A retrospective catalog
Two and a half years ago I wrote a post here about the ways my mind had changed since I first began to hurl words into the void. I don’t know that today there would be much to add; what seems needed now is less a path-tracing than a survey of the terrain. I have, after all, written on this website around three hundred thousand words—the fruit of posting a thousand words per week for almost six years. What exactly have I been talking about, and how, if at all, does it all cohere? In an attempt to answer this question I’ve written the present post, a sort of analytical table of contents of the best writing I’ve done of this site: links to seventy-seven posts (ninety thousand words), organized thematically, with commentary.
Now, in my “day job”—if academia counts as a job—I study modernist British literature. When I say “modernist,” I mean the word to be flexible enough to encompass Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Geoffrey Hill; my “British” catches also Herman Melville and T.S. Eliot; and my “literature” includes also John Henry Newman and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Some of my posts here have been a kind of literary history shop-talk, though of a kind I hope would interest anyone who cares about modernist sacramental aesthetics, the demise of Anglo-Catholicism, or the politics of 1830s New York. Such posts as these will give you a good sense of my literary heroes, but it must be admitted that the focus of this journal has, in the event, been somewhat different—more fantastical, more philosophical, and more techno-political.
I make no pretense, of course, to philosophical originality, considering myself a rather confused Wittgensteinian Thomist. At best I can aspire to wit—and, since brevity is the soul of wit, perhaps any appraisal should begin with my philosophical-literary shorts, whether riffing on cartoon dialogue, stretching analogies to the breaking point, or building metaphysical houses of cards. If you don’t think me a wit, you may still appreciate my appreciation for good manners, which is to say, for proper definition and distinction, as in my reflections on the phrase ‘lowest common denominator’, the word ‘hypocrite’, and the difference between ‘evolution’ and ‘development’.
The above exercises could also be described as caring too much about words—which is to be expected, since in my academic life I study poetry. Many posts here have kept alive my love of poetry by skirting or entirely flouting the norms of academic discourse, whether through unjustifiable juxtapositions or somewhat facetious interpretations of texts that do not exactly qualify as capital-L Lyrics. Call these eccentric readings. I’ve brought together Hopkins and Tolkien, understood medieval riddle through modern chemistry, brought together Magritte and T.S. Eliot, used a song to relate The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings, and found the formal significance of cartoon insects.
One name to appear twice in the previous paragraph was Tolkien. I’m not a fantasy-lover, though, just a Tolkien-lover, and several posts (particularly in the first few months of 2014) have tracked my attempts to explain what makes Tolkien special, namely, his concept of mythopoeia. A two-part sequence explored the ontology and genealogy of genre literature from an implicitly Tolkienian perspective; then a pair of posts explored Tolkien’s approach to gnostic theology and nostalgic desire. More recently, I’ve written about how Tolkien misconstrued his own practice and so failed to save genre fiction from itself.
That such saving is needed has been the topic of a number of posts about the merely fantastic. Here I’m trying to make sense of popular fantasy fiction today, by which I mean preeminently Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter. My best writing on this subject is probably a three-part sequence about the concept of ownership under conditions of skepticism i.e. of magic. I’ve also enjoyed complaining about the awful, truly awful, unspeakably awful Hobbit adaptations, and the absurdly over-rated Star Wars reboot; along the way these posts elaborate a theory of how nostalgia destroys true art.
I write about bad fantasy movies in part to help myself make sense of movies that make good use of the otherworldly. I’ve written about a number of such movies, and have come to think of them in terms of a genre we might call magical marriages, in which the otherworldly elements serve as objective correlative for our fears about our relationships, especially our romantic ones. Films discussed include ‘Primer’ and ‘The Prestige’; ‘To The Wonder’ and ‘Upstream Color’; ‘The One I Love’ and ‘Side Effects’; ‘Her’ and ‘Ex Machina’.
I’ve also written about the meaning of marriage in a more philosophical vein. A three-part series discussed modern and Christian understandings of marriage, and imagined teaching a class on the topic (the movies discussed earlier could, but don’t make an appearance). A sequel to these reflections can be found in essays on George Eliot and Ford Madox Ford.
Marriage interests me as a preeminent instance of language binding persons to their own and one another’s flesh. But as I see it, this is the role of all assertion, and the real question is, how do we know whether the bond will hold? A number of posts here have been about what we might call philosophical eschatology: meditations on the philosopher’s abiding faith that truth will out. I began with Socrates, his trial, and his wife, then moved on to Newman and the nature of martyrdom, from there to Pascal and the sociality of the afterlife, and finally to Coleridge and the freedom of knowledge.
In parallel with these posts (and it took me a while to realize it was a separate inquiry), I’ve written about how, if at all, language can describe reality; we might call this topic poetical epistemology. From Newman’s calculus metaphor, I turned to think of meaning in terms of musical attunement, then attempted further to specify the problem with a grammatical approach to analogical language; I’ve also thought about how we understand ontology through metaphors of sense-perception, and the difference between word-as-ladder and language-as-net.
