«Future participle»: when anthropology contemplates the halo of the future

Book Review
Massimo Angelini
Participio futuro: Dalla terra alla bellezza, per tornare al simbolo
[Future Participle: From Land to Beauty, Returning to the Symbol]

236 pp. – €12.00
ISBN: 978-88-98187-28-7
Pentàgora, 2015

While the book has only been published in Italian, a selection of its chapters
is available in English on the author’s website.


Participio futuro (future participle) is a verb tense or – to take some poetic licence – a verbal «tension», towards that which is not yet, but the shape of which can already be sensed in incipient form. While future participle no longer exists in contemporary English, there are certain words that bear its Latin traces. Think of «venture», meaning «that which is to come»; «future», as «that which is to be» or again «nature», as «that which is to be born» (which we could perhaps reword as: the inception of life, disposition to aliveness, coming-into-being). Future participle, in other words, denotes that which is not yet, but the presence of which is already felt – so much so as to find discernible linguistic shape in a verb tense. In Angelini’s poetic wording:

Future participle refers not to that which will [at some point] be, but to that which is coming into being [as we speak], which is imminent, which isn’t yet but already participates in being: the word gestures to that which is proximate and of which one can already discern the sketch, the trace or the outline. «Nascituro» [the future participle of the Latin verb nasci, to be born] is not one who will be born, but one who is poised for birth and whose birth is therefore already inscribed in the present: it is he who is already present with us today. The tree that hasn’t sprung up yet is the future participle of the sprouted seed, out of which it is about to draw its life and form. The home prefigured in the [architectural] project is the future participle of the foundations just laid. Anything of which we incipiently discern the accomplishment is the future participle of that which announces it today and already prepares the ground for it (p. 67).

«Culture» is another word originating from a future participle, that of the Latin verb còlere [to cultivate], which in turn derives from the root kwel, meaning «circle», «circular/cyclical movement» and «wheel» (p. 67). Hence, it is from the turning of the earth, when it is tilled, that the verb form còlere comes to signify the practice of cultivation. By extension, «culture» (originating in the future participle of the verb) denotes «those things which beckon to their cultivation, which are to be grown, elevated, honoured» (p. 67).
Moreover, future participle expresses in incipient form the realisation of something that, once accomplished, will come to be described through a past participle. In this sense, therefore, culture (as that which commands our tending to find actualisation) passes into culto (which, in Italian, means worship – not «cult»). While, chronologically, culture precedes worship, the reverse is true from a teleological perspective. Worship, in other words, is the gravitational force that calls forth the cultivation of culture: it gives it purpose and direction. To quote Angelini once again:

Just like any accomplishment is the future participle of its freshly drawn project and yet, from a teleological perspective, it affords it a purpose and direction; so by going on a pilgrimage to the sources of words, in its deepest sense culture is set in motion by worship [culto], and it is to worship that it tends (p. 69).

In this sense, culture in the primal sense of the word seeks to elevate its caretakers to the sentiment of transcendent being, foreshadowing the practice of reverence, awe and liturgy by which the latter can be ritually evoked. The aspiration to behold and participate in the cloud of being that harbours all beings engages culture in its proper task, i.e. to attend to symbols: these are forms that (from the etymology of the word sym-bolic: «to cast together») hold creation together, gesturing to the integral belonging of its varied manifestations, as opposed to severing it (which, as a «casting separately» is etymologically dia-bolic).

Symbol and sign

This is an important distinction for Angelini: that between symbol and sign. Whereas the latter represents, «stands for» something else, the symbol reveals unity-in-difference, and thereby manifests «com-presence» (p. 47) – the belonging together – of different modes of reality. A corollary of this distinction is that symbols are just there for us to behold and intuit, once our sight is not clouded:

One can only invent what isn’t already there; what exists already cannot be invented, but it can be recognised instead, or found. Symbols are not the material of invention: if one hasn’t yet lost touch with the fabric of the world, they come to be recognised, as they precede the word: they are there, they cannot be crafted; they live in commonplace knowledge, the one that is manifest in what’s evident and in the universal wisdom shared by human beings through the slow turning of generations (p. 48).

«What’s evident» is another important corollary of symbolic knowing. In particular, Angelini is wary of the power of words to hinder an honest appreciation of reality as it appears. Indeed, much specialist knowledge tries to explain the evidence of reality in terms of something that lies beyond it, or underneath it – ultimately disclosing a position of distrust towards sense impressions. This, however, brings about a veritable expropriation of communities from the ability to articulate the commonplaces – the bread and wine – of their life together. Words, therefore, ought to be dispensed with caution and discernment, much like a martial art:

The word, for what it carries or for what it performs, is as powerful as a weapon and – like a weapon – it commands attention and responsibility. One ought to exercise it in much the same way as one does a martial art, with discipline, self-control, dexterity, even with a ritual sense, and from a position of presence to oneself that one can cultivate in accomplishing any daily gesture, even the simplest one like, for instance, walking or washing dishes. To consider the use of words as a martial art also imposes chastity, meaning parsimony, a sense of «enough», and even a taste for silence: this is the measure that guards against the temptation to exhaust reality into words , that advises against speaking too much, that forbids to pronounce the Name in vain and admonishes to: Let your word be «Yes, Yes» or «No, No»; anything more than this comes from the evil one [Mt 5:37] (pp. 38-39)


