Ironical Coincidings

May 22, 2011

And so it has come to pass. Please visit to see my new blog entitled “Ironical Coincidings.” Thus far three posts have been made, all obscure quotations with no explanation. A post will be appearing shortly that will explain everything. Or least why those three posts exist. Subscribe to the RSS feed at to follow my new adventures there.


Joseph Simmons, B.A.

May 19, 2011

This past Sunday in an obnoxiously long ceremony I received my diploma from the University of Dallas and took official possession of my dual degree in mathematics and English literature. I am no longer an undergraduate. Next year I’ll be beginning a PhD program with the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Until then I’ll be reading, writing, and ‘rithmeticking, though probably mostly the first of these.

The passing of my undergraduate career suggests to me that this blog, too, ought to pass away. I’ve been maintaining it for four and a half years, and this will be the 332nd post, for an average of roughly one post every five days, but I’ve been slowing down in recent months. This has happened for various reasons, including more schoolwork and a more active social life, but I think the main one is that the format of this blog no longer suits the way in which I think.

To explain further: “Turin Speaks” has, naturally enough given its title, tended towards manifestos, in which I take a topic and pontificate on it for a thousand words or so. But my thoughts now are both more complex than this and more focused in subject matter: my papers freshman year tended to be 1000 words, but are now on average 5000, and while four years ago I was vaguely interested in literature, philosophy, and mathematics, by now I’ve decided to spend my life studying literature through a philosophical lens with mathematical thoughts always lurking in the background. (I still have plans to write fiction, but probably won’t be going public with such plans any time soon.)

It’s not that I’m now incapable of writing a vaguely-general-interest blog in which I explain in detail whatever I happen to be thinking, but the posts on such a blog begin to feel repetitive, and if I were to go into enough depth to make them feel fresh, they would grow unbearably long, and take up time I ought to be spending doing actual academic work.

So I’ve resolved to let “Turin Speaks” fade into the past. But I did like the habit of constant reflection that blogging forced upon me, and have felt it somewhat lacking in previous months as my posting rate dropped from once a week to once a month. I’m considering starting a new blog, one less portentously titled, that will have posts that will fit better into my current mode of thinking. They will most likely include:

  • Reading journals: .I’m going to try to write something about everything I read, including popular novels, literary fiction, academic writing, and television and film. The journals won’t be called “reviews,” because I won’t try to give a comprehensive evaluation of the text and whether or not it’s worth reading, but they should give some idea of whether I liked the text or not.
  • Poetic commentaries: I’m going to try to keep reading poetry, and when a poem particularly strikes me I’m going to try to write briefly about why it does so. These will likely take the format of posting the full text of the poem followed by a paragraph-long description of what the poem does followed by a line-by-line commentary pointing out the interesting poetic techniques used.
  • Dictionary entries: I’m going to try to keep track of the words that influence the way I think about things and write a little about each one, where it comes from, and what effect it has.
  • Links: I’m going to try to post links to interesting articles I read online, including a paragraph or two of explanation so it doesn’t feel as if I’m just piggy-backing on what others have written.

These sorts of posts have all appeared in these pages before, but have always felt like digressions from what the blog was really intended for. On my new blog, they will be the primary focus, and will also likely be shorter–I’ll shoot for less than 500 words each–and of the same frequency–once a week. I haven’t actually begun this new blog yet, but when I do I’ll post a link to it here, and a request that you shift your RSS feeds from here to there.

Finally, you might ask, why start a new blog, rather than just continue here under the same aegis? Mostly, I think, because “Turin Speaks” is the work of a sixteen-year-old, and I associate it with my high school and undergraduate years. I don’t want a clean slate–my first post on the new blog will link back here–but I do want to start afresh.

What is a thesis?

