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In the times of COVID-19, one of the many small but crucial things we miss is the opportunity for casual conversation among colleagues, be it at conferences, research seminars, or lunch breaks at work. In light of the current situation, which puts us and other colleagues in the UK and elsewhere in our home offices, we would like to share a conversation about our co-edited volume Urban Microcosms 1789-1940, which is the latest publication in the series imlr books.

Margit: Astrid, I remember that our project began, as so often, with a chat among colleagues, the kind of thing we miss these days. We spoke about our new research projects, and we knew they had quite a bit in common, although in the beginning we could not fully pin down what it was. You have an interest in spa towns, I have an interest in railway stations. Both our topics focused on European literary and cultural history of the 19th century – but that couldn’t be it.

Astrid: No, it wasn’t. And the proximity of spas to stations didn’t really matter either. Instead, both spas and stations appeared to be special places for modern societies: central to urban life, yet sticking out of its fabric, neither closed off from it nor entirely part of it, both principally open to everyone, yet each including a number of semi-public and even private spaces. In the conversations that followed, it also emerged that we both needed to venture beyond our disciplinary comfort-zones in similar ways. We each explored urban studies and cultural sociology, such as by Richard Sennett, Anthony Giddens and Michel Foucault, with the inevitable nod towards the ‘spatial turn’ in the Humanities. This may have been the reason why it seemed natural to collaborate in some way or other. And it did not take long to find the term that focalised our topics: Urban Microcosms.

Victorian train shed at London Paddington station (Photo: Margit Dirscherl)

M: I recall you were the one who came up with this term. Once we had found it, everything else fell into place. We would, with the help of our literary texts and various other artefacts, put city life under a magnifying class, and we would invite others to join us in this endeavour. When we received the responses to our CFP, we could compile an inspiring conference programme that featured a wide variety of microcosms, including phenomena that structured city life, such as the radio, the sound of church bells, town directories, and of course the fascinating Belgian ‘road conferences’. Other papers addressed public and private parks, harbours, department stores, cafés, restaurants, and seaside resorts – although the latter are, like the spas you work on yourself, not located in cities!

Urban expansion of Rotterdam, map by Marcel IJsselstijn and Arnoud de Waaijer (Rutte and Abrahamse, 2014, p. 123) – see Urban Microcosms 1789-1940, p. 74

A: They do, however, feature urban qualities. Of course, working on this new concept was challenging in a number of ways. Colleagues from across the humanities and the social sciences had written to us, and approached their respective ‘microcosms’ in different ways. This is why, when our conference guests arrived, we still weren’t sure whether we would find a solid enough common ground for discussion. After all, it was our aim not only to bring our ideas together, but to work on the shared concept of the ‘urban microcosm’.

M: Eventually, it wasn’t just this core concept we kept addressing, but there were also certain motifs that re-emerged, such as objects which seem to be core-accessories of urban life, like the parasol, at least in the 19th century, or rules and rituals, like the expectation to preserve silence in a museum. In terms of finding common ground, sociological concepts proved to be useful. For example, Richard Sennett’s seemingly simple yet illuminating definition of a city as a place where ‘strangers are likely to meet’ applies to the majority of our ‘microcosms’, in different yet comparable ways.

Édouard Manet, View of the 1867 Exposition Universelle (1867), courtesy of the National Museum, Oslo – Urban Microcosms 1789-1940, p. 15. Note the parasol!
J. Gore, The Liverpool Directory, For the Year 1766… (Liverpool 1766), title page – see Urban Microcosms 1789-1940, p. 180.

A: It was also from our conference discussions that the plans for the book and its subsequent structure emerged. Dividing the microcosms into exterior and interior places seemed straightforward – until we debated to what extent a railway station is an interior and/or an exterior place. We subsumed those microcosms where the relationship between place and space proved rather elusive – such as church bells and radio waves – under the heading ‘discursive spaces’, and finally we devised a separate category for those which are located outside the towns and cities altogether while insisting that they, too, are part of the networks of interconnected nodes spanning city, town and country.

M: Another challenging task was to produce a cover that was commensurate with the contents. Inspired by Paul Klee’s painting “Hauptweg und Nebenwege” (1929), we came up with a design which represents a unity and shimmers a little like a floodlit city, but which, when looked at more closely, is made up of networks of smaller units that relate to each other in a number of ways: colour, shape, proximity, harmony, antagonism. Sometimes paths emerged between these blocks, others came together to form larger structures, others again answered each other across the whole. And at the edges it was always uncertain whether and how far these patterns could continue into the unknown white space beyond. We were lucky to find an artist who exactly understood what we were aiming for.

A: Despite the wide spectrum of urban microcosms explored in the book, we are very aware that their potential number is almost inexhaustible: just think of market squares, river banks or cemeteries, theatres, hotels or brothels, the stairwells in large apartment buildings or indeed the public toilets or urinals! But we hope to have enriched the discourse with a term that is fruitful in that it opens up space for further research.

Margit Dirscherl, Lecturer in German at St Hugh’s, University of Oxford, and Astrid Köhler, Professor of German Literature and Comparative Cultural Studies at Queen Mary University of London

Urban Microcosms 1789-1940, ed. by Margit Dirscherl and Astrid Köhler, 320 pp.