OF WIT AND HUMOUR, Part 3: Humorous nature


Here the Earl continues the critique of the previous section. Having claimed that the philosophers of self interest are betrayed by their genre—if they sincerely believed that humans acted solely out of self-interest, they would not write their books, but instead exploit this fact—he moves from their writing to the concept of nature. The Earl rarely goes point for point in his arguments: he thinks in pictures and systems. Always delighted and delightful, he cannot pin down a principle to be used in an argument, because principles change into their opposite.

If there is a guiding principle, it is complexity and variation: there is no “Alphabet of Ideas” [Leibniz] where each thought can be broken down into a set number of parts. “

YOU have heard it (my Friend!) as a common Saying, that Interest governs the World. But, I believe, whoever looks narrowly into the Affairs of it, will find, that Passion, Humour, Caprice, Zeal, Faction, and a thousand other Springs, which are counter to Self-Interest, have as considerable a part in the Movements of this Machine. There are more Wheels and Counter-Poises in this Engine than are easily imagin’d. ’Tis of too complex a kind, to fall under one simple View, or be explain’d thus briefly in a word or two. The Studiers of this Mechanism must have a very partial Eye, to overlook all other Motions besides those of the lowest and narrowest compass. [72]

The Earl does not try to save kindness, or decency, from the clutches of Hobbes and the “lower Genius” descendants of the atomists. His argument is actually simpler: the world is complex, not simply in its arrangement, but in the parts and forces that make it up. A simple theory is a bad theory, because it does not do justice to nature: “Modern Projectors, I know, wou’d willingly rid their hands of these natural Materials; and wou’d fain build after amore uniform way”. There is a naïve and mildly intoxicated perspectivalism at play: no one perspective can catch the machine. Any pretense to see the whole mechanism is not philosophy, but projection–meaning not a film projector, but one who plans, schemes, forecasts, or throw something forward.

More hucksters than hacks, simplification of nature—a concept with “so little meaning”—costs them dearly. The attempt to draw a firm line between Nature and Civil Society (as if the first is automatic, and the latter “a kind of Invention, and Creature of Art”) is doomed. This sort of bifurcation requires that we ‘exit nature’, into some kind of social contract, but with a such a uniform picture of nature, the tools required to exit it will never be available.

 Simply put: the social contract is a kind of promise, but it is a promise made in the state of nature. So, either promises are binding in the state of nature (which means there is something already social there) or, they are not, and are stuck there. “A Man is oblig’d to keep his Word. Why? Because he has given his Word to keep it.” In other words: there are obligations, even in nature—here I see shades of Mendelssohn: the political and moral are not imposed by a sovereign fiat, but tended to, and you cannot grown something without a seed; we never begin at the beginning—and civil society is just a further development of a natural form, what Shaftesbury calls “herding”, or forming groups.

What does this have to do with comedy? Humour is one mechanism among many for the development of a civil society: it is not a social product, or social corrective, but rather a primitive force, or building block.  It is found in both nature and civil society

As a basic force, it is neither good nor evil: the Earl does not value in this way. Instead, he sets the machine turning, and follows it.  The desire for fellowship can lead to conspiracy or “cantonizing”—the need for fellowship can turn into war, a situation that manufactures closeness. Despite being a defense of humour, the essay does not present humour as a good, or value, but an overlooked element of the machine.

The MidWestern Code


The Midwesterner is distinguished by the extreme lengths they will go to hide (even from themselves) the regional weirdness of their social rules. Texas, for instance, is enamoured with its own odd behaviour: there are Texan ways of doing things, and these are proper; they are not proper because they are what everyone should do, they are proper because they are Texan, and this is Texas, and Texas is chosen. There is something punk-aristocratic about it, and even if the violence, racism, and stupidity can easily repel an outsider, the local codes and craziness are visible, and can usually be easily navigated, or avoided, if you’re fast enough. Israel and Palestine are also replete with regional rules, and they are fiercely visible, if only because everyone likes to talk about their own codes, and their neighbours. The opening premise in most conversation is that everyone, including the speakers, follows an incomprehensible set of rules. This talk produces distinctions which are not actually there in practice: differences are exaggerated, and even the most banal habits are presented as singular and precious.

