Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Meaning of the Sky

I've recently been reading several books by Tim Ingold, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in the UK. Ingold is one of those very rare thinkers who not only has a lively and infectious curiosity (and a formidable store of knowledge as well) about pretty much everything under the sun, but who also writes with clarity and a sense of humor and a poet's sensitivity to the rhythms and sounds of words. The first sentence of his amazing book Lines is "What do walking, weaving, observing, storytelling, singing, drawing, and writing have in common?" Those of you who have followed this blog for any length of time know that I am pretty deeply fascinated by the relationships between six of the seven items in the list (weaving being the outlier), and how all of them relate to the dynamics of thinking itself. Once in a while you find a book that seems to have been written expressly for you. Lines is that kind of book for me. I'm going to be mining it for a long time to come.

Today I came across this passage in his book Being Alive, in which he discusses with characteristic elegance our default assumptions about the sky and weather, and about how these phenomena might be understood from another (animic) perspective:

Sky, earth, and the weather

I mentioned earlier our propensity to suppose that the inanimate world is presented to life as a surface to be occupied.  Life, as we say, is lived on the ground, anchored to solid foundations, while the weather swirls about overhead. Beneath this ground surface lies the earth; above it is the atmosphere. In the pronouncements of many theorists, however, the ground figures as an interface not merely between earth and atmosphere but much more fundamentally between the domains of agency and materiality… this has the very peculiar consequence of rendering immaterial the medium through which many organisms and persons move in the context of their activities. Between mind and nature, persons and things, and agency and materiality, no conceptual space remains for those very real phemonena and transformations of the medium that generally go by the name of weather. This, I believe, accounts for the virtual absence of weather from philosophical debates on these matters. It is a result of the logic of inversion—a logic that places occupation before habitation, movement across before movement through, surface before medium. In the terms of this logic, the weather is simply unthinkable.

In the animic ontology, by contrast, what is unthinkable is the very idea that life is played out upon the inanimate surface of a ready-made world. Living beings, according to this ontology, make their way through a nascent world rather than across its preformed surface. As they do so, and depending on the circumstances, they may experience wind and rain, sunshine and mist, frost and snow, and a host of other weather-related phenomena, all of which fundamentally affect their moods and motivations, their movements and their possibilities of subsistence, even as these phenomena sculpt and erode the plethora of surfaces upon which inhabitants tread. For them, the inhabited world is constituted in the first place by the aerial flux of weather rather than by the grounded fixities of landscape. The weather is dynamic, always unfolding, ever changing in its currents, qualities of light and shade, and colours, alternately damp or dry, warm or cold, and so on. In this world the earth, far from providing a solid foundation for existence, appears to float like a fragile and ephemeral raft, woven from the strands of terrestrial life, and suspended in the great sphere of the sky. This sphere is where all the lofty action is: where the sun shines, the winds blow, the falls and the storms rage. It is a sphere in which powerful persons seek not to stamp their will upon the earth but to take flight with the birds, soar with the wind and converse with the stars. Their ambitions, we could say, are more celestial than territorial.

This is the point at which to return to the question I posed a moment ago, of the meaning of the sky, and of its relation to the earth. Consider the definition offered by my Chambers Dictionary. The sky, the dictionary informs us, is 'the apparent canopy over our heads.' This is revealing in two respects. First, the sky is imagined as a surface, just like the surface of the earth except of course a covering overhead rather than a platform underfoot. Secondly, however, unlike the earth's surface, that of the sky is not real but only apparent. In reality there is no surface at all. Conceived as such, the sky is a phantasm. It is where angels tread. Following what is by now a familiar train of thought, the surface of the earth has become an interface between the concrete and the imaginary. What lies below (the earth) belongs to the physical world, whereas what arches above (the sky) is sublimated into thought. With their feet on the ground and their heads in the air, human beings appear to be constitutionally split between the material and the mental. Within the animic cosmos, however, the sky is not a surface, real or imaginary, but a medium. Moreover this medium,  as we have seen, is inhabited by a variety of beings, including the sun and the moon, the winds, thunder, birds, and so on. These beings lay their own trails through the sky, just as the terrestrial beings lay their trails through the earth. The example of the sun's path has already been mentioned. But the winds, too, are commonly supposed to make tracks through the sky, coming from the quarters in which they reside. Nor are the earth and sky mutually exclusive domains of habitation. Birds routinely move from one domain to the other, as do powerful humans such as shamans. The Yup'ik Eskimos, according to Anne Fienup-Riodan, recognize a class of extraordinary persons who are so fleet of foot that they can literally take off, leaving a trail of wind-blown snow in the trees.

All of which put me in mind of this video (which I found out about from Stephen Sparks)  illustrating quite dramatically the virtual tracks that birds make through the sky:

Seagull Skytrails from Parker Paul on Vimeo.

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