Styles of Seriousness
Steven Connor



Seriously, Though

This book may be thought of as a long and ramiculated brood on the difficulty, and perhaps the impossibility, of being completely serious or, so to speak, really, seriously serious. In it, I will try to fill out my intuition that being serious is affected by the same internal shimmer that affects words like act or perform. Acting means both doing something for real and pretending to do it, just as performing a duty means both really doing it and putting on a performance, just as agency is a word employed to mean both acting for yourself and getting someone to act on your behalf. One can similarly never be sure about seriousness, one’s own or anyone else’s.

Do we live in an age of seriousness? Or just in an age of “seriousness”? The evidence of the titles of books from the last half century in UK academic libraries might seem to suggest a growing hunger to be serious, or at least to buy books that promise the “taking seriously” of different topics. Remarkably, given the existence in English since 1655 of the phrase to take seriously, the single example of a title having the form Taking . . . Seriously before 1975 is William Loftus Hare’s Taking Politics Seriously (1913). Yet, in the forty-five years since then, there has been a multicolored flood tide of book titles employing the phrase. These books promise treatments of how to take seriously, among many other things, African cartoons, animals, appearance, the Bible, boys, children, cinema, comedy, complexity, complainants of torture, concepts, conspiracy theories, culture, the Curry-Howard correspondence, cycling, Darwin, democracy, detective stories, diversity, domestic violence, Dutch art, duties, economics, embodiment, employment discrimination, equal opportunities, ethics, evil, experience, eyeglasses, ex nihilo, faith, George W. Bush, glasnost, God, hallucination, harm, identity, ideology, innovation in the public sector, input derivatives, Jesus, journalism, juvenile justice, language, laughter, leisure, life, life and death, medical law, metaphysics, migration, money, morality, ourselves, philanthropy, philosophy, popular music, public universities, qualitative research, racism, religion, rights, rites, sex, science, the sixties, socialism, solipsism, sustainable cities, swords and sorcery, teaching, things, television, trade policy, transparency, the unconscious, utilitarianism, victims, women, and wrongs. Some of the topics that one is encouraged to think might be taken seriously make a certain kind of sense, given the likelihood that they might otherwise be thought unworthy of serious attention—soaps, sport, South Park, Sudoku. But there is something a little comical in the idea that one might need argument or urging to take death, life imprisonment, oppression, suffering, type 2 diabetes, or New Zealand seriously.

Predictably enough, since among the things we mean by seriousness is “not being funny,” these titles include John Moreall’s Taking Laughter Seriously and Jerry Palmer’s Taking Humor Seriously. There has been much that calls itself philosophy of laughter, but hardly any serious attention has been paid to its logical inverse, the laughter in and of philosophy. We take it for granted that thinking is a serious matter. Wit used to mean both comic contrivance and intelligence or understanding in general, though these two usages have steadily drifted apart since the seventeenth century. To say that somebody looked thoughtful would make it hard to imagine them smiling or laughing while doing so. Why not? Reasoning about comedy has rarely suspected that there could be anything substantially or systematically comic about the exercise of reason, a lapse of attention that might itself be regarded as a little droll.

As I go along, I hope to provide persuasive reasons for thinking of comedy not merely as part of the rhetorical texture of thought, as apology for or antidote to its austere demands, but rather as essential to its conduct and constitution. Ultimately, I will propose, comedy is a vehicle for the negotiation of our emotional ambivalence not just about the large kinds of things to which philosophy pays attention—time, matter, free will, the body, language, nature, and so forth—but also about the act of thinking that we like to think makes us human and enables us to know ourselves as such. This can explain why laughter is so much part of our constitution as human beings, since reflection on our own powers of thinking is so universal, going far beyond the relatively specialized pursuits of philosophers. I want to build the case that, whatever else it might be, laughter is a communal and community-forming commentary on thinking, one that promises at once to enlarge the dominion of thought and immunize against some of its atrocities. It is not possible to think seriously about comedy without having to think about our thinking; and it is not possible to think seriously about thinking without stumbling on, and into, comedy.

