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.

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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:

FORM THING

 

IDEA SHADOW

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:

TRUTH FACT
FACT FORM

 

THING

 

FICTION IDEA SHADOW

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


Theory: A Dialogue

January 18, 2011

(For my literary theory class last semester we wrote several short papers about different theoretical ideas. One of mine, co-written with another student, took the form of a dialogue between “1” and “2” about paraphrase. Given its subject matter, it seems right to not attempt to rewrite the ideas it contains in essay form, but to simply post the thing itself. It runs as follows:)

1: To begin, I would agree with the New Critic’s claim that a poem cannot be paraphrased; or, at the very least, that such a paraphrase would necessarily be woefully inadequate.

2: It is a plausible enough sounding claim, but what precisely do you mean by “inadequate”? If a poem is saying anything at all, any format will do for communicating whatever it says. Now there might be as much controversy as you like about the meaning of a particular poem. And maybe you won’t ever be able to paraphrase all the constantly changing, evolving critical debate out there. But as long as you have a view on what the poem says, or at least what it might say, then you have a paraphrase you can express with standard English sentences. Perhaps that paraphrase is boring or contrived or awkward, but it gets across everything you believe to be the poem. There’s nothing you can’t say about the poem that you can’t say about the poem.

1: Well that hardly covers it. What about the aesthetic impression a poem makes? That can’t be replicated in ordinary language—it’s an experience, not a propositional claim. If poems were just complicated propositions then their form would be little more than decoration. But it is not mere decoration—it’s of central importance to the experience of the poem, which cannot be replicated. It is this that makes paraphrases of poetry inadequate in a way normal paraphrases are not. Poems are not simply statements, they are aesthetic objects.

2: That I will grant—a poem is independent of the description of a poem, in the same way a flower is independent of the description of a flower. Perhaps my paraphrase does not have the same “ring” to it, or perhaps it’s harder to remember. Perhaps my description of a flower fails to evoke the same emotions the actual flower might. But that doesn’t make poems special—all objects are like that. The phenomenon of the thing differs from its description. Fine. But not important.

1: No, I don’t think that’s quite right. Poem’s are not quite like flowers. You see, a flower does not mean to communicate anything at all. Perhaps there is some sense in saying it has a certain rhetoric with regard to bees. But poems are not like that. They are intentional acts of communication. And I don’t think this is trivial, because language acts’ only meaning is intentional. Flowers exist regardless of how they rhetorically affect bees, but the word “flower” only exists as long as we allow it to mean something. And poems are made up of words. Moreover, I think poems are special acts of communication. They intend a “meaning” like any statement might; but unlike other verbal acts, a poem also intends itself.

2: What do you mean by “intends itself”? All this sounds very nice, but, if you see my point, you’ll know you have to tell me specifically what it is that only a poem can tell me. You’ll have to say what it is that you cannot paraphrase, and you’ll have to say it in a way that couldn’t itself serve as a paraphrase.

1: When one speaks, one intends something by one’s speech different from the speech itself. Speaking attempts to communicate linguistically, but the act of speech, at the most basic level only produces sound waves. The meaning behind those sound waves is intended, but not explicitly present—what would it mean for it to be? For it to be present, the speech would have to carry within itself the entire context of the conversation, indeed the entire English language. None of this is present in the speech itself, yet we can say that the speaker intends for us to find it there. Synecdochally, we can say that the speech intends it. We could, but perhaps should avoid, getting into whether speech is actually the sort of thing that can intend.

2: So explain what is different about what a poem intends.

1: Consider the sentence “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo.” In normal speech, this is a proposition about the location of certain women and their activities, and intends to communicate that information. Within “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” it is something quite different.

2: Is this due to the strange form of that line?

1: No. Not really.

2: Well, what do you attribute this special sense to? Look, the line you are talking about has an unusual form, but it can nonetheless be paraphrased.

1: How would you paraphrase this line?

2: Well, I suppose I might rather say that the poem itself can be paraphrased. The sentence can be paraphrased insofar as it is part of the poem.

1: But the line cannot be paraphrased?

2: Merely because of its brevity and isolation from context.

1: Well, this is sort of what I’m trying to get at: that poetic context makes things mean differently; and that we cannot get beyond poetic context without changing meaning.

