Monday, 12 April 2010

What Is Missing.

This is a picture of the Neasham Cross, a 13th century sculpture held in the vaults of Durham cathedral.
In the centre is Christ, but what I'm interested in is what is around him. At his feet is an eagle. On the right a winged bull, and on the left an angel. Above, you can see, the sculpture has been lost.
What's interesting is that we know what the image would have been at the top of the cross. In Christian iconography, each of the four gospel authors are represented. The eagle is John, the winged bull is Luke and the angel is Matthew.
We know then what is missing from the cross: a winged lion (Mark).

Seeing this caused me to reflect on the nature of 'what is missing' in cases like this. The item presented to us we know to be incomplete, because we know what a cross should look like. The detail about the image on the cross we can also guess, because we know what the other images signify. We can therefore make a very good guess about what the original sculpture was. There is no real doubt about this: everything we know about religious art tells us what is missing.

Yet, no one living can possibly have seen it. In this photograph, taken in the early 20th century, the top piece is missing.

So what is 'something missing'? You probably know the Neasham Cross even less than I do. Until you started reading this, you had no awareness that it was missing from your life, let alone that it too was missing something. More, it is unlikely that you knew what the iconography meant (I certainly didn't until I read the information accompanying the exhibit). So can you be said to be missing it? Yet it seems odd to say the cross itself is missing a piece, since the cross simply is, and has no perceptions of itself.

So what is it that is missing? Physically, a piece of shaped stone. To us, something more complex, which has to do with the way we weave meaning out of the world we are presented with. You don't have to view this as a theological question, as that is only the form of visual language that allows us to know what the image was, in the same way as you can guess the missing word at the end of this .

There is undoubtedly an emotive, intuitive aspect to this notion of missingness. If I lose my favourite pen, or a relative dies, I will feel, to differing degrees, their absence in my life, in a way that is hard to give shape to. In the case of a lost pen, I might miss the balance or the ease of flow of the ink, but ultimately it will not prevent me from writing*. If my daughter dies, I miss not only the person I had experience of but the anticipated future life with them: experiences I could not possibly know and yet can now feel sure would have happened even if I could not say what any of them are.** The emotive aspect of all this would come under the heading of 'grief' or 'loss' but this is merely to label a response to what has happened, and does not help us to understand the notion of missingness itself.

Wittgenstein thought that when we come up against philosophical problems like this it is a result of being 'bewitched' by language itself. All meaning is open, he thought, nothing is hidden. If this is the case, missingness is exactly what it appears to be: part of a language game of possession. The cross ought to be a certain shape and ought to have a particular image, yet it does not. I ought to be writing with my fountain pen but I am writing with a biro. I ought to be going to the park with my daughter but I am going to her funeral. This is an alluring concept - 'what is missing' is when we talk about things in such a way as to leave a definable hole, a gap between what is and what we think and feel to be its ontological imperatives.

Yet all of this leaves us back where we started. What is missing here is an understanding of how we come to have expectations about anything at all. It is possibly the most basic act of human cognition there is and yet it is utterly mysterious.

I feel that there's more to be said on this subject, so I'll probably return to it when I have had a chance to think it over some more. In the mean time, any contributions gratefully received.
*insert own joke here.
** I don't actually have a daughter, which adds another level of oddness to an already confusing situation.

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