10.0565 disciplined training & wild-siding

WILLARD MCCARTY (willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 6 Jan 1997 17:39:52 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 565.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (82)
Subject: disciplined training & wild-siding

"For better or for worse," writes John Van Maanen in <cite>Tales of the
Field: On Writing Ethnography</cite>, we lack a formal apprenticeship in the
trade and perhaps the proper respect for our ancestors and the comfort their
representational devices might provide. Without mentors or cohorts, our
appreciation and understanding of ethnography comes like a mist that creeps
slowly over us while in the library and lingers with us while in the field"
(p. xii).

How true that last sentence rings for our own practice. One question
uppermost in my mind these days is how one might define the next generation
of computing humanists, whom we very much need to train, by setting forth
the curriculum for a graduate programme and fitting it into the already
tightly-populated space occupied by older disciplines. What do we want our
successors to have under their belts, subject areas we have acquired by
accident and now know the utility of, or those we failed to pick up and
regret that we did not?

A very useful discussion could be started by our listing the fields with
which we think a *properly trained* computing humanist should have passing

A few pages further on Van Maanen remarks on the state of anthropology and
sociology. I take his remarks to be a useful caution that we understand the
socially constructed nature of disciplines. "I recognize," he says, "that
both fields are now so thoroughly balkanized into esoteric theory and method
groups that to think of either as a single discipline in confident
possession of some grail-like paradigm is at best a passing fancy or at
worst a power play. The paradigm myth, however, dies more slowly than the
post-paradigm reality, for there remain those fieldworkers who still salute
a tattered disciplinary flag and rarely venture beyond their traditional
campsites" (p. xiv). He goes on to say that to him ethnography is a project
that may help unite the severely fragmented fields. Could humanities
computing do the same?

Another view, less interested in a unification of the disciplines, is
articulated in "Semiotics on line", an editorial by Paul Bouissac (French,
Toronto) in his <cite>Semiotic Review of Books</cite>, recently manifested
in a well-designed Web site, at
<http://www.chass.utoronto.ca:8080/epc/srb/>. Musing on the suitability of
electronic publication for semiotics, he writes,

"Psychologists, linguists, philosophers, anthropologists, computer
scientists, etc., have... put forward [in SRB] their arguments in favor of
increased communication across the artificial boundaries of the twentieth
century mapping of human knowledge. ... Some lament the fact that semiotics
has not succeeded in establishing itself as a regular discipline. Some
proclaim the end of the semiotic venture. But the fact that semiotics
remains a vast construction site, haunted by nomads of the mind, should on
the contrary be celebrated as the best possible omen for its future. Even if
some models, which once were considered the beacons of a new era, lie on the
ground like the discarded intellectual toys of another age, the fundamental
questions which semiotics has been formulating all along this century have
kept all their epistemological vigor and scientific urgency.

"[In the context of the narrowly defined disciplines] the relentless
curiosity of semioticians, who never felt bound by disciplinary fences,
remains a precious commodity of the human mind's quest for understanding and
meaning. Most semioticians were wont to 'surf' over epistemological
boundaries well before the world wide web became affordable. Their
multidisciplinary personal libraries and eclectic bibliographical
references, their multiple cross-appointments in various academic
territories, their sense of estrangement in any departmental enclosures,
bear witness to this consubstantial affinity with a new mode of electronic
interaction which ignores gatekeepers and protectionists in the monopolistic
transmission, circulation and exchange of ideas. The sclerotic
administration of knowledge, the bureaucratization of research and the
intellectual confinement which often characterize modern institutions of
higher learning may try to harness the resources of the electronic web by
posting their complacent self-descriptions. But a click of the mouse can
always send these spectres back to the carpeted offices where they have been
bred over several centuries of obsessive domestication and discipline.
Semiotics has grown on the wild side of the mind, in the interstices and
margins of authority. The 'web' frontier provides semiotics with an ideal
medium to which the characteristics of its strategies of inquiry seems to be
pre-adapted and in which it will undoubtedly thrive."

The whole of SRB is well worth keeping an eye on. Specifically, however, I
draw much encouragement for our life of agitation on the fringe of
established society, in the academic demi-monde, from Bouissac's oration to
the "wild side of the mind".



- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk