Contingent creativity of the displaced between urban and epigenetic plasticity – Off The Lip Conference 2017


In a paper presented for Off The Lip 2017 Conference, I discussed how the challenges faced by the displaced through protracted drifting and the spatial disruption to their daily lives can stimulate the emergence of new patterns of creative thinking that are specific to spatial problem-solving. I brought evidence from psychological experiments to support this claim. I then suggested that these challenges contribute to the generation of new urban centres through the process of spatial problem solving that could be inherited through generations who will arguably have advanced spatial problem solving skills. Up until this point, this research has been developed for a chapter in a book which will be published later in 2018 ‘Urban creativity through displacement and spatial disruption’. In: Routledge Handbook of Henri Lefebvre, the City and Urban Society, Leary-Owhin, M. and McCarthy, J. (eds.), London: Routledge. But in the paper for the conference, I extend the relationship between the concept of the urban and epigenetics, suggesting that there is an impact that can be traced through the plasticity of epigenetics on the concept of the urban.

We know that the concept of the urban as a fixed and bounded territory or settlement has been repeatedly challenged and contested by urban theorists such as Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid. Sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre asserts that the plasticity of the term ‘urban’ is embedded in its characteristic of being located at the conjuncture of networks of production of space and society, thus inferring that any point in this network can become the centre of urban space-time. So there is an idiosyncratic plasticity of the urban as a concept which allows for other centres to emerge not only within cities but also on their margins and elsewhere. This confirms that the production of the urban as a concept stretches to new societal centres and networks existing on the peripheries – at borders, in camps and deserts, across the sea or in the virtual world. The urban is everywhere.

The importance of the field of epigenetics lies in its emphasis on the dialectic relationship between human existence and their surrounding environments by allowing for mutability, adaptability and reformation in response to experiences in the environment. This is the essence of its plasticity, not to be confused with flexibility nor elasticity as these conditions imply a reactive rather than a proactive or active agency within the brain and/or the environment. Check the work of philosopher and anthropologist Catherine Malabou for further input on this subject. This plasticity facilitates a further argument that extends the influence of the new spatial problem-solving tools from the spatial dimension (environment/urban) to the social dimension (through heredity) whereby the environment becomes an active agent that is no longer static.

Conditions of protracted drifting and displacement impose an element of openness and continuous disruption on space and social existence, yielding the potential for new creative possibilities. By focusing on this specific creative agency of the displaced, an argument emerges in which spatial disruptions to the mobility of the displaced generate new urban centres through the process of spatial problem solving that are transmitted to later generations who will arguably have advanced spatial problem solving skills. This means that migration, mobility and drifting are processes that are instrumental for urban renewal, spatial design and urban planning; these disciplines could be facilitated and enhanced by a greater understanding of the creative drifting of refugees and migrants. Likewise, policymakers, governments and host communities would benefit greatly from this alternative insight into the creative agency of the displaced.


All intellectual rights reserved, Sana Murrani 2017.

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