New Additions

Jay Lemke is Professor Emeritus at the City University of New York. He has also been Professor in the PhD Programs in Science Education, Learning Technologies, and Literacy Language and Culture at the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and most recently adjunct Professor in Communication at the University of California - San Diego and Senior Research Scientist in the Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). Professor Lemke's research investigates multimedia communication, learning, and emotion in the context of social and cultural change.

Feelings in Places -- Contradiction and Inspiration

Grand Place in Brussels


What kinds of feelings are evoked by standing in this famous grand plaza in the heart of Brussels?

This photo was taken in the early evening with light still in the sky but also with the illumination of the buildings already turned on. It had also recently rained and the brick pavements were still wet. There are no people in the large central area of the Plaza because it had been temporarily closed off before a crew arrived to start filling it with a garden exhibition.

The first feeling here is of the grandeur of scale. You really do want to turn around 360° to take in the entire Grand Place on all four sides. This strongly emphasizes the three-dimensionality of the experience. It’s not like just looking at a static view of the building; it’s a feeling of being inside a very large structure, while still being completely outdoors. This complexity of feeling between being enclosed and being outdoors layers two sets of somewhat contrasting sets of feelings on top of one another, but they are still experienced as one single unique feeling.

There is also a contrasting pair or two contrasting poles of feeling around the issue of light. It is neither day nor night but somewhere on the edge between the two. The sky is still blue and not black and clouds can still be seen. But the building lights are on and the illumination of the buildings deliberately creates a dramatic contrast between the directly illuminated areas and the background. Similarly, the empty central area of the plaza is still wet, reflecting many of these lights. Looking at their reflections on the cobblestones highlights the contrasting feelings we have about darkness and light.

Light is fading, night is coming. It’s dark enough that we feel joy and comfort from the lights, and yet light enough that we still feel the normal orientation upwards from a darker ground to a lighter sky. Even traditional visual analysis readily shows other compositional features that our feelings are responding to. In the photo the scene is neatly divided between the ground area, the buildings, and the sky almost in equal thirds. Moreover, the architecture of the buildings focuses attention on the vertical columns or pilasters which connect ground and sky, and the narrowing roofs, gables, and pointed decorations or finials along the roofline in effect create arrows pointing our gaze upwards into the sky.

But how do we feel in this experience of a visual scene? When we are there, we are not seeing it as in a photo. It is not a two-dimensional scene of formal composition and arrows. We are moving about in the plaza, we are turning around to see the full panorama, we are feeling the cooling temperatures and the wetness in the air. We are standing on that ground, feeling it beneath our feet; we are breathing the air of that sky, and we can if we like walk over and touch the stone of the buildings. 

There is a feeling of exhilaration, of amazement and appreciation at the beauty of the scene. We are energized by the drama of the lighting as well as by the dynamics of this space that seems to lift us up towards the sky both in our gaze and in our bodily feeling. And all this melds with those contrary pushes and pulls of ground and sky, light and dark, enclosure and openness, being outside and yet also inside.

Because this is a place that you naturally enjoy and inhabit by moving around inside it, you also feel the sense of scale directly through motion, a strange combination of judging distances and sizes visually in relation to the size and height of the human body, but also by the time that it takes to walk at a leisurely pace from one point in the square to another. The feeling of movement in walking through the square is subtly modulated by the scale of distance that the square itself creates in relation to our movement within it.

We feel not just with our senses, but with our whole bodies-in-motion as we actively explore this space and respond to the feelings it evokes in us.


The Sagrada Familia


We see here an interior view of one of the most famous buildings in the world, the great Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona designed by Antonio Gaudi.

As you may know, this building has been under construction for about a century and I was quite amazed by the changes to the interior from when I had last visited about 10 years before. At that time there was little or no color, the columns were unfinished, and the floor of the Cathedral was largely taken up by large blocks of cut stone waiting to be hoisted into place, with small fenced in walkways for tourists to safely navigate through the areas still under construction. The basic shapes were already in place and it took only a little imagination to see the outline of the completed structure. But the experience once the fine details of decorative art were added 10 years later was far, far beyond what I could have imagined. 

The universal magic of cathedrals, especially those of the famous Gothic era, is the way in which they pull the eye and lift the spirit upwards to create a feeling of lightness in a space that is basically constructed from thousands of tons of heavy stone. This magic and the feelings it evokes come from two basic principles. First, that the columns are as narrow and as long as possible, leaving as much open space as possible and pulling the eye upwards. Second, that most of the light enters the space from high up near the roof, so that the light of Heaven appears above us and the structure of the church through its columns and pillars connects us down below to Heaven above. For some this feeling also exaggerates our smallness as we walk on the ground below. And that may even be highlighted by the fact that in the old cathedrals we are often walking on the graves of people buried under the floor.

