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Organizing Fellows:
Maria Estela Harretche, Spanish & Portuguese
Anna Botta, Comparative Literature & Italian

Liquid WorldsMobility and fluidity. Both of these qualities typify elements—we may think first of water or plasma, but any conduit or pneuma will do—that facilitate the passage and, ultimately, the survival, of human culture, art, or even cells, as they pass from their original state to a new one. To the extent that it denies the fixed, concentrated, material, and concrete forms that we attribute to the physical world, the quality of liquidity presents itself as somewhat counterintuitive. Dynamic systems tend to focus our analytical attentions at one end or the other of a stage of transformation, but what if we fix our analytical lens on the process and the context of flow itself? What is the nature of the transformative process? What occurs when mobility and fluidity are interrupted; or when a cell resists transformation; or when an individual in exile refuses to be assimilated into a new reality? On the other hand, how do cultures mutate as their borders become more porous? What is lost and what is retained in the process?

This short-term project will consider mobility and fluidity as framework, as paradoxical as that sounds, as it is manifest in such analytical/disciplinary fields as border and identity studies, history, sociology, as well as the natural and hard sciences, where new work on brain chemistry and artificial intelligence are challenging and rendering more fluid traditional ideas about self and identity.

In the context of social sciences, it has become commonplace to view mobility and liquidity as qualities which characterize, both literally and metaphorically, the uncertain, shifting and multiple identities of individuals in an increasingly interconnected world. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the term “Liquid Modernity” to characterize this porousness in individual, group and national identity. Individuals carry cultures with them as they move from place to place, transforming their new destinations even as they themselves are continually transformed.

The new concern with mobility and flow is centrally manifest in the work of recent scholars employing the borderless world of seas and oceans, with the maritime flow of people, goods, and information serving as a crucial analytical lens for understanding their relationships. This interest in the histories of bodies of water or flows derives from a theoretically and methodologically sophisticated consciousness of the analytical limits imposed by the notions of border. Indeed, recent works conducted from within the field of borders studies have questioned the philosophical meaning of the concept of “border” itself: In his work on the Mediterranean world, for example, Iain Chambers has written that “The outcome of historical and cultural clash and compromise [in the Mediterranean] is that borders are both transitory and zones of transit.

Fluidity has emerged as an increasingly analytical concern in the field of neuroscience as well, where the word plasticity is employed to describe the dynamic state of brain circuitry (e.g., strengthening and weakening of synaptic connections). Brain plasticity enables an organism to learn from new stimuli and environments and thus adapt its behavior. As migrations of populations change the cultures of nations, so experience transforms brain circuitry, as circuits are lost and newly adapted. Indeed, in a larger sense, evolution itself is a form of fluidity.

Further, one can also view the metaphor of fluidity played out with increasing complexity in the field of computer science. One need but note the metamorphoses of a Wikipedia page, as it evolves in response to cultural and political change. Virtual Worlds are universes created in computer memories where people join, interact, and even create change. Observing these “universes,” Ray Kurzweil of MIT, has predicted, controversially, that in the twenty-first century, artificial intelligence will surpass that of humans. At that point, traditional definitions of self may be radically and permanently altered. Like the immigrant or the exile, the human mind itself will need to adapt and transform even as it struggles to retain something of its former characteristics and identity.

While it is evident that we live in an historical moment of decreasing stability and rigidity in borders and traditional reference points, is there a danger in pushing too far in the other direction? By overemphasizing liquidity, permeable contacts, crossing and exchange, doesn’t one risk occluding the asymmetric relationships of political hegemonies? Don’t we end up reasserting the capitalist logic of free markets and globalization, a logic itself based on flows and unhindered circulation? Doesn’t the insistence on soft areas of fluidity and hybridization end up understating the differences and distinctions which the “hard” sciences construct, bringing order out of chaos? Isn’t encyclopedic knowledge – even a Wikipedia page – based on partitioning and systematization? How are specificities and identities to be studied and redefined in a liquid world?

These are some of the questions and ideas that will be explored in an open-ended consideration of liquidity and flow as analytical frames. We invite colleagues from a range of disciplines to join us in this conversation.


  • Tuesday, January 19, 9am-4pm
  • Wednesday, January 20, 1-6pm
  • Thursday, January 21, 9am-1pm


  • Anna Botta, Italian Language & Literature & Comparative Literature, ORGANIZING FELLOW
  • Maria Estela Harretche, Spanish & Portuguese, ORGANIZING FELLOW
  • Anouk Alquier, French Studies
  • Joshua Birk, History
  • Mary Ellen Birkett, French Studies
  • Ibtissam Bouachrine, Spanish & Portuguese
  • George Fleck, Chemistry
  • Ellen Kaplan, Theatre
  • Barbara Kellum, Art
  • Malcolm McNee, Spanish & Portuguese
  • Maria Rueda, Spanish & Portuguese
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