The Oyster Club

I can deliver a satisfactory lecture, however when it comes to debate I am somewhat at a loss and my skills at conversation are altogether weak (or so I have been told). Nevertheless I love the form of conversation above others. I have been fortunate to have taken part in some serious and fascinating conversations, although my role in the best of them was mostly audience or witness.

During the early-mid eighties while in art school in New York an outstandingly productive educational model was demonstrated by a number of my teachers (Craig Owens, Thomas Lawson, Joseph Kosuth, the Whitney Independent Study Program staff). The idea was simple but demanded time and energy beyond what most faculty and students are willing to devote. In this model, issues formally presented in class would be pursued afterward in the local restaurant or bar. Away from the overt hierarchy of the lecture hall or studio room more inclusive conversations flowered. These discussions flowed over a variety of topics, from serious debate of the problems presented in class to saucy gossip. Often a dinner would turn into a night in a bar or club and then to apartment gathering of the die hard crowd. Certainly this is not a new method, and is common place in universities around the world. I find it a compelling model.

Occasionally during these meetings the discussion would turn anecdotally to other groups which had gotten together to talk. It seemed we had always missed something - the Cedar Tavern scene, Smithson confronting Andre in Max's Kansas City and so many other great debates of our artworld recently passed. History is jammed with extraordinary conversations missed, but given the choice to sit in anywhere at any time I would cherish a cornerseat at the Oyster Club.

The Oyster Club was one of the numerous supper clubs for the 'literati' which haunted the taverns Old Town Edinburgh during the latter half of the eighteenth century. Edinburgh was a city crowded with hostelries offering an early afternoon dinner liberally lubricated with claret, champagne, gin, ale, brandy and whiskey. These social clubs allowed men of varied professions to meet, share ideas and laughs over dried salt haddock and oysters. The Scottish lawyers, writers, philosophers, doctors and artists had made the city one of Europe's prominent intellectual centers.

The contributions to science and culture in Edinburgh can not be isolated from the general social and economic situations which characterized by a close mixing of the social classes. This is evident in the pragmatic approach of the intellectuals as well as the ability to explain themselves in a language assessable to a wide public and their inclination to the forms of conversation and debate.

I first encountered references to the Oyster Club some years ago, while reading about the discovery of Geological Time. A hero in that discovery was one of the Oyster Club's founders, James Hutton, said to be the father of the science of geology and certainly one of the first men to begin to appreciate and theorize the enormous antiquity of the planet. He along with Joseph Black, a giant in the history of chemistry and the economist/ author Adam Smith established the Oyster Club as a weekly meeting for Edinburgh intellectuals as well as visiting thinkers (James Watt and Benjamin Franklin, for example). David Hume, John Clerk, Adam Ferguson, William Robertson were all members and avid eaters of Oysters. Each week, in a different tavern, since the meetings were often a bit too sought after, they would convine to discuss art, architecture, philosophy, politics, physical science, economics, each giving a brief update on their special projects. The discussions were, in Hutton's words "informal and amusing despite their great learning". Hutton never drank spirits.

What appeals to me most about Hutton and his Oyster Club companions is the fluidity by which they moved through the indeterminate boundaries of disciplines. In our period of extraordinary specialization and hierarchy it is difficult to imagine the time in which destinctions between science and philosophy were non existent. It was a time dominated by a meticulous, yet less restricted curiosity, which I find irresistibly spellbinding. Perhaps I too romantically morn the polymath. The Oyster Club for me seem both, familiar and impossible.

[ societyofcontrol | akademie | forschen | kommentieren | close window]