9.664 simplicity and complexity

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Fri, 29 Mar 1996 19:32:07 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 664.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@utoronto.ca> (51)
Subject: simplicity vs. complexity

My respected colleague Paul Fortier, in Humanist 9.663 (quoted from H-CLC),
notes for the humanities that,

> WE still tend to seek the striking example and the original
> interpretation, rather than the theoretical structure that
> reduces a plethora of details to elegant simplicity.
> Perhaps with this plethora now easily accessible, and more
> and more obvious, we will be drawn to seek elegantly simple
> interpretations, but that requires a change in mind-set
> among a great number of us, and I wonder if we are willing
> to take the intellectual risk.

I wonder as well, but about whether it's really as simple (though admittedly
difficult) as taking the intellectual risk he refers to. I think it's
significant that Paul's preceding examples come from the sciences, where the
reduction of a complicated matter to elegant and usually mathematical
simplicity is the end for which the researcher devoutly wishes. The question
can, I think, be usefully located between the two opposite tendencies -- one
toward the formula, ultimately in the verbal realm toward the creative word
(FIAT LUX), gnomic enigma, or complete silence, as in the mystical, magical,
and contemplative traditions; the other, toward the efflorescence of
commentary -- please, note the metaphor here -- physically expressed with
great elegance in the design, say, of mss. of the Glossa Ordinaria. As
scholars of the word we tend to come out of the latter way of thought. We
tend to respond to poetic ambiguity, for example, by circling around,
endlessly as long as we survive, that which cannot be reduced to formula, or
so I would assert. What appeals to me about the computer, whose basic unit
of thought is the algorithmic formula, is precisely where this formula
breaks down, and so illuminates the always disappearing horizon of poetry. A
celebratory, bacchic point of view on the never-ending "making of books"
that the Preacher so famously complains of.

This is not in any way to impugn the approach that Paul has so successfully
taken in his own work, only to point out that the situation is itself
complex, and fruitfully so.

Allow me to conclude with a quotation from Michel Foucault, which I have
here only in English:

> The task of commentary can never, by definition, be completed.
> And yet commentary is directed entirely towards the enigmatic,
> murmured element of the language being commented on: it calls into
> being, below the existing discourse, another discourse that is more
> fundamental and, as it were, 'more primal', which it sets itself the
> task of restoring. There can be no commentary unless, below the language
> one is reading and deciphering, there runs the sovereignty of an original
> Text. And it is this text which, by providing a foundation for the
> commentary, offers its ultimate revelation as the promised reward of
> commentary. The necessary proliferation of the exegesis is therefore
> measured, ideally limited, and yet ceaselessly animated, by this silent
> dominion.
> The Order of Things, 41

Some commentary?


Willard McCarty, Univ. of Toronto || Willard.McCarty@utoronto.ca