About the Seminar

The Sawyer Seminar will meet once a month, September 2010 through April 2011, bringing together faculty and students throughout the Boston/Cambridge metro area. Each session will feature research presentations by two invited speakers, followed by discussion led by one or two local scholars.

All seminar meetings are free and open to the public — no registration is required.

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This yearlong seminar will explore how scholars in the social sciences and humanities study the unseen. Moving our sights away from the solidity of human artifacts and tangibility of institutions, our seminar enters the space where phenomena and practices have been made legible only through human effort. We wish to grapple with how to portray the-just-out-view, how to listen for presences at the edges of social perception, how to pry into processes difficult to communicate intersubjectively such as pain or trauma, how to capture evanescent worlds of taste, how to measure or account for processes outside of everyday palpability or scale (e.g., radiation, climate change, global finance). We are interested, too, in questions of how to engage spiritual worlds entirely unseen, whose existence is a source of continuing contest. We investigate those phenomena apprehended by some, experienced by many, and equally denied by others: ghosts, spirits, witches, angels, and gods.

If the warp of our seminar is made of distinct genres of the unseen as well as the sensory and social practices they summon, then the weft is made of three conceptual threads, each of which fastens on a different scale of action and experience: How does the unseen operate as a vector of agency? How should we understand individual embodiment in relation to the unseen? What are the spaces of the unseen in the everyday lives of communities, and might their illumination aid efforts to rescue and represent subaltern histories? In all cases, we grapple with how media technologies are increasingly entangled with human sensoria, with effects for how the unseen may be newly visualized, apprehended, or may yet continue to resist representation.

By ranging widely across everyday and structural domains, and by juxtaposing Western, African, and Asian case studies, we hope to bring into conversation scholars who, while often thinking about similar sensory and epistemological dynamics, may not have much opportunity to speak with people working outside their sub-disciplinary communities.