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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

An Epistemological Equation of Sorts: Home + Away = Abroad?

Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start...But whereas Julie Andrews and her curtain-clad charges got the ball rolling with do-re-me,  we here at wwp used the window itself to parlay our way into this, the second, session of our current salon series devoted to The Traveller: seeing, in Henri Matisse's 1922 painting, Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window, an interesting juxtaposition of the private world of Home and the public world of Away; sensing, in that liminal blue line between chintzy interior and Nice's Promenade des Anglais, an appropriate place to situate the evening's exploration of that hazy lofty unplace called Abroad.

For if the last session - our maiden voyage - found us far out beyond those sailboats, afloat on the sparkling blue sea, this session - like a homing pigeon - took us back to the place from whence we'd come. First, though, we had to sit a spell on the threshold: using that space of neither here, neither there, to hash out the relationship between our point of origin and the spot where we had currently washed up on shore; tightrope-walking our way through the elsewhere and "elsewhen"  (Greg Wise) of home if only to test the strength of its safety net, if only to push the limits of its pull on us. And indeed 'home,' as viewed from this borderlands vantage point, shook off those cozy cliches faster than you can shake out a welcome mat. Home Sweet Home? Hearth and Home? Home as - bless old Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - AD 79) - where the heart is? Well, let's just say that home as "dilemmatic space" (Bonnie Honig) better describes the image that captured our hearts, that gave us plenty to write home about, as we grappled with the question of what really keeps those home fires burning. If the answers to the latter were diverse, ranging from creatively nesting to continually negotiating those "little tactics of the habitat" (Michel Foucault) to consciously transforming the unhappy home of yesterday into today's site of active resistance, our task of unpacking this not-so-cozy-concept-after-all was aided by shifting the focus away from home as place to home-making as action.

Suddenly, we had some momentum: no longer location, location, location but locomotion (!), we were touching base with our post-structuralist meanderings of several months back; no longer restrained by domus, reduced to stasis, we were finding a way to make ourselves more at home with home by both circulating within it and venturing from it on a Deleuze-Guattarian "thread of a tune." Aha! - so Julie Andrews hadn't been left behind after all. Here we were, whistling while we (house)worked and all the time, unbeknownst to ourselves, we were territorializing - birdlike - our surroundings, we were weaving self and environs into one. But also, we were singing out, spinning out, a transportable soundscape - one that couldn't be left at home, just stashed under a pot plant along with emergency key and instructions for feeding the cat, when we pulled the front door shut and set off on our travels. And here, quite possibly, we hit upon the crux of the matter: the difficulty of ever entirely leaving home; the fact that when you pack up that old kit bag of yours, your troubles do indeed go with you. So much, we thought, for Pico Iyer's assertion that the pessimist at home can morph into an optimist abroad. Home, it seemed, wasn't quite so easy to shake off as all that. Home, for all the self-imposed "disorienting" we might engage in so as to live more "deliberately," more vitally, while actually in our home (David Henry Thoreau) was proving to be a tenacious old beast when it came to striking out for Abroad.

The time had come, we decided, to hit the road and give those homespun tentacles a run for their money. First, we considered the three camps into which Paul Fussell divides those who go Abroad: the traveller (the age of which, according to Fussell, is "dead"); the tourist (who is apt to ask of anyone encountered en route, "Where are you from?"); and the anti-tourist (who is apt to answer the tourist's well-meaning question with a vague and disdainful, "Hmmmm...I spend a lot of time Abroad."). Examining each of these tropes, we delved into the "Golden Age of Travel" as experienced by those with sufficient means between the two world wars, and as conveyed through high-brow modernist travel literature.

Next, we divided ourselves into groups - Sojourners, Globe-trotters, Ex-pats, and Jet-setters - so as to explore the various ways that these folks, through time, have engaged with the extended stay "abroad" or the proverbial 'grand tour' "overseas." Selecting a suitable carrying case and then packing it for these various entities was one of the ways we got to know each of them better. Subjecting those same entities to an arduous questionnaire - Where is 'abroad'?; Does the idea of going abroad suggest slow travel?; Who goes abroad these days?; How might 'a move abroad' be considered 'a tactical evasion'? (thank you, Ian McEwan!) - resulted in some important insights into the tactics used by each of these groups to negotiate the terrain between Home and Away whilst Abroad. Linking these insights to questions we had collectively put together during our first session together, we were able to draw on these particular travelling 'types' to flesh out whether it is better to arrive at our destination with or without prior knowledge of it, whether organized travel affords us greater freedom or lesser freedom than 'disorganized' travel, and the role played by our senses as we immerse ourselves in foreign climes.

As for what comes home with us after we've been away, we'll give Francis Bacon (1561-1626) - known as 'the great empiricist' and 'father' of the scientific method - the final florid word on this issue:

 "Let us only prick in some flowers, of that we hath learned abroad, into the customs of our own country."

Er....right. What's more, it's easy to see why he's also credited with having introduced into philosophy the art of inductive reasoning. Poor old Bacon, though...He died of pneumonia after scrabbling about in the cold while attempting to prick - in those days, the word meant 'plant' - snow into the interior of a recently butchered chicken in order to test out freezing as a method for preserving meat. The experiment was a success...The same could hardly be said of Bacon. As the old saying goes, and as we Canadians know all too well thanks to our own powers of induction: "A good woolly hat - never leave home without one!"