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Past Projects


The Kahn Institute has sponsored, and continues to support in a variety of ways, numerous yearlong projects:

Regarding Images
In virtually every field, images have a complex resonance. Within scientific and documentary traditions, certain images may be created or utilized as neutral bearers of information, but in what ways do these same images onceal or limit understanding? What can studies of human culture and society tell us of the human use of images, and how do cultural and social forces impact the way that meaning is experienced? Do spontaneous images differ in kind from those that are composed or planned, or can the circumstances of production matter in some other way? Artists and media producers create images whose essence likes in the varied psychic, emotional, and cerebral responses of the viewer. Certain artists are interested in the phenomenology of images, while others may be more invested in the semiotic content. Within different areas of study, what are the points of convergence between disparate approaches to the image? How can images created for one purpose shape our very memories and beliefs in other unforeseen and unintended ways?

Placing Space
Space surrounds us. Space fills us. We shape space and it shapes us. We inhabit it, map it, create it, imagine it. Dancers move across space, writers describe it, engineers design it, and physicists define it. The agoraphobic feel threatened by too much of it, the claustrophobic too little. The conceptual status of space differs across disciplines as well as across different kinds of discourses and modes of representation. But is space real? Is it a physical entity or a symbolic one? Is it absolute or relational? In this project, we are interested in exploring the place of space in the broadest range of disciplines. Our intention is to open space up to inquiry, recognizing the ways that space can seem simultaneously restricted and boundless, ordered and chaotic; the way it can extend across vast reaches of the universe, or be localized to a home, a room, a grave.

Mothers & Others: Reproduction, Representation and the Body Politic
The biological exercise of motherhood relies on the female body and its ability and/or willingness to turn itself over to the tasks of gestation and birth, and to the post-partum sustenance of infants through lactation. It is a reproductive process that human societies have conferred with powerful meanings—even when the subjects are other mammals, such as rodents and primates that predominate in natural science studies of maternity. Motherhood includes the symbolic construction of maternity as a virtual archetype of natural beauty in its pure state. But the functions of motherhood in human societies are neither purely "natural" nor purely a thing of beauty. While motherhood can be deeply satisfying, it often comes at a high biological and personal cost, from the temporary stress upon the physiological system to permanent physical or psychological damage. This project juxtaposed representations of actual and mythic mothers in different mediums, in different societies, and in different historical periods to contextualize the cultural undercurrents that produce both commonalities and differences.

Altering Bodies & Minds
Throughout history and in virtually every culture, people have sought ways to alter their bodies and their minds to achieve improved performance. Innovative training regimens and nutritional methods to enhance athletic performance in sports competitions are constantly in development. New drugs and pedagogical methods are regularly introduced to refine concentration and improve educational outcomes. Novel psychotherapeutic techniques and pharmaceutical interventions are continuously researched, tested, and prescribed in an effort to enable individuals to function more effectively in their daily lives. This semester-long project applied diverse disciplinary perspectives to the investigation of efforts to alter minds and bodies in our society.

What is “evil”? Philosophers and saints, politicians and scientists have long grappled with the concept of evil. Some locate its origin in sin, others in our genes. For some it arises from ignorance, for others from resentment, and still others doubt whether it even exists at all. It is a vexing concept, one that has always fascinated and repulsed. The notion of evil has played a formative role in the varied cultures around the world and has had a tangible impact on the way societies interact with one another. This project explored the concept of evil and the practices of its invocation and reception, and examined and tried to determine the functions evil serves in various systems, actions, and interactions.

Renaissances: A Multiplicity of Rebirths
From Dublin to Calcutta, from Harlem to Ulan Bator, the term “renaissance,” or some variant thereof, has been used in distinct and intellectually stimulating ways. This term, always recalling—despite enormous differences in detail—the European Renaissance from 1420 to the 1600s, is used both to celebrate cultural recovery and assertion and to challenge regimes of power. This project considered the concept of "renaissance" as a process of change that involves broad social, scientific, economic, cultural and philosophical transformations of a society and its traditions in confrontation with modernity.