2: I’m not sure I agree with that. To say that a line cannot be paraphrased because it is within a poem is akin to saying that a word cannot be paraphrased because it is within a sentence. Certainly the individual word cannot be paraphrased, but the sentence as a whole can be. Context must always be considered when paraphrasing; the non-poetic version of the “Michelangelo” utterance can vary drastically in meaning because of context. If it followed the question, “what sort of art do women prefer?”, it would mean something different from if it followed, “where are those women, again?” But this does not render the phrase impossible to paraphrase, any more than all language cannot be paraphrased—and it would be absurd to say that no language can be paraphrased, for then the word “paraphrase” would become useless. So clearly paraphrase depends on context, for all paraphrase. My point is this: Poetry provides an unusual, but arbitrarily defined kind of context; it has no special properties that are in principle unique to poetry. Poetic context is not unique. It functions in the same was as the context of normal speech, except in that the context of normal speech is immediately obvious to the speakers while the context of poetry is not always so clear.

1: Yes but you’re ignoring aesthetics. Perhaps I take back what I said about the form of poetry. Perhaps it is the crucial difference. The sentence in question has aesthetically interesting properties, and it is because we find that poem in a poetic context that we pay attention to them. The rhyme between “come and go” and “Michelangelo” doesn’t mean anything, propositionally, but within the poem it is significant.

2: So it looks like we’re relegating the supposed uniqueness of poetry to its rhetorical value, i.e. how well it sounds?

1: That is certainly part of what distinguishes poetry from other speech.

2: But can’t anything have aesthetic value? A good speech will use the same tropes of repetition, evocative imagery, and allusions that you want to call specifically poetic. So I grant, again, that poetry can’t be paraphrased fully, qua rhetoric. But note two things: First, the word “paraphrase” does not really demand replication of rhetorical effect in the first place, and, Second, it is in any case sometimes still possible to reproduce the aesthetic effect in the paraphrase.

1: Still, poetic speech doesn’t intend to be taken rhetorically—at least the words “poetic” and “rhetorical” are not to be understood equivocally. Rhetoric seeks to persuade. Poetry may be persuasive, but poetry qua poetry entails nothing of the sort. Thus I feel legitimate in maintaining that a poem is “about” its own aesthetics in a way the speech is not.

2: I don’t follow. Are you saying poems that poems are meant to be pretty? Lots of things are pretty. What is the difference between a poem being about its aesthetics and a poem having aesthetic value?

1: A poem is not just aesthetically pleasing, but of aesthetic interest—we take rational interest in the poem’s aesthetic facts. We can hear “In the room the women come and go / talking of Michelangelo” and simply find it pleasant, but we can also try to make sense of what that rhyme does as it is situated in the poem. This is what most literary criticism written about poetry attempts to do. So, what differentiates the context of poetry from the context of normal speech is that the context of poetry draws our conscious attention to the aesthetic facts of the poem.

2: If aesthetic facts are the type of thing in which we can take rational interest, then they are the type of thing which can be paraphrased. If poems are about their aesthetics, then a summary of the poem insofar as it is as a poem, rather than insofar as it makes statements, would be a description of its use of tropes and figures, and a summary of the poem as a whole would be a combination of the two. So the poem can be paraphrased by summarizing its use of aesthetics/rhetoric as well as its propositional claims.

1: Even if that is the case—that we can paraphrase poems that way—there is no sense in which it would be an adequate account of the poem. Reading a good poem has an effect on the emotional state of the reader in a way that a description of that same poem would not. That effect, for its part, alters the way in which all aspects of the poem affect the reader. A cold, dead summary could not communicate this emotional experience that we all know to be inextricable from our encounter with a poem—inextricable from the poem in a way that it is not inextricable from normal speech.

2: To an extent, I will grant this. Yes, the way in which a poem affects my emotions differs from the way in which a description would, however elegant or correct that description may be. This having been said, it is not the purpose of a paraphrase to mimic the emotional ups and downs of a poem, but rather to be like a description, however inadequate a description it will be. Secondly, we should note that all descriptions are by nature inadequate, not merely those of poems. My description of a flower is exactly like my description of a poem, in that it would be incapable of mimicking the emotional effect of a flower in an exact way. The fact that the paraphrase of a poem is limited in its descriptiveness does not make poems “special” in any way.

1: That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all. If we allow paraphrases to be descriptions, however inadequate, then of course we can paraphrase a poem; grant that, and we can paraphrase anything, and made the word “paraphrase” meaningless. But you have completely ignored the way in which paraphrases of poems are radically inferior to paraphrases of non-poetic speech. Leaving flowers to the side, your description of a speech is not exactly like your description of a poem. What would be lacking from that of the speech would be incidental to the propositional purpose of that speech, but what would be lacking from that of the poem—its aesthetics—would be of the utmost importance.

