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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The History of Western Philosophy (in Five Easy Lessons)

Greetings to all our members, and wishing each and every one of you the very best for 2015. We have a new salon series kicking off this January, and we hope that you will be joining us. 

Over the holidays it struck us that, as an ever-evolving group of budding philosopher queens, we have hip-hopped our way across a veritable archipelago of philosophical thinkers, epochs and themes. But how, we might well ask, do they all fit together? What kind of grand narrative, if any, unites the island stops we have made over the past 6 years in the vast sea known as Western Philosophy? And, to borrow from a familiar metaphor, might it help us in our ongoing quest to grasp the finer points of trees (particularly those post-structuralist ones!) if we were to spend a season getting to know the forest?

To this latter question, our guts said yes.  Which means that we are cobbling together a history of Western Philosophy that can be accessed in just five easy sessions. Sound like the latest self-help manual to hit the shelves at Chapters? It isn't! But what this latest salon series offering from wwp will hopefully do is give you a better sense of the BIG questions that have preoccupied Western philosophers over the past 2500 years or so, and provide a stimulating and friendly environment in which to engage with them. Though we will work our way through a significant chunk of the philosophical canon each session, our standpoint will remain consistent: probing the positioning of women within each epoch under examination, and considering how the evolution of thought over time has either contributed to the improvement of the female lot, or not.  As with all of our salon series, each session works as a stand-alone so you won't have to feel like you've lost the thread if you have to miss out on an evening or two. Here's the schedule:

January 29, 2015 - The Ancients (700 BCE - 250 CE)
February 26, 2015 - The Medieval Era (250-1500)
March 26, 2015 - The Age of Reason (1500-1750)
April 23, 2015 - The Age of Revolution (1750-1900)
May 21, 2015 - The Modern World (1900-1950)

All sessions take place on Thursday evenings and go from 7:30pm to 10pm.  As always, we welcome new members and invite existing members to bring a friend along if you feel she might be interested in giving wine women and philosophy a try. 


Making Do in Order to Unmake Anew: What, At the End of it All, IS in a Place?

A funny thing happened on the way to the finale. Funny as in strange, not ha-ha. Finale as in last session of our current Philosophy Club series, What's in a Place? - the moment we clap ourselves on the back (whether or not we've come up with the answer) and bring it all to a resounding conclusion. I was trotting through the park, hatching a plan d'action for the upcoming evening and contemplating, as one does, the more salient features of Michel de Certeau's (1984) "Making Do: Uses and Tactics," when I stumbled upon the most magical of scenes. Magical, because it was pure folly. Magical, because it resonated so beautifully with our grand finale theme: how the tactics of 'the weak' can be mobilized to sidestep the urban planning strategies of 'the strong'; how small acts of innovative tinkering, as witnessed in the growing jugaad movement in India, can force a rethink of prevailing place-oriented mindsets and conventions alike. 

The scene itself - a table set for a romantic tete-a-tete complete with silver service, wine goblets, and an ornate chandelier - was tucked within a circle of trees. The trees, for their part, created the illusion of privacy: acting as makeshift walls and a ceiling, the sweep of a large overhanging branch providing the attachment point for the chandelier. What was this? I wondered. An art installation designed to challenge the traditional divide between public and private places? How perfect and fitting! I thought. Or perhaps the work of some dashing Don Juanita planning to pop the question over an impromptu al fresco candlelit dinner in the park? Bingo yet again! In fact, any way I looked at it, it could be made to fit with my own plans for the evening. It was as if that scene had been laid out there especially for me: the anchor for my arguments; a beacon in the storm. Setting off a meteor shower of earth-shattering insights and connections and apropos and revelations...

And so to the evening itself. Being the last session of the series, it was important that we briefly revisit the paths we had already trod: our engagement with iconic public places and the question of what we take away with us of those places when we return home; the nature of that place we choose to call home - my place - as evoked through poetry and theorized through existentialism a la Jean-Paul Sartre. Then we struck out into unfamiliar territory: treating resonance as our navigational tool and embodiment as the river that runs through it. Yes, we had entered the realm of lived experience, and in searching for place through that lens we were casting aside abstract notions of what place should or should not be to us and do to us and opting, instead, to get down and dirty with its earthy company.

Proposing the vibratory workings of resonance as a more direct route to doing this than the kind of 'getting to know a place' strategies employed by its cognitive counterpart, recognition, we struggled to get past the current (and somewhat irritating) overuse of the term by taking it back to its grassroots: to resonare, as in 'sound again' or 'reverberate'; to resonantia, as in 'set off an echo.' Equally helpful in this reclaiming of the term were Michaele Ferguson's observations about how resonance and dissonance play themselves out in the bodily theorizing of phenomenologist philosopher, Iris Marion Young. Ferguson's observation that "when a sound resonates, it generates vibrations, movement and energy" made us excited about the kinds of "sparks" that might come of engaging with place through listening out for those resonances (and dissonances) with our bodies. 

