sam thomson

Saint Simon’s Saw

Inspired by the life of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, a visionary educator and social reformer who experienced extreme success and colossal failure during the American and French revolutions of the 18th Century, Saint Simon’s Saw is a mnemonic card deck that provides a randomised narrative drift as a means of interpreting a particular event.

UPDATE: Saint Simon’s Saw is now available for Android devices from the following link:

The primary form of reading involves picking four cards: the first offers a methodology for interrogating the event, the second attempts to focus in on a particular aspect of the event, such as the issues at stake.  The third card offers a means of passing the event from a potentiality to an outcome, and the fourth card reviews the outcome, ending with a question.  The system is intended to play with the normative teleology of the subject being read, and both the reading format and the cards themselves are not intended to comprise a formally complete system.

The card values and images have been selected from interests and concerns that I’ve not fully worked into prior projects.  I’ve distributed these interests based on similarity, and then tried to find 24 “poles” based on the densest card regions, which provide the card titles.  The images are then created by looking back at the composing interests for each pole, and combining this imagery in a way that helped me remember the experiential encounters that had brought these interests to me.

The name “Saint Simon’s Saw” is a synthesis of several interests that informed the creation of the deck:

  1. The deck is fundamentally concerned with “splitting” a difficult issue so that it can be re-thought.
  2. There were two apostles called Simon, which always seemed strange to me. It is a notoriously bad choice to duplicate names when writing fiction, and it’s a big clue that the figures in the Christian bible correspond to real people.  Simon Peter is absolutely solid in name and deed, whereas Simon the Zealot is a much vaguer figure, and disappears entirely from some accounts of Jesus’ disciples.  He is most often depicted as carrying a saw.
  3. The 18th Century French social reformer, Henri de Saint-Simon, was an enigmatic minor aristocrat who sided with the aims of the first revolution, practiced science, had a hugely influential and radical circle of friends, and suffered both extreme success and failure. His belief in a better, future, different world, and the divine spirit of change was the main inspiration for this deck.

Within the deck, each card currently has a general reading value, and four more specific intonations that correspond to each position in a reading.  It is currently up to the reader to map the card values to the event at hand.

Currently there are 24 cards in the deck, which is intended to allow for a condensed packaging of the interests represented.  It is also a number with a lot of factors for its size, to allow for experimental play.  I discovered more recently that there are considered to be 24 valid syllogistic forms, and this is linked to the issue of existential import in Aristotelian logic, and Aristotle’s unwillingness to account for cases where there are no instances, or fictions.  This is something I will look at further in my next revision of the deck.

The following images show 12 original cards out of 24, created with alcohol-based ink on playing card blanks, 2019.  They are shown here alongside their general reading values.

Personal readings, duplicate card decks, and full instructions are available on request.

A human skeleton sits on a throne, wearing robes and holding a book. An abstracted map of London is pinned to the wall behind the figure. The utility of the actor lies in their ability to perform two roles at once, that of their character, and that of their non-character identity. The map hanging behind is also a reminder that the territory it represents must be understood by a correspondence to its composing image. The throne has the function of a podium, stage, or plinth that demarks a special jurisdiction for its content. This is a card of signs, semiotics, language, and systems of writing.

A large dog dances with figure wearing a wolf pelt and carrying a stick. Overhead, two stars shine in the night sky. A marigold flowers. This card explores companionship with other beings, and an identification of shared traits and similarities. Being part of a wider world. The parameters of one’s selfhood.

A re-generating pig with a knife in its back stands on top of a pyramid made from cuts of pork. The earth and the moon are seen in the sky behind. Cockaigne is the fantasy of plenty and indulgence without consequence. The earth signifies the borrowing of resources, and the moon signifies the promise of interest payable on that debt. Speculation, intention, sacrifice, fantasy, duplicity, utopia, and promises made.

A guilotine is being set up or taken down. Although this is a group activity, and many are sharing the same intentions, a strong figure is bearing the particular burden and responsibility of the blade, which although no more important than any other part, carries with it a particular stigma or charisma. The executioner, the dirty worker, the bearer, the volunteer. Those who do the dirty work will gain control of the institution. The guilotine is a re-arangement of industrial tools and acts to re-arrange society. It implies that the current layout of things, re-aranged differently, will produce different results. Things may be settled in place for arbitrary reasons, but that is not in itself a good reaon to keep them that way.

A hand-operated printing press is carried over a plane by four figures. The text, as a reproducible object, has a truth that overcomes geographic constraints, but there is a trade off in the technology that produces it, that can immobilise the operator. This card also represents abstract economics based on the equivalence of goods, and money. The “equivalence” of two items is of course an agreed-upon abstraction, and it is dependent on the parties or constituencies involved in a reckoning. Consistency.

A youth rests on a sheepskin pelt in a wild landscape, poised ready to draw on a boulder. The rest of the flock look on. This card talks of the difference between anthropocentric verification – the affirmation of the existing state of humanity, and an emergent form. The proposal may be radical and appear monstrous at first, but the alternative is banal subjection to existing states.

Maat, an Egyptian representation of order, morality, harmony, and justice, is depicted with wings that spiral recursively, representing here the natural numbers. The feather on her head, used to measure the hearts of the dead in Egyptian symbolism by weighing both on a scale, is nevertheless incapable of proving its own righteousness, because to weigh it against itself is meaningless. For any such consistent formal system, there will always be statements about the natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. Legal systems are incapable of internally justifying their own legality. The gap between completeness and consistency within the law. Imposibility of checking one’s own self-knowledge, and impossibility of knowing everything about another. Ambient calculation, problems of checking and extrapolating examples to all use cases. Lossiness inherent in simulation. Mission creep and field expansion. Incompleteness is the recursive activity that justice fails to forestall.

A trained elephant balances on top of a ball, one leg is raised as this position is temporary, surrounding forces, or the volition of the elephant will alter the balance. Perfect balance is imperceptible, only imbalance can register as intelligible. The Navigator must utilise the rudder of reason, and catch the passionate forces in their sails, traveling via a process of imbalance. Passion is an openness to the forces in the world, Logos is the extent of self-determinacy at hand.

A fish swims in water, a hook appears from the surface above. This lure represents an event appearing in the space of everyday life, often more visible by its sudden presence than the commonplace surroundings. It offers up an opportunity for a change in situation, and can offer a punctum around which the conditions of existence become visible. Things that may not normally be in question.

A human figure reclines with their head and shoulders resting on a floor, their legs upright against a wall, and their feet against a large poster depicting J. R. “Bob” Dobbs, a counterculture figurehead from 20th Century America and embodyment of the ideal of slack. Drawing from the Discordian idea that both order and disorder are selective readings of chaos, this card encourages loose, tollerant, multiple, and un-pedantic readings of the situation at hand. This should not be confused with the kind of princely disinterestedness that can contribute towards a tyranny of structurelessness (Freeman), ignorance, and arrogance, for “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”. – Freire

The ruins of an old city shade plants from the sun. Weird is the process of being and becoming, that predominantly lies outside of the observer’s power.  Accident.

A figure with elongated headware walks away from a town across ploughed fields, the sun on the horizon shines behind. Wrecca is a proto-Germanic term for an outcast or exile, and forms the root of “wretched”. On leaving the settlement, whether at the behest of others or from volition, a new world opens up for the wrecca and for the settlement, and for better or worse the old is left behind. Wanderer. Sometimes it is simply a case of deciding when to go it alone, and when to seek company in an endeavor.