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FAU Researcher Receives Grant for 'Somaesthetics of Atmosphere'

Richard Shusterman, Arts and Letters

Richard Shusterman, Ph.D., project director and the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in the Humanities, FAU Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters.


Florida Atlantic University’s Richard Shusterman, Ph.D., has received a grant from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund to explore a relatively recent topic in the humanities and arts that commands growing attention – “atmosphere.”

The primary definition of the word “atmosphere” is “the envelope of gases surrounding the earth,” which implies it is the climate that surrounds an individual. Its secondary meaning of “the pervading tone or mood of a place, situation or work of art” also places atmosphere outside the body. While both meanings place atmosphere outside the body, Chinese terminology for atmosphere tells a different story. Its word for atmosphere, qifen, is based on the concept of qi, denoting inner energy and vital breath as well as external air.

The FAU project, “Somaesthetics of Atmosphere,” will investigate atmosphere as a transactional, transformational connecting force that works both outside and inside the individual’s body.

“Atmosphere is normally regarded as something outside and surrounding the individual person, whereas our somaesthetic perspective explores the somatic internalization of atmosphere and the experiential effects of its somaesthetic inner-outer transactions,” said Shusterman, project director and the Dorothy F. Schmidt Eminent Scholar in the Humanities, FAU Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters. “Our project’s direction took its cue from Chinese terminology but will centrally utilize contemporary Western methods, including somaesthetics. Our premise is that rather than felt only on the outside, atmosphere and mood feel like they touch us from the inside yet are experientially shared. We will examine which atmospheres encourage creativity, community, education and a sense of the sacred.”

As part of the grant, Shusterman and the project team will host a two-day conference on Nov. 7 and 8 at FAU’s Boca Raton campus, which will focus on defining atmosphere and its role on creativity, community, trust, learning, spirituality and the sacred. Conference presenters will include key theorists of atmosphere and mood along with artists and designers working with atmosphere as well as thinkers focused on fostering spirituality, community and creativity.

The conference is expected to have a positive impact in three vital areas: human health, creativity, and transcultural and transdisciplinary understanding.

“Health depends on the transactions between the individual organism and its environment,” said Shusterman. “Our conference’s exploration of atmosphere as a key force shaping such transactions will lead to greater comprehension of how the varieties of atmosphere – meteorological and social – affect human health and what strategies for redesigning atmospheres could advance a healthier humanity as we face the challenges of climate change. Moreover, all thinking relies on an implicit background that defines thought’s directions and parameters, and atmospheres belong to that implicit background that limits our thinking without our being aware of how it confines us.”

The conference’s investigation of atmospheres and their somatic and social dimensions will bring this background to the critical foreground.

“This investigation will enable greater creativity by helping us to escape unconscious habits and limits of thought by introducing new levels of mindful awareness of this background that can stimulate new directions of thought and action,” said Shusterman. 

Lastly, the conference aims to foster greater multicultural understanding and transdisciplinary research on atmospheres through its intercultural and interdisciplinary perspectives.

“By exploring atmosphere not only through its Western conceptualizations but also through traditional East Asian ideas, our project seeks to deepen as it reflects respect for what different cultural traditions and different disciplinary communities can contribute to improving the understanding of atmosphere, something that affects us all,” said Shusterman.

Outcomes from the conference will establish an ongoing research network on the somaesthetics of atmosphere that will deliver further projects on this topic, result in journal publications and spur momentum for additional funding to study the somaesthetic spiritual dimensions of atmosphere in different religious, philosophical and artistic traditions.

“Atmospheres often are a crucially formative but hidden factor in experience because they are difficult to individuate and do not fit neatly into our common binaries of object and subject, world and mind,” said Shusterman. “Atmospheres are an elusive in-between that challenge those fundamental dualisms. Because of their importance, their elusiveness and their variety, atmospheres deserve extended study to improve our understanding of what they are, how they function, and how they may be modified or designed to improve our experience.”

-FAU-