11.0432 dreaming of the light

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 2 Dec 1997 08:09:06 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 432.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu> (31)
Subject: Re: 11.0429 toys & non-trivial pursuits

[2] From: Chris Floyd <cfloyd@carmen.murdoch.edu.au> (103)
Subject: Light at the end of the dark ages?

Date: Sun, 30 Nov 1997 11:39:53 -0800
From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu>
Subject: Re: 11.0429 toys & non-trivial pursuits

I am afraid that Willard's gentle request for enlightened administrators is
dreamy. Most of the administrators I have known for nigh onto 50 years are
themselves former scholars or scholars manquees. Who becomes a Dean, etc.,
except a former professor, in most places. Who are therefore the enemies
of the people, people being of course young graduate students and aspiring
scholars. There is more to this than meets the mind's eye. There is the
fact of disillusionment, and failure, and rancor, and conversion of hope
into hardnees of heart. When good scholars are bored and tired of their
field they get kicked upstairs, usually, rewarded by those even higher, now
called CEOs, etc. (Castigators of Excellence in the Organization, etc.?),
as with corporations. Engineers, whose knowledge is usually good for 5-10
years, routinely move up to management, because technology moves so very
fast, and has for decades now. At least, they were engineers, before
getting retrained as managers or MBAs, etc., and understood. But...a
failed professor, whether in sociology or history or psychology or poli
sci? Usually a rather dangerous person. The saints and serious folks are
a only a bit more common than hen's teeth. No, they have vulturine
dispositions and beaks, and prefer carrion, killing to make it a bit higher
in odor, etc. Well, before becoming a Cardinal, one has to serve a long
time, but the view and the perspective changes as one ascends. The best
parable I can think of is Thurber's late story about the orbiting
astronauts who had terrific nuclear bombs under their capsule, to be
launched...in case. Well, they get to thinking one patch down there
resembles another, from that height, and, well, the reader can surmise the
very Swiftian dialogue that leads us to a Final Solution....

Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature
Department of English
Box 951530
Los Angeles, California 90095-1530
Telephone/Facsimile: (310) 393-4648

Date: Sat, 29 Nov 1997 15:37:37 +0800
From: Chris Floyd <cfloyd@carmen.murdoch.edu.au>
Subject: Light at the end of the dark ages?

In the last day or so I read John Ralston Saul's _The Unconscious
Civiliation_ which raises a number of cogent points relating to the role of
humanties in this period.

Essentially, Saul's argument is that the new world order of corporate
economic rationalism is undemocratic; is not in the interest of the public
good, and is based on invalid assumptions that plainly do not come up with
the goods. He compares corporatism to the rise of neo-conservatism/fascism
in the 1930s.

Alfredo Elejalde wrote:
>It seems to me that Humanism is no longer a view of the universe, an
>interest in scientific, technical and cultural issues, but a profession
>organized acording to the division of labour and ruled by its constraints.
>Now, in this techno age, that the old humanist tradition has to be redefine,
>the discussion is about what humanist in general should do, what moral
>principles embrace, and the role in the present and the future beyond the
>universities, with or without technology. However, professionalization makes
>easy for us to forget the sources of the discipline because there are many
>humanists dedicated to highly specialized tasks in a totally descentralized
>world, with different interests and problems, and each one has the right to
>choose his(her) own ethic principles. An agreement becomes not easy at all.

Against this new world of professionalism in universities, Saul writes: "If
the universities cannot teach the humanist tradition as the central part of
their narrowest specialiations, they they have indeed sunk back into the
worst of medieval scholasticism" (70); and furthermore, "A student who
graduates with mechanist skills and none of the habits of thought has not
been educated" (74). In this case it would seem that the truely
professional path of a humanist scholar would be to be unprofessional, to
speak out against the careerist divide & rule of contemporary universities
that seeks to sever the soul from the body. A purely
technical/vocational/mechanistic approach to training propagates ignorance
rather than reason.

>Humanism itself can not change neither the economical nor the political
>order of the world, but it can serve to discuss political or ethical issues.
>Of course discussion may lead some of us to political action... And can also
>serve to focus political debates outside the Academy. It is not too
>difficult to feel good when our discussions go beyond the academy and we can
>see the effects of our work, no matter how specialized it might be. It is
>not as easy for us to discuss the issues posted outside the Academy because
>they seem to be not related with our work. However, internet communications
>allow us to speak without knocking newspapers' doors, and that changes the
>way humanists have been in contact with the public during most of this
>century. So now it is possible to have a strong commitment with our
>professional field and also participate in public debates using
>telecommunication technologies.

The title of Saul's book, "The Unconsious Civilization", signifies a
collective unawareness of people to the reality of corporatism, which is
effectively the totalitarianism of capitalist self-interest groups. For
example, the recent bust of the Asian economies is publicised as a natural
occurrence, like a typhoon, without any serious questioning of the ethics
of money market speculation, and the fact economies have been undergoing
recession since 1973, despite the Chicago School of Business. So, yes, a
speaking out the violation of basic humanist principles of the public good
and democracy is important, and internet has the potential for facilitating
such dialogue.

>The major language in Internet is English, but not the only one. Having
>HUMANIST debates translated into other languages and published in the WWW
>could be a starting point. I realized it is not an easy task because there
>is some support needed, but when I look at those fine terminology databases,
>at the conceptual systems that allow to understand the position of a
>specific concept in the theory it belongs to, I imagine how much knowledge
>would be available and how many uses could be done with it.

At this stage, I am wondering if the issue of translation is a red herring.
I speak and write in English; you are reading it. Internet is global, but
face it, we are an elite. We have power because we have knowledge. The new
world order is knocking; they won't wait until humanities computing gets
its act together, resolves the Babel of languages, then starts talking
turkey. The "welfare function" will be further eroded, increasing the
psychic disequilibrium of the world's people, causing gross individual
hardship. I don't have faith in computer solutions themselves; only in the
human choice to communicate and break silence.

>This way does not sound like the humanism based on exchanging ideas. Maybe
>we are to reproduce, preserve and spread the old knowledge using the new
>technology, not to create new knowledge. It is curious to me that so many
>messages posted to this list talk about how to do something instead of why
>to do it. And this is our age: how to make machines work is what consumes
>most of our time. We are learning how to print.

It is easy to get caught up in the bells & whistles of our new machines,
but we have been printing since the fifteenth century. We have to look up
and see the light of the day, step out of our medieval cells. The
Renaissance broke the back of the dark ages; thus Saul's argument that
universities are sinking into medieval scholasticism. We have to grow up
and learn by doing, not playing with toys.

>After promotion of toys, people are learning how to use them. I am sure,
>after that, we will have something to say. And something interesting I
>think, because humanists are learning the language of engineering, forgotten
>during too much time, and humanity is entering in an age only science
>fiction writers dreamed of, and there is still too many social problems
>around. A humanist is not only a man that reads and writes philosophy or
>literature, but a man who also wants to understand how things work, and how
>make them work.

And how the world works, and what is in the common interest for the public
good, and what generates an atmosphere of selfishness, distrust, hate, and
self-loathing. Where do you want to go to today?


Dr Chris Floyd
Phone: +61 8 9339 0490
Fax: +61 8 9385 7443

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