But this is not a Gothic cathedral. There is one a few miles away in the oldest part of the city, a very large one that Antonio Gaudi would have known well. On the outside, his cathedral is an amazing flight of fantasy, especially in its intricate and colorful decorations. The interior here is somewhat more traditional, but with startling differences.

As you walk through the space of this cathedral your eye is constantly seeing new and different details and marveling at how so much variety has been so artfully integrated into a single structure. Every column looks slightly different. Different sides of the same column are differently decorated. The columns branch out at the top like trees to suggest an organic form, a forest, maybe even a Druid Grove. Traditional cathedrals emphasize a much more predictable uniformity and a much more solidly separate reality from the reality of nature and natural organic forms. In this space, the traditional effects of Gothic architecture are moderated, softened, and melded more closely with the forms of nature. 

We feel wonder and awe here, we feel elated and even entertained, we feel that we want to keep looking at every piece and every detail and from every angle because there is always more to see and everything we see is worth looking at. But it's not all about looking. We are also moving around in this space, feeling it with our bodies, touching the stone with our hands, and in our imaginations climbing or soaring up into the higher levels, the cathedral’s forest canopy. 

And in fact, it is possible to climb up a lot of stairs in the side walls to look down and view the Cathedral from a higher level. That feeling looking down is not the same as this feeling looking up. Even just walking around on the main floor, the experience and our feelings shift and change from the view when we enter to the changing panorama as we circulate around and constantly lift our heads and our gaze to the amazing detail above. Just as the traditional Gothic  architecture pulls our gaze upward by letting most of the light in at the upper stories, as also happens here, but in addition now the complexity and visual interest of the decorations, built into the architectural forms as well as applied onto their surfaces, lies mostly up in the higher reaches of the Cathedral.

Our attention is focused upward and this evokes in our bodies a feeling of being lifted upwards, of wanting to rise up into the glory above.


Salzburg Glory


Walking in the center of old Salzburg just around the time of sunset, the direct light of the sun had already disappeared from down in the streets alongside the river, concealed behind the steeply rising hills above. But it still shined on the towering clouds above the city, left over from a recent storm.

Seeing that glorious sight just above the roof line of churches and cloisters made me feel that it was the very prototype and inspiration for a vision of Heaven. Whether in classical painting or in the light coming in the upper stories of a Gothic cathedral, the Glory of Heaven is felt by us very much as we feel in seeing the skies illuminated as if lit from within.

It would be truly difficult for an artist to capture the amazing effects of light and color of the actual scene in real life. Even a photograph reduces the dramatic effects and visual dynamics. Apart from the limitations of paint or film, in the real scene those clouds are moving and the sun's illumination of them is changing slowly but continuously as the angle of the setting sun keeps changing. What is shown in the photograph was a transient moment and the drama of the scene peaked at about this point but only lasted for at most a few minutes. 

You don't need to believe in a Christian Heaven to appreciate the glory of this scene. We can perhaps guess that our feelings in response to natural phenomena, especially our aesthetic response, arises through thousands of generations of our co-evolution in environments like this. We are the children of this planet and nothing bears truer testimony to that fact than the emotional response we feel to mountains and oceans, forests and sunsets, starry skies and flashing storms.

But it is still wrong to reduce the richness and complexity of human feelings to just their biological basis. It is not wrong and in fact necessary to understand the role of the body and its evolutionary history in supporting and being the medium for the feelings that we feel. But we do not feel anger or fear, fight or flight, pure and simple. Everything we feel is re-mediated, modulated and enriched by language and culture, what we have heard and said and thought, by our personal histories and our acquired desires and fears. Biology may make us more wary in the dark, but it does not explain why some people love the night or feel comforted in quiet dark places.

Evolution may play a part in our appreciation of the sunrise, or the joy and relief of seeing the sun appear after a storm, but it cannot fully explain the spiritual uplift of a scene like this.


Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #2

In Different Libraries, in Different Eras


Different libraries can clearly evoke in us very different feelings. It can be fascinating when looking at pictures of various historical libraries to imagine the feeling of being in them. I have been in some of these and others like them, and I know how different they feel from modern libraries or even those from the 19th century.



