Making Footprints Not Blueprints

S02 #03 - The Freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today - Parts Three & Four - Becoming Archaeologists of Morning & men and women without a position

May 22, 2021 Andrew James Brown/Caute Season 2 Episode 3
Making Footprints Not Blueprints
S02 #03 - The Freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today - Parts Three & Four - Becoming Archaeologists of Morning & men and women without a position
Show Notes Transcript

The full text of this podcast can be found in the transcript of this edition or at the following link:

https://andrewjbrown.blogspot.com/2021/05/the-freedom-to-be-tomorrow-what-we-are_22.html

Please feel to post any comments you have about this episode there.

Music, "New Heaven", written by Andrew J. Brown and played by Chris Ingham (piano), Paul Higgs (trumpet), Russ Morgan (drums) and Andrew J. Brown (double bass)

PARTS III & IV

—o0o—

III 

BECOMING ARCHAEOLOGISTS OF MORNING

Remember that this is “morning” as in “morning and afternoon” rather than “mourning” in the sense of expressing sorrow when someone dies.

In his short essay of 1952 called “Present is Prologue” (in “Collected Prose” eds. Donald Allen and Benjamin Friedlander, University of California Press, Berkley 1997, p. 205-207) the poet Charles Olson (1910-1970) suggested that we need to come to see that the past is for us not quite what we usually think it is. To the extent that we have access to the past, the past is, in fact, something present to us and it is this “past-as-present” that is the prologue of our unfolding, creative life. To borrow a term from Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), one that Olson doesn’t use, it is to think of this “past-as-present” as being for us a kind of “perpetual morning”. To help us better to understand this idea let’s firstly hear Thoreau’s own words about in what he thought it consists:

“All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, ‘All intelligences awake with the morning.’ Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep” (“Walden”, Chapter 2, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For”).

With Thoreau’s metaphor in mind let’s return to Olson. For Olson, the past is available to us in only two living ways and it’s important to realise that both ways are available to us only in the present, in this perpetual morning. Keeping in mind Olson’s image of the archaeologist, on this perpetual morning, it is into the soil of the “past-as-present” that he is encouraging us to do our digging.

None of this is, of course, to deny that something we have traditionally called the past and/or history has a meaningful reality, but it is to acknowledge the existential truth that for each of us, everything we call, identify and have available to us as “the past”, as “history”, is something which we are always-already carrying with us right now, in the present on this perpetual morning.

So, as I have just indicated, Olson suggests that the past is available to us in two living ways. 

He calls the first available past “our own” history and he notes that “the work of each of us is to find out the true lineament of ourselves by facing up to the primal features of these founders who lie buried in us”. The point he is making here is that his dead parents and, by extension, all the past people, things ideas and events that are our founders—those things which have made us who were are—all these are only available to us in the perpetual morning of the here and now, buried in the soil of our own present personal and cultural memories. It is into this present ground, earth or perpetual morning into which we, as archaeologists of morning, are to dig.

The second available past is, according to Olson, not “our own”. It is a somewhat allusive “past” for which Olson thinks we in the West (unlike those in the East) don’t yet have a vocabulary. He “invokes it” firstly by saying it is “the mythological”, but he immediately says that this is “too soft” a way of putting it. He then suggests the following: “What I mean is that foundling which lies as surely in the phenomenological ‘raging apart’ as these queer parents rage in us”.

I take Olson here to be gesturing towards the powerful natural, animating and “raging” fluxes and flows of matter/energy in constant motion that are buried within, and simultaneously revealed, in every aspect of our being. Like a foundling child, we have been gifted these fluxes and flows from who knows what parent and by and through them every living and non-living thing is constantly being made and unmade in the perpetual morning of the present.

I think it’s important to point out here that we should hear Olson use the word “raging” in the sense that a storm rages and not in the sense that an angry or disappointed man or woman might rage. Olson’s “raging apart” is a natural phenomenon that is manifest in, for example, the seed becoming a flower or a tree, in the caterpillar becoming a butterfly or, like Olsen, in the poet’s desire to make a poem, poeisis. It is a reminder that matter/energy is always affective in and of itself and so never requires an external prime, unmoved mover, such as the god of theism, to get things going. 

But why are we to dig into the soil in and of this perpetual morning? Well, Olson tells us that the work of the morning “is methodology: how to use oneself, and on what”—in other words, he is suggesting that it is only by digging in the soil that is this perpetual morning that we can genuinely come, not only to be the kinds of beings we might most fully be, but also to understand what it means to be that kind of being. This, Olson the poet tells us, is his “profession” and it is why he proclaims himself “an archaeologist of morning.”

