Contingency, Games, and Wit


When we cannot explain away the fundamental disorder of the world by finding a science, constructing a supposed social science, or passing laws, we may create artificial worlds that we can be sure conform to our minds because we have made them. Games create such a world, whose rules cannot be violated because then we would not be playing the game at all. Various games have ways of confronting contingency: they may allow for statistically predictable chance events (roulette), statistically unpredictable chance events (a bad hop in baseball), challenges by the audience (improvisations), or challenges to rules that create a meta-game of changing the game (Lewis Carroll, Magic: The Gathering). Witticisms may be understood as a special sort of verbal gaming that asserts the ability of the mind to master the contingency of the social world. It involves presentness, turns social space into a salon, thrives on challenges, and becomes especially impressive in locales apparently farthest from a salon, such as the deathbed or gallows. But as the stories of Alexander and Diogenes show, it is possible to outwit the wit.