Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On the challenge of co-existence.

Paul Carter writes about his book Meeting Place, in which waiting, meeting,
non-meeting, and communication have possibilities in unexpected manifestations.

BY PAUL CARTER
RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia



Meeting Place is like its subject: where people meet, there are always many voices and views. So Meeting Place brings together stories, insights, beliefs and experiences from many different times and traditions. And what counts in understanding the growth of sociability is not just the mystery of how different people communicate and translate their desires: it’s how they get there. Some people expect encounter; others are surprised.

Sometimes there is a wonderful convergence; sometimes we remain locked in our conceptual capsules.

Writing Meeting Place, I realized that I was part of this crowding world and my take on life’s central experience (meeting) was just one thread through the labyrinth. Instead of standing outside, I had to weave threads of my own. So Meeting Place is also the story of one person’s encounter with his place in the story. Living in Australia, I was struck by the fact that, while European and North American cultures encourage traveling, mingling and congregation, Australian Aboriginal cultures see meetings primarily as mechanisms for not meeting.


Meeting and the city

Meeting Place is a personal book in another way: it begins with a non-meeting at a railway station. Like a work of fiction, the story fans out from the emotional void experienced when the person one waits for fails to turn up. But I find meaning in this. As such, the book is structured like a city, with streets, clubs, woods, airports and museums. I encounter a host of thinkers and artists who believe, paradoxically, that the desire bound up in meeting only survives so long as meeting is deferred. Perhaps the true Eros, whose desire is never satisfied, is the modern Internet-doubled city.

By staging an encounter between Australian Aboriginal cultures of place-making and metropolitan theories of cultural progress, this book is able to attend to the desire of meeting and to see that what counts is a capacity to interact wherever one is, to improvise and by copying the gestures of those around to build a new, joyous sense of place and self. Such an emerging awareness expresses itself in a reinterpretation of Giacometti’s iconic sculptural groups.

Cities have layers: it’s an illusion to think we live in the present. Meetings are always returns because we confront our hopes and fears. Meeting Place is constructed in the same way. Some of these same ideas have appeared in my other books, but in Meeting Place they meet as never before, like returning to a city and coming across familiar places. In other words in this free, essay-like cultural writing there is a history as well as a geography.

Most of the very short chapters have titles taken from graffiti tags. This symbolises the way meeting is preceded by a desire of encounter: besides the official signs there are unofficial ones, leading into the labyrinth of desire, where, sometimes, we need to get lost.

When I wrote this book, I imagined readers who juggle texting, emailing, Facebook, navigating traffic, fitting in study, listening to music: we are distracted by the amplified opportunities for meeting and connection. Attention spans are shortened. Responding to this new environment of reading, I wanted Meeting Place to be a parcours of the terrain, a speed read which captured the challenge of co-existence in a world where everyone is connected and fewer and fewer people know how to relate.


On correspondences


One of the secret pleasures of books, at least for the author, is the other meetings they produce. After talking about Meeting Place at Edinburgh University at the end of last year, I got into correspondence with one of the researchers there. The immediate rapport and the range of things we’ve got to talk about are a complete surprise. Meeting Place discusses the idea that only true strangers can truly meet. But readers and writers constantly have the experience.

In a way correspondences between book and life remind me that most writing, well mine at least, is, or aims to be, prophetic: I mean it is a gathering place of testimonies from the past, but why are they collected? Because of a design on the future. I found this in the past because I was looking for it in the future. Books that ‘work’ fulfill their own prophecies.

An extended email correspondence is a stretched-out-in-time meeting place, as other emails from strangers get mixed up in it. A PhD student writes to me this week about her work on representations of massacre in Palestinian refugee camps: she’s been ‘grappling’ with a book of mine published a few years back, Dark Writing. Too dark, maybe: at any rate, I think the essential paradox of the eye-witness is explained much more simply in Meeting Place. Meeting Place was intended to be a gathering place for themes that always seemed on the edge in earlier books. In a way, getting to grips with the essential evasion at the heart of meeting through Dark Writing makes her a fellow traveler, and it’s a reminder that the neophilia of publisher’s lists (where every publication is entirely new) has to be resisted.

Meeting is a bit like migration: it can take a lifetime; it’s an attitude of revisiting what has been done and said, and sifting through it for the other interpretations. When I am lucky enough to hear from readers who have, like the PhD student, been ‘living in close contact’ with my work, it’s confirmation of what Meeting Place claims: that there is never one author but always a host of secret correspondences that lift ideas into being and support their circulation.

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On March 27th, the Melbourne launch of Meeting Place will happen at The Board Room in Federation Square at RMIT University. More information or to RSVP: ehbitto@unimelb.edu.au.

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Paul Carter is professor of design (urbanism) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is author of Meeting Place: The Human Encounter and the Challenge of Coexistence and The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History.


"Paul Carter's commentaries on cross-cultural encounters have long been philosophically sophisticated and deservedly influential. His new book raises the question of what the value of meeting is, in whose terms. It takes us to the very heart of the histories of encounter and confrontation that have proven so intractable for so long in Australia and elsewhere."
—Nicholas Thomas, University of Cambridge

"The Meeting Place, Carter’s latest foray into colonial and postcolonial encounters of peoples, epistemologies, and longings, exposes what he foregrounds and reiterates as a ‘meeting place’ of desired belonging and social union. It is an imaginative, referentially capacious, formally demanding, as well as theoretically inventive book."
—Rob Wilson, University of California, Santa Cruz


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