11.0441 publishing, babies and bathwater

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Thu, 4 Dec 1997 20:19:07 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 441.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Thu, 4 Dec 1997 09:10:23 +0800
From: Chris Floyd <cfloyd@carmen.murdoch.edu.au>
Subject: Re: 11.0437 light on dark ages

Gary Shawver wrote:
>I certainly haven't. I think the whole point of getting caught up in the
>"bells & whistle" is that for perhaps the first time in human history
>persons of moderate means can publish their own material and make it world
>accessable (to other persons of moderate means). It's certainly more powe=
>than the printing press or photocopier has afforded for some time.

Absolutely, the power of internet communications is very exciting. That's
what we are doing here, wherever that is.

However, you are playing fast and loose with the word "publish". The actual
publishing process is a drawn out affair with proofreaders, copy editors,
etc. The marvels of desk top 'publishing' can even be a liability in this.
In many cases, internet texts are the equivalent of tacking a notice to a
board. Admittedly, this is a privileged notion of publishing. Nonetheless,
it bears thought where texts accessed through internet are impermanent;
they rely on a functioning server than can guarantee memory space. It adds
a twist to 'book burning' where a published text can be switched off at
will. Of course, there remains the opportunity to send copies.

This consolation does not deny the point there are different kinds of
publishing. Furthermore, the respective publications have different
statuses. Academics would be aware of their standing relative to their
publications. Eg. an e-mail post would not be equated with a refereed
article in an esteemed journal.

Refereed texts meet criteria set by gatekeepers. The so-called deomocratic
freedom of the press applies to publishers. Writers have to write to an
audience/market, which in the first instance is the publishers. Clearly it
is good communication practice to know one's audience and to use the
appropriate language. Nevertheless, the flip side is censorship, conformity
to the prevailing agenda as defined by the gatekeepers. Such relates to the
Humanist discussion group as it is moderated (& censorship happens as I
encountered with one of my submissions).

A significant part of the appeal of moderated discusion groups is the
focus, the cutting out of the crap as it were. We can have a resonable
expectation of our audience, that they can appreciate our messages. This is
a lot different to big pond publishing by shark gatekeeepers like Murdoch

Yes, we can distribute our own material worldwide, and I love it. But we
are still a small group. Where we are preoccupied with the busy work of
novelty information tools/toys, my concern is that maybe the humanist plot
is being lost to Darth Vader.

Gary's mention of "moderate means" in regard to internet access is curious.
"Moderate means" is similar to saying "a length of string". Despite being
an unemployed person, I am internet connected because of my priorities, the
way I elect to apportion my resources. The fact remains, that first, the
internet community is a small subsection of the computer user population,
and second, the major use is computer games. Here I am alluding to a recent
Australian Bureau of Statistics study of Household Use of Information
Technology where 8% of the estimated four million home computer have
internet access, which is a third of Australian homes. Added to this is the
unrealistic expectations of business for the quick buck on the super
e-highway. Given that maybe 5% of homes are internet connected, and the
predominant usage is'tittytainment', the worldwide access angle has to be
taken cautiously. Are we preaching to the converted is a useful question? I
am suggesting that generalisations about mass internet audiences is
misplaced. That the internet audience is fairly well segmented. Ghettoized
is another way of putting it. Compare the audience of Princess Diana's
funeral. Here we see a major press event which ironically reveals the worst
of yellow journalism, but still vindicates the system with bums on seats.

Thus I am saying that the 'moderate means' aspect of internet access is
contraindicated. That the educated are more likely to take advantage of the
publishing potential of internet. Furthermore, there are class implications
where the affluent have the greater tendency to make the double investment
of hardware and education.

>>We have to look up
>>and see the light of the day, step out of our medieval cells.
>Is the implication here that contemplation is wrong and that the natural
>place of the academic is out on the barricades?

Not necessarily. There is a place for thought and a time for action.

