various honors lists. Her new book is Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Econom. (Harvard University Press 2014)


03/02/17 | Alen Carroll | Program Manager of Storytelling
Smart City Geo-Imaginaries: How maps and GIS are Spurring a Nascent Urban Nervous System
4:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

The early days of the digital revolution saw the conversion of analog city maps to multi-layered digital geodatabases which, powered by geographic information systems (GIS), enabled cadres of networked professionals to manage urban infrastructures. A new revolution is distributing urban data to vastly wider audiences, enabling citizens as active mappers, expanding the language of urban discourse, and making possible a new urban nervous system. Two related phenomena are fueling this revolution: Story Maps enable GIS professionals to interpret their data for non-specialists and empower non-specialists to use maps to tell stories. An open data movement is evolving into “Hubs”, where “smart cities” not only emancipate their data but encourage and support a sprawling neural network of developers, entrepreneurs, community activists, and citizens. Please complete your registration. All lectures are free and open to the public but sitting is limited. 


Allen Carroll is Program Manager for Storytelling at Esri. He leads Esri’s Story Maps team, which develops open-source web apps that enable thousands of individuals and organizations to tell place-based stories combining interactive maps and multimedia content. The team also develops its own story maps, prototyping innovative user experiences and demonstrating best practices for map-enabled storytelling. The team’s website is at Allen came to Esri after 27 years at the National Geographic Society. As chief cartographer at NGS, he was deeply involved in the creation of the Society’s renowned reference and wall maps, globes, and atlases. He led the creation of the Seventh and Eighth editions of the World Atlas, incorporating satellite imagery and innovative thematic maps into the editions and integrating them for the first time with interactive Web resources. He spearheaded the publication of many new maps and Web resources, ranging from decorative wall maps and supplement maps for National Geographic magazine to special projects featuring biodiversity, conservation, and indigenous cultures. He is a former member of the National Geospatial Advisory Committee.

02/16/2017 | David Golumbia | Professor of New Media, Virginia Commonwealth University
Cyberlibertarianism: The Default Ideology of the Digital
4:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

Cyberlibertarianism continues to be a particularly helpful critical concept to apply in understanding digital politics. Routinely misunderstood to refer to a combination of explicitly libertarian politics with enthusiasm for digital technology, the term was developed by writers and scholars such as Langdon Winner, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, and Paulina Borsook, to help mark out the many ways in which right-wing political and social assumptions infiltrate into all parts of the digital world. Too frequently, these assumptions are taken up by digital enthusiasts who may be largely unaware of their political genealogies and entailments. Despite the strength of the critique mounted against them, cyberlibertarian foundations structure public and academic debates around issues as apparently diverse as surveillance, open source, open access, bitcoin and blockchain, “internet freedom,” “net neutrality,” online anonymity, encryption, and many others. The absence of a firm understanding of the nature and influence of cyberlibertarian ideas makes substantive debate about these topics more difficult than it should be, which is particularly ironic given both the subject matter and the ubiquitous cyberlibertarian claim that our era can be characterized by a dramatic reinvigoration of the public sphere. Please complete your registration. All lectures are free and open to the public but sitting is limited. 


11/3/16 | Carlo Ratti | Professor of the Practice and Director of the SENSEable City Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
SENSEable Cities
5:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

The increasing deployment of sensors and hand-held electronics in recent years is allowing a new approach to the study of the built environment. The way we describe and understand cities is being radically transformed - alongside the tools we use to design them and impact on their physical structure. The contribution from Prof. Carlo Ratti will address these issues from a critical point of view through projects by the Senseable City Laboratory, a research initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the design office Carlo Ratti Associati.

