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Understudies for the Daughters of Mnemosyne: Confessions of a secular humanist displaced from the cosmos

Clive Knights
Portland State University, Portland, USA knightsc@pdx.edu

Preludial Statement: Finding ourselves lost

“….one fact of our culture is that we live in a desacralized world. Our modernity is constituted as modern precisely by having moved beyond the sacred cosmos. Nature, for modern persons, is no longer a store of signs. Its great correspondences have become indecipherable to them. The cosmos is mute. Human beings no longer receive the meaning of their existence from their belonging to a cosmos itself saturated with meaning. Modern persons no longer have a sacred space, a center, a templum, a holy mountain, or an axis mundi. Their existence is decentered, eccentric, a-centered. They lack festivals, their time is homogenous like their space…. Essentially, it was in adopting science and technology, not just as a form of knowledge, but as a means of dominating nature, that we left behind the logic of correspondences. Because of this we no longer participate in a cosmos, but we now have a universe as the object of thought and as matter to be exploited.” [1]

In his broader discussion of an historical antagonism between kerygma and sacred artifact, Paul Ricoeur references what could be identified as an over-arching displacement of humanity – at least in the western tradition and its horizon of influence – a voluntary, comprehensive retreat from participatory involvement with the orders of the cosmos that emerged in the modern era. Motivated to move beyond the mystery of shadows by an enlightening act of dogmatic disengagement, humans placed themselves ‘out of place’ in order to de-contaminate the extended world from partisan perspective in favor of the panoptical position of explicit, universalized knowledge. With an unprecendented display of brazen confidence modernity attempted to bring everything into light, cancelling out light’s necessary foil, the umbral. 

In suffering this blinding light, that has necessitated a certain introspection, I have discovered some persistent verities that inspire both my creative work and my teaching and which call for exposition in the manner of sincere confessions.

1st Confession: Architecture is the most public art. 

I say this to every prospective student that I meet. Our work as architects is always for the sake, and well-being, of others. This keeps open some crucial questions: 

How, in my creative architectural making, do I do the right thing for others? 

What legitimizes the value of the output of my imagination in their lives? 

What exactly is my obligation to others, which, of course, begs the question of my contribution to the very possibility and definition of ‘us’? 

Is it a gift? Or is it a like-for-like transaction in the logic of exchange? 

Is it an act of love, where we always give more than we expect to receive in return?

Or is it an enactment of justice, where a balance is to be reckoned? – An eye for an eye, a sack of potatoes for a dollar.

It is a question of ethical responsibility, concerning the contribution of my imagination to collective experience, and fundamentally it is about my vital participation in the possibility of a sustained and meaningful community. And so, as an architect, it is for the sake of community that I adopt a productive role in its embodiment; in the representation of community by means of symbolic artifacts; in the precipitation of collective identity in the form of built works, and in their accretion into cities. 

This predicament is also self-reflective in that it demands that I question the extent of my own ‘capability,’ that I come to understand the scope of what I can do, what I ought to do, how I might activate my capacity as a self-conscious individual, to act on behalf of others, and to do this through a ‘making’ activity that choreographs the stuff of the world, matter – which, of course, is also ‘other than me’, and demands, I would say, a comparable level of ethical engagement. 

2nd Confession: There is no human action in the world that is not pre-figured by the horizons of the capacities of the human body

The statements “I can” and “I ought” are pre-empted by my corporeal capacities, how my body might be activated in the world, put to work – acting, gesturing, making. The writings of French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty have been transformative in my understanding of the corporeal state of human being.[2] My investigations in architecture have been inspired by this reality for the last 30 years, currently manifest most explicitly in the form of hand-, or rather body-, pressed monotype prints, pushing into the world; alongside collage-making where the body gathers displaced fragments to initiate a conversation about both the differences that define them as fragments, and the commonalities of a worldly context from which they each emerge and return.[3]

In an ongoing series of hand-burnished monotypes with the working title ‘Understudies for the Daughters of Mnemosyne,’ I ponder the re-identification of the nine muses (the arts) with the orderliness of the human body, the ‘givens’, so to speak, of the human corporeal condition: breathing, nourishing, sleeping, discharging waste, procreating, resisting the earth’s pull, communicating, aging, dying.[4]