Why Educate Women? Global Perspectives on Equal Opportunity
Why educate women? What might appear to be a rhetorical question wass, instead, the starting point for our proposed cross-cultural examination of women’s ongoing struggle to become literate, educated participants in the societies into which they were born. The project initiated an interdisciplinary discussion of the rationales offered for efforts to expand, restrict, or redefine educational opportunities for women and it engaged scholars from throughout the Five Colleges, the United States, and the world.

Telling Time: Its Meaning and Measurement
Time matters, and in ways that we are not always fully conscious of. This project explored the definition, determination, meaning, and significance of time and examined the ways that temporal and temporality shape materials, events, and processes, as well as how people perceive, analyze, and create discourses using time and temporality. The general aim of the project wasto understand both the effects of time on things and the implications of the temporal dimension for our ways of seeing and interpreting the world and our place in it.

Wellness & Disease
This project considered the presence of illness and disease in our history, our culture, and our social arrangements, as well as in our mental constructions. It viewed disease not only in epidemiological terms, but also in the ways that it insinuates itself in our psyche, our cultural imagination, and our institutions, and it looked at how we have come to habituate ourselves to it.

Deceit: The Uses of Transparency and Concealment
Deceit, hypocrisy, and concealment are widespread practices that both sustain and undermine human relationships and social order. How has the play of deceit and revelation been represented in art and literature? How have they been manifested in historical contexts? How do different cultures handle deceitful practices? This project explored the tensions between deceit and truthfulness, between concealment and transparency, in a variety of contexts.

A Festival of Disorder
Toward the end of the twentieth century, scientists in many fields discovered that ‘disorder’ isn’t random; it’s a maze of subtle patterns with revolutionary implications. Disorder can be both illuminating and courageous.  Change—social, artistic, scientific—is fueled by disorder, by distrusting and defying received and perceived patterns.  This “Festival of Disorder” turned order upside down as participants probed the vast order/disorder spectrum.

Sustainable Houses, Homes and Communities
Examined how and why we as human beings continue to draw materials from the natural environment to build and maintain the structures we inhabit, knowing that these materials will not last forever. Can a house that is sustainable in environmental terms also be an emotionally sustaining, life-producing "home" for its inhabitants?

Undergrounds Underworlds
The creation of underworlds into which characters descend and the use of undergrounds in which revolutions are hatched have held meaning across wide spans of geographical and cultural space, and in every historical period. This project considered what occurs in the underworlds of mythology, ritual and poetry, as well as in undergrounds of subterranean space.

Marriage and Divorce
Examined how intimate relationships are defined and regulated by political and religious authorities and explored the changing meanings and practices of marriage and divorce in different societies and cultures, both past and present.

Narrative : Identity
Investigated our capacity as storytellers to translate ourselves and our experiences to others and to translate the experience of others in terms of our own experience.

City Lives and City Life
An examination of the relationship of environment and landscape to cultural and aesthetic production in a variety of modern urban contexts.

Form and Function
Sought to discover a proper understanding of the relationship between the "forms" under study and the "functions" they perform.

Biotechnology and World Health
Explored how the application of cellular and molecular biology to the solution of practical health problems is transforming our lives in the 21st century.

Visual Languages
An exploration of the multiple roles of imagery in communication, in literacy, in the preservation, transmission, translation, and growth of knowledge, and in thought itself.

Problems of Democracy
An examination of the ideal "democracy" -- self-government by the people who comprise a community.

TransBuddhism: Transmission, Translation, and Transformation
Attempted to discern just how Buddhism has changed and been changed by the societies into which it has been introduced.

The Question of Reparations: The U.S. Context
Sought to determine whether racial minorities in the United States are due compensation, and in what form, for injustices endured before, during and after slavery.

Other Europes / Europe's Others
Reconsidered Europe both as a concept and as a historical reality constituted by plural identities, bringing the broad gamut of experiences of immigrants, women, minority cultures and religions to the foreground.

Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Ancient and Modern Worlds
Questioned the patterns of thought and behavior generated by various world religions and what happens when the realities that these religions construct for their adherents collide.

The Anatomy of Exile
Investigated the causes and consequences of forced migration, the dependency of the dispossessed, the sociology of alienation and the politics and morality of refugee policies.