Bringing resonance as a method of inquiry into dialogue with the mechanics of "making do," we spoke of travelling to those storied places of parents and grandparents no longer with us, and asked ourselves what it means when the expected resonances just don't happen. Is place, in this case, empty? Or is it just not up to the task of standing in for those we have lost? - a "making do" that just won't do, that just doesn't cut it? As for that other kind of "making do" - the kind made famous by de Certeau's tactically-minded trickster and found to resonate, for some, with the relatively recent emergence of jugaad innovation and economics - we spent a good deal of time reviewing what we had learned about each of these phenomena courtesy of our assigned readings for the week. Key to both are the use of bricolage - cobbling together what you can out of what is available, regardless of who or what the object in question was originally intended for - and the acceptance of impermanence - an embracing of the notion that what one finds one cannot keep, that what one builds is not meant to last. A far cry, it has to be said, from the place we started out this series: the iconic Taj Mahal.

As for the scene in the park, I told club participants about it and urged them to go and see it for themselves. But the next day it was gone, disappeared into the ether, no sign that it had ever even existed. As the old saying goes, you had to be there. There, in that brief window of time, outside of which there was no There. I had wanted to share it, to  give others who had been involved in this journey into the ins and outs of place the opportunity to experience this particular site in all its ad hoc glory, to see for themselves how it spoke so eloquently to theoretical notions like jugaad and "making do" and even resonance itself. But this was not to be. And perhaps, in retrospect, its very ephemerality spoke more loudly, more eloquently, than its "being-there" ever could. Just as my place cannot be yours, just as we can only be the poets of our own lives and places - spinning those places into being through our poetry, setting those places all a-tremble with the flash of a sudden philosophical insight - so too are we obliged to stumble upon our own resonant places, to root out our own magical synergies.

And so to the next adventure - a hop, skip and jump through the history of Western Philosophy. Stay tuned for the logistics involved in covering 2500 years of thinking in the course of a single five- session salon series. And to all of our members, have a happy holiday season and keep those home fires burning until we meet again in early 2015.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Place or Yours: A Case of Poetry (and Existentialism) Opening Doors

American historian, author and environmentalist Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), who  cared deeply about places and the sense we make of them, once commented that "a place is not a place until it has a poet." This entrancingly provocative remark became the centerpiece of our second Philosophy Club foray into place: prompting us to put pen to paper so as to haiku our way into a better understanding of those places that hold special resonance for ourselves and us alone; daring us to become 'the poets of our own lives and places' in order to stretch Stegner's assertion to its outer reaches.

That those outer reaches included a detour into Existentialism courtesy of Jean Paul Sartre's (1905-1980) "My Place" - a short but dense chapter buried deep inside his pivotal and weighty tome Being and Nothingness (1943), and through which we had all waded in preparation for this session - was not entirely coincidental. Sartre is famous for having sent a frisson through the literary world (and ruffled more than a few literary feathers) when he denied poets entry into the realm of "committed writing" - a realm he reserved for prose writers alone. Prose, Sartre felt, was the only art form capable of producing concrete action and with it, political change. The instrumentality of prose - its very directness and lack of ambiguity - made it the ideal mouthpiece for those committed to not only rewriting the world but spreading their message far and wide so as to spark a veritable reworking of that world on the part of writers and their readers alike. Poets, on the other hand, well, they were in the business of "bearing witness": of distilling earthly anguish into the plop of a raindrop, of making us feel that raindrop (and by extension, that anguish) strongly and vividly but not in a way that would physically spur us out there onto the barricades

In making these claims Sartre's aim wasn't so much to elevate prose over poetry as to highlight the difference between writing that provokes action, and writing that evokes affect - that breathes life into the thing itself. On the subject of affect, and its very elusiveness when it comes to pinning things down and divvying them up into neat little categorizations, a frustrated Sigmund Freud once commented, "Everywhere I go, I find that a poet has been there before me." The 'everywhere' to which Freud was referring on this particular occasion was the realm of affect, and his frustration stemmed from his inability to capture its mysterious workings in relation to the human psyche in scientifically credible psychological prose. Concluding that in beating him to the finish line, the poets had also made his task of scientizing affect that much more challenging, Freud gave up: stashing his affect research in a bottom drawer; turning his attention to more 'scientifically credible' matters like female hysteria and penis envy.

