Topological Studies

The IDSVA Topological Studies Program may be the only one of its kind in the world. Borrowed from mathematics as well as Freud & Lacan, topology as we use the term applies to the structural relations of geographical spaces, especially as these relations inform our historical understanding of cultural consciousness and the cultural unconscious.

During first and second year residencies, students travel from one historically designated site to another. Each site’s historical designation situates the site within a given period and determines the order in which the site is visited. Residency site visits can last from one or two days to several weeks. Current sites, historical designations, and the order in which they are visited are as follows:



Rome . . . . . . . Ancient
Spannocchia Castle . . . . . . . Feudal/agrarian
Siena . . . . . . . Medieval/urban
Florence & Milan . . . . . . . Renaissance
Venice . . . . . . . Baroque
Berlin . . . . . . . Late Neoclassical–Early Industrial
Paris . . . . . . . Bourgeois Modern
New York . . . . . . . Post-industrial
Istanbul . . . . . . . East/West Transhistorical

The residency site visits are to be experienced as successive historical strata that set up a three-level (topological) critique: in the first place, each site is considered in terms of its historically designated period vis a vis art and ideas; secondly, the sites are considered in topological relation to each other in terms of art and ideas; and thirdly, each site’s contemporary situation vis a vis art and ideas is looked at as an extended moment in its historical development and in topological relation to each of the other sites.

The first residency begins at Spannocchia Castle, in Tuscany. A restored eleventh-century tower and fourteenth-century villa and 1100-acre working farm, Castello di Spannocchia blends feudal traditions with the goings on of contemporary life. While living and studying at Spannocchia, students conduct fieldwork in Siena, Florence, and Milan. As a banking city and site of incipient middle-class capitalism, medieval Siena stood in geo-political tension with the aristocratic/agrarian economics and cultural ethos that still informed a more strictly two-class social system at nearby Spannocchia. Students consider this tension in terms, for instance, of Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good Government, made in 1338 and installed in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, adjacent to the city’s famous public square, the Piazza Del Campo. In Florence, students study first-hand the architecture and aesthetics of the burgeoning Renaissance. Field work includes study at The Uffizi Museum and the Accademia di Belle Arti. In Milan they study the urban development of a Renaissance city much affected by the work and thinking of Leonardo da Vinci. In Venice students think about the city’s history as an early version of globalized markets and question the significance of architectural and artistic practices as the Renaissance gives way to baroque ideas and aesthetics.

In Berlin, they look at how the Baroque shifts to early modern industrialized thought. And again, signs of these cultural mutations are to be discerned and felt in the architectural design of the city of Berlin as well as in the collections of art and cultural artifacts to be seen in the city’s museums and private collections.

In Paris, Modernism emerges full-blown in the mid-19th-c Haussmannization of boulevards, public gardens, and architecture, and students trace the cultural/aesthetic contours of these developments by exploring the city’s streets & cafés and by conducting field work at the Louvre, the d’Orsay, and the Centre Pompidou—to name but a few of the cultural/aesthetic sites studied in Paris.

In New York City, students live and breathe the post-industrial urban experience. The Metropolitan Museum, MoMA, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney, are among the museums in which students conduct fieldwork, along with the Uptown and Chelsea galleries, artist studios, and the like.


In the summer of the third year, rather than going abroad, students convene in residency at Brown University. Here they reflect on and talk about ways in which the Topological Studies experience has informed their critical thinking in relation to the Seminar Program and the Independent Studies Program, especially insofar as these three programs converge in a line of thought that points toward the dissertation.

The Brown Residency is set up to help entering third-year students formulate a dissertation topic and develop a thesis. To facilitate the transition from second to third-year focus, Paul Armstrong, former dean of Brown University and Brown Professor of English, has designed a Brown Residency dissertation orientation seminar. During morning sessions, faculty-led discussion of various fields of critical inquiry help students situate their particular interests and critical perspectives within a circumscribed field of research. Afternoon sessions are given over to student-led discussions of texts that students have distributed beforehand for seminar reading. Discussion centers on how a student’s selected texts might shape his or her thinking about the thesis project.

In summer 2012, Professor Armstrong will introduce and teach a methods course that he has designed as preparation for the orientation seminar.  As students begin to conceptualize their dissertation project and its intellectual contribution to their fields of study, this seminar will review the theoretical and methodological debates that have been the focus of the first two years in order to help students develop a rigorous, systematic understanding of where they stand (and why) in these controversies so that they can better demonstrate their readiness to participate in them.  The aim is to assist students as they negotiate the transition from understanding others’ theoretical positions to articulating their own independent contributions to debates that will matter for their future work.


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