Saturday, November 28, 2015

A Delicate Bias

"There are divergences of humor that cannot be reconciled." (William Carlos Williams)

I generally approach the Tim Hunt affair as a game played on what Rosmarie Waldrop called "the lawn of excluded middle", a space of ambiguity not governed too much by the "venerable old law of logic" it puns. Nabokov said that "a good formula to test the quality of a novel is, in the long run, a merging of the precision of poetry and the intuition of science", and, to my mind, following the story of Tim Hunt's "trouble with girls" is increasingly like following the plot of a novel. Those who still continue to roll their eyes at my interest in it, don't, I think, really understand the pleasure of this kind of exploration, the delight one can take in understanding the details.

Nor do they understand, I think, the ethical imperative of taking a detailed interest in the fall (and possible rise) of a man you have intentionally humiliated. Anyone who participated in the public shaming of Tim Hunt, should, out of decency, occasionally revisit the story and ask, What did finally happen to Sir Tim? Did he get the punishment he deserved? Was he treated fairly, in the long run? It is to that end that I'm applying my intuition and my precision.

Waldrop tells us that "the four points of the compass are equal on the lawn of excluded middle where full maturity of meaning takes time the way you eat a fish, morsel by morsel, off the bone." It's this "full maturity" of the meaning of Hunt's improvised remarks that I am after and that I believe his public shaming entirely neglected. Connie St Louis hastily tweeted her misunderstanding of his remarks. Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky rashly lent her their support. But no one had really heard what he actually said, it seems, and were only hurt by it in so far as they didn't understand him.

A recent example on Twitter reveals the humorless logic of his accusers. When KOFWST made their "final statement" strongly censuring "foreign commentators" for their "serious distortions" of events, Deborah Blum of course promoted it with a tweet. Retweeting Blum, Bill Hooker commented, "Right. So. All you shitweasels who lied and twisted the story and spread disinformation can EAT A BAG OF DICKS," which Blum, in turn, interpreted as directed at her, retweeting with the note, "Another classy supporter of #tim hunt speaks up." But Hooker, it turns out, was merely paraphrasing KOFWST and was therefore acting as "another classy" attacker of Tim Hunt, and one of Deborah Blum's many classy supporters. (People who call Tim Hunt a "rat fucking bastard", for example.) The wonderful irony of this is that the whole affair, of course, begins with Blum misunderstanding Hunt's improvised, lighheartedly supportive remarks about women as an "ingrained" sexist joke. It's pretty clear, now, how the misunderstanding arose.

As I was thinking about this, I happened to be flipping through William Carlos Williams' Improvisations and found the following paragraph.

There are divergences of humor that cannot be reconciled. A young woman of much natural grace of manner and very apt at a certain color of lie is desirous of winning the good graces of one only slightly her elder but nothing comes of her exertions. Instead of yielding to a superficial advantage she finally gives up the task and continues in her own delicate bias of peculiar and beautiful design much to the secret delight of the onlooker who is thus regaled by the spectacle of two exquisite and divergent natures playing one against the other. (XXV, 2)

It's not of course entirely clear what is going on here. But it seems to me that Blum would prefer to live in a world in which such situations were entirely done away with. After all, someone could get hurt, right? She probably wants a world in which not even our poets are allowed to speak of young, desirous women who are "apt at a certain color of lie". Such a "disparaging", as KOFWST might put it, tone must never go un-policed, if you will. In Blum's utopia the lawn of excluded middle is the scorched earth of political correctness. There are no broken windows here. No ambiguous gestures. No jokes.

In promoting KOFWST's "final statement", I think Deborah Blum is trying to exploit what will turn out to be a superficial advantage. As did Connie St Louis's original tweet. This "foreign commentator", in any case, intends to keep talking. In what Nabokov calls "the long run", working with precision and intuition, I think we'll one day be able to actually imagine what happened. It takes time, as Waldrop reminds us. We have to pick this story off the bone, morsel by morsel. It's delicate work. I do it for the simple pleasure it affords. I will make no secret of the delight I take in watching the spectacle.

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