The aim I set out with in writing this work was to develop arguments of this kind for taking laughter seriously. It would not be the first time that anyone has done this, and there are signs that many more writers in recent years have been drawn to such an ambition. But taking the laughter in serious matters like thought and reason seriously began, slowly but more and more irresistibly, to open up for me another kind of question, which this book will make it its principal business to try to respond to, namely the question of what seriousness might be. This is a question that must be answered in part phenomenologically, since seriousness must always mean seriousness for us—or, if we do not necessarily want to claim that being serious is uniquely human—for the kind of beings, if any there be, for whom seriousness is a serious matter. What does it mean to be serious? What work is performed by seriousness? What needs does it meet, and what rewards and gratifications does it offer? How many forms of seriousness are there? In a way, the challenge I set myself was to see whether it might be possible to take seriousness seriously in any way that was not merely tautological.

There seem to me to be two ways of asking the kind of “what is” question exemplified in “What is seriousness?” which might be characterized as the two principal ways of conducting what we recognize as serious kinds of enquiry. Rather conveniently, these two options can be illustrated by the approaches that have been taken to laughter, and allied notions such as comedy, humor, wit, and fun. The illustrations are convenient just because the apparently contradictory nature of such an enterprise seems to isolate what is going on in the act of taking seriously in a way that is not quite so conspicuous in taking serious things seriously.

The first and by far the most common way of taking laughter seriously (taking laughter temporarily as a summarizing synecdoche for the whole spectrum of appearances of the comic) is to try to find some unifying feature in it, some essential thing that laughter is, or some compulsory and recurrent function that all instances of laughter may be held to perform. So successful have writers on laughter phenomena been in this ambition that they have actually narrowed the range of options drastically; indeed, on the view I will be getting behind here, such accounts of laughter have been successful precisely because such narrowing is a recurrent part of what being serious is typically taken to mean or entail. As a result, commentators on laughter and comedy struggle to avoid falling back into one of the well-established theories of the comic, of which there seem to be no more than three. They are the relief theory, the incongruity theory, and the superiority theory. The relief theory proposes that we laugh in order to reduce or discharge some kind of tension, cognitive or emotional, and, when it comes down to it, this being the kind of thing we expect to happen when things are taken seriously, almost always both. The incongruity theory proposes that we laugh at things that do not seem logical, rational, or properly aligned with the categories through which we see the world. Laughter in this view might be a sort of inverted, immunizing disgust. The link between laughter and disgust may be suggested by the fact that the formula “matter out of place” to characterize the disgusting or the unclean is oddly irreversible: all disgust may be caused by matter out of place, but matter out of place does not always create disgust, and when it doesn’t, it will most commonly create amusement in place of revulsion. The superiority theory (the least in favor among theorists who want to argue that laughter performs serious and therefore valuable work) is that we laugh at something we regard as defective or inferior: in Thomas Hobbes’s (2008, 54) crisp and quotable formula, laughter is “nothing else but a sudden glory arising from sudden conception of eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmities of others.” I have long thought that there are really only two and a half explanations in this list, since what laughter affords relief from (or to) seems ultimately to be kinds of complexity or incongruity that without the catharsis of laughter might be intolerable. In fact, a determined be-all and end-aller might well want to claim that Hobbes’s principle swallows both of the other goldfish in the bowl, since in discharging complexity one achieves a gratifying triumph over the difficulty it seems to propose, or at least the conception of that easeful eminency.

All of these theories depend on the assumption that laughter needs to be explained and that explaining will not mean, as the word seems to promise it might, an unrolling or spreading out but rather a reduction of laughter to the fulfillment or expression of some other necessity, both essential to the laughter yet also extrinsic to it, and thus simpler and more primary than it. It is explanation by canceling down, or the “nothing-buttery” that Peter Medawar (1961, 100) sees as “always part of the minor symptomatology of the bogus.”

