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School of Geography

Urban Emotions: A Symposium on Stress and the City

21 March 2012

Time: 2:30 - 6:00pm
Venue: G.O. Jones, room 602, QMUL

The city has long been held up as a kind of psychopathological miasma. From the urban hypochondria identified by George Cheyne in The English Malady (1733) through to the theories of alienation and anomie advanced by Emile Durkheim, Walter Benjamin and Louis Wirth, the speed and stress of city life is seen as exhausting psychological resources and undermining mental health.  In 2011 Canadian and German neuroscientists claimed to have demonstrated the overstimulation of the amygdala in city dwellers led to long term changes brain function.

In this workshop, co-organised by QMUL’s City Centre and Centre for the History of the Emotions, Felicity Callard, James Mansell and Edmund Ramsden will interrogate the apparent connections between urbanism and psychopathology and consider the theories and techniques that have been deployed to make these forces visible.  Organisers and chairs: Rhodri Hayward (Centre for the History of Emotions) and David Pinder (School of Geography and the City Centre)

All welcome.

James Mansell (Nottingham), ‘Londonitis’: noise and nervousness in early twentieth-century London
What was the relationship between the experience of urban noise and popular constructions of 'nervousness' in early twentieth-century culture?  Organisations such as the Anti-Noise League (established in 1933) took it for granted that noise was the cause of 'nervous exhaustion' in London's population (a condition labelled 'Londonitis' by medical writer Edwin Ash) and successfully lobbied for all kinds of new legislation to control the urban soundscape. Emerging between somatic and psychological explanations for nervous illness, the early twentieth-century medicalisation of urban noise relied upon a hybridisation of the two. This paper examines popular psychological writings in order to explain why noise, often as a metaphor for modernity itself, came to be considered such a significant threat to twentieth-century urbanism.

Edmund Ramsden (Manchester), Coping with the ‘whirl of the crowd’: animal models and model cities in the twentieth-century United States
The study of population dynamics by animal ecologists and ethologists helped generate considerable interest in the problem of crowding stress among social and medical scientists and the design and planning professions. Most notable were a series of experiments on rats and mice carried out by John B. Calhoun at the National Institute of Mental Health from 1956-1986. In 1962, Calhoun published a particularly influential paper that identified a series of “social pathologies” that resulted from increased population density, such as violence, withdrawal and sexual deviance. The paper will explore how Calhoun’s work was used to express fears of, and solutions for, the damaging effects of the American city on social behaviour and psychosocial wellbeing. However, in spite of its influence, Calhoun’s rats also served as a focal point for growing opposition to the attempts to resolve urban problems regarding mental health and social deviancy through the planning and design of physical spaces.

Felicity Callard (MPIWG, Berlin and Durham), Where did the city go? Donald Klein, panic disorder, and the rethinking of agoraphobia

When agoraphobia emerged as a named condition in the early 1870s, discussions regarding its phenomenology and aetiology intimately engaged the question of urban modernity. Both in pre-psychoanalytic and psychoanalytic formulations of agoraphobia, for example, the spatial form of the city – its architecture, its socio-spatial relations, its materialization of a ‘public sphere’ – were central to accounts of what agoraphobia was, whence it arose, and how it might be combated. But after the Second World War, psychiatrists and psychologists’ investigations of agoraphobic anxiety tended to result in the city falling away as a central analytical term. In various models that attempted to account for pathological anxiety that limited individuals’ ability to move freely in their daily lives, the city appeared as a kind of backdrop – if it appeared at all. In this paper, I address the formulations of the American psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist Donald Klein, whose influential research on panic disorder (which he started in the 1950s and continues to this day) exemplifies this turn away from the city. His conceptualizations of pathological anxiety served to install a very different model of the articulation between subject, pathological emotion and socio-spatial word, a model that has had – through its consolidation in American psychiatric nosology – a significant influence on today’s Anglo-American discourses concerning anxiety and public space.   

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