Trivial Pursuits: Literature, Gentrification, and the Politics of Prioritization in Postindustrial Cities

Not all “city scripts” take the form of consciously constructed, effective campaigns with clear references to cultural metaphors and motifs. Especially random depictions of marginal and seemingly irrelevant activities can become culturally dominant because they are unreflected microscripts, that is invisible norms and rules in miniature formats. The project Trivial Pursuits specifically focuses on the everyday, the unconscious, the minor which cultural scripts of the city always include but usually do not critically reflect on. It explores how certain practices, spaces, and individuals can be read through the lens of the “trivial” within fiction set in postindustrial cities.

The interdisciplinarily neglected notion of the trivial, the project suggests, is a productive framework to analyze the (self-)positioning of social actors within urban development. Coffee drinking, gardening, mending or handiwork serve as examples of such socially trivialized activities which in turn also trivialize those pursuing them. By reappropriating (gendered and racialized) pastimes of the nineteenth century, these “trivial pursuits” have turned into decidedly urban activities of the twenty-first century when the “trivial” suddenly gains cultural momentum in regard to gentrification. Such processes inherently shed light on debates revolving around racial displacement, class, and wealth distribution in the United States and Germany. It is the fictional storytelling in literature of the industrial 19th and the postindustrial 21st century that the project finds manifestations of such practices, explores their negotiations, and implications for the depiction of processes of gentrification.

Central research questions of the project are: Which narratives about the urban processes, spaces, and figures connected to these practices of the nineteenth century (re)surface in the twenty-first century and contribute or contradict the trivial as a social and cultural marker? Are these practices exclusively rendered trivial – and by whom –  or are certain configurations differentiated and redeemed as opposed to others? Can “trivial pursuits” be turned meaningful for ongoing narrations of the city and its futurity? The project's trajectory is therefore twofold: I unearth the tradition of “trivial pursuits” in American literary and cultural history and interrogate their affordances within postindustrial spaces of the contemporary moment. The project moreover also suspects the trivial to offer a political tool to counter an urban politics of prioritization (of attention but also resources) which popular culture so convincingly telegraphs.

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