Olson thought archaeologists of morning were the type of people always getting on with it, digging deep into the present soil of ourselves and the world, now, in this instant, with no drag and ourselves as the only reader and mover of the instant, freed from all restrictive theories and creeds. Olson felt that the “work and dogmas” of such a free, morning way of being-in-the-world were three-fold. Although, as free spirits, we might not be overly fond of the word “dogma” it’s important to understand that Olson is using it to express how strongly he thinks we need to hold to them—they might, perhaps, better be described not as dogmas but as necessary “know-how”.

The first work and dogma (necessary know-how) is “How by form, to get the content instant”. By this Olson means he wants us to create things where the form they take perfectly, and immediately, expresses the content; where our poetry, music, acts of social justice and worship, are the fullest possible expressions of ourselves and not merely inauthentic, arty or moralistic clothing.

The second work and dogma (necessary know-how) is “what any of us are by the work on ourself, how to make ourselves fit instruments for use (how we augment the given—what used to be called our fate)”. Here, I take it that Olson is tapping into a sacred energy that helps us not to succumb to despair and inaction in the face of deeply challenging, contingent events. Olson sees clearly that we can always augment that which we are given.

The third work and dogma (necessary know-how) is to assert that “there is no such thing as duality either of the body and the soul or of the world and I, that the fact in the human universe is the discharge of the many (the multiple) by the one (yrself [sic] done right, whatever you are, in whatever job).” Olson goes on to say that this helps us see that “all hierarchies, like dualities, are dead ducks.” Here, I take it that he is tapping into a second sacred energy that is able to challenge our dangerous tendency to hubris which always threatens to make us believe we are individual, independent creatures wholly in control of our existence and unfolding life.

But let us be clear, like all free-spirited archaeologists of morning (or, indeed, archaeologists of any kind), we can never be absolutely sure beforehand precisely what, if anything, we are going to bring to light that is both old and new from the soil into which we must dig. All we can, and need be assured of is that, to paraphrase a well-known hymn, in the perpetual morning there is always-already more light and truth that can break forth from the past, light and truth that is both old and new. 

IV

BECOMING MEN & WOMEN WITHOUT A POSITION

So, to conclude, what do I think is the result of becoming a free spirit who is also an archaeologist of morning? 

Well, I have found that for me at least, it has meant that  I have been able to become what the (alas) little known twentieth-century American philosopher Paul Wienpahl (1916-1980) called a “man [or woman] without a position.” Before unfolding in a little more detail what I think this means, let’s hear Wienpahl’s own allusive words on the matter:

“As I see it, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. (Tautologies are, after all, true.) If you wish to persist by asking what reality is; that is, what is really, the answer is that it is what you experience it to be. Reality is as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it. And it is a multifarious thing. To see this is to be a man without a position. To get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things is to cease to be an idealist or a pragmatist, or an existentialist, or a Christian. I am a man without a position. I do not have the philosophic position that there are no positions or theories or standpoints. (There obviously are.) I am not a sceptic or an agnostic or an atheist. I am simply a man without a position, and this should open the door to detachment” (“An Unorthodox Lecture”, 1956).

With Wienpahl’s words in mind let’s now imagine ourselves in the perpetual morning as a free-spirit-archaeologist-of-morning about to begin to dig into the soil of the past-as-present.

The first thing to observe, as I noted earlier, is that of necessity one simply cannot know exactly what one is going to find as one begins to dig nor, indeed, if on this or that particular day of digging one will find or notice anything of interest at all. One must simply start to dig and see what emerges from the soil and, in what this process will fully consist, can never be fully worked out beforehand. To be sure one can bring certain pre-existing ideas, perspectives, methods and tools to the initial breaking of the ground but they are there simply to help us to begin to dig which, in turn, may well reveal something that requires new ideas, methods, perspectives and tools if it is to be excavated and interpreted as well and as fully as is possible. The actual experience of being right there with the close and closest things as one actually digs into reality is what drives everything here. As one proceeds one must use all one’s senses because reality is always as you see, hear, feel, taste and smell it, and as you live it, and these senses are there to help provide as many perspectives as is possible to uncover and interpret what is truly there, even as one must remain acutely aware that full scope always eludes our grasp, that there is no finality of vision, that we have perceived nothing completely, and that tomorrow, like a new walk, a new dig is always a new dig. 