I have moved several times. More than one would expect for a creature as habitual and bland as I am. And, each time, I am miserable for about 14-18 months. One year to go through a seasonal cycle, hating every violation of my routine, all new objects grinding the tips of my nerves. Then, it takes part of a second year, to learn how to enjoy the place, to slip into its bloodstream. Only Japan did I like within 8 months: food and flowers go a long way with me.

The Midwest is the only place I have moved where the cultural codes are completely invisible to the people who live within them. I have had more than one Midwesterner tell me, with full sincerity, that there are “no codes” here. The effortless movement between the particular and the universal is not intentionally dishonest. Americans are too quickly accused of emotional dishonesty (being ‘fake’) by groups that fetishize their own rudeness—as if German frostiness or Israeli gruffness are sincere, rather than boorish. I find American politeness admirable, and no less authentic than that found in other countries–it is certainly preferable to Torontonian coldness. But the refusal to admit that there are particular, local rules is disorienting to the point of vertigo. Boundaries are sponged away, and the ground disappears with them. The politeness that is supposed to compensate for this absence is not enough for me. You can push your hand right through solid objects, like jelly. When you ask: “what am I doing wrong”, you are politely told “Everything you’re doing is fine”—but knives are still sharp, and people are still desperate. Mid-westerners are very polite. But, הם לא נחמדים. The Midwest is a violent place–there are more gun murders per capita in Ohio than in Texas. Few members of either state would believe this—but a quick glance my student evaluations reveals a seething cruelty.


My sister is hounding me to finish this, get out of the hammock, and eat some fish. I have discharged my duty.







grading my weakly writing


More than usual, this week’s writing is just to keep my promise to myself. I am taken up entirely with grading. Grading is one of the worst parts of teaching. For a new professor, grading is worse than meetings, because we have no stake in the institution and do not yet love the things being slowly destroyed.

Recently, a good student asked a revealing question. It concerned one of my many annotation assignments, where I collect readings and grade the marginalia. The point is to see how carefully they’ve read the text, to see if they’ve found the juicy bits. I’d given the student a 90%–generous by any standard other than hers. I told her it was a good grade, one of the best in the class.

Nonetheless, she asked: “I want to know what I did to lose the 10%”.

And this, gentle reader, is a serious difference between students of today, and my crew. When I went to school, it worked like this: you knew that there were a certain number of A’s, and so your job was to convince the professor, through your written work, charm, and, if need be, an office visit or two, that one of those A’s should be given to you. It was macho, competitive, and arbitrary: a terrible system, one I will not apologize for, or be nostalgic about.

But I do believe we’ve managed to come up with something worse. In the mind of this student (and I believe she is not alone) you begin with 100%, and with every miss-step, every error, your grade is whittled down to what you ‘deserve’: grades are a matter of loss, not gain. While perhaps less macho, it is more anxious and less creative. None of my peers suffered under the illusion that our essays were great works: but they were still something built, crafted, or made—a kind of machine, confession, or (very rarely) art. Often crass, usually soulless, there was always the potential for an assignment to be judged for what it had done: thus the fear was “is it good enough?” and not the more anxious question “what did I allow to be taken from me?”.

As far as they are concerned, students are now graded on their blunders. They begin with an A+, and must do their best to protect it: assignments are entirely defensive maneuvers, exercises in avoiding failure. The school chants that students should “fail better,” but this only compounds the cruelty. They quiver inside of the rubric.

Once she asked the question, I realized that I have been an idiot. Of course, the ‘culture’ of assessment would hurt them, whose egos are developing inside it. In most classes, at least one assignment is designed with an eye to monitoring the course’s ‘progress’—assignments are handed to me, and I in turn hand them over to a higher authority. Of course, students can feel this.

Things have changed here, perhaps more than I thought: part of teaching is trying to gauge the distance between you and your students, and there there is a great temptation to exaggerate. But the student’s question rang true. As an aside: I think this is part of the reason it has been so difficult for me to get them to develop arguments–an argument is built, and they are too busy trying to avoid the knives.

I need to completely rethink my teaching, and grading. I used to use grades as a stick to poke lethargic students—especially the clever ones who have grown used to coasting. But I need to find some way to convince them that I am not just hunting for errors, that I do in fact want them to make things. At the very least, I need to replace anxiety with fear.