But what if laughter were not only not susceptible of such explanation by recourse to radicality but also in no need of it? What if laughter were neither the concealment nor displaced expression of any kind of something else? What if we laugh because we enjoy laughing, and enjoy laughing just because we enjoy enjoying ourselves, and in rather a lot of different ways? We enjoy laughing by evolutionary chance, because we have stumbled on it as a way of getting and prolonging pleasure. Other animals mostly have not (yet), but they are working on it (dogs especially), and it may only be a matter of time. Rather than wondering what occasions laughter, we might then be able to see laughter as the desire for enjoyment in search of occasions. This obviously conceals a reduction of its own, in the version of the pleasure principle on which it may seem to rely, but this can probably not be helped. However, we can be helped out of it to a large degree by the suggestion that the nature of pleasure is not of a fixed and necessary kind, meaning that pleasure may be partly characterized by the desire to diversify, yea, even to perversify, its forms. One of the things we seem to take pleasure in (needless to say, please, not the only, essential, or always necessary thing) is our capacity to take pleasure in many different sorts of things. Laughter seems materially to assist this process at times: giggling schoolgirls and bantering schoolboys enjoy getting into a condition in which nothing is safe from being made ridiculous. The contagiousness of laughter may be an indication that it is laughing that we find fun, rather than the response to certain kinds of essentially funny thing.

For some reason, the second view of laughter, as what Americans still often, and admirably, call “a bunch of stuff,” seems to strike us as less serious than the first. A little later, I will suggest some of the ways in which seriousness comes to be associated with contraction of possibilities, rather than unfolding of them. There is a clue here, I think, to the kind of work performed by the action of taking something seriously, as opposed to finding it ridiculous. Seriousness is selective attention, in what must seem like a tautology, since surely all attention is selective attention, for everyone but God. The impulse or exhortation to pay attention to a field or assemblage of different things—a landscape, say, or the history of a neighborhood—would irresistibly constitute it as a bounded object, picked out from a more indeterminate background. And yet, if this is a recurrent feature of the kind of things we take to be serious, or the seriousness of our taking, this need not, I think, imply that seriousness is itself just this one kind of thing. Indeed, the view given license in this book will have to be that seriousness in fact promises us the same kind of unfolding or enlargement of the family resemblances, along with prodigal progeny and distant cousins, of a given topic as laughter, in an anthological rather than unearthing procedure.

This will explain why this book is composed of the chapters, or more strictly the kind of chapters, it is. Rather than circling around seriousness or seeking to penetrate to its depths, I aim to espalier what seem to me to be some of its principal modalities, idioms, and implications, without necessarily suggesting that they are expressions of some more ultimate principle: importance, intent, solemnity, sincerity, urgency, regret, warning, ordeal.

I just said that animals are at a very early stage in the development of the capacity to laugh. Part of the purpose of this book is to show that humans are correspondingly capable of a quality of seriousness that it is hard to imagine in animals. Animals are certainly capable of differing degrees of the kind of concentrated attentiveness that is often associated with seriousness in humans. One need only think of the sudden switch in a domestic cat from indolent lolling to alert watching at a mouse hole. But it does not seem likely, at least to me, that there could be any conscious relation in the animal to the idea or experience of its own seriousness. Human beings, by contrast, are capable of being serious about their own seriousness and perhaps are not even able to help it. This is for the unexpected reason that humans are much more versatile than most animals at not being completely serious and, in J. L. Austin’s phrase, of “not exactly doing things”—so compulsively versatile, in fact, that actually or really doing things, or being sure that one is, can pose significant difficulties. Many in the ancient world followed Aristotle’s apparently seriously held view that wandering thoughts during the work of begetting were to blame for birth deformities. Such inattention to the integrity of one’s offspring is the mainspring and principle of (defective) action in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

This goes beyond something like, for example, being intently aware during some operation requiring intent awareness—performing brain surgery, or opening the batting for Middlesex—of the need to remain in a condition of high and vigilant alertness. It extends into all the many ways in which seriousness may be invested with value, in the process described by Freud as Besetzung and rendered by his English translator James Strachey as cathexis. I will be concerned in this book not so much with serious action as with the more or less serious ways in which the idea of such serious action is regarded, or the ways in which seriousness is, and sometimes is not, held to matter, and to be a matter of concern.

Concern is taken to be a serious matter, in keeping with its origin (like discern) in Latin cernere, to sift, or separate; a cernicle, from medieval Latin cerniculum, is a sieve. So when people employ the word discern to do the work of the word distinguish, they are righter in their way of being wrong than they seem to know. Certainty is from certus, the past participle of cernere, hence that which has been sorted, sifted, or discriminated. In legal language, the process known as cerning or cerniture means the formal declaration, hence the establishment or certification, by an heir of acceptance of an inheritance. An alternative form of this legal term, cretion, from Latin cretio, is secreted in English discrete (and discreet), concrete, secrete, and accrete. Concern has felt the caress in English of concentration and concentric, but in fact its principal meaning, from con- + cernere, is not to sift or separate but to mix or mingle together—to decern rather than discern, as it were. To pay the kind of full and undivided attention that translations of Heidegger sometimes describe as “concernful,” excluding premature exclusions, is in fact not to rush to make the critical distinctions that aim at or lead to certainty, but to permit attention to the internal concerts and contentions of concepts: to take in the way in which cernere can give rise both to certainty and excrement. This may mean that the kind of abstraction thought to be characteristic of seriousness may, to be properly serious, need to be open to the distractions that seriousness risks making itself look silly by sifting out.

