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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Consuming Public Places: Snap, Crackle, Pop!

With the question of our whereabouts uppermost on our minds, the wwp Philosophy Club regrouped last Thursday to do what Edward S. Casey insists philosophers have failed to do: face up to 'the void'; take a good hard look at 'place'. In Casey's opinion, these two failures are linked. So frightened are philosophers of discovering that there is nothing out there at all - of being confronted by one huge great gaping "cosmic abyss" - that they have taken actual real places for granted, and the concept of place as hardly worth thinking about (let alone a second thought). 

Challenging this philosophical oversight, Casey has made a career of writing about place in all its multi-faceted glory. In the preface to the second edition of his weighty tome, Getting Back into Place (1993/2009), he also makes an argument for doing just that in our increasingly motile world: for journeying either physically or imaginatively back to those (often childhood) places that contain what he describes as those "lasting scenes of experience and reflection and memory." To some of us engaging with Casey's preface - the assigned reading for the week - his impassioned plea for a return to the "ur-place" (to our earliest or original place) stung of misplaced nostalgia and old-fashioned traditionalism. For others, Casey's argument that we are currently living in a troubling state of displacement struck home, and the symptoms he attributed to "place-panic" - to a life lived out in a place-less atopia - seemed tangible and real.

No doubt we will revisit Casey's argument as this latest Philosophy Club offering, What's in a Place?, proceeds. For the moment, though, we were keen to get on with the topic du jour: the nature of public places - especially those that have become iconic such as the Tour d'Eiffel or the Taj Mahal - and the matter of how we gaze upon them, interact with them, and use photography to make them our own. As it happens, Susan Sontag's insightful reflections on the distancing that takes place when we put a camera between ourselves and the public place in question put a bit of a damper on this latter ambition: highlighting how this zeroing in on the visual can rob us of other sensory pleasures to be had when confronted with a tour or a taj; demonstrating how in temporarily removing ourselves from the scene at hand in order to capture something we can take home with us, we deny ourselves the opportunity to actively participate in the life of the place itself. The choice, it would seem, is between ephemeral experiencing and ghostly remains. With the former, you live the place but have nothing to show for it. With the latter, you have something for the slide show but the place only exists in the scrap heap of your image-repertoire. It's a tough call, to photograph or not to photograph, and one no doubt influenced by the degree to which you and your favourite image-taking or -making device have an understanding...happen to get along. 

On the other hand, those iconic public places have already been so snapped (up) that when you see them 'in the flesh,' what you are quite possibly seeing is the simple reassurance that they are 'just like the photograph.' Given this sad state of affairs, one might well ask why one takes a photograph at all? Except, perhaps, that your own personal photograph has the addition of you or those known to you in the frame: that 'I was here' aspect that your 'wish you were here' postcard just doesn't contain. Except, perhaps, that your photograph might well turn out to be 'the one': capturing something about that iconic public place that has never been captured before. These exceptions we unpacked, alongside the etymological origins of the words 'place', 'public' and 'iconic'. If 'place' gave us pause for thought, pondering its 1500 year journey from that oh-so-feared void of the open Greek plateia - a "broad" or "flat" space - to the vastly more manageable "particular location within space" of its Middle English incarnation, the relatively straightforward linking of 'iconic' to the Greek Eikon - "likeness, image, portrait" - fit well with how we engage with anything deemed iconic in the age of the "selfie." As to the Latin roots of 'public,' the hefty fees charged to gain access to many of those so-called "of the people" places raised the question of whether anywhere that is not freely available to all can rightfully be called 'public' in the first place!

And so to a detailed examination of the Taj Mahal, which provided a good testing ground for each of these concerns and considerations. We grappled with an entrance fee structure that charges foreigners 750 rupees to witness India's "most ogled icon," while Indians pay a mere 20 rupees to visit their national monument. Fair enough, said the majority. Better, but not good enough, maintained the proponents of the 'public equals free access for all' movement. We wrangled, next, over the city of Agra's decision to create a 25 kilometre industry-free zone around the building that Tagore called the "teardrop on the face of eternity" so as to protect it from pollution and keep it eternally white - "the embodiment of all things pure" (Kipling). Of this we asked, What price eternity?...What price the pure? Positing that at the heart of the matter lay the question of just which public is being better served here - a transient public which pauses to gape at a beautiful snow white teardrop of a building and then moves on? or a local public which must now displace itself to find work outside the city limits? - we were equally anxious to ascertain just where, from a place point of view, the real value of this cash-cow of a mausoleum might lie.

By way of an answer, a selection of touristic guidebooks to India offered a suggestion or two of their own. Could it lie in the Taj's reputation as "the most extravagant monument ever built for love" (Lonely Planet)? Or was it to be found in the Taj's status as "the ultimate Kodak moment" (Let's Go)? This led to a discussion of another icon, Princess Diana, who in 1992 was snapped sitting sad and lonely and caught in a loveless marriage on a bench in front of the iconic Taj, resulting in a photograph which went on to become as iconic as both the princess and the great building itself. The fact that today, 'Diana's bench' attracts almost as much attention as the pearly white dome that looms behind it says something significant about public places, not to mention about the generative power of icons. It also hints at why great-wonders-of-the-world-hopping as epitomized in the notion of the bucket list has captured the popular imagination and spread like wild fire...Not, it must be said, among members of the wwp Philosophy Club, but certainly at the level of the wider public - or so, at least, public opinion would have us believe.

With a nod towards our next session - an existential examination of those private places we call our own and/or strive to make our own through the mechanism of resonance - we brought the evening to a close with a brief survey of gazes. Picking up on John Urry's contention that to gaze at a place is to "visually consume" it, we compared the consumptive habits inherent in the inclusive and convivial 'collective tourist gaze' to those which characterize the semi-spiritual and privacy-seeking 'romantic gaze' of the more solitary adventurer. We also probed the difference between gazing upon a public place so as to consume it sur place and photographing that place with an eye to consuming it later, in the comfort of ones' own home. Food for thought, this, which gives us plenty to chew on in anticipation of our next club meeting.