Tuesday, October 27, 2015

I love Sri Lanka. So what's bothering me?

I love Sri Lanka and its people. So it's unusual for me to have a down moment here. The strange thing is I've been kind of down at the mouth for the past day or so. I think I may have found the cause: that four-letter word w-o-r-k. Well at least in part. It has pretty much seemed non-stop for about ten days now, ever since our truncated visit to Galle with students from Moratuwa University. 

I'm loosely associated with the Architecture Department at Moratuwa for my Fulbright, and these days have been a period of feverish activity-a two-day student workshop led by my colleague and friend Koen deWandeler of KU Leuven University in Belgium, an all-day crit of student work, another all-day juried panel of student presentations. A lot to wrap my head around as a biologist-even though I also teach design research methods in the sustainability program at the Boston Architectural College. 

Speaking of wrapping my head around things...perhaps the most amazing thing I've experienced here is a closeness with a world view I've never known before. It's not something I can describe exactly. But I feel it's there in so many intangible ways. The exquisitely balanced food. The massage that connects me to unknown sensations. The look in people's faces or the way they move. The grace in a gesture. The way things seem to "fit together," at least to an outsider. My weeks here have been involved with exploring these intangible landscapes as much as I've been trying to discern how the physical landscape functions. 

So while I haven't been able to characterize fully the intangible human landscape all around me-a landscape I run into every day-at least I'm enough in touch to know it's out there, and that it has dimensions of its own-dimensions I may never come to fully understand. It's with a sense of humility and wonderment that I experience this. And it's that wonderment in part that keeps this experience, a kind of pursuit of a mysterious (to me) way of life, so amazing for me. 

So in a way the student work and especially the conference I just attended only added noise to this pursuit. Part of the noise has been the level and direction of academic endeavor, something that disappoints me whether I'm at home or in another country. From the standpoint of student work it was competent drawings, well-chosen quotes, and fine-sounding ideas that in many (not all) cases clothe half-baked "urban solutions" and poorly thought out concepts. Maybe that's how it always is with students. That's part of the fun and frustration. 

But what about more advanced scholars and "scholarship?" I heard talks the past couple of days that took me right back to '80s post-Marxist deconstructionism. Many of them were read, some just about recited. It's not just the supposed political stance, which people are entitled too. It's about the rote usage of terms like "hegemony," "power," and "discourse" that kept rolling off people's tongues the way the students recited the high-sounding ideas that weren't their own. My complaint is about "more of the same" among minds from whom I expected a bit of nuance. Minds with training and free time (I assume) to do a lot of independent thinking. 

Coming in touch with Sri Lanka is about coming in touch with ideas, feelings, and sensations that are simply and fully new. It's a little raw. But as you let it in the experience is astounding. Having your mind open is the only way to launch into this. Being near closed minds, or minds narrowly focused on Western "critique" is a wan experience that pales by comparison. So besides for "work," which I mentioned tongue in cheek (though some of the 12-hour days were more than enough), I suspect it's the diversion from experiencing the wonderment that's here as low hanging fruit that has turned me off. Looking forward now to a short break as we do some travel and re-start our real work here, cultural landscape ecology. 

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