This is why in this book, I abstain from trying to define any zero degree of seriousness, but rather content myself with assembling some of its characteristic modulations. In concerning myself with what I call the styles of seriousness, I mean to intimate that one cannot simply be serious by subtraction, by stopping being other, more distracted, more compounded kinds of thing, as might be implied by an expression like “Seriously, though” or “Come on, be serious,” but must find and follow particular ways of being serious. The reason for this is the essential seriousness of questions of style themselves, for creatures apparently deprived of the capacity ever simply to be, in any final degree of distillation, but having always to seek some manner of being, some idiom or other of existence. This is indicated neatly in the question sometimes addressed to young humans, “What are you going to be?” and the kinds of answer it is apt to produce, which are really anticipations to the answer that one hopes to be able at some future date to give to the question “What do you do?” Appropriate answers to such a question seem usually to require a noun preceded by an indefinite article: “a plumber like my father before me” or “a baseball player” or “a nurse.” Just occasionally the definite article may appear—“the head of the Civil Service, like my mother before me,” “the terror of the earth”—but always in such a case implying the following of some pattern or occupation of some category. One’s occupation names not only what you occupy yourself with but the category of being that you occupy, or will have occupied. To be able to see what one will be is to see what one’s being will have amounted to, or the recognized form it will take, meaning the mode of being it will enact, on some model or other, even if it establishes the model. For a model is a mode, and one must exist one’s existence or, even without having exerted oneself in that way, must without fail end up having had a certain kind of existence, or having existed in a certain way. Even if one’s answer to “What are you going to be?” is something twinkly and Wildean, like “incomparable” or “indecisive” or “what the fates decree” or “a disappointment to my family” or “that from a long way off looks like flies,” the answer will have to accede to the proposition contained in the question that one’s being will have to settle into some substantive how or what, something other than just something-or-other, either through one’s own decision or through acquiescence to what something hidden from us chose, assuming those two to be genuinely distinguishable (or even discernible).

Humor and funniness are often thought about in terms of their implied contrast with seriousness. The contrast often has to be implied since it is assumed that seriousness is familiar and well understood, as the unmarked or ordinary condition of things from which comedy, irony, frivolity, and so forth constitute a reprieve. One of the things that will become clear through the course of this book is that my first ambition of taking laughter seriously will be obliquely brought home in the gradual sedimenting of the axiom that nothing can be really serious that does not admit of an intestine murmur of absurdity. Yet one of the intriguing things about seriousness is that it is a conjunction of several contraries. It is the opposite of gaiety and merriment. It is the opposite of pretense and make-believe. It is the opposite of unimportance. And it is the opposite of harmlessness and safety, as in a serious illness or serious crisis. All these ways of not being things are ways of being serious, but the seriousness may be of a different kind in each case.

Circumstances are certainly imaginable in which gaiety, make-believe, and unimportance are conjoined—a Punch and Judy show at a children’s party, for instance—but they need not be and usually perhaps are not. Pretense is often amusing, but not invariably so. Saying what you seriously mean does not necessarily mean saying it seriously or gravely (“What a glorious morning!” “You are a sight for sore eyes!”). But if there is no one kind of thing that seriousness is, it seems to be an important part of its understanding that it should mark the modification, suspension, or reversal of ordinary or unmarked states of affairs. Laughter breaks out in ordinary conditions; seriousness breaks in on them. We think of levity and gaiety as holidays from or suspensions of the serious business of work. But it is important to grasp the fact that seriousness is also the episode or intermission from the many forms of nonseriousness—including pretense, imposture, performance—forming the ground bass of much of our shared experience. We might think merely of how often we feel impelled to say “seriously, though” or “joking apart,” setting aside the facetiousness or semidistraction that constitutes the usual condition of things.

