4.0378 Responses: On Technology; Wittgenstein/Poetry (2/92)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 9 Aug 90 16:52:39 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0378. Thursday, 9 Aug 1990.

(1) Date: Wed, 08 Aug 90 20:53:35 EDT (62 lines)
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: the garden path

(2) Date: Wed, 08 Aug 90 15:16 PDT (30 lines)
Subject: Re: 4.0329 Queries: ... On Poems

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Wed, 08 Aug 90 20:53:35 EDT
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: the garden path

Skip Knox rightly challenges me to be historically and sociologically
specific about the garden path to perdition down which technology has
and might again lead us. This is certainly difficult to do with respect
to computing in the humanities, at least in any way except by anecdote,
since our use of gadgetry is so recent. We are now at the stage of
asking, what might happen to humanistic scholarship as the result of
applying computers to it? Certainly the unrealistic claims of some
enthusiasts are enough to give one pause, and the extent to which trendy
notions afflict our work is great enough that we might well get a bit
concerned. (I am taking for granted, as obvious, the many real benefits.)

"Lovely poetic insight", unless I'm quite mistaken, is dismissive, like
the word "myth" in popular usage. An insight into human nature -- which
seems to undergo so few changes over time -- should, however, be able to
survive the test of history. If we are allowed to consider examples
of unfortunate technological seduction beyond the humanist's computer,
we should have no difficulty showing that people get trapped by their
own inventions. Do we need to go back any further than the Bomb?

Probably, in which case we need an historian of science and technology
to cite example upon example. The telling ones to me may not seem so
important to an historian or sociologist: the invention of the wheel,
which makes possible the wheel of fortune, the notion of a circular
inevitability to life, and so the insidious metaphor of the doomsday
clock whose hands are always poised just a minute or so before the
midnight of atomic annihilation -- as if the human will were not
involved; or the book (codex), which led to the literally interpreted
image of the Recording Angel, and so the crushing weight of one's
misdeeds, set down where they cannot be forgotten. Or the old idea of
the automaton (some were invented by Hephaestus, Daedalus' divine
counterpart), which in recent times has led to the design of the
"semi-autonomous agents" in some information filtering systems. The
problem here is that these agents act with total consistency on incoming
mail according to an explicit description of the user's interests -- as
if we could at any moment know all that we will know or be interested
in. The designers propose that a random choice of messages supplement
the controlled selection, thereby confusing randomness (which can be
computed) with the unpredictable effects of subliminal thoughts and
passions. The conception of man is flattened to fit his invention, the

This tendency to invent something, then to worship it as an autonomous
agent, should not itself be taken as inevitable, doom-laden, and so to
be rejected as totally false, indeed silly. Perhaps to be self-aware
makes no difference; perhaps things, like computers, just happen and we
get affected by them whether we want to or not. I have the idea,
however, that if computing humanists have any real function at all, it
must include a critical examination of the technology and a tentative
attempt to put it in cultural perspective. I also have the idea that we
are not nearly so passive and helpless as we make ourselves out to be.
Passive people have no responsibility, right?

Not that Skip Knox was saying or implying that we are, or that our
function is any less. He's right, we should have some examples to back
up some very old, very strong myths.

Willard McCarty
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------250---
Date: Wed, 08 Aug 90 15:16 PDT
Subject: Re: 4.0329 Queries: ... On Poems

Dear Professor Higley: I renounced my Wittgenstein volumes two decades
ago, first editions I should have kept; but it was perhaps a spasm of
irritation. Wittgenstein notoriously asserted something to this
effect: About which one cannot speak, one should remain silent. Well,
poetry, which is a making (cfSOCRATES' observations about Eros in THE
SYMPOSIUM), almost always (via metaphor) speaks about things that one
really cannot speak of, if one speaks of information only. Anywhere
that poetry is vatic, and in most ways it fundamentally is so, you will
find that it speaks of what cannot be known, or is "known" to the
speaker in a way that cannot be described. Take for instance Daniel to
N. the tyrant: "thy days are numbered. How can he have said something
which would have to be verified later on? That they are numbered now,
is known to him, but how so? The hand, writing the words on the wall,
words he could read and N. could not? Why could not N read them? Or
understand them? Because they spoke of what was not (yet). Should
Daniel have remained silent? He had already been dragged before the
tyrant (not Saddam Hussein, not yet) but had to speak of what was not
(yet). You see my drift? You will recall Prospero's closing remarks,
as he gave up vaticination and magic. What sort of information was he
giving in saying, We are such things as dreams are made of...? That is
assertation not hypothesis. Poetry lands one in trouble promptly and
constantly, from the beginning of language, I expect. Wittgenstein
butted his head against it. Best wishes, and clap thathand! and sing
the louder, as Yeats advised too, for every tatter in our mortal dress
...all metaphor that statement. not so? YOurs J Kessler