What is Distance? To the child, it might be the vast expanse of time between morning and night, or between one summer holiday and the next. To the old person, it might be the shimmering curtain separating them from their youth—at once seeming so close and recent, and then again irretrievably and vaguely far. For the professional student of the past, whether she accesses it through words or images or things, distance is both friend and enemy. On the one hand, distance winnows out much of everyday life’s chaff. On the other, it is an indiscriminate destroyer, leaving us with an almost random pattern of survivals. Distance clarifies. Distance misleads. Understanding this is what we aim at in our training of students and in our mature research-driven reflections. Students of the past have been living, eating, and breathing “distance” ever since the Renaissance discovery of anachronism—which is but another word for “distance-as-action.”

But distance is not something we only encounter as past-lovers. Distance also functions vernacularly, as a metaphor for personal problem-solving. Keeping one’s distance becomes a way of channeling Plato’s Sophrosyne, or balance. Distance, as we might say, gives us perspective. Wilhelm von Humboldt, founder of the University of Berlin, wrote in his essay “The Task of the Historical Writer” (1821) that “historical truth is, as it were, rather like the clouds which take shape for the eye only at a distance.” But in desiring to attack the conventional moral order Nietzsche chose to turn distance into a weapon. In The Genealogy of Morality (1887) he attributed the origins of morally-structured language to a “pathos of distance” between nobles who ruled and the ignobles who obeyed—not to any ethical code of “good” or “evil.”

Because of the priority of distance it is with this question that we inaugurate our new practice of giving a theme to the research year at Bard Graduate Center. The theme will link together our gallery exhibitions, seminar series, and fellowship applications. Formulated as a question, these research themes will, over time, add up to a library of fundamental questions for students of the cultural sciences. In the back of our mind, at the origin of this project, is Aby Warburg’s description of his Hamburg-based library as a “Problem-Bibliothek,” or problem-focused collection. As BGC enters its next quarter century, this collection of questions will offer another perspective on the institution’s intellectual agenda.