In the Safavid empire, book workshops—kitabkhana—involved a complex network of artists and artisans in order to formulate a visual idiom for the court. Ranging from manuscripts, architecture, ceramics, and embroidery, the kitabkhana engaged images as part of a broader genealogy of visual, philosophic, and textual sources. In manuscripts, illustration as part of iconography was meant to evoke a cosmic order; letters, images, and bodies were all corporeal manifestations of incomplete signs pointing toward an essence greater than the material contents of a manuscript. Illustrations, in this sense, beckoned a network of information extending far beyond their immediate context.
The word universe, like cosmos, connotes the religious and the secular; that which is immediately around us and simultaneously larger than that which we can fully experience. When approaching A Universe of Terms I distinctly understood two challenges. The first was visually representing the abstract, and the second was generating a visual iconography capable of existing alone and alongside text. Once given the selected terms in the Universe, I was excited to create and engage with the project material in my own way. For me, engaging meant thinking beyond a term itself to consider how I could talk about these terms through images. To confront abstract, philosophically complex terms, the images could not be confined by a dictionary definition.
I generated a visual style for the Universe whose simplicity contrasts with the ostensible complexity each term embodies. I wanted to create a visual idiom capable not only of engaging each term critically as both the object and subject of scholarly debate, but also present each term in a form generic enough so as not to limit the possibilities of intersectional discourse. I desired an imagining that exceeds disciplinary limits. By this I mean to suggest how visual elements can encourage a multilayered and networked form of thinking about the terms of the Universe—a form that includes dimensions beyond the page of text. One where the pictorial (as well as the audible) can be part of the learning experience beyond conventional pedagogy. To encourage a visual understanding of interconnectivity, I gave each term a distinct form connected to the greater Universe through a variety of similar elements. As a tribute to the cosmic part of the universe, every term has a star, and every term is composed using additional illustrations such as the hand, the body, the square, and the circle.
The specific shapes and colors for the Universe are drawn from my appreciation for the creative processes of René Magritte, Henri Matisse, and Alexander Calder. I am inspired by Magritte’s complex enchanting renderings of the surreal (see Surrealism) and specifically the eye as the sky in “The False Mirror” (1929) [compare to term “enchantment, disenchantment”]. I resonate with Matisse’s colorful abstractions of the real (Fauvism) in shapes of warm vibrant colors, notably his cutouts such as “Jazz” (1943) and “Icarus” (1947). As for Calder, I am constantly drawn to an early fascination with his animatronic “Circus” (1931) as a form of art in movement. Ultimately, the style for the Universe reflects my own desire to contend with the abstract without losing the joy and excitement of thinking imaginatively.
The designs for some of the terms, such as “spirit” and “economy,” were further inspired by the written work of specific contributors (Emily Ogden on spirit; Kathryn Lofton on economy), whereas terms like “performance” and “media” draw on more conventional imaginings of the term. Though the terms in this project are often considered separately, I wanted to encourage readers of this project to explore how the terms are in discussion with each other, and how the visual can be integral to this discussion.
Incorporating other forms of expression, I wanted to further consider how words move in space and take up space and require space in order to exist. Therefore, for the page “About the Universe,” the two hands that circulate around one another signal the word for “universe” in American Sign Language (ASL). Though it is difficult to capture the physicality of words, sign language allows us to conceptualize utterance. Whether through ASL or dance, how do words perform, how do words extend beyond the conventions placed upon them by dictionary or encyclopedic definitions? Verbal and embodied language is ephemeral. And in this sense, no term can temper itself; its potential is located in all that a term cannot control, all that the term invites.
A Universe of Terms, as I have come to understand it, provides a platform for multidisciplinary thinking alongside scholars who invite contemporaries and students to enter into the worlds of each term. I think of this much like small looking glasses through which one steps in and only briefly begins to perceive the never-ending ways words and ideas connect to worlds around them, to objects, people, sensations, and memories.
The greatest privilege of working on this project, beyond the possibility to collaborate with Mona Oraby and The Immanent Frame, is the ability to draw from my love of interdisciplinary thinking and design. As a student of architectural studies and Russian, I often bridge the spatial and the linguistic in my daily practices. Either directly in my research or implicitly due to the constant presence of these modes of thinking, I have intimately considered the place of both the real and the evocative, the verbal and the physical. As a graphic designer, I know the images and forms I generate call upon both that which has been written and that which is embodied in physical space. Visual thinking is an essential part of my education. I observe my surroundings in terms of space and compositions, components and movements. The logic of spatial praxis through mapping and networks of information is central to how I make sense of the world around me. Creating visual elements allows me to engage with design as an intellectual exercise. Through this process, I explore a world beyond the purely visual or textual. In my own research, I concern myself with the relationship between law, property, and mapping (sociolegal geographies), particularly the visuality of (il)legal systems as they can be traced in urban infrastructure. In my thesis work, I explore the place of Soviet courtyards spaces in contemporary Russian cities as both public and private sites of connectivity and participation in everyday society. Especially in the case of Soviet cities, spatial and linguistic theories come alive in buildings themselves, with built typologies representing political eras and ideologies that can be read in the physical landscape. By working through the spatial, the visual, and the textual, I see how ideas come alive in the physical world and inform everyday experiences.
Further reflecting on the dynamics shaping contemporary society, I immediately began to consider the tendency for Generation Z to engage with the world through mediated networks of information inside, and more formatively, outside of the classroom. The reality for Generation Z, and increasingly for the next generations, is a knowledge base that is visual, musical, documentary—a filtered lens or personal soundtrack accompanying us through the world as we discover it, and not necessarily for ourselves. There exists a constant multiplicity in what we interact with; that there is always a second image in a newsfeed, a page behind a post, a link to another source, a song for a specific moment.
Earlier I mention the limits of conventional pedagogy. Through this essay and through the design of the Universe, I hope to encourage educators in all disciplines to consider how they engage the plurality of information their students encounter on a daily basis. I challenge educators to consider how the content of a course or lecture can be connected to information in the broader learning environment students engage with. One that is felt and experienced in a multidimensional way, composed of different elements pieced together to make sense of the everyday.
In visualizing the Universe, I considered the way words are lived, felt viscerally, described in anecdotes of love and loss, and seen, often times, in the products of our own thinking. And in an era of immense documentation through social media and databases, I wanted to consider what it would mean to make images rather than draw from the real. In this sense, I think about how “the visual” and images can be productive for alternative, perhaps more interdisciplinary, modes of thinking. And I do not just think about how we research differently, but rather how scholarly discourse can connect differently to material. How can incorporating the visual into scholarly praxis allow us to foreground our own mediation of things, of terms, of bodies? How can we begin to bridge the gap of discursive limits that often bind our disciplines to themselves?