Monday, March 04, 2013

Unevenman and oddman

William Ian Miller is officially a professor of law at the University of Michigan. Other law scholars study rational choice and regulatory decisionmaking, or labor law, or even, more broadly, Constitutional law – Miller, however, studied Icelandic sagas. He’s written a number of books – The Anatomy of Disgust, Humiliation – which seem tangential to any legal school in the U.S. – but that are, relevant to the passions that animate our everyday practices of justice – practices that often operate outside the courtroom.
Miller reminds me a bit of Roberto Calasso. Calasso is an arch European pessimist, while Miller seems a resolutely cheerful American pragmatist, but both have a solid grounding in myth or folklore – Calasso in the Vedas, Miller in old Scandinavian tests – that they return to again and again to untangle conceptual knots. The very term “knots”, of course, leads us, by sneaky Cratyllian pathways, back to the gods.
In Eye for an Eye, Miller performs a reading of the iconography of Justice – the blindfold, the scales, the sword – which would have done Vico proud. He is, in particular, interested in how scales, balance, and tipping are related to the notion of justice. This takes him to back to even and odd – as in the phrase “getting even”, where even is a settling of accounts, a balance”
“Our word even is jafn in Old Norse; they are clearly cognate wordsw, deriving from the same Germanic root. Jafn lies at the core of Norse notions of justice, so that the word for justice is often rendered as evenness (jafnad); injustice, as unevenness (ojafnad)… A bully, a man who shows no justice or equity in his dealings, is an unevenman (ojafnadarmadr)… A just man, on the other ihad, is even, of even temper and fair in his dealings (jafnadarmadr). Of one such unevenman it is said that “no one got any justice from him, he fought many duels and refused to pay compensation for the men he killed and no one gpt payment for the wrongs that he did.”
However, Miller goes on, an unevenman is not an oddman. The etymological filigree here takes a dialectical turn (I know, I’m biting the scenery with that sentence, but sometimes I’m an unevenman with my prose).
“The English word odd is borrowed from Old Nors. Odd(i) is Norse for a point, for a triangle, for a spit of land, and for an arrowhead or spearhead; in other words, odd indicates the effect of add a third point outside the line formed by the two points that determine the line: the odd point makes of a line a triangle, an arrowhead, a spearpoint. They also used odd to indicate odd numbers, numbers that were not jafn. Now the plot thickens. One of the words they used to designate the person who cast a deciding vote in an arbitration panel was oddman (oddamadr). For us, being at odds means we are in the midst of a quarrel, and it meant that in Old Norse too; to resolve that quarrel you had to get back to even.”
The oddman, if you will, is by his nature a dialectician. Of course, it is the getting back to even that sickens bold hearts, who want to tip over the balance and erect a new one, on a new horizon, once it is clear that we are glued into and dying in the even. This sentiment – the sentiment of the revolutionary – is something not countenanced by Evenman or Oddman. But it is not exactly the sentiment of the unevenman, either, though cousin to it.
Even, it should be said, is not a “substitute” for. The domination of the substitute is, as well, a modern phenomenon.