April 16, 2011

“because i do not hope to turn again
because i do not hope
because i do not hope to turn”
–T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday

I have spent the last thirty-six hours, save for time spent sleeping and eating and occasional breaks, working on my senior thesis. Today was particularly frustrating. I began the day with 2500 words and thinking I was almost halfway done. By six in the evening I had 3300 words and still thought I was almost halfway done. I then spent the next nine hours rehashing those 3300 words down to 2300, and now think I’m only a third of the way done.

But, I now have a much clearer conception of what I’m trying to say, so with any luck, the next two-thirds should be easier. Unfortunately, I have my doubts that this is the case, mainly because my argument has three layers, and I have only completed the first; the second and third will likely be just as tricky to figure out. It seems telling that so far, I can only formally summarize part one.

Incidentally, it runs as follows:
People say A and B, but B->A->!B and A->B->!A, so !Au!B
Part two will say something along the lines of,
People say C because A->C and B->C, but !Au!B, but !!C, so must articulate in what sense C.
And part three will articulate in what sense C. But these are too fuzzy at the moment for me to articulate. Again, this is not a good thing.

But the strange thing is, even though I cannot formally articulate my argument–despite the fact that my argument is, at least I think, the kind that can in principle be described formally–I still think I know what my thesis is. And though I find this odd, I’m not sure I can articulate why, which seems fitting.

Incidentally, my thesis is about Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and the problem of inhuman violence. I’ll probably elaborate once I have it written.

One Hundred Fiftieth

April 12, 2011

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Sumter, which began the American Civil War. And I’ve already seen several items noting the anniversary and a few offering explanations as to why the South was wrong.

I’m not going to say that the South was right, because in the most obvious respect, they weren’t–slavery was, and is, wrong, and the South was in large part fighting to keep it’s “peculiar institution.” But I do think it’s important to understand that the South understood itself to be fighting not primarily for slavery, but for (and this is my formulation) state’s rights, community, and tradition, as set against nationalization, legalization, and modernization. Though the South was tainted by slavery, these ideals are not themselves evil. Neither are they unequivocally good, but there is much to be said for them, and much to be said against their opposites.

There are many directions I could go with this–secession, Southern culture, how the War was prosecuted, Reconstruction, etc–but I don’t think it’s all that necessary to do so. I’m certainly not the most intelligent Civil War commentator out there. I think what’s most important to realize is how bad it was–600,000 Americans died at a time when the U.S. was much smaller than it is now–and to contemplate whether those deaths were necessary or unnecessary. People have described it both ways. I find that fascinating.

Not Seven But Seventy Times Seven

March 9, 2011

Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the liturgical season during which all Catholics are obliged to go to confession.

I used to find this requirement rather perplexing. One ought to go to confession whenever one has committed a mortal sin, of course, but why must one go once a year, no matter what? Since most of us commit enough sins to necessitate confession multiple times per year, this is less a practical question than a theoretical one. What is it about confession that mandates it happen more than once?

I think part of my confusion stemmed from thinking about confession the same way I thought about baptism–as marking a complete break with one’s previous life. This is, I think, what baptism offers: a second chance, an opportunity to start fresh. And second chances are easy to comprehend. They tell a clear story–“I was a pagan, now I am a Christian.”

But third, fourth, fifth, tenth, hundredth, chances are harder to make sense of. And this is where my problem with confession lay. If every time one goes to confession, one is wiped clean, how can one have any coherent sense of identity? One can only be baptized once. To be baptized a second time is to say that the first baptism wasn’t sufficient, that it was a false baptism. Similarly, it seems, confessing a sin that one has confessed before negates those previous confessions, makes them false. To be wiped clean once is to tell a story, “I was a pagan, I am now a Christian,” but what is it to be wiped clean over and over, other than to say, “I am nobody, and every time I start to become somebody, I must erase that new identity”?

That was my old (subconscious) understanding of the sacrament. But the Lenten requirement got me thinking. If confession must happen every year, it is in a sense always happening. How could something that changes who one is be always happening? Only if it marked not a reversal, but an adjustment. It is more akin to the (continual) fires of purgatory than the (one-time) waters of baptism.