We are exhorted to seriousness more often than to lightness or diversion (even “lighten up” is a serious injunction), since it is assumed that we know how to divert ourselves without the necessity for any form of self-discipline, whereas we need schooling to become serious. Perhaps how to be serious is one of the most important lessons imparted by formal education. This is because seriousness seems to require arduous effort, the effort required to pull oneself together after a fit of the giggles, or to refocus one’s attention or intentions, or to avert some threat. In fact, children both are and are not capable of seriousness. The play of a child is often not playful at all, but absorbed in the way in which work is supposed to be for an adult. But we should call such play serious only by resemblance, precisely because seriousness is schooled, as the putting away of childish things. In order to be serious, you need to be able to be something else, which you are also able to put on hold. You cannot, that is, be spontaneously serious, which means that your seriousness must always be in quotation marks, and anxious to live up to its reputation.

There are two broad semantic fields in which the word serious tends to be deployed. The first is the field of what Foucault (2010, 32) calls “veridiction,” the means employed in the telling of truth. To be serious means to mean what we say. Serious utterance is utterance that means to be taken as veridical—that is, truth telling—and therefore, as we say, to be “taken seriously.” To be serious about something means to mean it, in the sense not just of intending it (“What do you mean by that?”) but also of being intent on it. This kind of seriousness therefore applies primarily to speaking persons, or to persons whose actions seem to embody intentions in an unmistakable manner (“She really meant that kick”).

This seems to be a derivation from Latin serere, the primary meaning of which is to sow, or plant seeds in a row. In their etymological account of the word, Alfred Ernout and Alfred Meillet (2001) speculate that the conjunction of sowing and planting in serere “is evidence of a period in which sowing was not done broadcast but by pressing seeds one by one into the ground” (618). Indeed, serious was used in English up to the end of the fifteenth century to mean serial, or singly in sequence. Serere acquired the signification of binding, continuity, or joining together, in words like assert, desert, exert, insert, and dissertation. The horticultural Varro speculated attractively in his On the Latin Language on the links between speech and the sowing of seed:

Our word disserit is used in a figurative meaning as well as in relation to the fields: for as the kitchen-gardener disserit “distributes” the things of each kind upon his garden plots, so he who does the like in speaking is disertus “skilful.” Sermo “conversation,” I think, is from series “succession” . . . for sermo “conversation” cannot be where one man is alone, but where his speech is joined with another’s. (Varro 1951, 1.231–33)

The second semantic field of the serious concerns feeling rather than meaning, and signifies the disposition or demeanor associated with veridiction or serious intent. Seriousness, as a manner or deportment, is a means by which we may mean to be taken to mean what we say. To be serious means to be grave, solemn, or earnest, with a strong implication of sadness or melancholy, this association probably given extra force in English because of the conjuncture of Latin gravis (heavy, burdened), from which gravity and grief derive, and Old English grafan, from pre-Germanic *ghrābh-, to dig, which lies behind the words grave and groove. It seems that there is no direct connection with Greek γράϕειν, to write, engraving deriving more directly from the Germanic idea of digging. Mercutio’s valedictory joke, feeble, but forgivable in the circumstances, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” (Shakespeare 2011, 1024), is in a long tradition of jokes on what it means to be grave. By transference, serious illnesses or circumstances are ones that usually provoke concern or anxiety. This kind of seriousness suggests severity, with which serius has been associated—for example, in words such as persevere and asseverate, to assert seriously. All these associations seem to assume or assert that being serious is a more or less painful or exacting business. They amount to the tendentious theory that truth, as opposed to life, is essentially difficult, dangerous, and demanding: hard. But why is a precious thing like mercy not regarded as serious, along with all the many other holiday virtues that fall mercifully short of inviolability, or not until they are strained into the unforgiving severity of a principle? What is light-minded about entertaining mercy mercifully in thought?

