Graduation address given by Professor Michael Tawa

Professor Michael Tawa gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 13 April 2012 in the Great Hall. Professor Tawa is Professor of Architecture in the Faculty.

The photo of Mr Anstice is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Michael Tawa

Graduation address

What might it mean, to graduate? To have a degree conferred? To have made the grade?

I work a great deal with and through words, their multiple meanings and resonances of meaning, the realization that every word is a world woven of whorls of sense, ready to be unpacked and unfolded…

These words, too, form a connected world of meanings: graduate, degree, grade.

Graduate comes from the Latin: graduari = to take a degree; and gradus = a step, a grade.

In the early 15th C, graduation was an Alchemical operation effected on substances to temper, refine or perfect them. It was a matter of adjustment, and so a matter of relative measure, of dividing into degrees, of giving each component its due measure within a whole.

The Greek philosopher Plato had something to say about tempering; and incidentally about education. For him, the practice of philosophy was not to be undertaken for its own sake. Rather, it was matter of tempering the body and the soul, bringing all parts of the human being into one harmonious whole, so that no one part dominated the rest. This musical analogy was eventually extended into art and architecture through proportion, which is the tempering of measures to produce concordant geometrical and spatial arrangements. The key idea here is that nature is insufficient unto itself; that nature needs art to be completed, to be perfected. It needs to be adjusted and tempered, reconciled and made whole. This view, forgotten by the West but rediscovered thanks to Islamic philosophy, was notably promoted during the Middle Ages, then the Renaissance, and again in early modernism – for example by the Swiss painter Paul Klee in his teaching at the Bauhaus and the French Architect Le Corbusier with his Modulor system of measurement.

Today, the idea is thoroughly discredited. References to wholes that are greater than their parts, or the notion of `reification,’ have little currency. In the world of ideas in any case, process and becoming are favored over product and being. And yet we have never had to contend with so many products: financial products, insurance products, educational products, electronic products, cultural products, household products, animal products, human products…

Plato also had something to say about education. For him, education was a matter of `recollection,’ the Greek word is anamnesis – a double negative - to not-not-remember, or `being-without-forgetfulness.’ It was Aristotle who defined being-human in terms of remembrance. Human-being is mnemonic; humans are beings who remember. For Plato, to be educated means to be enabled to remember what one already knows; not at all to have one’s `empty vessel’ or `tabula rasa’ or `terra nullius’ of a mind filled with new knowledge. By contrast, our word `educate’ is from the Latin: e-ducare – literally to `lead-out,’ `draw-out’ `conduct’ or `indicate.’ Not quite the same thing, since implied is a notion of the one to be educated as being `ductile’ – that is, elastic, easily-led, worked or drawn-out; easily formed-up or made to conform. Plato’s anamnesis allows us to think of education and architecture as practices that enable the already-there of an individual, a subject, a client, a community or a site to come forth and become itself – maybe as such and for the first time.

In any case, there is implicit in our word `graduate’ the notion of `scaling’ or `relative proportioning.’ `Grade’ is from the Latin: gradus, meaning a step, pace, gait, walk; a stage or degree. The notion of `walking’ - and more particularly the `comportment’ of one’s walking: one’s individual pace and gait, footstep or footfall, which so evidently communicate something about who we are - is also implicit.

This spatial notion of steps and stages, of putting the foot down, of footfall, connects the idea of grading to rhythm, beat and time. At its origins, the division of a circle into 360 degrees, or the days and months by sexagesimal arithmetic based on the number 12, marks a concern for developing measuring systems common to time and space and that connect earth and heaven, human and supra-human states or grades of existence.

A grade is a `degree of measurement,’ a graduated scale (such as degrees on a thermometer, millimeters on a ruler, the notches on a boat’s `starboard’ beam, the window sill of an ancient cabin or the standing stones of Stonehenge, all of which enable orientation or graduation to the celestial sphere of stars and planets). And as we know, to be without orientation to the stars is the very definition of `disaster’ – literally: `to be starless,’ to be de-graded; or as some of you may have experienced during your studies here, to be `un-graded’: that is, in a very real sense, to be inexistent.

Interesting to note that measure was originally a matter of quality not quantity, and that the sense of quantitative measure is relatively late – 19thC in fact (for example, grading in a school curriculum, in a letter-grade marking system or in a league table of universities). Principally, grades referred to qualitative differences, like the intervals between notes that constitute a musical scale or mode, and give it a distinct quality, ambiance, mood or emotion (the Dorian mode is serious, the Lydian mode is happy, the Phrygian mode is mystical…).

Then we have the idea of a grate or grating – a lattice or wickerwork; a screen of woven threads; a comb or rake; a plaited netting, basket or fishing creel woven or twisted or spun together into a network: sharp in the case of a grater; bulky in the case of a grader; an obstacle in the case of a barrier or hurdle. Such is the contradictory nature of a network, as we all know; it can debilitate and render inoperative, or it can habilitate and enable.

The notions of grade, step and degree imply a `series,’ or a greater whole to which the degree belongs: like the treads in a staircase, the centimeters in a meter or the notes in a musical scale. This returns us to the matter of part-to-whole relationship that I mentioned earlier. But there is also the notion of `gradient’ – that is, slope or differential level (a ramped road, a topological gradient, a thermal gradient, a moral gradient: a slippery slope).

This brings us to two critical ideas. One is the sense of multiplicity – that is, of more-than-one; the other is the sense of difference, of altereity, of otherness, which is obviously connected. Communities are such kinds of multiplicities, wholes that do not cohere into any discernable or nameable totality, wholes constituted by difference and differential relation, rather than by sameness. This concept of wholes runs counter to the Platonic version I mentioned earlier. It is a whole in which parts or in which subjects interminably defer one to the other: deferential communities of radical difference, or, as Alphonso Lingis put it, communities “of those who have nothing in common.”

These kinds of transactional collectives are barely thinkable in the current political and institutional climate, in which bureaucratization and globalization constitute the death throes of regimes that have no prospective gaze upon a future that is now-here. And yet such are the very communities and circumstances that you will all find yourselves duty-bound to engage with and enable throughout your professional lives-to-come: circumstances increasingly multifarious, complex, indeterminate, uncertain, risky - even dangerous; but also full of opportunity and capacities for transformation.

It is my heartfelt wish that the University of Sydney, the staff you have come into contact with and the colleagues you have worked alongside have in some way prepared you for the challenges ahead.

Graduation is a transitional experience, and every transition always means two things for us: we must leave something behind, including a part of ourselves, and we must take up something ahead, something not yet part of us, someone we are yet to become.

So to all of you graduating today - and to the parents, carers and friends who have all played their part - courage and congratulations. I hope you will take your time in taking up the role prepared for you; and that your practice will, in time, make a difference – somewhere, at some time, to someone.