This is, of course, an obvious truth; but it is one that because it is obvious is easy to ignore. Once I realized it, I understood much more clearly the sacramental nature of confession: it mediates between the present and the eternal. It is, in a way, more sacramental than baptism even. Baptism, as a one-time event, can be used by any being whose life could be divided in two. Confession can be used only by being whose lives are not just “before” and “after,” but who exist truly in time, progressing gradually along the path to salvation.

The Mimetic Square

February 21, 2011

There’s something strange going on with Plato’s divided line. It is a complicated “something strange,” as it often is with Plato, and requires some elucidation. There is an analogy going on between shadow, thing, idea, and form. If we call these S, T, I, and F, we are told, “S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F)”—that is, that not only do shadow and thing bear the same relationship to each other as idea and form, but that this is the same relationship as between the sensory and the intellectual. That “S:T::I:F” I can accept, but why must the parts of this equation be proportionate to its whole? It results in a number of odd claims, foremost, that T=I. In what sense are things and ideas the same?

Let us leave aside this question for a moment. The above equations allow us to construct another geometrical shape, not a divided line but a divided square, which will serve much the same purpose. Plato actually does this, in the Laws, when talking about things divine, images of things divine, things human, and images of things human. As examples of these, he gives mountains, shadows of mountains, houses, and pictures of houses, but it is easy to see how they could be reinterpreted to be analogous to form, idea, thing, and shadow. So let us look at this square:




We can see that S:T::I:F::(S:T::I:F). Additionally, T=I, insofar as the area of the rectangle THING equals that of the rectangle IDEA. Granted, this portrayal ignores the human half of the divided line—noesis, dianoia, pistis, eikasia—for to include those would require a divided cube. But for our purposes it is enough. The geometric reason for T=I is more clear now; S:T::I:F, but also S:I::T:F. S is two steps removed from F either way. One wonders, what are the philosophical implications of this?

The concept of mimesis, seems to recur here as well—as should perhaps not surprise us, for Plato was discussing art when he described the square in the first place. Recalling earlier, when mimesis was divided into reflection and representation, it seems that we can associate each with one of the two identical elements, T and I. Reflection seems associated with T; a mirror attempts to show us things, and Plato’s complaint is that it does a poor job of it. Representation, on the other hand, can be associated with I; a representation of a separate reality, a heterocosm, can offer nothing to our understanding of reality save general laws that we infer from our comparison of the world portrayed with our own, and Plato’s complaint is that the laws inferred are false. Mimesis begins in SHADOW—in fictions—and tries to bring us into THING and IDEA; Plato says that, without the guidance of philosophy at least, it fails. But worse, it seems, is that it cannot bring us from THING or IDEA towards FORM. Even when mimesis works perfectly, reflection can only bring us from the top of the bottom, and representation from the right to the left; it is not clear that they can build on each other, that together they can bring us from SHADOW to FORM.

Because I enjoy diagrams, and because I like to play with words, I like to label the rows and columns in this divided square. I do so as follows:






But, of course, I could not defend the claim that FACT=FACT.

Having Been, Being Then

February 14, 2011

I’ve been listening recently to Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois (yeah late to the party I know). I particularly like the song “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!!” But I’m not here to talk about the music; once again, I want to think briefly about misheard lyrics.

In one repeated phrase, Sufjan talks about “having been, at last, forgot.” But my mind often substitutes for “having been” the similar phrase “being then.” The line would mean something very similar, given that substitution, but not exactly the same; there is a difference between having been forgot and and being then forgot. The former places the emphasis on the event of the forgetting; the latter on the state of being forgotten. I think both would be appropriate for a song about the end of the world and the Last Judgment, but I find it interesting that Sufjan chose the event rather than the state. I’m not sure what to make of that.

%d bloggers like this: