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“When we’re born, we don’t know where we are. We find ourselves in the locations of shape, form, knowledge, art,” says Lowell Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Tom Conley. Such creatively provocative statements characterize Conley’s artistic and critical method: he examines the world through unexpected lenses, bringing forth questions and meanings that might otherwise remain undiscovered.
Born in New Haven, Conn., and raised by parents who did not attend college, Conley never expected to find himself at Harvard as a professor and co-master of Kirkland House. After studying at Lawrence and Columbia Universities, Conley’s financial circumstances and his opposition to the Vietnam War landed him at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied French literature, art history, and cinema. Conley taught at the University of Minnessota before coming to Harvard in 1995, where he now teaches courses in French and Visual and Environmental Studies.
Conley is deeply focused on the relationship of maps and cinema. He recounts, “When I tell people I work on maps in movies, they always say, ‘Oh, like in Casablanca or Indiana Jones?’”
Laughing, he continues, “But what I really mean is that movies contain maps, and they are maps. You have to see and read a movie at the same time.”
This fascinating and unconventional way of approaching film studies is rooted in Conley’s longstanding interest in the discipline of cartography. He came to this subject serendipitously—in 1988, frustrated with some aspects of his work, he chanced upon an advertisement for a conference about France and the New World in the 16th century. After attending the conference at Chicago’s Newberry Library, the course of Conley’s work was ineluctably altered by his introduction to a remarkable set of cartographic scholars and materials.
Now immersed in the discipline, Conley describes cartography as “an art that did not know that it was going to be a science.” He paints a colorful sixteenth-century world of mapmaking dominated by artists and travelers, saying, “These people decorated and manipulated the world with a fantastic imagination.”
Conley sees the evolution of cartography as vital for thinking critically about the world. He says, “Maps served many functions: illustrative, exploratory, colonial, military, aesthetic.”
He also believes that new technology, from the tools of cinema to the internet-dependent Google Earth, serve only to intensify and expand the importance of cartography. He posits, “They call space into question, not just the space of cinema or the map but the space that the viewer occupies too.”
His focus on maps is itself part of his greater work, which stretches from translating the writings of French philosophers to working on a book, inspired by his father, on the prolific filmmaker Raoul Walsh. Conley’s larger project is to examine form and place, and how individuals locate themselves in the world. His sense of his own location is modest: in discussing his work as a translator, he smilingly states that “a translator has to have a small ego. The pleasure comes from the crucial decisions that go from one sentence to the next. The smaller the egos we have, the better the future of the planet.”
As he goes on to compare illustrations of islands in atlases of the 1500s to the sonnets of John Donne, it becomes clear that Conley’s remarkable creative and analytic talent lies in his ability to illuminate the forms he studies in a rich and challenging way. He brings new light to the ways in which we examine the world, both in academia and in everyday life. Ultimately for Conley, the studies of cinema, poetry, philosophy, literature, are all an exercise in mapmaking: “Humanities are the study of where we situate ourselves in relation to the world. The whole issue of what we are becomes a function of where we are.”
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