Out of Box

by MT

The nice thing about field exams (some say qualifying or comprehensive) is that you are pulled and pushed to extreme. Anxious, worried, and strained, your sensational system is boosted and you never feel so alive to the degree that you feel like dying. Moreover your scholarship is laid bare in front of the juries. In this aspect, it resembles a design review in the studio, though different in medium and organizational principles. After the exams, the overall comment from my committee is to be cautious with my tendency to compartmentalize knowledge instead of making connection across different authors and concepts. With this in mind I talk to each professor in the committee for more details in the past two days, and not until I talked to all of them did I realize fully what they meant by compartimentalization.

With Professor DU I take it as a matter of style. I also thought about him as an anthropologist, using knowledge as a pattern to cut across space and time, subject and object, individual and groups. Taken as a criticism I admit that it is always easier to remember the title of a book, its author, and publication year than to analyze the content in depth. In terms of writing it becomes an issue of craft, i.e., whether to put the names of the quoted author in the text or in the footnote. If the concept is important and overarching, for example, the prison in Foucault, then it is necessary to put his or her name in the text. On the other hand, if a paragraph or article is full of different names and opinions of authors, the eyes of the reader will be cluttered and the message you wanted to convey becomes obscured. Do not fetishize an author or a book. Flatten the concepts; absorb, digest, and internalize them. Make them your own words and opinions. That’s the first thing I learned.

During the breakfast with Professor BM this morning, she explained that by making connections she meant the gap between the visual theories (in authors such as Martin Jay and Holly Getch Clarke) and environmental history. Here the concept of “frame” and the distinction of insider and outsider has proved to be useful. What does this mean? To me it means an ethical opportunity and responsibility in landscape design and landscape study to contribute to the movement of environmentalism. Here the concepts of “perspectival hinge” (rather than perspective drawing) and “land-scopic regimes” (phenomenal picturesque regime and montage-diorama regime in particular) are useful, but there are still a lot to do with this huge gap. To me it is also a gap between, say, reason and imagination, between humanity and science, and so on. (Edward Casey and his book on mapping came to my mind after the discussion). I realize that even in academic writing one still needs to be liberated from books, especially in synthesis. This notion also helps me to find my own voice and to see, as Krishnamurti says, the light in oneself. (Here is an answer, though hardly a final one, to the “what” of illumination).

I visited Professor DE in his office this afternoon. He encouraged me not to be afraid of taking off and no need be shy in the synthesis and critique of other people. For example, my critique on the critique of Partha Mitter on Ananda Coomaraswamy was so low key in the written part. It was not until the oral that I spoke more directly about my dislike of Mitter. My interpretation is that after all this is what scholars do: to propose, exchange, and debate over different ideas in their efforts. In terms of my tendency in perfectionism DE advised me to write a little bit everyday. “If you write one more sentence,” he says, “you have one more sentence in your dissertation. Sometimes you write more and sometimes you cannot write. But if you write a little bit everyday, you are progressing.” He once told me that “the greatest enemy of a paper is a perfect paper.” Now that I no longer haveany term paper to write (yes), he changed the word “paper” into “book” and added: “the greatest enemy of a dissertation is an incomplete dissertation.” Hilarious but very true.

Looking back my days in design studio, despite knowing the value of precedents and their interpretation as opposed to mere replicate, I was (subconsciously) often too concerned with the issue of copying and creativity so that I could not precede once I feel my design resembles the form or pattern of a renown designer or project. Perhaps this is in fact the byproduct of the superstar culture. Yes, a great designer or scholar is admirable. Nevertheless they are no gods and, just like us, also make mistakes and wrong judgments. Rather than “who do you want to become” or “who is your role model,” the more pressing questions are: what does the world want from us, and what do we want from the world? To me the responsibility of a scholar is to make knowledge more accessible and efficient for the use of other people; and the task of a designer is to anchor people, physically and metaphorically, in this floating dream world. The rest is the remnant of excessive courtesy (read inferiority complex) and belongs to the dustbin.

By the way, I passed the exam.