Salons: where good ideas continue to come from…

EPIC Salons: Creating spaces for ideas to flourish

What do San Francisco in the 1960’s, Vienna at the turn of last century, Calcutta during the 1800s and London in the 17th and 18th centuries have in common?

The simple answer is that they were centres of transformative change in society, culture and business fuelled by conversation – or more accurately by new forms of debate and discussions taking place in environments that created an equal footing for a variety of individuals.

In Vienna, the composers (Mahler, Schonberg and Bruckner), artists (such as Klimt), philosophers Mach and Wittengenstein, and Freud – all grew up and many interacted with each other in a cultural milieu defined by café life. In San Francisco the locale of the renaissance was the North Beach neighborhood, where Rexroth, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Synder and others could be found. These cities were, and perhaps remain, cities of furious, curious creative energy. They are cities which excel at creating new ideas, and new ideas about old ideas.

What, you might very well ask, does this have to do with EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference) 2013?

This year, inspired in large part by the venue, a grand 18th building (here’s a history) and a desire to create a space for a genuinely free-flowing conversation we have decided to put on three Salons. The Salons will not be a seminar, not a presentation, nor a workshop – they will be multi-vocal conversations, above all things, with no goal or end to be reached beyond a stimulating exploration of the topic. Two or three expert discussants will participate in each Salon to prime the conversation, but our expectation is that all participants will contribute to the discussion on an equal footing.

We’ve described at greater length elsewhere what they are and how they will work, so here I wanted to take the opportunity to reprise excerpts from an older piece about tea shops in India (during the 1990s when I conducted fieldwork there) and coffee shops in London (during the period when the EPIC venue for this year, The Royal Institution, was being built). Given that, at the time, all the talk about online life was about weblogs, I linked the piece to the Internet too.

I wrote this piece nine years ago  – I doubt Steven Johnson’s read it, but it’s basically making a similar argument to the one he made much more intelligently and lucidly in ‘Where good ideas come from’: that robust and creative developments emerge from environments that support the free and robust exchange of ideas and perspectives. History shows that ‘progress’ and advances in lots of areas of life emerge when these conditions are met and ideas can flourish.

If you look at the tea houses of Vienna when Klimt, Mahler and Freud were hanging out and exchanging ideas they would look pretty similar to the coffee shops of 17th and 18th century London and, as I argued in my original blog piece, a visit to an north Indian tea shop would give you a good sense of what sitting in those environments would have been like

During my fieldwork in Varanasi, north India (during 1996-7) I spent [time] almost everyday in tea shops. They share many, if not all, of the characteristics of the coffee houses. Tea shops, as hubs of communication, discussion and media consumption, are much more than places to stop for tea. They are a place to pick up a piece of newspaper and with it some of the concerns of the day. Tea shops perform a ‘world disclosing’ role, they are arenas in which ‘cultural scanning’ takes place. (Both these terms are from anthropologist Ulf Hannerz’s masterpiece Cultural Complexity.

Indian tea shops, like their London relatives, attract different crowds. One I frequented was a hang out for Muslim weavers; another a staunchly intellectual and highly political hangout for supporters of the BJP. Across the road, Congress supporters discussed politics and affairs of the neighbourhood or state over the same hot, sweet tea. Elsewhere in town, in the more mercantile districts, the price of gold and the fluctuating demand for TV sets over the wedding or festival season dominated the conversation. Tea shops, I noted, were much like London coffee houses in that they attracted a particular clientele and specific shops became associated with particular topics of debate and discussion, as noted by the first edition of The Tatler, a society magazine:

‘All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White’s Chocolate-house; Poetry, under that of Will’s Coffee-house; Learning, under…Grecian; Foreign and Domestick News, you will have from St James’s Coffee-house.’

Writing about Calcutta and Bengal at a slightly later point in history, during its cultural renaissance, historian Arabinda Poddar talks about semi-private salons in which:

“…all questions connected with local politics, social reform, education, literature, religion, metaphysics, jurisprudence, political economy, scientific outlook, theories of state and of society…”

Salons thus support a multitude of different topics, the common feature being that they act as hubs where people and ideas meet.

What unites the tea and coffee houses of the past and present I’ve mentioned is their fundamental concern with equality of status of participants in a discussion. Tom Standage, author of a 2003 piece on this topic, and author of upcoming book ‘Social Media: The First Two Thousand Years, emphasized this is a recent NYT feature. One reason these conversations were so lively was that social distinctions were not recognized within the coffeehouse walls. Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, “gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece.”

Our aim for the salons at EPIC salons is to ensure that we dissolve the typical distinctions between speakers and audiences, panelists and questioners, and merely set up a discussion about three important and interesting topics. Our hope for them is that they will support lively, informed and stimulating debate.

And you’ll be glad to hear that tea and coffee will be served.