An Afternoon of Uselessness

What better way to spend a rainy afternoon than talking idly about Chinese philosophy over a good cup of tea? Today we had our first East-West Salon here at DMU where I work. It’s been a fun event. I decided to set up a salon with my colleague Sam Bamkin after his return from the ‘Infusing Asian Studies’ institute at the East-West centre in Hawaii (www.eastwestcente.org). Our aim is to provide a forum for looking at East Asian thought, and mulling over the implications of taking East Asian traditions seriously for how we go about thinking, teaching and leading our lives.

Our first session was free-ranging, starting from the first chapter of Sarah Allan’s wonderful book The Way of Water and the Sprouts of Virtue, and talking about root metaphors in Chinese and Western thought. We had long and interesting excursions into contemporary politics — in particular Xi Jinping’s notion of the “China Dream” (中国梦), thanks to Dr. Amy Barnes’s reflections on the recent conference of the same name at the University of Leicester — whilst also drawing connections with deeper-rooted philosophical themes.

We set up the group quite deliberately as something open-ended, something that serves no particular agenda, and something that is part of no wider ‘research strategy’. The group was born out of an concern in having interesting conversations. And no more.

This calculated uselessness may turn out to have its benefits. As Zhuangzi puts it, “人皆知有用之用,而莫知無用之用也,” or, “Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but there is none who knows the usefulness of the useless.” Which means, of course, that our non-strategy may be, in truth, some kind of strategy after all…

Next up, we may be talking about the addiction to knowledge, which seems a potentially worthwhile thing to talk about in a university, where the corridors are haunted by knowledge-junkies who wander about like hungry ghosts. I’m looking forward to it.

Comments

Christopher Willmot
Reply

When I was working on a PhD, I noticed time spent away from the desk was profitable in a very different sort of way — less structure but more inspiration. I’ll have to add ‘uselessness’ to my collection of examples of the Downward Way (a book I’ve been working on for about seven years, now). I find uselessness to be the key to creativity.

Have you heard of the ‘Macy Conferences’? They were a superb example of the benefits of uselessness. Gregory Bateson and others got together a group just to explore what might be possible. “As chair of this set of conferences, Warren McCulloch had responsibility to ensure that disciplinary boundaries were not unduly respected.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macy_conferences#Cybernetics_Conferences)

These turned out to be possibly the most influential ten meetings of the 20th Century. You’ve heard of Artificial Intelligence, Systems Biology and Dynamical Systems (Chaos Theory)? And I must mention my favourite grandchild of theirs, Constructivism.

You have some interesting topics coming up for your East-West Salon. Makes me quite envious!

Will
Reply

Christopher, I never got round to replying to this. Thanks for the link to the Macy Conferences. I like the idea of having a responsibility not to unduly respect disciplinary boundaries. Good luck with the downward way!

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