11.0111 bad writing, computing &c.

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 17 Jun 1997 20:24:33 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 111.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Michael Guest <guest@ia.inf.shizuoka.ac.jp> (71)
Subject: Beckett, bad writing, computers

[2] From: "Mark K. Gardner" <contact.the.commander@null.net> (69)
Subject: Re: 11.0099 bad writing vs. applied computing

Date: Sun, 15 Jun 1997 16:42:57 +0900 (JST)
From: Michael Guest <guest@ia.inf.shizuoka.ac.jp>
Subject: Beckett, bad writing, computers

Thanks both to Willard and John Bruni for so lucidly recapitulating the
point I thought I'd made. "What oft was thought but ne'er so well

I think of MOO programming as one site in which computers play a possible
role in opening avenues of rhizomatic anti-reason (thought :)). One can
program using a MOO a kind of virtual reality in text, which raises the
question of whether a MOO should conform mimetically to known
representations (e.g. represent structures of received reality, geography
etc), or else try somehow to set in play some whole new kind of
phenomenology, by which phrase I'm trying to suggest some original mode of
human existence not rooted essentially in received reality. Well, I suppose
that's not only MOOs, but research into virtual reality in general.

One point is that computers are perceived to be products of a particular
kind of purchase on reality, in a "hard" computer science sense. Out of
this comes the inferiority complex of the humanities (psychological and
economic). But the idea that there is a certain irrefutible pattern
hardwired into the bases of computer science and immanent in reality can
perhaps be influence by progressive thinking from the humanities: perhaps
there is no reasonable underlying reality, but a hyperreality.

It's a fairly common thought though, isn't it, about how much computing can
contribute to the humanities? How easier their magic (i.e. that of computer
scientists) can make our lives when we don't stick our finger into the
wrong socket. But we (brilliant humanists) offer applications and
possibilities that they would never be able in their wildest dreams to
think of (scratching their behinds and misarranging their cutlery the way
they tend to do).

A fair comparison to make, I think, is between approaches to media
communications: satellite technology etc. and the examination of economies
and ideologies that produce media moguls etc. (see the Routledge series on
communications), versus content analysis, semiotics and so on. The abstract
stuff going on in heads either end of the wire link-up, versus technology
and implementation of the wires themselves.

Form requires content, to use such outmoded terms, and there is a necessary
"backward" effect (sorry) through this necessary interface. I'd like to
quote Samuel Beckett again to try to illustrate the point I'm getting at.
There has existed a similar kind of relationship (i.e. computer science
versus humanities computationalists) between philosophers and literateurs
(Flaubert: "occupation of idlers"), according to which the latter tend only
to represent or utilize the weightier ideas (read technologies) of the
former. Hence, this beautiful little phrase from _For To End Yet Again_
always sticks in my mind:

"First change of all in the end a fragment comes away and falls. With slow
fall for so dense a body it lights like cork on water and scarce breaks the
surface" (_For To End Yet Again and Other Fizzles_, London: John Calder, p.

I'm struck with Beckett's image of "Foucault's" episteme, according to
which human perception undergoes discrete alterations--new eras begin,
according to the principles structuring which it is only possible to think
in a certain kind of way. The "I" here is surprised to see a dense body
fall slowly, so the I is structured on the conception of a Newtonian
viewpoint. It's an infinite point of balance, the beginning and end: "First
change of all in the end..." You can never see outside of your own way of
seeing. We can't say that Beckett reiterates Foucault's idea, however,
since actually Foucault and D&G etc acknowledge Beckett lavishly in their
seminal works. Beckett's writing feeds back into philisophy like a source

So too, the scientific episteme changes where it is influenced by feedback
from imaginative channels. The little Beckett phrase is a metaphor and an
agent for this kind of change, that seems to work against the grain of
received reality.

My idea is shareware, so if you use it, please acknowledge the place where
it first occurs, my unpublished Ph.D. thesis, _Beckett's Later Prose: A
Study in Structure and Rationale_ University of Sydney, 1989. I'll forward
relevant pagenumbers on request by email. Does that sound arrogant? At
least I didn't ask for money.

Dr Michael Guest
Assoc/prof. Faculty of Information
Shizuoka University, Japan

Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 20:45:58 -0400
From: "Mark K. Gardner" <contact.the.commander@null.net>
Subject: Re: 11.0099 bad writing vs. applied computing

Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 99.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
> <http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/>
> <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/>
> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------
> Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 09:29:33 +0000
> From: "Gary W. Shawver" <gshawver@chass.utoronto.ca>
> Subject: Re: 11.0092 bad writing
> > In response to the other comments on "bad writing" I'd like to suggest
> > that the philosophical parameters of "bad" be extended beyond mere
> > examples of syntax being unable to convey abstruse theoretical
> > meanings to writing that is based upon a specious premise, writing
> > that is overtly agenda-driven, or, as in the case of my Nazi analogy
> > above, so emotive as to stimulate the reader's defenses rather than
> > sense of reasoning ....
> These qualities were present in the contest winners. I'm not sure they
> were the primary criteria.
> --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------
Jeff Finlay wrote
> What's complex or bad about this? Anyone who knows
> how to parse will see it as a kind of sentence more usually found
> in oratory: this thing, apposite of this thing, apposite of this
> thing then leads to this thing.
This is exactly my point--the level of complexity is understandable and
certainly parsable than those out-of-context bad-writing contest
examples, but when an author forces the reader to parse several times a
paragraph, it becomes quite tiresome. None but the most determined will
continue. If one's work is to be accessible by anyone other than a
handful of acamedicians and their students, let's turn down the
intensity knob a couple of notches.

> Does applied computing offer a
> way out of the current mental labyrinth (if you think it so) into a
> confrontation with the data? Do we, then, have something rather important
> to offer in this regard?
> WM

I'm glad Jeff got my joke--however MS Word does the same thing _all_
educators are taught to do in their "Reading in the Content Area"
ed. course-how to determine readibility levels to decide if a text is
appropriate for a particular grade level. As computer programs,
spell/grammar checkers are still rather inefective. As texts become
more electronically based, however, it may be possible to accomadate
reading levels by "stacking" documents and data in so that concepts
assumed by one author can be easily looked up in a more elementary text
"stacked above"; the "deeper one delved into the stack the more complex
and data based the presentation. This could take time, but as search
engines become smarter, they could aid in the compilation process.


Mark Gardner