The existence of a word like diversion, when used in the sense of some amusement or entertainment, might suggest that straight-and-narrow seriousness is the unmarked or base condition from which we occasionally, if also repeatedly, feel the impulse to take our leave. Even sport is a shortening of disport, which signifies a departing or deporting from some other more basic condition. Departing from seriousness means relaxing or relinquishing the effort required to be self-consistent. Ralph Waldo Emerson is among those who have assumed that human beings introduce nonseriousness into a nature that is fundamentally “in earnest” and incapable of the kind of temporizing or double-dealing characteristic of jesting:

The restraining grace of common-sense is the mark of all the valid minds,—of Æsop, Aristotle, Alfred, Luther, Shakspeare, Cervantes, Franklin, Napoleon. The common-sense which does not meddle with the absolute, but takes things at their word,—things as they appear,—believes in the existence of matter, not because we can touch it or conceive of it, but because it agrees with ourselves, and the universe does not jest with us, but is in earnest, is the house of health and life. In spite of all the joys of poets and the joys of saints, the most imaginative and abstracted person never makes with impunity the least mistake in this particular,—never tries to kindle his oven with water, nor carries a torch into a powder-mill, nor seizes his wild charger by the tail. We should not pardon the blunder in another, nor endure it in ourselves. (Emerson 1875, 9)

In his essay “The Comic,” Emerson (1875) turns his attention away from the carefully selected minority of “valid minds” to fill out what might seem like an alternative perspective, that “a taste for fun is all but universal in our species, which is the only joker in nature. The rocks, the plants, the beasts, the birds, neither do anything ridiculous nor betray a perception of anything absurd done in their presence” (127). This taste for fun shows mankind to be the exception proving the rule of Reason in nature, which must be regarded as soberly incapable of laughter or practical jokes, because it “meddles never with degrees or fractions; and it is in comparing fractions with essential integers or wholes that laughter begins” (127). Emerson lifts this hint of an identification between the comic and the fractional into a definition:

The essence of all jokes, of all comedy, seems to be an honest or well-intended halfness; a non-performance of what is pretended to be informed, at the same time as one is giving large pledges of performance. The balking of the intellect, the frustrated expectation, the break of continuity in the intellect, is comedy; and it announces itself physically in the pleasant spasms we call laughter. (Emerson 1875, 139–40)

The examples that Emerson (1875) goes on to give all in fact depend on the confrontation of the wholeness of Reason, which, like the nature with which it is alloyed, “does not joke” (141), with different kinds of “halfness or imperfection.” Joking is against glumbucket nature in that it introduces discontinuity into it: “The whole of nature is agreeable to the whole of thought, or to the Reason; but separate any part of nature, and attempt to look at it as a whole by itself, and the feeling of the ridiculous begins” (140).

But the idea that halfness—or, as it might alternatively be seen, the capacity to stand apart from things or from ourselves—belongs to the capacity for comedy is reversible, since it is possible to see seriousness as depending on just this capacity to be in two places at once, in our given, distracted condition and in the condition of intensified seriousness that we may hopefully imagine for ourselves, as Harry G. Frankfurt affirms:

Blind, rollicking spontaneity is not exactly the hallmark of our species. We put considerable effort into trying to get clear about what we are really like, trying to figure out what we are actually up to, and trying to decide whether anything can be done about this. The strong likelihood is that no other animal worries about such matters. Indeed, we humans seem to be the only things around that are even capable of taking themselves seriously. . . . Taking ourselves seriously means that we are not prepared to accept ourselves just as we come. (Frankfurt 2006, 1–2)

Seriousness, it seems, involves something of the same “honest or well-intended halfness” as joking. In both cases, the spur seems to be the experience of the passage of time, or rather the capacity to represent it to ourselves, in memory in one direction, and the projection of future states in the other. In both cases, “Time breaks the threaded dances / And the diver’s brilliant bow” (Auden 1991, 134), joining what is and what is not, and making possible the relation of negation that cannot easily be thought to exist in nature, but is everything in the ill-assorted second nature of human representations. But in fact Emerson’s conviction that nature does not jest or go in for mistiness or half measures is surely an illusion. It is perhaps the opposite of the illusion, which has become almost proverbial among avant-garde artists, that art, or more usually artists, should open unto us the precious truth of process, accident, and the haphazard, as a relief from an administered human world characterized by wearisome, safety-first predictability. Against the assumption that the high degree of orderliness and predictability characteristic of the human world reflects the fundamental orderliness of nature, thermodynamics and then information theory have powerfully suggested the opposite, that order may have a fundamentally statistical character and is not only itself rare in nature but identical with rarity itself. In the cosmic sea of contingency and nonrepetition, it is conformity to nomos that is the anomaly, which is precisely what makes that conformity interesting and valuable to entities such as we, concerned to keep themselves entire, in the state of being rather than becoming, and therefore in the Yeatsian sense “out of nature” (Yeats 1951, 218). Barely ten years after Emerson, Nietzsche saw at work in the coherence and predictability of systems of knowledge the principle of the self-preserving will to power:

In order for a given species to preserve itself—to grow in power—it must capture in its conception of reality enough of what is uniform and predictable that a scheme of its behaviour can be constructed on that basis . . . a species grasps so much of reality in order to master it, in order to take it into service. (Nietzsche 2017, 287)

In fact, the tendency for human beings to pay attention only to the kind of regularities that conduce to our fancied or desiderated intactness, cognitive and otherwise, means that humanity may in fact belong, not with the wholeness and entity of Reason, but with the condition of halfness or partiality, which for Emerson (1875) is the trigger of the ridiculous. The prophet and the philosopher do not “bring the standard, the ideal whole, exposing all actual defect” (141), but rather suggest the halfness or amputation of every candidate wholeness.

To be serious is in fact to concentrate, that peculiar kind of retentive subtraction, to draw our energies and inclinations inward, resisting their apparently natural tendency to diffract and disport themselves. The seriousness of subtraction suggests contraction of possibility. Because the longer-term tendency of things seems to be to fall apart or miscegenate rather than spontaneously to self-organize, at least not into the forms of arrangement that strike entities like us as tidy, if only because there are so many more ways for things to become disorderly than to become orderly, seriousness must be a local supervention, a concentrating, negentropic pressure brought to bear on things, rather than any way of going with the Heraclitean flow.

This is presumably the reason that seriousness is often identified with the most serious act of keeping things in line we know, the business of staying alive as an organized being rather than subsiding into the slushily stochastic state of matter going about its own business that we might otherwise be and will assuredly become. Tidy derives from time (Old English tíd), but is tidally untimely. Seriousness has sometimes been identified with the matter of life and death that survival may sometimes seem to be—for example, in the characterization of seriousness advanced by Alexander Düttmann:

What is seriousness? It may seem rather simple to answer this question. Something turns into a serious matter when self-preservation is at stake. Each time I must worry about survival, about persevering in my condition or being, each time I must worry about how to continue living under circumstances that appear more and more precarious, each time that something or someone I care for is threatened by grave illness, destruction, extinction, demise, or death, I must feel seriously concerned. (Düttmann 2014)

It is easy to go along with this characterization while demurring from the suggestion that it is universally applicable. The definition is weakened by what seems to give it its strength: the definition of seriousness by reference to the most serious kind of concern to which it may be applied. It may well be that “something turns into a serious matter when self-preservation is at stake,” but this does not honestly earn the inverse principle, that seriousness must always, even ultimately or essentially, concern self-preservation, or indeed that any other kinds of ultimate issue must be at stake. It may incidentally be wise to be leery of the artificial raising of the stakes that is often going on when the phrase “at stake” is deployed. The stake in operation in the metaphor was probably just a stick on which the subject of a wager might be placed, but the inflationary pressure in the metaphor of being “at stake” has come to suggest the kinds of extreme or ultimate concern for which one ought to be willing to “go to the stake.” Düttmann’s definition does not allow, for example, for the common act of “taking something seriously,” which would seem to suggest at least a focusing of intent or attention on a particular matter, in a particular way, that would come some way short of a matter of life and death. For we are serious about many different kinds of things—about the necessity of ventilation, or how to make a garden bee-friendly, or how to help children understand things—and in many different ways, without ever needing to approach to incandescent or apocalyptic forms of anxiety about preserving my being or the sickness unto death of those in my circle of care. These are all ways of caring seriously that do not seem to come close to or have anything necessarily in common with the last-ditch definition of seriousness identified by Düttmann, which strives to rule out all but the most serious forms of seriousness. Taking seriousness this seriously leads Düttmann to claim that seriousness of an ultimate kind must always be a choice forced on us by some higher, more irresistible necessity, a matter about which there could be no question of taking it in any other way but “seriously”:

I hit the bedrock of reality and witness, in a flash, how my freedom of thought and action is significantly diminished, if not reduced to a minimum, the minimum of an exclusive focus. Seriousness, in this sense, is an attitude imposed upon me, a way of relating to the world, to others and to myself, that is borne out of the necessity of dealing with necessity, of relating to that which leaves very little space and time, very little leeway for a possible relation. Seriousness results from a subtraction, a selection, an exclusion. It is a concentration, a concentrated form of attentiveness that I barely choose because, in truth, the choice is inflicted upon me, or because any distraction could prove deadly. (Düttmann 2014)

Everything in this passage passes muster until the two words “in truth,” though they are the blossoming of the rot incipient in the phrase “bedrock of reality.” For “in truth” the idea that seriousness is imposed on me as a necessity is part of the phenomenology of seriousness, and indeed very often part of what we impose on ourselves, or pretend to be subjected to, rather than anything like a necessary or actual condition. We will encounter a little later the oxymoronic name that Jean-Paul Sartre coins for this principle of the choice of having no choice, the principle that, in Düttmann’s formulation, “Where there is seriousness, there is destiny” (Düttman 2014). “Destiny”? Ultimacy has here become ultimism, a condition becoming a comportment, that feverishly embraces the absence of any possibility of demur. People are never more parochially self-pleasuring than when magicking up mystically ineffable necessities of this kind. I would wish to allow the possibility of wondering about the idea that seriousness is so serious that it would have to come from some ineffable elsewhere. This ultimist view of seriousness leads to the claim that

seriousness is about form as the last resort against the chaos of a breakdown. Never is form so pure, never does content depend so much on form as when seriousness arises from a threat posed to self-preservation. Seriousness is the outlook of form, the coolness of making distinctions and feeling and knowing the weight of things. (Düttmann 2014)

This claim, that seriousness induces form, at first rather baffling, becomes more understandable if one takes the word form in the informational sense as redundancy or repeatability—anything of which one, or any kind of entity capable of such an apprehension, might say, “Ah, that again.” One must seemingly be serious about preserving one’s own form, as something continuously distinct and recognizable, which seems to mean (the “seems” is quietly searing) that one feels the pressure to be serious about preserving the purity or absoluteness of the form of one’s seriousness. “This is why seriousness must regularly guard itself, and the self, against the wrong form of seriousness, against a distorting, erosive and self-eroding form” (Düttmann 2014). Düttmann cannot be blamed for not knowing, or for having forgotten, that the phrase the wrong form of has a giggly quiver to British ears used to autumn excuses for delayed trains, which are attributed regularly to “the wrong kind of leaves” on the line. Nevertheless, the particular kind of coercion articulated here, of a concern with the quality of one’s own concern, does seem phenomenologically in the right region, even if its “must” must be a thimble of mist. We do indeed worry at times of stress about whether we are dedicating to our concerns the right kinds of headaches and worry, though the right kind ought really to be the one calculated to evaporate rather than consecrate our worry. We care for and care about our cares. Our caring for and about the things that give us care is itself in our care (Connor 2019b, 174–203).

Essentially, then, this book is concerned with a complex condition of feeling—concerned, that is, not with what is serious but with what it means to take things seriously. So the book does not aim to provide a full and reasoned roster of things that we should take seriously, what Samuel Beckett (1977, 125) sardonically calls “life, death and other tuppenny aches,” but rather to convene a number of what seem to be prominent accents, occasions, or idioms of seriousness. Even were I minded to offer a guarantee that they form an exhaustive list, or are even the most prominent of ways of being serious, it would be reckless of me to do so.

The book revolves, in ragged and irregular kinds of orbit, around the central principle that the feeling of seriousness is the most powerful and most powerfully organizing of feelings, while also being the most poignantly indeterminate. Caring for our cares means that we want to be serious about things, especially about seriousness itself. And yet there is no qualia of seriousness, nothing that it is like, to feel the seriousness of something. By this I mean, as one always must when making this kind of proposition, something like the antic opposite. Because there is nothing that it is like to feel serious (nothing that seriousness unmistakably and immemorially is), we are forced to depend on things that seriousness is like (things that seem to us to have a convincing resemblance to seriousness)—that is, on semblances, stand-ins, enactments, makeshifts, supposings, proxime accessits. Seriousness is the puppet-play demanded by the deepest passion—unless it is the impassioning of that puppetry.