From Local to Global: Community Activism in the New Millennium
Examined activism in two convergent contexts - community activism in the United States and activism arising from disputes over "borders."

Star Messenger: Galileo at the Millennium
Examined the interconnections of art, science, and ethics in the Renaissance and today.

Exploring the Ecologies of Childhood
Studied the impact of public policies and various living and learning environments on the social development of children.


Hiraeth, Saudade, and the Concept of Longing, 2013

Plague: Past, Present and Future, 2012

Whose Community? Whose Academy?, 2012

Excavating the Image: The Birth of RMB City, 2012

Excavating the Image: Pennsylvania Excavation, 2011

The Making and Meaning of Dress, 2011

The Mill River Greenway Initiative: A Collaborative Project, 2011

Beyond Human Intelligence: The Possibility of Technological Singularity, 2010

Liquid Worlds, 2010

Neilson-Kahn Seminar: Ecological Democracy, 2010

Immigration, Nativism, and the 'Limits of Tolerance', 2010

Music and Science, 2009

Reinventing Eurasian Identities, 2009

How Useful Is The Science of Learning, 2009

The Aesthetics of Data and Its Analysis, 2008

Translating, Perserving, and Promoting Minority Languages, 2008

Portraying Scientific Discovery, 2008

The Nature and Uses of Memory, 2008

Open Labs / Open Studios, 2007

The Meaning of Matter, 2007, explored the interpretation of material things. It probed ways of understanding the vast sediment of concrete objects, past and present, in the broadest sense: everyday stuff and artistic creations, bodies and food, totemic and disposable goods, and scientific objects.

Pierre Bourdieu: Research, Representation and Commitment, 2007, delved into the relationship between Algeria and the work of Pierre Bourdieu, seeking to understand whether, how, and to what extent the specificity and originality of Bourdieu's conceptual apparatus was shaped by his encounter with the Algeria of the 1950's.

South vs. North: In the World and in the Imagination, 2007, provided an opportunity for a scholarly dialogue on the relationship between south and north across geographic settings and across a broad range of disciplines, including history, anthropology, visual arts, literature, landscape studies, geography, and sociology.

Empires in Discourse and Practice, 2005-06. The first part of the project identified key questions and theoretical problems that stem from the use of "empire" as a descriptive label and as an analytical category. The second meeting addressed the theory and practice of empire, including how the "West" has sought to explain its empire to itself and how it came to dominate so much of the world, as well as the consequences of the erosion of that domination.

Spin and Revolution, 2005, explored whether a vibrant public relations industry ensures that citizens exercise their first amendment right to "petition the government for redress of grievances," or has limited rational argument by manipulating emotions to secure conformity and social stability.

Life-Writing Through Difference: Exploring the Right to Write, 2004, participants in this two-part workshop explored theories of life-writing focusing on questions regarding form, methodology, and terminology.

Marriage and Divorce: Culture, Law and the State, 2004, investigated some of the meanings of marriage and divorce, and how states have sought to regulate them as civil and religious practices.

Diaspora-as-Object in Contemporary Visual Culture, 2003, examined, through works of African artists, the notions of diaspora as "objects" of inquiry rather than "places" from which to subjectively speak, act, represent or know.

Who is Buddha? Understanding Buddhahood Past and Present, 2003, a series of colloquia which culminated in a public conference, focused on the philosophical and historical dilemmas of just what a Buddha actually is.

Buddhism and the West, 2002, (which developed into the long-term project on TransBuddhism) sought to identify the complex webs of interaction that have existed between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, as well as within various Buddhist traditions, in both the modern and the post-modern world.

The Sensual Woolf, 2002, explored Virginia Woolf's representation of the pleasures of the five senses, as well as more abstract issues as gender fluidity, mourning, and maternal longing.

Agriculture as a Model of Knowledge, 2001, investigated how agricultural practices can provide a window into the substantive and conceptual boundaries that have existed between science and spirit, between the technological and the aesthetic.

Frames and Framing, 2001, an interdisciplinary workshop on the literary, artistic, musical, philosophical, scientific and sociological concepts of framing.

Orpheus, 2001, examined the many-sided mythological figure of Orpheus -- musician, poet, tragic lover, shaman and founder of a mystery religion.







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