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The Power of Disappearance


Frazer Ward, Art
Maria Rueda, Spanish & Portuguese

Project Description:

People. Things. Buildings. Habitats. Ways of life. Species. Technologies. Reputations. Memories. Affections. Everything disappears.

Still, the forms, means, and valences of disappearance vary widely, as do the means of its representational capture. This yearlong project hopes to bring together faculty across fields whose work deals with the implications and the meanings associated with disappearance—its polyvalent quality and its power to transform consciousness. How does disappearance produce cultural forms and artifacts; how does it create effects that are both visible and obscure? How is disappearance represented politically, historically, scientifically, spiritually?

Clearly, the power of disappearance is central to many disciplines. Visual artists often play with disappearance as a tool for representation, whether in the disappearance of the image when painting meets photography in the work of Gerhard Richter, or in the aesthetic act of decay that characterizes the crumbling (disappearing) sculptures of Cai Guo-Qiang. Conceptual artist Tehching Hsieh built on the trope of disappearance by dropping out of the art world (and the world in general) for 13 years, living in obscurity and working a minimum wage job. His reemergence, greeted with enthusiasm and surprise, provided a negative form for the constitution of art as a category. The fact of disappearance became itself the artistic act.

In history and politics, what is disappeared often speaks more loudly than what is present. Victims of Spanish and Argentinean dictatorships, for example, have come to be known (perhaps perversely) as "the disappeared." Their disappearance—and the means by which they are remembered and memorialized—crystallize our understanding of the state’s mobilization of violence. "The disappeared" limn a sense of the state as powerful and capricious, but also vulnerable. The violent disappearance of bodies inspires terror, but these disappearances also open a space of cultural fantasy about "what happened," yielding transformative intellectual work, activism, and again, art.

In biology, of course, the fact of disappearance is fundamental: Species disappear and become extinct. Fossil records, entombed in stone, document those disappearances. But here again, the idea of disappearance has proved porous: Some species, like the Coelecanths, are assumed to be long extinct only to reappear in other parts of the globe. In other cases, the permanent disappearance of some species inspires activism which then prevents the disappearance of others.

The same patterns can be seen in the social sciences. Anthropologists and sociologists chart the ways that traditional customs and social norms disappear in the face of colonialism, agribusiness, and development. Yet scholarship in these fields documents how disappearance gives rise to new, hybrid forms of existence (as in the lives of immigrants struggling with assimilation), complicating the concept of disappearance and affording it a kind of generative capacity. In the digital era, we’ve become accustomed to the rapid appearance and disappearance of forms of technology. Older forms of sociality have disappeared in the face of virtual relations begging the question of what is lost and what is gained.

Working across disciplinary boundaries, considering the ways in which disappearance is studied and described across fields, we hope to expand our understanding of how what has disappeared shapes and gives meaning to what is left behind.

Information Session:
Tuesday, September 24, 2013, 12:00 pm,
Kahn Institute Colloquium Room

Faculty interested in applying for fellowships on the project The Power of Disappearance are invited to attend an open information session about the project. This hour-long meeting will provide interested faculty with an opportunity to speak to the project's Organizing Fellows about its intellectual focus and about how their individual research intersects with the project's theme and the work of other prospective Fellows. Faculty will also be able to speak with the Kahn Institute's Director and staff to learn more about research grants and other types of support provided for Fellows in Kahn Institute long-term projects. Lunch will be provided at the session.

How to Apply:

To apply to become a Faculty Fellow in The Power of Disappearance, click here to complete the brief online application form. The application deadline is Friday, October 11, 2013. Applicants will be notified of the outcome of their application no later than Wednesday, October 23, 2013.

To Learn More About Kahn Faculty Fellowships:

For more information about Kahn Institute Faculty Fellowships visit the Faculty Fellowships page on our Web site at


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