>> The
>>Renaissance broke the back of the dark ages;
>That sounds painful! As is the logical disjunction between this clause an=
>the one following.
>>thus Saul's argument that
>>universities are sinking into medieval scholasticism.
>If Saul's understanding of the past is as simplistic as this (haven't read
>the book so I'm relying on this redaction), I mistrust his ability to say
>anything useful about the present. As a medievalist, I have found that
>moderns use the Middle Ages as a convenient means of negative definition.
>We are not what they were. It is the ultimate other. Unfortunately, we
>often ascribe to that age the very qualities that define us simply because
>they are unpleasant. The Renaissance did indeed "break the back of the dar=
>ages" (a disturbingly appropriate metaphor). It also ushered in the era of
>witch-hunts, totalitarianism, and genocide on a global scale, which we cal=
>the modern age.
>There, I feel much better now.

Hold on. Not so fast. There is nothing especially modern about
"witch-hunts, totalitarianism, and genocide". On a global scale sure, but
there was the Spanish Inquisition, Sparta, pogroms,... Not being a
medievalist, I appreciate you might be sensitive. Nonetheless, the
Rennaissance is a high point of Western culture, despite the ill will of
European colonisation. Saul made it clear that the Industrial Revolution
was no picnic, and that the real advances of suffrage and better health and
living standards are more recent. He also indicated the backsliding of the
contemporary, the point of his thesis.
>Please forgive my medievalist rant, though it does point out that not all
>we academics accept even the simple proposition that the so-called "dark
>ages" were. It also points out that Saul may have unconscious assumptions
>of his own that bear examination.

We all have our "unconscious assumptions". I would agree that Saul's
specific reference to "medieval scholasticism" might be misleading (he uses
the scholastic search for the divine plan as an analogy to the way economic
rationalists approach the market). However, I wonder if you are trying to
have your cake and eat it. Earlier on you were chiming about the "first
time in human history...world accessable...more power than the printing
press". Then you were tying the Renaissance to the negative outcomes of
modernity vis a vis global "witch-hunts, totalitarianism, and genocide".
The "bells and whistles" of the modern depend on the Renaissance; computer
graphics would be impossible without Cartesian coordinates. There is no
going back to the medieval, however painful.

>Surely the culture wars that have swept universities for the past few
>decades with all the vehemence of the earlier wars of religion are at leas=
>as big a reason for academia's impotence as any unconscious corporatism.
>Could it be that the triumph of many divergent ideologies, and of the idea
>of ideology itself, has lead to academia's self-marginalization? How can w=
>hope to affect change in a democracy if to the electorate we appear to be
>speaking in tongues?

The cliche of "ivory tower" has long been applied to universites. There has
been a level of opening up of recent, which Allan Bloom adversely
criticised in his _The Closing of the American Mind_. As a beneficiary of
'free education', I don't coincide with his sentiments. I am also
unconvinced by the assertion that academia has somehow 'self-marginalized'
in response to a 'triumph of divergent ideologies'. There is an ironic
sleight of hand here which leads me to suspect that Gary is speaking in
tongues. The opening up of universities in the sixties on (as satirized by
Malcolm Bradbury et al) involved greater access by the less moneyed
classes. There is a greater number of people in higher studies than ever
before. It's big business, and it suits the government to keep kids in
school longer, off the unemployment statistics. Thus it difficult to claim
that universites are more marginal to the electorate. Notwithstanding this,
there is increased specialisation, and more significantly, the promotion of
vocationally attractive courses like "public administration". I feel that
Gary's reference to the 'vehemence of cultural wars' is a distraction when
the real issue is the survival of the humanistic underpinnings of the

In short, I am accusing entrenched academics of selling out, of trying to
look flashy and competitive with their new toys when they are really
letting the baby drown in the bathwater. In a period where the big push is
in the ideology of the market, I am arguing that humanities academics
should be strong in their voice of the value of a liberal arts based
education TODAY, not when they've got all their information tools tested
and operational. The tools work: publish or be damned!

>^^=DFWe have to grow up
>>and learn by doing, not playing with toys.
>It there a real distinction here? And haven't we become what we are
>fighting if we reject the idea of play?

There is nothing wrong with playing, but too much of it and you will go bli=

I like Jascha Kessler's comments re dangerous administrators. That is a
part of the problem, the situation of administration for administration's
sake, where academic promotion is higer grades of remove from scholarship.
Furthermore, that the new world corporate mentality cuts corners with
research and development, where the contrary would be indicated with
growing unemployment by investing in creative endeavour.


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

Humanist Discussion Group=20
Information at <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/>