Hmmmmm...The actual point being, of course, that though Sartre and Freud did not see eye to eye on much, they did agree that poets had cornered the affect market and that - for better or for worse - they were the reigning literary champions of that domain. As for place and our relationship to it, there are poets aplenty who would venture that place is nothing if not a hotbed of affect. Which adds up to a rather long and circuitous way of saying that, as a group, we were prepared to make unlikely bedfellows of Poetry and Existentialism in order to see what poetry could and could not teach us about what constitutes those places we call our own, as well as to wring from the wrought terrain of those self-same places a testing ground for Wallace Stegner's place-creating poet-cum-geographer.

From the get-go, then, it was a case of subjecting everything on the evening's agenda to a dueling banjo gruel-fest that pitted haiku against the Word. Our first face-off revolved around participant's own observations about place, culled from our previous session together. In some cases, the observations themselves read like poetry...

"If my body becomes un-placed,
and I am physically ill
 - all at sea -
then I too will be un-placed,
no matter how convivial the setting."

                                                                      "Place, like life, just happens to you,
                                                                      And sometimes just having a place,
                                                                       Is enough."


                                           "Even the act of passing through,
                                            Of being a passenger,
                                            Can be grounds for implacement.
                                            I don't have to be stationary,
                                            To be in place."

In other cases, they were battle cries from the barricades of life...

                          "Not everybody needs, or indeed even wants, to get back to the ur-place!"

         "Topophilia! You've got to be kidding! Really?!"

                          "Only a place that is freely available to ALL can rightly be called a PUBLIC place!"

And some were just plain old Proustian...

             "Why settle for a visual crumb, for a photograph, when I have many more senses - smell,
              touch, sound, taste, to name just several - with which to get to know a place."

Spun first into theory through analytic prose, turned subsequently into poetry just dripping with affect, the results of pooling these scattered observations about place into succinct little parcels of either studied insight or atmospheric glimmer were compared and contrasted, played off each other and unpacked. Buoyed by this experimental working of what had come before, though not yet ready to come out on one side or other of the great prose versus poetry debate, we launched into the matter at hand: Sartre's reflections on his place, entitled "My Place."

A preliminary exercise in haiku gave us free reign to express our initial reaction to the piece, as well as to explore how each of us as readers brushed up against this particular authorial voice. For some, Sartre spoke in them, through them, for them, to them. For others, Sartre didn't reach them at all - something Sartre the Activist would have found deeply distressing if Iris Murdoch is right in asserting that "the driving force of all his writing" was "to change the life of his reader." Regardless of whether or not we had felt interpellated by Sartre the Writer, however, we were unanimously intrigued by his opening argument: that our initial lack of choice with regard to the place we are born sets off a chain reaction of contingency that severely restricts our freedom; that no matter how much we believe ourselves to be freely choosing any subsequent place we might opt to call our own, that original unchosen place will forever loom large, impacting how any future place is selected, occupied, and moved on from.

It was clear that we needed instruction on the finer points of freedom, and Sartre was undoubtedly the philosopher to deliver that life lesson to us. For indeed, maximizing your freedom is the only thing in life that is truly worth striving for, according to Sartre, even if managing to get some for yourself is no mean feat. In a sense, the word 'striving' here is key: for the attainment of true freedom resides in the simple acknowledgement that you exist in 'your' place for no other reason than your "being-there"; for it is only in recognizing all those 'facts' about your existence within place over which you have no control and through which your freedom as regards place is curtailed that you can even begin to negotiate a freer relationship to the place in which you find yourself, and the places you might go. In other words, to strive for freedom is to pull off the blinders and reach out towards something or somewhere else, even if that act of reaching ends up finding you happiest in precisely the place you are. It is to project yourself elsewhere, to literally make of your projections a project, and in that space of making plans and making choices and in that space only, to transform the reality of place in your life from what Sartre sees as an "insurmountable obstacle" that we unthinkingly or begrudgingly drag around with us, into "a point of attachment or a point of departure, as we wish."

This marvelously motile idea of place captured our collective imagination. What we liked was the idea that place in general, and our own personal places more specifically, could be less of a passive geographical landmark into which we have been inserted and from which all other places we choose to inhabit snowball, and more of a vibrant spatial relationship into which we actively enter: an ongoing negotiation between an actual "being-there" right here and a projected "being-there" out there that at least affirms for us that we are involved in, and committed to, the choosing of an end. As to whether we affirmed the power of poetry over analytic prose to convey the depth and texture of Sartre's existentialist thinking is another matter altogether, and one that we agreed to carry forth into the third and final session of this Philosophy Club mini-series. When we reconvene, we'll be asking ourselves how much further traditional notions of place can be stretched by putting them through the wringer of Michel de Certeau's concept of "Making Do" and the Indian innovative approach to rule-bending, Jugaad. We'll also be unpacking the notion of resonance in an attempt to get to the bottom of the driving question - what IS in a place? - that lies at the heart of this series.