Sunday, 12 February 2012

How to (de)Construct a Place Setting in Three Easy Steps


1 - Define a place setting.

What is a ‘place setting’: the setting of a place, to set a place? The opposite of ‘to set’: un-set…unsettle. A place for whom/what? A set placing. A place for a subject. A setting of a scene. To set the scene for the subject of the place.

1 place /plays/ n 1a physical environment; a space 1b physical surroundings; atmosphere 2a an indefinite region or expanse; an area…4 a particular part of a surface or body; a spot…5b an important or valued position…7a a proper or designated niche…8a an available seat…8c PLACE SETTING

2 place vt 1 to distribute in an orderly manner; arrange 2a to put in, direct to, or assign to a particular place…2c to put in a particular state 3 to appoint to a position…5a to assign to a position in a series or category; rank 7 to put, lay…

setting /’seting/ n 1 the manner, position, or direction in which something (e.g. a dial) is set 3a the background, surroundings…5 PLACE SETTING


2 - Ascertain the limits of the place setting.


“How is it possible to determine, in such a situation, what truly belongs to the inside and what does not?" (Derrida 1987: 138).
The place setting exists as a singularity in space and time: on the spatial plane it exists on a surface without clearly delineated edges, and temporally it is unclear at which point the place setting becomes itself, or when it is no longer that of which it is known in regards to assembly/disassembly.

Somebody puts together the place setting. It could be the diner, it could be the cook, it could be the silver service waitress/waiter . . . it could be you. A number of possible people construct it. The placemat, cutlery, glasses, plates are laid out by following certain cultural conventions. The dining paraphernalia is placed on a surface, a table. Some of the items may rest on the placemat, if there is one, and some will not, for instance the glasses do not, although they too can sometimes sit on their own object, a coaster.

Where is the edge of the place setting? If you were to draw around the limits of the place setting you would quite probably draw around almost every single separate item that makes it up.

The margins are unclear. It appears that the outside of the place setting is also contained within the inside of it, in the fluid space between the items. The outside pours into the inside. What belongs to the place setting and what does not? Does the tablecloth belong to the place setting: the tablecloth could be removed and the place setting could still be considered to exist. What of the table? What could be utilised in the place of a table that would still enable a place setting to be called such: a kitchen counter, a TV dinner tray, a wooden packing crate. How many individual items that make up the place setting need to be removed for it to not be a place setting? Everything but a knife and fork . . . maybe . . .

How significant is the setting of the place setting: could one assemble a place setting on the pavement of a busy street, or in an art gallery? The context of the place setting might mean that a diner could not be present at the scene of the place setting. If it were physically impossible (or dangerous) for a diner to be in attendance, is it still a place setting: could a place setting be set on an airport runway and it still considered to be a place setting. It would certainly be recognisable as one, but how much does the context effect the place setting, inasmuch as it is part of the dining event. On a spectrum of contexts it is difficult to ascertain an absolutely clear point at which a place setting would not be considered to be such.

The place setting, in terms of its existence, comes into and goes out of being surreptitiously. At some point in its manifestation it becomes what is recognised as a ‘place setting’, but its materialisation is gradual and rather furtive. It is carefully assembled piece by piece, comes to rest for a period of time, then is gradually dismantled by the diner and/or an-other: disarranging the original construction. If the place setting was only considered to be a place setting at its most complete (prior to the diner’s arrival, prior to their unpicking of it), its disassembly could be seen as a destructive act. The diner destroys the place setting, like one might destroy a work of art. This could be considered an act of violence.

Considering the place setting to be a ‘place setting’ only when it is whole and complete, allows for it to be described as such even in the absence of a diner. If the place setting is set, but the diner never arrives, the place setting is still a place setting, even if its origins are not so sure. However, at some point, the items making up the place setting will all be removed.

If the place setting is seen as something more nebulous, uncertain in terms of when it begins and ends in time, the diner’s re-arranging of the items that form it, and the removal of those items during the dining process, could also be included in what is recognised as the place setting. But, we still have the issue of a beginning and end, though. Does the place setting begin when the placemat is laid or, maybe, when the first piece of cutlery is set down. Does it end when the final item is removed?

The place setting is a fragile thing.


3 - Ensure the place setting is ready for the diner's arrival.


The place setting awaits a subject. The place setting is calling a subject. The diner is hailed by the place setting, “interpellated” in the Althusserian sense, whether the place setting has their name on it or not, as it might at a formal dinner when written on a card. The place setting has a subject in mind, whether it is a named subject or a generalised other. The type of dinner will dictate, to a large degree, certain characteristics in the diner: it may dictate their class, wealth or social status; their associations with other diners (relative, friend, business associate); their membership of a certain group. All these qualities define the event, the place setting, and the subject. Therefore the place setting holds certain notions about the subject before they arrive at the dining table.

At a formal dinner the place setting exists for the sole purpose of a subject to be sat at it, and for that subject to utilise it within a given framework. It is an object requiring a subject to fulfil its purpose. The place setting anticipates an always already subject. In this sense the subject comes before the place setting, they exist before the place is set, as a knowable, expected attendee of the dinner. But, does the subject exist as a diner before the place setting is set? If the place setting is a one-time-only event, it is possible the subject only exists as a diner at the point they sit down at the table. If this is the case, then the place setting comes before the dining subject.

It appears that the tendrils of the place setting spread temporally in both directions. It forms a nexus which connect a past and future subject in the singularity of an event. This event, operating around the hub of the place setting, is also contingent in the changing of the subject. The subject will have been altered by the event and will not be the same subject that sat at the place setting at the beginning of dinner. Conversations might have taken place, dialogue exchanged, the subject’s psyche could be transformed, however minutely.

The place setting, as an assembly, is also part of the greater assembly which is the dining event. This could be considered to be like the Deleuzo-Guattarian “assemblage” which comes together and then disassembles. If it were considered in these terms, we could not separate the subject from the event, the subject does not attend the event they are part of the event. The place setting and the diner would be intrinsically linked, because they make up the processual dining experience.

The place setting retains the history of the event. Before the final items are removed, what remains of the place setting contains a trace of the event that has just taken place. The place setting is a recording device for the event as it is for the particular individual subject as diner. How the place setting is left at the point the diner leaves the table is an audit trail for the actions of the subject during their dinner party. If the recording could be played back the subject’s steps could be retraced. The used place setting, at the moment the diner leaves and prior to the point it is finally removed by the attending staff, alludes to an absence. The dining subject leaves their signature (their autobiography), in the rumpled silk placemat, in the not-quite-finished glass of vintage port, in the highly-polished unused silver dessert spoon. Disorder replaces order. But this disorder is telling. It speaks of a past, of an attendance.

Each individual diner will leave their history behind on the table: an archive of the event left behind in their wake. The dining subject has left their mark. Their absence leaves a sign of a past presence. ‘Elvis has left the building’ but he still exists in the discarded crumpled gig programme and trampled cigarette butts of the deserted dance hall.

The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago 1974-79, the Brooklyn Museum

References:
Derrida, Jacques. 1987. The Truth in Painting. Trans. by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press).

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