2: You continually attempt to separate poems from normal speech by saying their aesthetics are of special importance, but it is unclear what exactly you mean by that. You shift between saying that they are aesthetically pleasing and that they are aesthetically interesting. But the first of these applies to all aesthetic objects, and the second poses no significant obstacle to paraphrase. Insofar as poems are like flowers, they can be described; insofar as poems are like speeches, they can be paraphrased. I am not denying that poems are like both of these—that poems are not reducible to normal speech—but just because a poem is like both of these things does not mean it is a third kind of thing distinct from both. I remain unconvinced that poems differ from normal speech in some deeper fundamental way that makes them impossible to paraphrase.

To be continued…


Can Computers Think? Posters

August 31, 2010

I was going to write something up about the question of artificial intelligence and whether or not computers can think. But then I came across this set of posters. So instead of writing anything I’m just going to spend a few hours reading all of them. Sorry.

But you can read them too.


Movie Review: Inception

August 26, 2010

In 16 words: Inception is a good movie slightly worsened by its belief that it is a great movie.

It could have been a great movie. It is certainly a good movie. Well constructed, interesting premise, a good puzzle-box. It could have been a great movie, if it had used its material wisely; but that would have required wanting to communicate something beyond befuddlement. I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m not really going to talk about the plot of the movie, but only about a few of the characters and some general themes. Thus, the rest of this post shouldn’t have any spoilers in it.

The movie has two themes. The first it did a good job with, but did not emphasize nearly enough. The second, it reduced one understanding of the issue to a thirty-second monologue, and showed the other through a twist in the final scene that was  simultaneously predictable, frustrating, and meaningless. These two themes (and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say this) are, (1) the nature of “inception,” i.e. “inspiration, and art’s role in it, and (2) the impossibility of knowing for sure whether this world is the “real” one.

The first of these themes is meta-artistic. Basically, the movie views art as sub-creation, and explores how powerful it is, how an imaginary world can be created, and how that world can impart an idea without the audience consciously realizing it. I found this aspect of the movie quite interesting, but underdeveloped. It really only shows up in the first half, and is then dropped in favor of the second theme, when they ought to have run concurrently throughout.

The basic premise of the movie is, shared dreaming is possible, and a certain class of criminal is often hired by evil corporations to go into rivals’ dreams and steal their ideas; oneiric corporate espionage. The main character, one of these thieves, is hired for a special job – not to steal an idea, but to plant one. To do so, he assembles a team of such dream-thieves, who have positions with names like “forger,” “chemist,” and “architect.” The architect is the one who actually creates the dream-world, and she must dream it in precise detail, enough to trick the target into thinking it is real, and must tailor it to fit the intended dream-scenario that will allow the implantation of the idea.

I say “she” because the main character, while he used to be a amazing architect, can no longer build, and must hire someone who has never been an architect before, never done anything illegal before, but has the potential to be a brilliant dream-builder. He selects a young female student for the task, and this woman becomes basically the embodiment of this meta-artistic theme. She is the brilliant young artist who is slightly wary of what her mentor intends to do, who is unsure of the morality of her artistic endeavor, who is unsure of the sanity of her mentor, but who is entranced by it, and must make art; art becomes her life.

On the other end of the spectrum is the main character’s wife, who was once a dream-weaver just like the young student, but who lost herself in the dreams and ended up dead. (I won’t elaborate to avoid spoilers.) This gives us an interesting set of characters to explore: the two female characters, representing art’s possibilities and its dangers, bracketing the main character, who was also once an artist, but who is simultaneously afraid to be a true artist and willing to use his art to lie, cheat, and steal in order to support himself. So far, so good.

But – in the second half of the movie, the meta-dramatic theme goes away, and the movie shifts to being about whether or not there is an objective reality. This, I think, was a mistake. The two themes are related, in that the ability to lose oneself  in a fictional world and believe it more important than the real world is indeed one of the dangers of art. But the movie did a quite poor job of integrating them. It allowed the epistemological uncertainty to dominate, and ignored the ethical uncertainty – and by doing so, it made itself unable to say anything substantial.

The problem is, the question “how can we tell a fake world from the real world?” has, when it comes down to it, only one answer: we can’t. There’s no way to be sure. And because it has only one, simple answer, it’s not that interesting a question. The more interesting question, which the movie almost asked, was, what makes the real world more real than an imagined world? What ethical obligations do we have to the worlds we imagine? And are those obligations in conflict with our ethical obligations in the real world? This should have been the theme of the movie. But it wasn’t, and it suffered for it – not only thematically, but personally.