Though not exclusively, these unavoidable bodily practices, I contend, structure, inform and inspire every human narrative. How our imaginations, collectively, cultivate these ‘muses’ into the plethora of metaphors we weave into the fabric of our particular lives is our means towards a constantly renewed understanding of these exquisitely inexorable human attributes. It is by virtue of our recognition of the enduring similarities in the given orderliness of the active human body, and its metaphoric elaboration into cultural works in different settings across history and across the earth, that any sense of common humanity is made possible. For example: hunger initiates eating, that cultivates dining, that instigates communion, that eventuates celebration, that consecrates a place, that articulates a world, figured against the background of a common, inexhaustible cosmos.

As such, the deceptively mundane act of plating food to share with another human being, transforms mere corporeal function into figural occasion, an orienting action that bonds the participants, host and guest, to each other, simultaneously as they are, together, bonded to that which transcends them both, that is, the spatial and temporal depth of the given cosmic setting, always fully present but never fully revealed. Our role as creative participants in a shared cosmos is to configure and re-configure analogies of the inexhaustible content of that depth across a surface delimited by the capacities of human perception. Not all the water in the lake can appear on its surface at the same time – so we must continue to stir the lake.

3rd Confession: Human potentialities are enfolded within a unitary, structured cosmos within which we make multiple diverse worlds, some with gods and some without Whatever we do, however much we open our sensibilities up, or close ourselves off, however much we exploit the hard-won freedoms of a secular humanism, there is always an informing background that we, as humans, did not fabricate. There is always a common orderliness to that which is given, a structure to that which we find ourselves contending with in our lives – our bodies being perhaps the first and most intimate evidence of the manifestation of this order, not fixed and absolute, but rather, dynamic, enduring, incarnate, metamorphic, with dimensions both cyclic and horizonal; always fully present but never fully revealed.[5]

4th Confession: My love of architecture remains somewhat unrequited

Consumed by a passion that awaits consummation, my work since the late 1970’s when I committed my life to architecture, is equally energized by a deep dissatisfaction with prevailing practices. I believe, vigorously, that we suffer, in the contemporary world, from an overconceptualization of architecture in terms of formulaic rationalization (epitomized by diagrammatic programming and industrialized technique) along with an over-subjectivization of architecture in terms of lingering 18th century notions of aesthetic pleasure stimulated by original forms conjured by inscrutable acts of genius.[6] For the most part, contemporary architecture responds to my embrace with either instrumental grip or nonchalant indifference. Both of these modes of production move in the opposite direction to the notion of architecture as a public art for the benefit of others, they move towards either systemization (which positively excludes its other), or self-referentiality (which refuses to acknowledge its other). Both are unable to encompass in their practice the essential creative validity and contribution of ‘otherness,’ and will remain mute and ineffectual in any aspirations we might have towards renewed communal experience between, not only each other, as humans, but with the worldly context, the cosmos, that we share, which sustains us all, and from which we have evidently, through a self-imposed blindness, displaced ourselves and, regrettably, begun to destroy.

Prolegomenon for the Daughters of Mnemosyne, monotype, by the author


[1] Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) 61-62

[2] “The very first of all cultural objects, and the one by which all the rest exist, is the body of the other person as the vehicle of a form of behavior. Whether it be a question of vestiges or the body of another person, we need to know how an object in space can become the eloquent relic of an existence; how, conversely, an intention, a thought or a project can be detached from the personal subject and become visible outside the person, in the shape of their body, and in the environment which they build for themselves.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962) 406.

[3] For a reflection on the collage making process see the author’s article in Kolaj Magazine #17 (2016) titled “Stranger at the Studio Table: Architecture and Collage”

[4] Sixteen monotypes from this body of work were first shown publicly in the group show titled Extracurricular at the American Institute of Architects Portland Center for Architecture, Portland, Oct 2017 – Jan 2018.

[5] For the most erudite articulation of this predicament see Dalibor Vesely’s Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004) and Peter Carl’s brilliant essay on Vesely’s work titled

“Convivimus Ergo Sumus” in Phenomenologies of the City, eds Steiner and Sternberg (Abingdon: Routledge 2016)

[6] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952)

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