Inhabiting the borders

by Dario Negueruela | dario.negueruela@epfl.ch

Appeared online: May 14, 2014

 

It’s better late than never, so the saying goes, and even if we, as post-post-ism researchers in the era of extreme specialization and fragmented knowledge, may have the impression that everything has been already written, all oceans explored and there is not an untouched single corner of our life horizons left to dream about, we still find ourselves pursuing doctoral research. However, we can be sure that one thing that still stays largely unexplored is the depths, the abyss. The depths of knowledge, I mean, and without wanting to sound pretentious, we are here because we strive for understanding beyond predefined disciplinary frames. Research might be a job like any other. We might want to destroy the annoying myth that to dedicate your life to academia responds to an incontournable inclination towards unjustified suffering and loneliness in the name of a sacred vocation, but there is still a touch of either romantic disorientation or simply being out of place in our activity. Let’s face it.

I discovered the work of Sergiusz Piasecki already quite late, but the flare of romanticism that his work, The lover of the Ursa Major (1937),had a big impact on me. About to take the decision to leave my country and come to CH, , I was spelled by the portrait of time when European identity was shaped by and through its borders: a story of smugglers, of transgressors, drawn towards an insecure yet adventurous life not without a certain sense of poetic heroism and unattached generosity. However, despite the historical convergence between Piasecki’s time and ours, tangible in the rise of inequalities, and xenophobic vectors all across our continent seemingly pointing towards a regression in terms of free movements and vivification of borders, my plea for Piasecki does not refer to these factors. Being perhaps more prosaic, my praise of his novel responds to the heroism of the figures he portrays, who, living in uncertain times, refuse to stay in the homely and well-known world of their villages and embark on a life of endless nomadism and trans border adventure. They inhabit the borders and define a new realm of existence where their home does not respond to any flag nor belong to any province, but to the transgressive spirit between countries, between cultures, between disciplines.

Call my romanticism blind, naïve or even inappropriate, but are we not a generation that, now more than ever before, belongs to the undefined realm of the in-between? In fact, most of our research can be ascribed to inter or transdiciplinary approaches even if it is widely acknowledged that this does not pay off in terms of academic career (Kniffin and Andrew S. Hanks 2010). Why is this? Why have we departed from the troubled yet homely waters of architecture, environmental engineering or social sciences in order to travel to other shores? I recall Jay Gould and his endless cry for surmounting the ever widening waters separating humanities from the sciences (Gould 2003), and I recognize in the birth of this journal a humble attempt at providing a walking companion for those who think that their home is yet to be built and the future is yet to be constructed.
Personally, I believe that, even if there are certain figures I admire, in our enterprise for an inquiry into the world we live in, there is no pristine model to be followed. Research is, above all, a practice that is constructed along the way. My point of departure is more phenomenological-constructivist, that is, our journey will not unveil some hidden truth, but will necessarily construct its own space of being, its own meaning.

I believe in the need for bridging disciplines and areas of study, as I believe in the benefits behind the efforts to communicate our ideas to a wider audience of colleagues and peers. We stand in a time when from diverse disciplines and branches of human knowledge we are approaching a particular kind of convergence. At different speeds and with differences intrinsic to the particularities of each field, we have moved from linear deterministic models as well as from absolute subjectivist claims. From embodied cognitive science to nonrepresentational theories, we begin to compose a portrait of the world which tells us about a mutual interdependency of the social (and, therefore, the human) and the environment. In my view, the spirit of Contour should respond to this circumstance.

Within this landscape, that I regard as an unavoidable reference, lays the challenge of bridging the often segregated fields of an academic world that moves towards an ever increasing specialization and atomization. Without wanting to question the reasons for specialization, I believe that we have a lot to earn from the challenge to be critically questioned from outside, as taking a distance from your own stance through a conversation with others proves, very often, of outmost importance for our progress. This includes the need for doubting, the need for subverting our own stances, as very often they have been established by historical and cultural coincidences and their grounds are less stable than we perceive. In this view, I consider Contour a tool, a means for becoming aware of our constructing of our own space of knowledge. Part of this small change is to recognize that our quest for knowledge is an everyday activity and is fed by as human ingredients as we ourselves hold as reasons for our activities. I would like to recall Michel De Certeau when he gives his account of a world of everyday practices that “ make-it-up-as-you-do-along world of pliable, opaque and stubborn spaces which ruses, camouflage and tricks subvert the appearance of routine, and make the determinate indeterminate”1.

I would like to give a very brief personal account of my reasons for embarking in this enterprise, hoping that by exposing such matters I will contribute to de-mystify an academic journal and find some echo in our audience. In fact, I participate in this journal with the intention of constructing a we-space, where different “social and personal identities will overlap pointing at the shared attributes and experiences constituting a collective ‘we-ness’ “(Krueger 2010). The collective to which I refer is not limited exclusively to the doctoral students of any program in architecture or urbanism, but comprises a whole community of researchers and thinkers pursuing research in the area of the built environment.

Finally, just a few last words regarding the spirit for the contributions to our journal. What would be the format for contributions that seek to bridge and communicate without oversimplifying? Peer review articles seem to have gained hegemony as the means for guaranteeing quality. Certainly, we are aware of the recent debates regarding the inherent structural problems of peer reviewing process, such as endogamy, with certainly not majoritarian, but always possible derived forms of nepotism and closed networks of interest. To such issues we could modestly add the question: Is the quest for knowledge just a horizon delimited by impact factors, peer review and academic career interests? Certainly, the world of academia seems to respond increasingly to such validation issues and yet, we are living troubled times that require the development of an academic spirit of shared knowledge and concerned involvement in societal conflicts. From the apparent insularity of Switzerland, we cannot assume that a mere soliloquy of inward reflections can hold any real future, nor we cannot conceive a collective construction of knowledge in isolation, as dialogue is the engine for creativity. Therefore, Contour is born necessarily with an open and international vocation; a sort of naturally born cosmopolite like Sey Mondy2, who does not give much importance to the origins, accents and colors of its friends, but to their intrinsic value as contributors to a collective and hopefully fruitful discussion.

References

Ecoviou, A. (1995) Saludos. Siruela. Madrid

Jay Gould, S. (2003). The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister’s Pox, New York: Harmony Books

Kniffin, Kevin M. and Hanks, Andrew S. (2013), Boundary Spanning in Academia: Antecedents and Near-Term Consequences of Academic Entrepreneurialism. Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (CHERI) Working Paper 158.

Krueger (2011) Extended Cognition and the space of social interaction. In Conciousness and Cognition 20. Elsevier 643-657.

Piasecki, S. (1937), The lover of the Ursa Major. El Acantilado, Barcelona

Notes

  1. Thrift, N., “The Arts of the Living, the Beauty of the Dead: Anxieties of Being in the Work of Anthony Giddens,” Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 17, No. 1, p. 114.
  2. the protagonist character of “Saludos”, a novel by A. Ecovoiu, first published in 1995.


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