A third offshoot of these philosophical inquiries has been a series of posts about conversational ethics. I began by distinguishing different kinds of speech from one another: empirical, aesthetic, and ethical claims, then gossip, news, and knowledge. Then I considered some case studies: Noam Chomsky v. Sam Harris and Ross Douthat v. James Martin.
Being interested in the different kinds of claims one can make, I’m naturally interested in how easy it is to mistake one academic subject for another—particularly, to mistake myth for science. The defining feature of science, I’ve suggested, is its difficulty, a difficulty which creates incentives that reduce the need for censorship; the humanities, in contrast, have misaligned incentives, and so demand a kind of self-reflective asceticism.
Why engage in such asceticism? What purpose does humanistic reflection serve? The last several categories all represent, in various ways, my answer to the question. The most obvious answer, I think, is: to help us decide what to do with the power science offers us. I’ve taken for granted the truth of at least some of the predictions of transhumanism; my question has been, as human beings, do we really desire to live transhuman lives? How does a transhumanist imagination alter our relationships to our own bodies, to the bodies of others, to our deaths? And what meaning is there in the resistance nature poses to these alterations?
Similarly, I’ve taken for granted that modern political machinery is, however decadent, capable of something approaching self-perpetuation; and I’ve asked, how can we live honestly in such a regime? Must we see it as demonic, or only as a kind of broken machinery? Can ethics heal Ahab’s madness, or is our only choice to pay our taxes though we prefer not to? These reflections reached a fevered pitch around the 2016 elections; the week before I wrote an apocalyptic prophecy, and the week after a paean to contingency.
Transhumanism and politics come together in the modern tech industry, and I’ve written a number of posts that attempt, somewhat quixotically, to exorcise Silicon Valley. I’ve been deeply suspicious of implicit claims that the interests of company and user do not conflict, or that the wealth of these companies can ever be harnessed for good. I’ve thought it inevitable but tragic that algorithms will displace human understanding, and in doing so will make the world more opaque. Finally, I’ve compared the prospect of true artificial intelligence to that of Cthulhu awakening from his long sleep.
Keeping Silicon Valley honest may be impossible, but it’s the least we can do to keep ourselves honest. I’ve taken a firm Kantian line about the ethics of lying, but tried to suggest that equivocation can, in the face of force, at least sometimes be justified. I’ve sought to understand equivocation as an instance of the doctrine of double effect, and so typically Catholic; I’ve taken as exemplary Thomas More’s silence and Athanasius’s misdirection. My position might be best described as argumentative pacifism. Most recently, I’ve used these concepts to try to understand Martin Scorsese’s film ‘Silence’.
So what does all this add up to? The inevitable effect of any such summing-up as this is to suggest that a conclusion has been reached. And, I suppose, one has. Consider some statistics. I set out simply to list the best writing found on this site, and so one might expect to find the selection evenly distributed across the six years (mid 2011 to early 2017) I’ve been writing here. But in fact the distribution is far from even. A plurality of twenty-one, came from 2015; 2016 and 2014 were close behind, with eighteen and sixteen respectively; looking back, 2013 had eleven, 2012 seven, and 2011 none; 2017 had only three, and so was on track for less than ten. The number of posts-per-year has also been variable, and so too the proportion of posts selected: 55 posts in ’11 of which 0% were selected, 69 in ’12 (10% selected), 47 in ’13 (23% selected), 43 in ’14 (37% selected), 45 in ’15 (47% selected), 31 in ’16 (58% selected), and 7 in ’17 (57% selected, if we consider the present post to select itself). It seems, then, that I consider this journal to have had its fullest blossoming some time around ’15; before that point, I wrote a much but little of value; after that point, I’ve written better but, gradually, less and less.
This tapering off has happened for extrinsic reasons but also, I think, intrinsic ones. Many good posts here have been stand-alone works of poetic interpretation (giving that phrase a poetic interpretion), but my intention was never to make this site a mere collection of poem analyses and movie reviews, and I think the very best posts have been, explicitly or implicitly, contributions to a sustained line of inquiry. These lines of inquiry may not be entirely spun out, but I suspect that, were I to continue pursuing them in this haphazard fashion, I would be spinning my wheels. What I need is to make these arguments more sustained, more rigorous, and, perhaps most importantly, more public. If I had the time, the thing to do would be to write a formal essay about the distinction between fancy and imagination; about marriage as a focal point for skepticism; about how to speak across apparently unbridgeable chasms; about virtuously navigating the dangers of modern biological and political technologies. And to take as a guide to all of this an eccentrically composed philosophical-literary tradition: Melville and Tolkien; Hopkins, Eliot, Auden; Shakespeare and Shane Carruth; Plato, Thomas, Newman, Wittgenstein. But of course such essays would find no home. And, in any case I have a dissertation to write.
So I’m shuttering Ironical Coincidings, at least for now. I’ve always hated the word “blog,” and yet I’ve blogged weekly or biweekly for over ten years; after this post goes live, that will no longer be the case. When I decide what I’m doing next—maybe blogging on some other site, maybe maintaining an online presence in some other way, maybe retreating for a time entirely into my books—I’ll post an update here.