Figuring Place & Time

Center Research Theme for 2009-11

In 2009-2011, the Center’s research will focus on place and time, as well as their negations. Central to this project will be explorations of hegemonic and alternative temporalities and spatialities, as figured in cultural and social theory, the social and physical sciences, literary and historical analyses, and creative production.

Recent scholarship has characterized as “non-places” the interstitial spaces full of comings and goings between “places” as these have traditionally been defined in anthropology and geography, that is, as locations with a clear and complex historical and social context. Increasingly we find ourselves spending longer periods in such “nonplaces”— airport terminals, fast food restaurants, highways—thus existing in a “nontime” that contributes to a sense of temporal as well as spatial discontinuity and transience. Through their ubiquity, electronic media contribute to and enhance this sense of placelessness and atemporality at the very moment that—and perhaps because— they offer all the world, all the time. This world outside of “real” places and “real” times is often portrayed as a rootless, hurried place, with people situated unhappily and languishing in a sort of place/time discontinuum. Contemporary physicists working on sub-atomic particles have also theorized a temporal realm so short that traditional ideas about space-time are no longer valid. At this scale, time may not exist as a physical reality, an idea that makes many physicists profoundly uncomfortable.

Interstitial places and times-without-time have also been viewed in more positive ways, however. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the notion of alternative temporalities has emerged in the work of artists, composers, musicians, and writers who have offered and explored non-linear temporalities as alternatives to the more linear temporality of majoritarian culture. Timelessness is a state sought as well as decried, through meditation or other religious practices, or via drones and other forms of musical minimalism. Art historians of modernism/postmodernism have long recognized the primacy of place and time issues in movements ranging from cubism, futurism, and abstract expressionism through the more recent rise of performance, video, new media, and public arts. Both place and time and their negation figure prominently in contemporary studies of “outsider” and vernacular art, literature, and media, and in productions that address boundaries, migration, temporariness, and displacement. What has been described as the “spatial turn” has led philosophers and literary scholars to use geographical concepts and metaphors to think about their subjects. Historians and natural scientists are increasingly challenging the different notions of time that divide their disciplines, contemplating the natural and human worlds on a range of temporal scales.

In its Fellows’ seminar, its public programming, and other activities, the Center seeks to address questions such as: How do notions of time, chronology, and tempo differ in various cultures and geographical locations? How have perceptions of time and its meaning or place and its meaning changed in different cultures throughout history? How do perceptions of time affect forms of communication such as narrative texts, oral and written discourse, and the use of new media? How are temporally-framed relations between people and their surroundings expressed verbally and visually? What is the role of place in viewing and or reading practices? How do the past, present, and future, as constructed by individuals and societies, influence one another? How do physical and metaphorical constructions of place and time inform one another? How do place and time intersect?

The Center plans on devoting two years (2009-2011) to the theme “Figuring Place and Time.” We anticipate that the Center’s public programs in the second year of the two-year cycle will emerge from and build on discussions in the first year.