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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

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.