As Wienpahl says, the point is not to identify reality with anything except itself. However, we need to remain fully aware that reality is a multifarious thing and it is to see this, truly to see this, that is to be a man or a woman without a position. The free-spirit-archaeologist-of-morning-without-a-position is always seeking to get out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things. And, when one is doing this well, one ceases to be an idealist, a pragmatist, an existentialist, a Christian, a sceptic, an agnostic, or an atheist. Instead, one becomes a man or a woman without a position, someone who is not bringing to bear upon reality a ready-made, fixed blueprint but someone who, through a process of disciplined attentiveness to, and mindfulness of, things, is able to get the content of themselves instant, with no drag and so able to remain as fully open as is possible to what is actually intra-actively emerging as one digs into the soil of the past-as-present on this perpetual morning. This is the kind of detachment which, as a man without a position, Wienpal sought. 

This task done well is precisely what guarantees our freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today. To return to part one of this three-part piece/podcast, the free-spirit-archaeologist-of-morning-without-a-position is someone who, in the light of the perpetual morning, can see clearly that the past is not something which is finished and which fixes us and holds us back, something completely done and dusted, instead, they can see that within the past there are always-already undischarged energies and futures that can be released to the present and which can help us live better, fuller and more creative lives than we did before. Freer lives

But there is one more thing to say at this point. The phrase “a man [or woman] without a position” is easily misunderstood by many people. It is often taken to mean that such a person is without direction and, therefore, incapable of getting anything done or saying anything substantive or truly meaningful. However, we need to be aware that there is a real difference between being someone without a position and being someone without a direction.

It’s important to see that to live in the world without a fixed position is, in fact, a prerequisite of being able truly to follow the direction of reality as it is actually unfolding and then of being able truly to augment the given. To switch, briefly, to a surfing metaphor, it is only the man or woman without a position who is able to surf the crest of the ever-moving unfolding wave of reality. In one sense we may say that the surfer has chosen to adopt a certain kind of position on this or that particular surfboard but, in the sense Wienpahl and I are using it, their metastable position on this or that surfboard is one that allows them better to approach, and live as fully as is possible in, the position of no-position. In other words, the surfboard is acting as their “door to detachment” which allows them to have a direction that genuinely accords with the reality of the wave’s actual unfolding which, of course, includes the unfolding life of this surfer intra-acting with the unfolding of the wave. Again this is to claim the freedom to augment the given. Like surfers, the man or woman without a position is able to surf the constantly unfolding crest of the perpetual morning.

This is what Wienpahl means when he talks of getting out of the mind and into the world, to get beyond language and to the things.

Now, like many of you, I am neither a surfer nor a conventional archaeologist, but I am a photographer or, at least, I aspire to be a photographer. In the age of the smartphone almost everyone is now a photographer so let me place before you another way of understanding what it is to be a man or a woman without a position that might connect with more people more readily. 

I always try to pick up my camera and go out into the world without a ready-made, fully worked-out blueprint, theory or plan about how, when or where to take a photograph. In this sense, what the surfboard is to the surfer, the camera is to me the photographer. In doing this I’m attempting to keep myself open to whatever whooshes-up or shines before me, whether that is in the form of an obvious “subject”, “view”, or a simple passing play of sunlight and shadow. When something does whoosh-up or shines before me, I stop and take a photograph. To do this I must, of course, temporarily “take a position.” Not only by standing still in this or that place but also by taking a position with regard to the camera settings I am going to use, the f-stop, the shutter speed, film speed and whether to shoot in black and white or colour. Now, were I never to take this or that position with regard to all these things, I would never be able to take any photo (good or bad). However, it is vitally important that, having taken a photograph, I never become wholly wedded to this or that particular position, subject, view, passing play of sunlight and shadow or this or that set of settings—instead, I must move on, intra-actively, on the crest of the unfolding world, to attain another perspective and so allow something else to whoosh-up or shine before me which calls me to shoot, click!   

It is in this sense that I understand what it is to become a man or a woman “without a position”—a free-spirit-archaeologist-of-morning who is truly able to approach, see, reveal, and appropriately interpret the close and closest things by entering fully into the constant dance of life. It has long struck me that taken together all the foregoing offers the world an example of what, in his famous essay called “Walking”, Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) called the “newer testament—the Gospel according to this moment”. It’s the only gospel I know of that helps us truly to claim the freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today and, because of this, in my work as a rather unconventional minister of religion, it is the only gospel that I am able to live by and proclaim with a genuinely clean heart and full belief (pathos). In this spirit of freedom, I commend it to you for further thought and reflection.