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2006 10 18
Poiesis: Contemplating the Brave Brown Bag

In its closest sense, poiesis refers to acts of making or transformation. The German phenomenologist Martin Heidegger describes poiesis as "the arising of something from out of itself" and a "bringing-forth" of the true into the beautiful. In his famous essay, "The Question Concerning Technology", Heidegger argues that modern technological manufacturing 'challenges forth' objects and people and orders them as 'standing reserve', entities whose purpose is to be consumed and which have no life or meaning other than in being used up. He laments the loss of poiesis from manufacturing, writing that the originary meaning of technology, techne, referred to making as a poetic act that also brought forth the true into the beautiful.

I had occasion to consider Heidegger's commentary while contributing to the Juice Dialogues symposium at the Ontario College of Art and Design this past weekend. After noting the collection of books and papers spilling out of my too-small shoulder bag, Robin Uchida, the event's organizer and facilitator, gave me a large, stiff-sided fabric bag closely resembling a heavy paper shopping bag of the sort that might hold an afternoon's purchases or a day's burden of books. Grasping it by the handles, I was struck immediately not only by the bag's utility but by its poiesis, its fusion of the true and the beautiful. Here was a useful object true not only to its origin but to a broader purpose. A durable comment on transience and need, perhaps; a container for desire.

For almost all of my life I have collected empty containers. Empty bowls of wood and clay, little boxes, blank notebooks. Sometimes I would give such objects to others as gifts, on one occasion lining an otherwise empty tin with folds of deep blue velvet and dropping in tiny stars, beads, and stones in an attempt to allude to the universe I have always thought such objects contained. In fact, empty containers are microcosms not of the universe itself but of the universe's possibilities: they are metaphors of the future. As Gary Michael Dault writes at the beginning of Cells of Ourselves(Porcupine's Quill, 1989), his quite wonderful collaboration with painter Tony Urquhart,
Thresholds, though wider than the idea of doors, share their role as repositories of desire and of temptation. What is opened at a door? Onto what landscape of the imagination does a threshold gaze? Gaston Bachelard has written that a door is an entire cosmos of the half-open. A threshold is perhaps, by extension, a cosmos of the already half-understood.
For me, empty bowls and boxes and blank notebooks are metaphorical thresholds, points of departure. Perhaps that is why while writing sometimes I touch the blank pages, calling forth words.

The bag Robin gave me on Saturday is a threshold of a similar sort. The bag came with a little storybook called The Brave Brown Bag, narrating the bag's function as an invocation to journey. It turns out the Brave Brown Bag is an example of craft manufacturing turned global phenomenon. The brainchild of Toronto-area designer Charlotte McKeough, the bag is distributed not only locally but in New York, Milan, and Tokyo. It appears on television, usually accidentally, and in magazines because someone's stylist carried one onto the shoot and someone else liked the look of it. Renowned Canadian Actor Donald Sutherland reportedly hefts his books in one. People notice the bag being carried around and want one of their own. And I, whose oblivion to consumer inclinations is akin to a kind of blindness, am able fully to see why.

There is a nearly perfect functionality in a double-handled shopping bag. This functionality is borne witness by one hundred thousand commuters carrying their lunch and subway reading in increasingly battered Holt Renfrew or Old Navy bags. The limitation of these functional vessels is their vulnerability to the slush oozing along a bus floor or the sharp edges of umbrellas. And so, a more durable version of the double-handled bag seems such a logical solution, and the Brave Brown Bag strikes me as a particularly elegant one. Like the best innovations, its origin is instantly traceable, its utility readily apparent. There is something true in the design, something unembellished and therefore honest and ultimately, beautiful. In transforming the transient utility of a paper bag into the durable container of the Brave Brown Bag, Charlotte McKeough has engaged in an act of poiesis. In my experience this is so rare that it bears examination.

The bag Robin, a partner in the design, gave me on Saturday is actually brown. The inside is lined with fabric closely resembling the paper lining the covers of old leather-bound books, such linings themselves intended to represent polished marble. Wonder of wonders, the bag is large enough to hold the two binders I carry on the days I travel to York to teach, as well as the various books and props that go along for the ride. Its stiff sides might offer a modicum of protection to the little pears that lurk beside the books, and to the books the pears threaten to spill themselves upon. Because the bag folds in upon itself, it's something I can even strap to the rack of my bike without worrying about spillage. After several years of commuting with lumpy knapsacks that hurt my back and a misshapen CUPE bag that doesn't go with anything, I feel as though my commute originates at a new threshold.
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 10/18 at 08:56 AM

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