Mi / 10:00 – 11:30

Microtopoi: Poetics of Small Spaces

Christian Kirchmeier, KWI Fellow

KWI & Online (Zoom)

My talk will focus on a particular category of spaces that I refer to as microtopoi. I use the term to describe small spaces that can only be entered and exited at certain times. According to my working definition, a space is to be considered “small” if it establishes an interaction system in which the mere co-presence of bodies inevitably forces communication. In other words, Paul Watzlawick’s dictum that one cannot not communicate always applies in microtopoi.

Examples of microtopoi include elevators, train compartments, horse carriages, bomb shelters, pavilions and caves during sudden storms, or shared apartments during a lockdown. They all have in common that communication can escalate quickly into open conflict because of the temporary confinement. Therefore, communication in microtopoi often poses a risk.

Modern societies have developed specific cultural techniques to mitigate this risk. Most importantly, people in microtopoi attempt to undo their presence – immersing themselves in a book or smartphone, looking out the window, staring at screens, etc. Erving Goffman coined the term civil inattention to describe such practices where we act as if we were not communicating. But while civil inattention can be performed quite effortlessly in brief encounters such as passing a stranger on the sidewalk, it is difficult to manage tactfully in microtopoi, requiring very sophisticated technologies of the self.

My talk will be based on the assumption that communicative practices in microtopoi have been examined in modern literature and film, where we can observe a poetics of microtopoi that has real-world consequences. In the colloquium, I will present several examples of aesthetic representations of microtopoi and try to explore some of their general characteristics.