The thing is, Christopher Nolan doesn’t do realism. He’s like Melville in this; his movies have one or two characters struggling with some Idea, a few more characters who can represent aspects of that idea, and the rest of the characters are one-dimensional, there just to fill in the plot holes. (Think about it: this applies to Memento, The Prestige, The Dark Knight… basically every Nolan film I’ve seen.) But Inception has no clear plan for the Idea he wants to work with, and so his characters fail as incarnations of ideas. This forces us to notice how really unrealistic so many of his characters are, and how the movie is really just an excuse to construct an elaborate plot involving multiple levels of dream, and we start to realize that there’s no greatness here, only cleverness…

And so we are left in the end, saying that Inception is just a clever movie, when if it had tackled its themes better it could have been great. If it had been content with being just clever, it might not have been that much better as a movie, and would have been thematically less interesting (so I probably wouldn’t be talking about it here), but it would certainly have been less… awkwardly constructed.


Bottum on America and Religion

August 23, 2010

Interesting article on the First Things website today: The Bible in the Public Square. I particularly like this paragraph:

The United States as it naturally wants to be—what we might call the platonic ideal of America—contains a tension we must be careful not to resolve. From its founding, the nation has always been something like a school of Enlightenment rationalists aswim in an ocean of Christian faith. And how shall the fish hate the water wherein they live? Or the water hate the fish?

I don’t have anything particularly insightful to say about it, so I won’t waste your time. Go read it! I don’t know if I agree with it or not, but the issues it raises are certainly worth thinking about. Personally, I’m always fascinated by attempts to get at the “essence” of “America”…


Extra-Terrestrial AIs IN SPACE

August 22, 2010

An article popped up on my news feed today from the BBC titled “Alien hunters ‘should look for artificial intelligence.’” It basically parrots the position of a SETI scientist who claims that soon after a civilization starts using radio waves (and so becomes detectable to SETI), it will develop AI, and soon after that the AI will replace organic life. Thus, he says, there’s no reason to focus on inhabitable planets when searching for extra-terrestrial life.

My first thought was, “REPLICATORS?!”

My second was, can he really be so confident that AI is possible, and that it would in fact replace organic life rather than be subservient to it? It sounds to like he’s basically writing science fiction and calling it science. Sure, it’s plausible, but there’s no real proof for his position, so why should we listen to him rather than someone who tells a story where the opposite happens?

Then I got to this paragraph:

Dr Shostak says that artificially intelligent alien life would be likely to migrate to places where both matter and energy – the only things he says would be of interest to the machines – would be in plentiful supply. That means the Seti hunt may need to focus its attentions near hot, young stars or even near the centres of galaxies.

My central interest, as it were, is with the phrase, “the only things [that] would be of interest to the machines.” I’m wondering, what claim about the personhood of these AIs does the use of the word “interest” implicitly make?

My first reaction was to say that it assumes that AIs are not persons. After all, it reduces them to one core instinct – REPLICATE! – and says that it is only that which is of “interest” to them.

But, then again, don’t people often say the same thing about humans – that we’re only interested in sex and death? The primary difference between humans and animals isn’t that we have interests other than sex and death, it’s that we’re aware of our interest in sex and death, that we worry about that interest, that we try to attribute significance to it and to them. An AI might well be the same, aware of his drive to REPLICATE and struggling to assign meaning to it.

This struggle would be made harder by his own knowledge that the drive was placed there by a biological creator, and so cannot have any higher significance. A central aspect of Christian theology, as I understand it, is those central interests of ours – death and sex, sex and death – may be a result of our physical, animal nature, but they reflect a higher reality, and this reflection allows us to find meaning in lives that remain governed by those interests of ours. But the AI – would he become a gnostic? An atheist? I find it hard to believe that a true AI – a truly self-aware artificial intelligence – would not consider the question of God. But I find it equally difficult to see one becoming Christian, unless Christ became incarnate as a machine.

I doubt, of course, that the SETI scientist was thinking about these issues when he said that. He probably doesn’t put much stock in the concept of personhood, and so the question of whether AIs are people, and whether they could have any “interests” beyond replication, are of little interest to him. But for those of us who do think “person” is a good word, his words provoke some interesting questions.

(What I just said about sex, death, and God is probably poorly phrased and perhaps completely wrong from a Christian point of view. This is mainly because I’ve always had a hard time answering the question of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, given that we’re physical beings and can only take action in a physical way – by eating, breathing, procreating, dying – but Christianity says that the most important action we can take is a non-physical love of God. The concept of the Incarnation tries to reconcile the physical and spiritual, but it’s still doesn’t answer the question of what we ought to do with ourselves while waiting to die. But this is a post for another day.)


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