Beings do not exist at locations, they occur along paths—An address written for Tal’s Naming and Welcome, 7 October 2018

The cover art here is entitled Brownian Motion

From Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin

STONE TELLING IS my last name. It has come to me of my own choosing, because I have a story to tell of where I went when I was young; but now I go nowhere, sitting like a stone in this place, in this ground, in this Valley. I have come where I was going.
          My House is the Blue Clay, my household the High Porch of Sinshan.
          My mother was named Towhee, Willow, and Ashes. My father's name, Abhao, in the Valley means Kills.
          In Sinshan babies’ names often come from birds, since they are messengers. In the month before my mother bore me, an owl came every night to the oak trees called Gairga outside the windows of High Porch House, on the north side, and sang the owl’s song there; so my first name was North Owl.

From A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

No one knows a man’s true name but himself and his namer. He may choose at length to tell it to his brother, or his wife, or his friend, yet even those few will never use it where any third person may hear it. In front of other people they will, like other people, call him by his use-name, his nickname—such a name as Sparrowhawk, and Vetch, and Ogion which means “fir-cone”. If plain men hide their true name from all but a few they love and trust utterly, so much more must wizardly men, being more dangerous, and more endangered. Who knows a man’s name, holds that man’s life in his keeping. Thus to Ged who had lost faith in himself, Vetch had given that gift only a friend can give, the proof of unshaken, unshakeable trust.

From Rethinking the animate, re-animating thought (ETHNOS, Vol. 71:1, March 2006 (pp. 9-20) by Tim Ingold

The Primacy of Movement

The animic world [i.e. in worldviews in which every natural thing in the universe is perceived to be living in some fashion] is in perpetual flux, as the beings that participate in it go their various ways. These beings do not exist at locations, they occur along paths. Among the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic, for example, as the writer Rudy Wiebe has shown, as soon as a person moves he or she becomes a line. People are known and recognised by the trails they leave behind them. Animals, likewise, are distinguished by characteristic patterns of activity or movement signatures, and to perceive an animal is to witness this activity going on, or to hear it. Thus, to take a couple of examples from Richard Nelson’s wonderful account of the Koyukon of Alaska, Make Prayers to the Raven, you see ‘streaking like a flash of fire through the undergrowth’, not a fox, and ‘perching in the lower branches of spruce trees’, not an owl. The names of animals are not nouns but verbs. But it is no different with celestial bodies, such as the sun and the moon. We might think of the sun as a giant disk that is observed to make its way from east to west across the great dome of the sky. It could be depicted like this:

But in the pictographic inscriptions of native peoples of the North American Plains, it is depicted like this:

or this:

where the little nick at the end of the line indicates sunrise or sunset. In these depictions the sun is not understood as an object that moves across the sky. Rather it is identified as the path of its movement through the sky, on its daily journey from the eastern to the western horizon.


Beings do not exist at locations, they occur along paths
An address written for Tal’s Naming and Welcome, 7 October 2018

Spiritus fumans libavii (fuming liquor of livabius) gets its name from the fact that the colourless liquid fumes on contact with air and from the name of its discoverer, the German alchemist and physician Andreas Libavius (c. 1555–1616) who used it in his alchemical experiments during the sixteenth-century.

Now, alchemy was a complex phenomenon that cannot — nor ever should — be reduced merely to being an early form of chemistry. We mustn’t do this because it was a discipline which brought into play various ideas and practices concerning what, today, we might call spiritual growth and development. However, for all this, it is also clearly a meaningful part of the genealogy of modern chemistry.

But the trouble with alchemical names like spiritus fumans libavii is that they are not clear — not “clear” in modern chemical terms that is — they do not make clear the chemical structure of things and it took a figure like Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier (1743-1794) over a hundred years later to develop a system of naming which helped us see that spiritus fumans libavii was better — again “better” simply from the point of view of the developing science of chemistry — better understood as being an inorganic compound of tin and chlorine gas and named SnCl4 or tin tetrachloride. Clarity with regard to its chemical makeup helps a chemist more easily understand and predict how it can be combined with other substances to produce this or that new substance.

But, from another perspective, Lavoisier’s naming system succeeds in obscuring from us three important things, that it is a liquid, that it fumes and also the name of its discoverer. In the mind of a knowledgeable chemist, the first two things may well be implied in the modern chemical name, but for those non-chemists amongst us it can be said that the name spiritus fumans libavii remains, from a certain point of view, a better description of the stuff than the name tin tetrachloride.

My use of the phrase “from a certain point of view” indicates the importance of context and so please don’t hear me as suggesting that one name is more desirable, better or more accurate and clear than  another; all I want to do here is point to the fact that the same thing can have very different meaningful names that are born out of very different needs and ways of naming.

Some names can and do remain in use together — as is the case with spiritus fumans libavii and tin tetrachloride — but some names, such as phlogiston — which was used to name a fire-like element once thought to be contained within combustible bodies which was released during combustion — have completely gone out of use as our scientific understanding of the world radically changed. In the case of phlogiston, once we understood the role of oxygen in combustion the idea of the existence of phlogiston simply made no sense any more and the name needed, gently, be let go. 

