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Placing Space



Suzan Edwards, Astronomy

Cornelia Pearsall, English Language & Literature


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 by 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? Space has been the site and source of conflict everywhere, across historical periods and locations, causing and shaping the course of wars, imperial expansion, migrations. Space can seem fixed or mutable, a foundational fact or a shifting metaphor.

In this project, we are interested in exploring the place of space in the broadest range of disciplines: space is as much an intellectual project in the realm of philosophy as of astronomy, of poetry as of physics, and of anthropology as of mathematics. Scientists and mathematicians measure and visualize space employing the minutest or the largest possible scales. Those working in the arts and the humanities may envision space through form, whether architectural, sculptural, or as landscape, as well as by its representation in words, in photographs, in film, on maps. As a dominant perceptual mode, space often converges with time, so that it can be expressed acoustically and rhythmically as spaces between sounds (as in music and poetry). Narratives unfold in places that mark historical or biographical time and delineate both the cultural and physical location of characters. Performances are shaped by the spaces in which they are performed. Space may be gendered and racialized, and may mark the material or symbolic boundaries between social groups of all kinds. Indeed, it is hard to think of a social realm not inscribed in spatial terms. Polities certainly are, whether organized as urban or rural, regional, national, or international, and social movements and wars are often caused by struggles over territorial marking. Religious practices are often housed in distinctive ritualized spaces (temples, cathedrals, mosques) that separate the sacred from the profane and that can themselves become highly contested sites.

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. In pursuing this work, we are bringing to the space of the Kahn Institute a vibrant group of scholars from a range of disciplines and methodological approaches, for what we anticipate will be a year of capacious intellectual engagement.



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