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June 29th, 2009 - click opera — LiveJournal
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June 29th, 2009
Mon, Jun. 29th, 2009 10:16 am

I've referred a few times here on Click Opera to Norman Humperson's Laws of Meta, and thought it might be time to dedicate a whole entry to this enigmatic and subtle thinker, who died in 1999 (or 2000, according to some reports). Shockingly enough, there isn't -- as far as I can see -- a Wikipedia page about him yet. This Click Opera entry, then, must serve as a kind of tag, hold or "stub", a proposal for a Wikipedia page about Norman Humperson. I hope it will at least establish that Humperson, as a thinker, is not non-notable.

Humperson was born on February 29th, 1933 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to immigrant Scottish parents. His childhood was marked by a strong Oedipal conflict with his father, a defrocked clergyman who had never even been ordained in the first place. He also liked to play with Russian dolls, of which he had an ever-diminishing collection, all stolen.

At the age of 15, Humperson ran away from home to become a lighthouse keeper on the rugged, storm-lashed Atlantic coast. During this time he worked on a new signaling system intended to warn sailors of the various complex dangers -- extending far beyond mere storms and rocks -- presented by the sea. Unfortunately, because of widespread unfamiliarity with the system amongst sailors, wrecks were caused and a great many lives lost. Humperson fled to Jerusalem, where he studied anthropology and sociology in Hebrew under Martin Buber.

It was here -- swatting flies in the fierce Palestine sun -- that he began to develop the ideas for which he's best remembered. Later, as a tenured professor at the University of San Marino, Humperson developed these preliminary insights into the five Laws of Meta as we know them today:

The Laws of Meta

1. Iteration is reiteration. If you remove the time element, all language acts are reiterations of each other, in a continuous circle Humperson called the "great totentanz of signification". Humperson did not discount the possibility of original communicative acts, but declared that the first time a new thought occurred it was, by virtue of its novelty, incomprehensible and incommunicable, and therefore not a communicative act at all. He therefore consigned original communicative acts to a parallel universe, the mysterious "world of origins" -- a place completely barred to mere mortals. "Originality exists," he said, "-- but not for us."

2. The great are devoured by the small. Since every statement is a summary of a pre-existing statement, knowledge is doomed to shrink and wither endlessly. Each summary loses some of the value of the one before it, while seeming to add to its value. Summaries are like banknotes, promises to pay the bearer on demand which, asserts Humperson, cannot be fulfilled, because a summary is a shorter, less valuable version of the thing it refers to, just as promissory paper is less valuable than gold. A demand for the full payment of implicit or promised meanings would cause a semantic "run on the banks" which, warned Humperson, would cause the whole system to collapse. Luckily, quipped Humperson, "one summary does not make a swallow".

3. No critical statement is exempt from its own strictures. Every statement which seeks to summarize and critique a pre-existing statement (in other words every statement except for those in the mysterious "world of origins") will tend to exemplify, in itself, the things it deplores in the original statement, thus opening itself up to the same critique, and so on, recursively. And incrementally, for a summary of a statement tends to exemplify its faults more succinctly and intensely.

4. Dependency is destiny. Since the "world of origins" is closed to us, we must accept the fact that we are dependent -- doomed, if you like, to being forever meta. There is no shame in this. We are all contingent, all referring to things which, themselves, refer to other things (parents descended from parents, phrases from phrases). Humperson did, however, see the possibility of originality via errors, mishearings and misunderstandings. He enjoyed playing Chinese Whispers, especially in later life, when he grew rather deaf.

5. The soul is soulless. In later years, perhaps because of the onset of deafness and other ailments, Humperson became something of a mystic, a dabbler in "meta-metaphysics". He changed his name to Noman R. Humperson, explaining that moving the "R" in this way drew attention to a secret message within his name: "No man are human person." By this, Humperson understood that no-one is any more human than anyone else -- or, in fact, human at all -- just as no statement is any more meaningful. Influenced by Adorno's idea that "in the end, soul itself is the longing of the soulless for redemption," Humperson declared he had "discovered" a fifth and final Law of Meta. To extract the soul from something, he said, was to extract the soul from something. Summaries and translations -- precisely because they try -- must inevitably fail to capture the essence of the things they start from. Since summaries, in attempting to capture essence or soul, inevitably discard it, and since all statements are summaries, there is no such thing as soul, except insofar as soul is the wish, precisely, that there should be soul -- the wish, in other words, that zero and one should come to be the same number. This wish became the basis for a sort of mathematically-based religion Humperson was working on at the time of his death.



Humperson, who had been fitted in 1970 with a mainframe pacemaker, was the only recorded fatality of the Millennium Bug. At five minutes to midnight on the 31st of December 1999 Humperson's last recorded conversation -- with his private nurse, also his wife -- ran as follows:

Private Nurse: "It's time for tea, Mr Humperson!"

Humperson: "What's that?"

Wife (repeating the nurse's words more loudly): "IT'S TIME FOR TEA, MR HUMPERSON!"

Humperson (laughing): "Oh, I thought you said "It's time to die, Mr Humperson!""

No sooner had he uttered this sentence than faulty code in Humperson's pacemaker diverted a routine kernel error into a fatal core dump, and the philosopher slumped forward in his wheelchair. He is survived by his laws.

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