This is one of the basic points I wish to introduce in this address, namely, that the naming of things and the parts of things is something which is constantly in flux and flow. Names both come and go as contexts, and viewpoints from within contexts, change as we open up new horizons of disclosure thanks to our endless scientific, poetic, philosophic and religious journeyings through, and entanglement with, the world. As I proceed through this address please keep in mind this idea of journeying through the world because walking and pedesis (from the Greek πήδησις “leaping”) or, Brownian motion, is central to what I want to say today.

So to return to Tal for a moment.

In the context of this service, along the path which she is travelling and from within the horizons of disclosure now available to her she has bravely and gently let go of her earlier names and let come to her the new name and life which, to quote Tal herself, she feels “is characterised by youth, freshness, joy, strength, freedom, creativity, rootedness in the past and hope for the future — a little girl, dancing by a gentle river flowing through a sheltered valley, in the sunlight.”

But, walking on together and changing our perspective and horizons of disclosure once more, with our Lavoisierian inspired scientific hats on, we can also see that, in certain contexts, it would be better to name her — identify her — not by the name Talitha Hope Annan, but by the phenomenally complex name that is her own unique genetic code.

Tal with the poster running all the way to the floor!
As with spiritus fumans libavii and tin tetrachloride each of her names — Talitha Hope Annan and the complex name that is her unique genetic code — both reveal certain important things even as they obscure others — indeed, rather marvellously and visually very much to the point, the poster of the human genome is so large it is actually capable of obscuring all but Tal’s extremities and Tal, in turn, can obscure the poster! All names reveal, all names obscure.

And so now we begin to see, I hope, that no single system of naming, whether scientific or otherwise, can ever fully and completely name any thing — animate or inanimate. This, in turn, serves to introduce to us the thought that, as we walk through and entangle ourselves in new creative ways with the flux and flow of a world endlessly in motion, it would be wise always to have available to us a variety of namings (public and private, informal and formal etc.).

This additionally reveals, at least to me, the need for a variety of systems of naming which, together, are able continually to remind us that we are ourselves ever-moving, ever-dancing fluxes and flows of Brownian (pedetic) motion and lines of movement and that there exist no eternally fixed entities which could ever be wholly defined, or whose meaning (or potential meaning) could wholly be exhausted by, reductionist nomenclatures whether derived from the natural sciences, systematic theology or analytical philosophy and so on.

At this point I want to turn to some insights offered by the anthropologist Tim Ingold who in his paper, an extract from which you heard earlier, notes that in the animic world everything “is in perpetual flux, as the beings that participate in it go their various ways. These beings do not exist at locations, they occur along paths” — beings do not exist at locations, they occur along paths.

Now in animic worldviews, where this last idea is taken to be the case, the names of beings are often clearly no longer those of fixed static entities found at this or that location — nouns — but, instead, expressions of movement that occur along paths, expressions which speak in some fashion about the activity, motion and movement of those same things — verbs. So to the Inuit of the Canadian Arctica a fox is not a fixed thing but a “streaking like a flash of fire through the undergrowth” and an owl “is perching in the lower branches of spruce trees” — remember, of course, that the perching of a raptor such as an owl is always an alert, active state and never simply a static one; even in the apparent stillness of the perching owl there is perpetual flux and flow. Let’s also remember the written names given to the sun by peoples of the North American Plains which are absolutely concerned to present us with the sun as a line of movement through the world rather than as a discrete object (noun) in it.  

Although I am not myself an animist but, instead very much a Lucretian inspired modern materialist, I do myself accept and daily live by what seems to me to be the truth of the idea that beings do not exist at locations but occur along paths. Not least of all I live this way because, as contemporary physics powerfully seems to reveal, at the sub-atomic level even in the most apparently static and stable of things, there is always-already occurring the perpetual flux and flow of matter.

All these things — and many more besides — as they tumble, bump and interact together in endless pedetic, Brownian motion surely encourage us all to take time to consider the consequences of the endless and eternal flux and flow of matter, most importantly that, as material beings ourselves, we do not exist at locations but occur along paths. And, if this is the case, it may further encourage us to ask whether our own static, fixed and seemingly stable given and/or adopted names, are really always doing the best job they might? We may find that it is worth thinking about letting some of them go and adopting other, parallel and interweaving names that can better tell the story of our own Brownian, pedetic movements of becoming as we travel the path of life.

Such a reflection may not bring upon us the overwhelming need actually to let go of our birth names or self- or other given descriptions as Tal has — I certainly feel no need to change my own — but it can surely do us no harm to walk and to dance Brownian-motion-like around our own current names and descriptions to see what new things and horizons of disclosure appear. Indeed, I feel it’s a creative, therapeutic activity that may well do all of us a great deal of good. I would also like to add that this kind of pedetic reflection about names is as true of the name and self-description of our own free-religious, free-thinking community, Unitarian. Does this name still do the job it once did or is it now rather like phlogiston, something with very little modern meaning that should gently be let go in favour of another name? I don’t know, I really don’t know but it’s surely worth asking because, like other kinds of beings, living institutions and communities do not really exist at locations, rather they always-already occur along paths. As Heraclitus once famously said (quoted by Plato in Cratylus, 402a), “All is flux, nothing stays still”, “All flows, nothing stays” and it is precisely in this movement that we can always claim our birthright freedom to be tomorrow what we are not today.

And so, with these thoughts in mind lastly, Tal, I simply want to celebrate with you the fact that your own creative, pedetic, walking and dancing line of motion has entangled with our own community’s interweaving lines in this celebration of nature’s many harvests.