A Boat Shaped Shadow

This week marks a new stage in construction and a significant psychological turn for the crew. Until now, when approached by a museum guest to discuss the construction of the Maryland Dove, we would point to the stem assembly joinery, or to the keel laid out in the yard, or to our stack of futtocks and explain to them how things will come together and take on shape. This week, if a guest were to walk out back to view the construction process, the vessel would be self-evident to them.

One full frame standing on top of the keel makes a world of difference for ones imagination. What makes a thing a thing? There are so many ways to answer this question of constitution. To some philosophers it may depend on whether the thing is capable of fulfilling its intended purpose or end- Aristotle’s δύναμις. In this case we’d ask the question, “can the ship sail?” To others its whether the thing maintains a certain form regardless of its ability to fulfill its functional end or maintain its proper force, what in philosophy is called the “formal cause”. Does the object resemble a prototypical vessel or come close to this formal truth? Truth is to be found within a matrix of these conceptions and one such conception that I have found to be prevalent in the boat yard is an object constitution that seems to be deeply imaginative and generous. In viewing the keel with a single frame in place, we see a boat. This is the phenomenology of imagination. Phenomenology, for those of you unfamiliar with modern philosophy, is the study of phenomena or of experience. Seeing is deeply phenomenological, we generously make the leap toward the vessel’s end in its incompletion and do so imaginatively. We see all of the vessel’s frames, we see the deck, we see masts, we see the ship sailing and perhaps even our hand on the tiller. But for now, we have a keel with a frame sitting on top.

As a sailor I have often pondered the inclination of mankind’s wandering. Our dissatisfaction and incompletion. Why would we voluntarily leave comfort and habit for discomfort and mystery? Martin Heidegger said that we are the “being of becoming”, meaning that we are that which is never finished, we are excessive- thus our technological being and our capacity to extend cultural memory forward toward successive generations via language and artifacts. We do not start fresh at birth and human culture prevails, for it is not confined by genetic memory or generational memory alone. What we are and have right now, is not good enough for us and does not constitute historical man. We are the “being of becoming”. Heidegger proposes that we are that being which poses its own being as a question. He says very clearly, that this questioning is necessary for human being and that it is perennial to historical man. We are not the being which lives life out as a constant end or as an answer. We conclude paradoxically by saying that our essence (οὐσία) is in interpreting what is given and exceeding it.

This existential analytic can be extended to our phenomenology of “seeing”. We see the ship long prior to its completion or to speak in Aristotelian terms, we see the ship before its formal cause. What does this mean? It suggests that we are incessantly involved in a projection of time. We are imaginative and horizon obsessed: Heidegger’s famous Dasein or “being-there”. If we can only see what is here, right now, he would claim that we are not human and that we would be living a vulgar animal like existence. This future oriented being can explain our predisposition to anxiety. If we could only see what is here, right now, we would not see the island on the horizon. We would step into the sea and turn around. We probably would have no sea going ships. The ship is the easiest object to make an example of, as Its very end is excessive in nature. Its an end in overcoming and in conquering our boundedness- our captivity. The ship is a testament to our unsettled nature- our wandering, and to our need for continuous technological mediation.

What I love about phenomenology, is that it so quickly makes apparent just how difficult it is to express the very basic style of man and of our approach to the world or indeed- our making of it. Its a demonstration of the difficulty to express that which is so close to us. It is easier to describe something other, something mechanical, something explicit; but most of our knowledge is taken for granted, for it is embodied and implicit and intimate.

Another of Aristotle’s causes, the “efficeint cause”, is probably the description of constitution which is closest to our materialist culture as well as to the craftsperson. The efficient cause of a ship is in shipbuilding, is in the ship being built. Lets take a look at the art of building or manipulating material through phenomenolgy. The shipwright builds using tools, tools are reservoirs of memory, a tool itself is something designed to carry out a desired end and must be interpreted accurately if its use is to be efficient. In this way, tools are like language, they can be used creatively but they also have embedded within them structure and rules. French contemporary philosopher Bernard Stiegler has studied technology through this lens. He retells the story of Prometheus (Greek meaning- foresight) and Epimetheus (hindsight): the twin Titans were given the responsibility of assigning positive traits to every animal, Epimetheus forgot to give man a quality so his brother Prometheus stole the power of the arts and of fire from the gods Athena and Hephaestus (god of craft) to give to man. This provides Stiegler with a genesis account of technology but also of anthropology. We have no essence of our own, save that of which is outside of ourselves. We project forward and embed our creations, our technologies, with cultural memory to overcome a fundamental amnesia and we do so through technological process or memory which exceeds not only our personal memory but also our generational memory. This is to say, that in building a ship using tools, we find useful tools as artifacts of the past and manipulate them in order to realize a design. We use our technological history and heritage looking ahead of ourselves toward the future. Again, technology is a testament to our reckoning with time. We can look at Socrates’ argument from Plato’s Meno that to learn and to know is to remember that which we have forgotten. I find this argument complementary to Stiegler’s theory of technology. Technological existence is a means to recovering knowledge.

We have completed our first frame and its standing on top of the keel, but what we see, is the Maryland Dove. We project our project forward constantly, the nature of our present tense is future oriented but derives its sense making abilities from embedded knowledge within artifacts of the past. Our seeing of the ship, the ship itself, and our building of the ship, is excessive and mysterious. Of course none of the shipwrights would explain their process as ridiculously as I just have. But all of them have at one time been guided by a dream. To be guided by a dream is the most generous seeing of all- the most imaginative, for it seems to be an act of making something out of nothing but the vague imprint of a boat shaped shadow.