4.0419 Names & Kinship Knowledge; On Technology/Memory (2/111)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Thu, 23 Aug 90 21:22:52 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0419. Thursday, 23 Aug 1990.

(1) Date: Wed, 22 Aug 1990 12:27:35 GMT+0400 (49 lines)
From: LBJUDY@VMSA.technion.ac.il
Subject: names as aids to kinship-knowledge?

(2) Date: 22 Aug 90 22:02:43 EST (62 lines)
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: Anamnesis

(1) --------------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Wed, 22 Aug 1990 12:27:35 GMT+0400
From: LBJUDY@VMSA.technion.ac.il
Subject: names as aids to kinship-knowledge?

Frank Dane's report of the sociobiological theory that, in the absence of
direct sensing of kinship information (e.g. by smell), "surnames provide
evidence (though obviously not conclusive) about kinship, which enables
us to make kin-related decisions about helping, hurting and mating with
others" is very surprising. My scepticism is aroused by several points:

a) the relationships reflected by the same surname are those the individual
is most likely to be aware of anyway: nuclear family; the ones often not
revealed in surnames are the more distant ones (cousins, offspring of
married female relatives, etc.)

b) More important, surnames are a recent invention and essentially most
wide-spread in post-Medieval Europe. Some societies lack them to this
day, many adopted them only as a result of contact with the Western
world, including polygamous societies where kinship relations can be
much more complex than is normal in the West: e.g. the Arab world, which
only started to adopt surnames a century or so ago and hasn't completed
the process yet. I find it difficult to believe that such a basic human
need as the identification of one's kin relies on a mechanism as recent
in origin and narrow in its distribution among human societies as the
use of surnames.

Of course, since I don't know anything about the sociobiological theory in
question, except for Frank's few lines, I'm open to being convinced, if
anyone wants to try...

c) I forgot! Since surnames are of recent origin and were usually developed
from epithets indicating, for instance, a person's origin (Hamburger, a
person/thing from Hamburg) or occupation (Wainwright, a carriage-maker)
or other identifying characteristics, many people have the same surname
but aren't in fact related at all. Or the relationship is so slight as
to be non-existent for all practical purposes (all Horowitzes/Gureviches
are descended from the same seventeenth (? - I think) century inhabitant
of a village of that name, but I doubt I'd welcome any and everyone named
Horovitz as a long-lost relative on that account, even if they knew I
was myself a Horovitz before I married). What do we do with the Smiths
and the Cohens? What value has their name for deciding whether we should
marry them or lend them money without security?

I also know someone whose surname is Chwolles, and she is ABSOLUTELY
CERTAIN that anyone with that name is related to her husband; but I
submit that this is the exception to the rule, and a rare exception at

Judy Koren.
(2) --------------------------------------------------------------57----
Date: 22 Aug 90 22:02:43 EST
From: James O'Donnell <JODONNEL@PENNSAS>
Subject: Anamnesis

From: Jim O'Donnell (Penn, Classics)

These remarks are the result of cross-pollenation between the interesting
responses to my earlier query about what we do and should call
`computers', a private e-correspondence with Monica Paolini arising out
of her earlier postings, and a PACS-L posting forwarded by a friend. (I
am grateful for the various responses to my query and will offer only
one ungrateful and dogmatic response: Technology *is* Philosophy. We
do not ride upon the railroad, ...)

One aspect of computers reflects a deep and long-standing concern of the
western humanistic tradition: all computers have `memory'. Good
computers have a variety of forms of memory, from ROM to RAM to HD's to
CD-ROM's. `Processing' is largely a matter of moving things back and
forth, variously transformed, from one form of memory to another. But
of course using the word `memory' for such a context is a highly
constructed cultural decision. (But not unprecedented: how many recall
a charming little half-hour black- and-white documentary done by Alain
Resnais early in his career called `Toute le memoire du monde', a
documentary about the Bibliotheque Nationale?)

But it's an important decision. From the earliest stages of western
written literature, memory is problematic. Writing is suspect to
writers from Plato to Vergil because it threatens to undermine memory
somehow: what is on the page need no longer be in the memory, and so
memory will fade. The ancient `memory technique' of which mention has
been made on HUMANIST more than once was a conscious reaction to that
threat, an attempt to create a technology that would preserve memory by
turning it into a kind of alternate system of writing. Even now I am
preparing to dilate at length in another forum on the place of memory in
Augustine's *Confessions*: memory is the place he finds God, to put it
very simply; and in some sense, Augustine finds the `present'
disappearing and sees us left in life with nothing but memory and hope.

To leap tall centuries at a single bound, our own century has been no
less concerned with the subject: Proust and Joyce wrote about little
else, and Eliot's *Four Quartets* is in the same tradition.

And so it is no surprise that our technologies of memory-preservation
have been developed to such a high level of sophistication and power.
The written word did in fact mark a quantum advance over the fallible
and mortal human memory for storage of information, whatever it did to
the human faculty itself; the printed word marked a quantum leap again,
and now the computer offers almost unlimited capacity -- I suppose there
is no real limit to the amount of potential memory-media (magnetic,
bubble, whatever) in the world?

But will success finally kill off the romance? Will we soon discover
that being able to remember everything is no blessing, and will we
rather study to forget? We cherish and scrounge for every scrap of
information about the sixth century A.D.: but who will *want* to write
the history of the 20th century A.D.? There is already too much, and
the rate at which we preserve what we produce is escalating
dramatically. Librarians traditionally sought out and preserved:
ironically, it will probably now be their principal job qua
preservationists to decide what to discard, and to discard 90% of what
they are given. Wisdom itself will more than ever consist of knowing
what to forget and how to forget.