For the fullest sense of contrast, compare the libraries in my previous post with this one in Vienna. This is library as palace. It is a testament to the political power and wealth of a ruling dynasty in the age of European grandeur. As you walk through the space of this library you feel as much impressed by the marble floors, the classical sculptures, and the ornately sculpted and painted ceilings as by the books. You feel what you are meant to feel: the nobility and grandeur, the wealth and power of those who collected and owned these books.

If you focus on the books almost as an afterthought, you will see that they are recessed and although partly illuminated, hardly touchable or ready to hand. Each one bound in leather, each one asking to be treated as much as an object of value as a source of knowledge. This does not feel -- at least I think to the modern observer -- as a comfortable place to commune with books, to reach out and touch them, to casually open them to explore.




Somewhat similar but less Imperial, this library in Prague, part of the same Habsburg tradition and culture, is a little bit more like a church than a palace. The books are more out front and they more completely define the scene and the experience compared to the library in Vienna.

The light feels gentler, the floor softer, the atmosphere more contemplative than Imperial. The mood and feeling has shifted considerably. I can also imagine that the quality of sound is different, changed from the sharp echoing of marble to the softer acoustics of wood. The feeling here is quieter, calmer, more accepting of the visitor and less alienating, so that we feel not so much impressed as inspired.



In the Royal Portuguese Library another element has been added, the work desks for library patrons and scholars. This clearly is meant to be a room for reading and thinking, perhaps for writing notes and copying out passages from books.

It still sets out to impress and it still uses the books as a feature of architectural decoration, much as if they were wallpaper. But it does so in a beautifully aesthetic way that creates a soft calming feeling conducive to the quiet contemplation of a Reading Room. The feeling here is of a serious place for serious work and it is harder to imagine casually and playfully exploring its treasures.




Finally, here is the library of Trinity College in Dublin, built in the classic tradition of Oxford and Cambridge: a gentleman's library, a testament not to an Imperial Dynasty so much as to a lineage of scholars and a succession of professors, an aristocracy of the Academy closely allied with the real aristocracy that probably paid for the library to be built.

From the feeling of quiet and contemplation, of a serious place for serious work, we have moved on to a sort of Church of Learning. The busts of scholars and professors might well be those of saints, the Romanesque arches and the long nave could belong to a cathedral. The feeling here is that this is a testament to order and organization, everything and everyone in its proper place. 

The richness of the wood and the binding of the books still evokes a feeling of being at home in a place made from the forest but shaped to human purposes. People feel comfortable with wood, we instinctively feel the majesty of trees and forests, and here wood dominates over stone and the feelings of wood contrast with those of stone and marble. Compare the feeling you imagine you would have in this library space with that of the imperial library in Vienna.

How do we feel in each of these spaces? And why do we feel as we do?

Chronopaths: Feelings in Libraries #1


 “Like all men of the Library … I have wandered in search of a book.” (Borges, Library of Babel)


One of my fondest memories of my years at the University of Chicago as a student is the feeling I had exploring through the book stacks in the old libraries on campus.

There was a feeling of mystery and adventure, of whole new worlds of knowledge to explore. I came across volumes hundreds of years old that should probably have been under lock and key. I found myself among books written in languages and alphabets that were totally new to me. And above all there was the quiet and comfort I felt alone in the library, just me and the books, never knowing what treasure I might pull from the next shelf, what new horizon of ideas and questions I might find.

The first picture here approximates that experience in so far as it was taken in the newer library at the University but with many of the same books in the same order of arrangement. In the old libraries light was not so bright, the floor was not so polished, and the bookshelves themselves showed the patina of age. But they were also narrowly spaced apart and rose to about the same height, giving the same feeling of being enclosed and protected and so near to all the books that you could hardly resist touching them or pulling them off the shelf for a quick look at what they contained.


The second picture from a much older library approximates a little more closely the mood and feeling of the older libraries on campus in my day. But they did not have this open plan with stacks of books rising up to a very high ceiling and accessed along walkways that might just feel a bit precarious.

But the light is more like the light I remember, the old metal of the book stacks more what echoes in my memory. And the books surely look old, and what after all is the difference in feeling between a library and a bookstore except for the fact that in a library most of the books are older than you are. In a library especially an old library history becomes physically tangible. In my time I touched books more than 300 years old, books that might have been held by the famous people who wrote them or by their friends. There is also a unique smell of old books, partly from leather, partly from old paper, and partly from dust. All these things contribute to the unique and special feeling you get in the book stacks of a great old library.


