A little over a year ago, the 19th Annual Graduate Student Conference in Comparative Literature, Hispanic Studies, and Theory & Criticism took place at Western University. The Scattered Pelican is proud to present this short collection of the best papers that were delivered at the 2017 conference. The essays you will discover in the following pages span a wide geographical range from the American Mid-West to the deserts of the Middle-East and an equally wide range of thorny issues from transphobia to race relations. Nevertheless, all of them are united by the overarching themes of toxicity and urban life – cleverly joined together as toxic/cities – in various ways that reflect just how much of our modern world is focused on cities and their inhabitants.
According to a UN data booklet entitled The World’s Cities in 2016, over half the population of the world lives in urban settlements. By 2030, the same booklet estimates that a third of the global population will be found in cities of a least half a million inhabitants (p. ii). By contrast, according to the Population Reference Bureau, “in 1800, only 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1900, almost 14 percent were urbanites, although only 12 cities had 1 million or more inhabitants. In 1950, 30 percent of the world’s population resided in urban centers” From a tiny minority, cities became the dominant form of human social organization in the span of two centuries – a nanosecond in the history of the universe. No wonder that the phrase “urban sprawl” has become so popular; no other word qualifies so well the blindingly fast expansion of cities across the globe. Earth may not yet be a planet-wide city, but with 70% of the global population expected to live in urban centers by 2050 (again according to the Population Reference Bureau), we seem to be headed that way.
As cities grow in both height and breadth, threatening to pave over fields and blot out the sun, so does the fear that, as the original Call for Papers puts it, the city, which was historically “considered a place of civilization, modernity, opportunity” may in fact have become “a site of exploitation, excretion, and contamination.” The concern over the dark side of modern cities is not new, of course, and can be found in both popular and literary culture since the first industrial revolution in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, as the demographic statistics previously cited show, urban growth has accelerated exponentially in the last two centuries. Consequently, the problem of toxic/cities is more relevant to cultural scholars than ever before.
The setting of the conference in a city called London strikes me a deeply appropriate. After all, the original London is in the Western imaginary the quintessential example of the toxic city. The popular image of Victorian London is that of a depressing industrial hellscape riddled with poverty, covered in thick billowing smoke, drenched in acid rains, and haunted by violent criminals. This image may be hyperbolic, but London remains a very potent and recognizable symbol of all that is soul-crushing in an urban and industrial center. Of course, London, Ontario is nowhere as toxic as its namesake (nor, for that matter, is the current London, UK). The eleventh largest metropolitan area in Canada nevertheless brings the comparison on itself through a toponymy that tries its best to emulate the British metropolis. I can therefore think of no place better suited for this issue of The Scattered Pelican to come from than a North American imitation of “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” (Doyle 4).
Take this issue, then, not only as a collection of powerful, illuminating essays on timely concerns but also as a new reflection of old concerns about Western urban culture. On behalf on my entire editorial team, I wish you the best of luck on your trip through the darks recesses of our current urbanized age, an age this issue’s keynote contribution describes as “the age of the greatest toxicity, in which virtue is nary to be found and in which virulence abounds.”
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “A Study in Scarlet.” A Treasury of Sherlock Holmes, selected by Adrian Conan Doyle, Doubleday, 1955, pp. 3-92.
Population Reference Bureau. “Human Population: Urbanization.” PRB.org. http://www.prb.org/Publications/Lesson-Plans/Human Population/Urbanization.aspx. Accessed 27 Feb. 2018.
United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The World Cities in 2016. United Nations, 2016. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/urbanization/the_worlds_cities_in_2016_data_booklet.pdf. Accessed 27 Feb. 2018.