Bio: An architect and engineer by training, Carlo Ratti practices in Italy and teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directs the Senseable City Lab. He graduated from the Politecnico di Torino and the École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris, and later earned his MPhil and PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK. Ratti has co-authored over 200 publications and holds several patents. His work has been exhibited worldwide at venues such as the Venice Biennale, the Design Museum Barcelona, the Science Museum in London, GAFTA in San Francisco and The Museum of Modern Art in New York. His Digital Water Pavilion at the 2008 World Expo was hailed by Time Magazine as one of the Best Inventions of the Year. He has been included in Esquire Magazine’s Best and Brightest list, in Blueprint Magazine’s 25 People who will Change the World of Design and in Forbes Magazine’s People you need to know in 2011. Ratti was a presenter at TED 2011 and is serving as a member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Urban Management. He is a regular contributor to the architecture magazine Domus and the Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. He has also written as an op-ed contributor for BBC, La Stampa, Scientific American and The New York Times. 

11/10/16 | Sarah Williams | Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and Director of the Civic Data Design Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Data for a Public Good
4:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

Big data will not change the world unless it is collected any synthesized into tools that have a public benefit. In this talk Sarah Williams will illustrate projects from her research lab, the Civic Data Design Lab @ MIT, that have transformed data into visualizations that have had an effect on policy reform. From her work on the Digital Matatus project in Nairobi Kenya, where she created the first map of the informal transit system to her work on in on measuring Air Quality in Beijing, to more recent work investigating the Ghost Cities in China. Williams will show how collecting data, visualizing it, and opening up to anyone to use can leverage the power of data to create real policy change.  

Bio: Sarah Williams is currently an Assistant Professor of Urban Planning and the Director of the Civic Data Design Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) School of Architecture and Planning School. The Civic Data Design Lab works with data, maps, and mobile technologies to develop interactive design and communication strategies that bring urban policy issues to broader audiences.  Trained as a Geographer (Clark University), Landscape Architect (University of Pennsylvania), and Urban Planner (MIT), her work combines geographic analysis and design. Her design work has been widely exhibited including work in the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Before coming to MIT, Williams was Co-Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). Williams has won numerous awards including being named top 25 planners in the technology and 2012 Game Changer by Metropolis Magazine. Her work is currently on view in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.

11/17/16 | Pablo Lorenzo-Eiroa | Associate Professor Adjunct at the School of Architecture, The Cooper Union
Rezoning New York City through Big Data​
4:00 pm, Humanities 115
Open to the Public, Registration Required

Computation became a cognitive plateau for any subject of study, making computer science relevant across all disciplines. New technologies enable new means to describe reality, which as a consequence, activate new emerging disciplines. Digital signs represent information, and in linguistic terms, they determinate how we understand and reference reality. For instance, ecology has transformed many disciplines, but one of the most relevant displacements today has been the representational shift activated by computation in formalizing fluid dynamic simulation and processing Big Data. New digital techniques allow, for instance architects, to represent, analyze and manipulate fluid dynamic energy understanding now space as environment. Big data allow us to process large sources of information apparently before framing categorically what’s under question. But since information does not exists without a form of representation, the critical political issue resides in the relationship between data and representation, since Big Data is created through basic formulations in interfaces which gather fields of data using problematic schematic categories. Additionally. the moment any data is actualized, visualized and represented through an interface into manageable information, it will infer signification beyond its source and will challenge the same data it is indexing, activating a reflective loop between the politics of representation and an apparently inert reality. These issues will be discussed through the work of an architecture studio which proposes a rezoning of New York City in relation to environmental forces.

Bio: Pablo teaches digital representation for both the undergraduate and graduate programs and is the Director of a Digital Representation and Fabrication Program (CE). Lorenzo-Eiroa is the Design Principal of e-Architects | eiroa Architects. Through e-Architects, he is integrating theoretical speculation and disciplinary expertise in different associations, with work ranging from academic research, to scholarships and publications, to architectural design via private and state commissions in New York City and Buenos Aires. Working with continuous and discontinuous signs of information, through different media-based interfaces, his research focuses on questioning assumed cultural structures. His work focuses on recognizing and displacing stable spatial organizations through topological transformations to overcome predetermination. Implementing these strategies, his designs aim to critique the apparent opposition between conceptual relationships and physical and mediated affection. e-Architects' projects have been presented and published in a variety of media. Its mixed-use building proposal for the World Trade Center was part of the Thinking Big initiative by the New York Times which included Eisenman, Koolhaas, Hadid, Meier among others.