Chapter 26. Metaphysical Poets
Taking pictures during this Christmas presents very few opportunities to design new signs – looking for phenomena that nobody has given an interpretant in relation to the season’s ideals and then to transform these appropriately into signs of such ideals; it has been difficult. There is little tablula rasa, so to speak, to work on. There are designed scribbles everywhere. The ordinary things have all been re-packaged, transformed into signs. There is, during this time, a semiotic frenzy: everything is exploited semiosically, and there is little in remainder. They have already been shaped into semiosic tools pointing at ideas and concepts related to the season. Some point away from Christ, others towards. Some point towards charity, others point at possibilities of self-indulgence. Here there may be less room for creativity, and what is left is simply for me to selectively collect those signs that one thinks are the good ones and sharing these as images in facebook, or blogs. So I have been content with that somewhat. As a photographer, that has been the extent of my gifting…
But that is no shame. Passing along a good sign, is also important. Taking a picture of a crib, and posting it along in facebook to remind ourselves and our friends of what truly matters in this season is also praiseworthy. Of course, the crib was designed by St Francis, who in the early 13th Century fashioned the village gifts into a livelike reminder of the Incarnation. So as a sign, it has a Franciscan trademark; but there is no copyright – it was meant to be handed along. And so too other signs: Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, and the meanings they were intended to fetch. As photographers we have a duty to pass these along, and not to let our semiotic world be overwhelmed by those less significant signs.
In this respect we are like metaphysicians, who pass along, from one generation to the other, the Aristotelian-thomistic ontology of being, not to mention the 24 thomistic theses, iif anyone still knows these. Though not as colorful as St Francis, St Thomas Aquinas’ study of the being of things is also a semiosic achievement: indeed his is a transformation of the being of all things into a semiosic indication of God. For every being, Aquinas demonstrates, is an essence which participates in being (esse) or existence, and such sharing-participation of existence accounts both for the being’s existence beyond nothingness, and its connection to God who shares His existence, and Who is ever ongoingly present to each being, lest the being collapse into nothingness. Hence every being, insofar as it exists, is a demonstrable sign of a God who of necessity must exist, without which nothing else exists.
Perhaps here then, is an idea: that in taking pictures of things *that exist* – we are already passing along, a sign of God. Of course, such images serve well as signs only if our viewer grasps the attendant metaphysics of being. But for those of us who understand such a metaphysics, then, every celebratory snap-shot of things that are, is a methodologically realist affirmation of that judgment of the existence of things, and of the self-diffusing cause of that existence. Perhaps there too is a kind of opportunity for significal design: that what-ever are made into the signs of Christmas, there is still this existential remainder to be significally designed, viz., the *existence* of these signs. However, this risks merely being a solipsistic contemplative spirituality, rather than an occasion for apostolate (although of course, some are indeed called to only the former, and this better will not be taken from them, as the Lord says). In any case, if our burden is to the apostolate as much as it is to contemplation, then as missionaries when we pass along these good images, we do even better if we also share the metaphysics of Aquinas along, so that in any image of say, a Christmas tree, there is not merely that tree pointing to the Cross of Jesus who is God, but also the existence of that tree, which is a sign, by sheer fact of its existence, of the God who is existence itself.
Walter Benjamin once said that photographers should be writers, because they need to caption images that otherwise beautify misery. Perhaps I would add that photographers do better when they are also metaphysicians. Thus while photographers continue to perfect their art, there is also an obligation for them to study, master and communicate the science (scientia) of thomistic metaphysics which can give meaning to every existent that they picture. Thus against Cartesian errors which doubt the external existent world (this deserves a separate treatment…), metaphysical photographers in their methodological realism not only affirm the existing natural, but the existing, beautific Supernatural, which they remind us, undergirds all of nature. And the greatest meaning of all this, as we marry metaphysics and the photographic, significal design (making: poesis) of signs, is that we are never alone. This perhaps could be our ongoing gift, Christmas and beyond, as metaphysical poets: Dominus vobiscum.