Like everything, libraries also evolve and change and come to evoke new feelings as well as echo old ones. In the third image we see the book stacks of a very new library in China. The library is filled with light, although slightly subdued light. The books are arranged on shelves, but there are no dividers and no separate book stacks or bookcases, all the books appear one after the other in an almost unending shelf that wraps around the whole enormous space of the library. The stairways to access the books seem almost to float and disappear so that the total experience is one of being on the loose in the Valley of the Books.

To some it may feel as if the books rise so high as to be out of reach. Or perhaps we may feel drawn up to explore them and see what lies on the very top shelves. Historically, for long periods in many libraries the books were hidden in so-called closed stacks and only the librarians could actually wander in them. In many ways this new library is a return to much earlier models of libraries in which the books were out front and on exhibition perhaps as status symbols of the library's owners as much as for easy access.

In which of these Libraries would you most like to wander in search of your Book?



Chronopaths: Feelings in Place #3

A View in Graz

 Looking out a well-placed window onto the roof of a modern art museum set in the rolling landscape of a small city not far from the Alps.


Feeling the thrill of being high above the landscape. Feeling the imagined danger of having nothing but a pane of glass between you and a long fall. Feeling wonder and amazement at the bizarre but sensuous architecture of the building's roof and openings to the light. Feeling the radical contrast between modern uniform colors and textures, simple shapes and surfaces versus the complexity and richness of the natural shapes of hills, trees, mountains and clouds.

Feeling drawn backward away from the window back into the museum interior, but also feeling the pull to fly out and soar through the magnificent scene in front of you. This push and pull is interrupted by the great curving surface of the roof seeming to push our line of attention off towards the right. That feeling is strengthened by the reflections we see in the roof of the scene around to the right and even below and behind us 

The town and the museum are centered in a river valley where the land rises steeply up on both sides. From our vantage point here, we are as high or higher than the immediately surrounding hills and buildings. We float above but we still feel pushed and pulled, drawn forwards and back, pulled out and around. We stand still but our feelings imagine us moving in all these ways, creating a dynamic sense of activity even while the scene before us remains static and tranquil.

Once again, the way we feel is a rich contradiction between rising and falling, steping back and moving forwards, relaxing and adventuring, feeling restful and excited. Two different esthetics blend and clash, the ultramodern and the classical, and the feelings that go with each of these. With the modern, we feel attracted to our sense of amazement at the possibility of building such a structure and its triumph of imagining outside-the-box, but we also feel some regret and alienation because this industrial modern style does not agree with our human need to have things around us that follow the natural patterns of millennia of human evolution in the way that the landscape outside does.

These feelings are heightened by the contrast between trees, hills, mountains, clouds, and sky that we are seeing on the one hand and the ultramodern building we are in and also looking at. Everything that appeals to us about the rolling wooded hills and fair-weather clouds in the sky is so very much not what appeals to us about the modern architecture. And yet that curving glass roof also reflects the clouds, the hills, and the much more traditional buildings below. The museum is trying to blend in and to stand out. We are caught in between for better and for worse. We can love the hills and admire the building. We can feel the excitement of visiting the alien imagination of the museum, even while we might find ourselves more comfortable living in one of those older buildings down below.

The special feeling of this place and this view is rooted in its contrasts and contradictions, in excitement and restfulness, in feeling affinities -- however contrary -- with both these worlds at once.




Chronopaths: Feelings in Place #2

The Covered Lane in Provence

 In a small and very old town in the south of France, this covered lane steps down a hillside from the town center toward an outer street. Even though much restored and very lightly modernized to accommodate people living and visiting here, you still get the feeling of heavy, old medieval stone building -- a darker, cooler passageway, a short escape from the hot summer sun.


What is there about old stone building and narrow passages that give us a feeling of security, of being protected from sun, from rain, and perhaps from the surprises or dangers of open spaces?

There is a strange paradox in human feelings about comfort and security, that on the one hand we feel comfort in protected and enclosed spaces, but on the other we also rejoice in openness and freedom of movement. Walking down this passageway you feel that you want to reach out your arms and touch the walls on both sides. You want to feel their solidity and the coolness of the stone. You want to look up at the archways above, which are often decorated at the top because others for generations have also looked up. And you want to look down at the cobblestone steps to keep your footing as they force you to maintain a wariness that balances with the feeling of relaxation and comfort of being in the enclosed passageway.

Feelings have an interior dynamic. They are not all one thing or another. They both push us and pull us, lift us and enclose us, keeping us both relaxed and alert. We can name one part of a feeling or another, but there are no names for the wholeness of what we feel.