The Suburban Imaginary: Ambivalence, Strangeness, and the Everyday in Contemporary Representations of the Suburb

  • Author / Creator
    Park, Ondine
  • This thesis is about the suburban imaginary. It is concerned with the way the suburb is imagined and what insights this imaginary might enable. It offers a definition of the suburban imaginary as being a culturally and historically located set of meanings, expectations, images, and ideas about the suburb that is dialectically shared and formed in the popular imagination, particularly through cultural mediation. The suburban imaginary is a social production. Moreover, like all "places", the suburb is a social spatialization—an on-going social production of space. As such, this thesis argues that while the suburb is in part defined and conditioned by its materiality and the way it is enlivened by those who dwell in, traverse through, or otherwise make use of it, it also always-already exceeds and is exceeded by this materiality, embodiment, and enactment. It also consists in such immaterialities as the imaginary. This imaginary can include repressive and conservative ways in which the suburb is imagined as delimited but also includes, or potentially includes, a radical and utopian imaginary—a possibility that the suburb can mean, can be, or can make be something wholly otherwise. The suburb is dialectically produced through the reciprocal interaction of the material and lived elements with the suburban imaginary. This thesis explores the ways the suburban imaginary figures in diverse contemporary cultural mediations. It considers both a variety and a profusion of creative works as cultural evocations of the suburban imaginary. Part One looks at popular culture. In surveying popular cultural representations, a persisting dominant operative imaginary of the suburb is legible. However, this dominant imaginary is rife with many deep ambivalences about whether it is good or bad; whether it can be understood as a spatialization of happiness and the site of the good life; and, whether it is ordinary or strange. Part Two turns to gallery-exhibited visual works of art. Artworks about the suburb help to undo and offer a critique of the obviousness of the dominant suburban imaginary by exposing and playing with key assumptions. An oft-recurring trope legible in this art is that the suburb expresses a categorical, serial separation of spaces, which are imagined to be characterized by different functions, meanings and affective registers. One such defining separation is between interiority and exteriority. The suburban exterior figures as an anaesthetic site of insecurity, asociality, and unwelcome. Complementing this, the suburban interior figures as a guarded site for the creation and maintenance of the private individual, predicated on withdrawal and introversion. In illuminating these tropes, suburban artwork reveal the interior and exterior to be fictions that cannot be maintained. Instead, qualities of interiority and exteriority detach from the spatializations of the interior and the exterior. These disconnected qualities create paradoxical spatializations. Interiorities in exteriors; exteriorities in interiors. Finally, Part Three considers minor forms of popular culture in the form of picture books for both children and for adults (graphic novels). Minor popular creative works can offer alternative ways of reading and imagining the suburb by presenting the suburb as a curious site. They are experimental about what the peculiarities of the suburban landscape or suburban identity makes possible. In doing so, they imbue the suburban imaginary with promise and potency. In some of these works, the suburb promises that desires for the good, happy, well-placed life can be realized not as a deferred dream or ideological aspiration but as fully actualized, non-alienated everyday life. In other works, the suburb is imagined as replete with potential to be open to creative engagements and even radically liberatory intervention, subverting normative suburban imaginaries and thereby re-imagining the suburb as the spatializations of liberatory desire. By moving beyond the dominant suburban imaginary and recognizing the suburb as a place of possibility and unpredictability, these works re-enchant the suburb revealing its strangeness and mysterious potency and offer a meditation on how the suburb might be thought and lived otherwise. Animated in particular by the contradictions, complexities, and paradoxes of the suburban imaginary, this thesis explores the problematics, possibilities, and promises that become imaginable and activated in the opening created by the pause of curious looking.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2014
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
  • Language
  • Institution
    University of Alberta
  • Degree level
  • Department
  • Supervisor / co-supervisor and their department(s)
  • Examining committee members and their departments
    • Mookerjea, Sourayan (Sociology)
    • Siemens, Elena (Modern Languages and Cultural Studies)
    • Straw, Will (Art History and Communications Studies)
    • Milbrandt, Tara (Social Sciences)