Beholding immanent being versus representing things beyond

Angelini’s approach is, therefore, an ontological, rather than a semiological one – as he himself clarifies in one of the later chapters (see pp. 187-191). The latter approach tries to decompose «beings» into «signs», so that «being» is narrowly identified with what can be signified within an ulterior horizon of meaning. A semiological perspective, in other words, treats the world as a proxy for a system of signification to which it ought to be reducible: in so doing, it always entails an «interested» gaze (see p. 188). The ontological perspective, on the other hand, engages the world with a view to make experiential contact with it, on its own terms and from within. In this perspective, therefore, for something to be «real» is to have an experience of it, within the cultural whole of which it participates – regardless of whether it can be extricated so as to find a place in the observer’s taxonomy.
Having made these general theoretical considerations, the various chapters of the book offer a number of examples to gain familiarity with such an ontological attitude, as reverence for «what is». I mention here a few, as a taster:

  • Looking is an act that has its beginning at the corner (in Latin, cantus) where the eyelids meet. Hence, to look is to bring into that corner (in-cantare), it is an active apprehension of and participation in the world. To look is already to participate. The illusion that gazing can ever be merely passive receptivity separates us from a fuller awareness of our belonging in the world (and the sentiment of reverence and respect this can inspire). It hides from us the always-incarnate act of «taking in» the corner of our gaze (in-cantare), as active gathering of the world, like grain in bundles (fascinare), in the eye’s fascination:

    We could frame this process [of understanding «gaze» as merely passive receptivity] even in terms of a history of disincarnation, or, in the horizon of Christianity, we could speak of a rejection of Incarnation and a detachment from matter that have contributed a more general movement of dissociation, of closure to the world, of I‘s progressively locked inside themselves like bolted monads. A rejection and detachment that breaks the community of mankind, by severing its ties, and reduces it to an archipelago of solitudes (p. 143).

  • When time is not reduced to a sequence of fixed units, it can be sensed instead through participation in the movement of the cosmos. When the day follows night as light follows darkness, time stretches and contracts following the rhythm of the seasons (with longer days in spring and summer, and shorter ones in autumn and winter). And seasonal time – in its cyclicality – affords a secure horizon within which generations can fold on one another in the life of a community. In a beautiful quotation from a book on life in the Dolomites, which Angelini reproduces in his book:[1]

    Up here, in Calchere, time flows slowly, cadenced by the change of generations. They come and go with the revolving seasons. Inexorably, they mark the course of life here: the elders make way for adults who slowly grow old; children grow up , they become men and in turn give life to new shoots. This alternating of people embodies the perpetual flow of seasons, whereby you come across new faces, but with evident reminiscences of those gone by: the same nose or eyes, a distinctive laughter. These details bring back those that have existed previously (p. 63).

  • Any discrete event in the unfolding of life is always contingent on specific environmental conditions that precipitate its occurrence: i.e. everything arises inside a fragile, place-based process. The ontological posture that Angelini advocates, then, entails an acknowledgment of – and respect for – process, whenever one approaches the forms of life in which specific phenomena that catch our interest have their home. Take, for instance, the healing properties associated with «holy water» in popular devotion: these can be best made sense of, not by trying to reduce them to extrinsic explanations (e.g. as «placebo effect»). Instead, Angelini suggests we take something as «holy water» in its cultural integrity, as a really existing object that finds its stability in shared sensing practices validated over generations (p. 180).
  • Process and locality disclose an underlying continuity and mutual implication between all the features that colour a common world. This is further exemplified in the ways in which manifestations of the sacred in rural communities often celebrate the very coming together of its members; they become occasions of re-membering (see pp. 105-134). Take, for instance, the seating arrangements in countryside churches (where men sit on one side or another for a particular reason dealing with the history of the church and the community, or where one side belongs to one village and the other to another – pp. 109 ff.), or the positioning of crosses to mark the path of ritual processions around a community’s boundaries. As one digs, like Angelini does, into the origins of these traces, one cannot help but witness such celebrations as sacramental gatherings – where «sacred» literally means «set apart» for divinity – of a community, by which it purposely connects through coming together with a reverent sense of participation and place in the wider unfolding of life.

In conclusion, it will be apparent by now that I have greatly enjoyed this book, and at times had to pause and ponder the many genuinely moving turns of phrase. I wouldn’t call what Angelini presents a theology – which I would define as «faith seeking understanding». Rather, his is an understanding that reaches for faith: knowledge on the path to break free of its self-made traps and prejudices, so as to finally reconnect with «what’s evident» and – therefore – with an intuition of the symbolic fabric that holds all of creation together. What Angelini offers, and this is as precisely as I can formulate my understanding, is a phenomenologically-inspired anthropology that seeks to discern truth and, in so doing – as Edith Stein would perhaps have it – it can’t help but move close to an intuitive and experiential encounter with the matrix that in-forms all form, something one might even venture into calling God.

[1] C. Signorini, Calchère: Le stagioni della vita. Armonia e natura nelle Dolomiti [Calchère: The Seasons of Life. Harmony and Nature in the Dolomites] (2010, Castelnuovo del Garda: Edizioni del Baldo) p. 6.