What does belief look like? Or enchantment?
Such was the challenge facing Emilie Flamme ’20 as she illustrated the core concepts in A Universe of Terms, an online project in religious studies edited by Mona Oraby, assistant professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought.
The multimedia project is an offshoot of The Immanent Frame, a digital publication that Oraby also edits, and that concerns interdisciplinary questions of secularism, religion and the public sphere. It is published by the Social Science Research Council.
“The idea is to demonstrate to students—as I always strive to do in my classrooms, as many professors at Amherst do—the variety of perspectives on a single question, on a single term,” Oraby says of A Universe of Terms. For instance, for the entry on “body,” Ayesha S. Chaudhry, a professor at the University of British Columbia, contributes three anecdotes about her experiences in different mosques around the world. Each term is accompanied by at least three essays, plus images, links to more writing and a Spotify playlist. A Universe of Terms is in part inspired by the 1998 essay collection Critical Terms for Religious Studies.
Flamme, who double-majored in architectural studies and Russian, got to know Oraby while putting together a 70-page illustrated text on postwar Lebanon for a seminar she was taking. A year later Oraby approached Flamme about collaborating: “Sometimes academics generate projects that they think will be useful to undergraduates or students generally, but without including them in the process of development,” Oraby says. “I wanted to make sure we were including student perspectives.”
Flamme set out to create stark images that represent the terms but allow the viewer to mentally fill in the details. She ultimately created 14 images, one corresponding to each term.
“There’s a star,” Flamme says, “there are hands, there’s a body shape, there are circles. I wanted there to be continuity, so that if someone is looking at an image about economy and you’re looking at an image about performance, there could be something to say about the two of them.”
The images take inspiration from Flamme’s own life. One example: “The shape of the body is the shape of my childhood doll. It doesn’t look like anything necessarily, but it has a sort of universal feel to it.”
Flamme presented the artwork at Frost Library last spring, shortly before the shift to remote learning. “This project has made me think about what community looks like, and what thought looks like, and how we take thought and community with us wherever we go,” she said in her brief remarks that day. “As we spread apart, it’s going to be imperative that we stay connected in ways that we’ve never tried before and think about community in a way that’s different—in a way that’s not necessarily physical but still can be just as much.”
In January Flamme will begin an Amherst College French Department Fellowship at the École Normale
Superieure in Paris, having declined, because of COVID-19, a Fulbright research fellowship in Russia.
Illustrations by Emilie Flamme ’20.