11.0509 computers, idols, cogent approaches

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 13 Jan 1998 22:31:47 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 509.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Charles Ess <DRU001D@VMA.SMSU.EDU> (110)
Subject: "The Computer and the Virgin"?

[2] From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu> (51)
Subject: re Secularity vs Secularism

[3] From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu> (43)
Subject: my PS

Date: Mon, 12 Jan 98 09:40:47 CST
From: Charles Ess <DRU001D@VMA.SMSU.EDU>
Subject: "The Computer and the Virgin"?

With apologies to Henry Adams...

I was struck by David Gants' reaction to the apparent
indifference, if not outright move away from things
technological among his colleagues at the MLA - and the
resulting recognition that we are perhaps more effective
evangelists (to stay with his - appropriate! - religious metaphors)
when we move from the John the Baptist model (demanding
repentence for our technological incompetence and a marked
jump into a (re)new(ed) relationship with the transcendent) to a
more reformer's model - one which recognizes that personal
and cultural shifts usually come about only gradually, especially
if they depend upon the personal choices and habits of
I was struck for two reasons: one, my experiences tell me that
he's exactly right. As but one example: some two years ago, I
began working with colleagues in philosophy to set up on-line
dialogues in applied ethics, using a sophisticated web-based
conferencing software. (This was not only an excuse to play with
some new toys: there's a long line of research in computer-
mediated communication which suggests that CMC
environments may offer certain advantages to certain types of
communication: we hoped to exploit these advantages, coupled
with some theoretical commitments to discourse ethics which in
turn seemed well suited to the CMC environment.) I assumed,
as a minor figure in a good, but obscure regional university in
the Midwest of the U.S. (whose geography seems utterly baffling
to even colleagues in theStates) - if _I_ have access to these tools,
surely most others must as well.
Wrong. Of the 20 or so participants we hoped to invite to each
forum, only 60% even had identifiable e-mail addresses. Getting
those who agreed to participate in the forum - itself a matter of
moving well beyond the traditional academic cultures of what
counts as scholarship, what gets rewarded, etc. - to make effective
use of the conferencing software was still more challenging.
Even academics at prestigious universities sometimes had
_abysmal_ network connections and environments (one scholar
had to go a student lab for web access - not the most conducive
environment for careful reflection); and for those with relatively
good access - the "cognitive overhead" of learning a new
software interface was costly and demanding. It took about 45
minutes for some - and as one colleague noted, when we're in
the middle of finals week, 45 minutes is a lot of time.
Despite all these problems, however, at least two of the dialogues
succeeded in achieving important, even remarkable
philosophical consensus. (This material is archived at
for those interested in seeing the details.)
The upshot of this experience for me was (a) to confirm my
strong sense that the new technologies do indeed offer new, very
promising potentials -if (b) these potentials are incorporated in
ways that acknowledge the legitimacy of, and seek to incorporate
the prevailing cultural preferences and personal habits of those
we are asking to take up these technologies. That is - the
revolutionary model (one fostered strongly by especially the
postmodern analyses of electronic culture as overturning all of
modernity as print-based, linear, etc.), however sound and
suggestive these analyses may be, is not generally appealing or
effective with most of our colleagues. This experience moved
me towards projects that seek to incorporate the new
technologies in ways more seamless with existing academic
patterns and preferences - e.g., by using a web site to provide
conference participants with copies of papers well ahead of the
face-to-face conference itself, in order to minimize presentation
time and maximize discussion time, so as to complement,
but_not_ to replace the traditional activities of presenting,
discussing, and print publishing. More ambitiously, as Willard
knows, several of us are working on a conference (dedicated, in
fact, to "Cultural Attitudes towards Technology and
Communication") which seeks to take advantage of the Internet
and the Web, both in terms of the e-mails needed to announce,
organize, etc., and in terms of the Web as a publishing venue for
at least some of the conference papers - all of which is further
tied to a book manuscript. Wrapping all of this up in the
traditional, print-based package of a book provides scholars who
prefer (for both personal and professional reasons) the familiar
medium of print with a solid reward for their participation - as it
also provides a way of distributing our results to colleagues who,
for reasons of either habit and/or infrastructure, will not access
the electronic publication.

Two: a few weeks ago I visited my brother's "shop" - a computer
facility which holds about 1,500 gigabytes of data used on ca. 400
engineering workstations. It looked very much like something
out of Star Trek or some other supposedly futuristic vision of
our technological trajectories. My nuanced and critical
sensibilities regarding computer technologies were immediately
replaced by a sense of amazement - something like Henry
Adams' encounter with the electric dynamo at the Great
Exposition of 1900 (an encounter, many Humanist readers will
know, which led to an extensive reflection on the powers of the
new technologies vis-a-vis sacred powers - specifically, those of
the Virgin as reflected in Medieval worship and architecture).
I have very little idea just what humanists could do with such
technologies - perhaps, ultimately, not very much at all. But I
remain deeply impressed by this power - and thus still carry
around the inarticulate and perhaps simply mistaken conviction
that all of this must hold some great potential for humanities
scholarship, a potential we have scarcely tapped. This sensibility,
of course, spins us off in the direction of wild-eyed revolution -
the direction David Gants has suggested will not work.

In sum, I'm betwixt and between, as often describes those in the
liminal domain - no longer in ordinary reality, but not
permanently removed from it either. Perhaps this is a
productive state to visit - especially if, following David Gants'
suggestion, we should be more reformers than revolutionaries.

In any case, best wishes to Humanist for the new year!

Charles Ess
Philosophy and Religion
Drury College
Springfield, Missouri 65802 USA

Date: Mon, 12 Jan 1998 12:14:39 -0800
From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu>
Subject: re Secularity vs Secularism

I rather imagine that it is "fetishization" of the Secular not its
"sacralization," which is involved here. There have been vast and powerful
reasons, which remain as vast and as powerful today, given the use of
terror by societies living today in what I think are longpast eras of
social structure and organization, for the separation of the religious from
the mundane, legal, humanistic societies of the Western 20th Century. DH
Lawrence called in his later career for the re-awakening and revitalization
of the religious "instinct," but he did mean religion necessarily. He
meant the modern forms of totalist constriction, at least in 1924, he did;
after which he found "Tenderness" to be the aim of one's life, and wrote
LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER. He put the issue most poignantly in his fable,
his Fifth Gospel, THE MAN WHO DIED. The mother of the young virgin of Isis
is a big powerful woman of the latifundian sort.
I should think Humanists would not find it, or should not, find it hard
to distinguish between non-selfworship, eg of the human creature, needful
to help one get out of bed mornings, and face the newspaper headlines,
religious self-worship, which is the illusory projection of that essential,
and needful Narcissism, and is called organized religion, and its
commandeering of the simple, inborn animal and naive faith given to us at
birth. Nothing human, and nothing "sacred" ought to be alien to the
Humanist...nor should anything of those domains be worshipped either.
The selfmade preacher Gunther Schuller of Los Angeles, the man who got
into a fracas of some sort on an airline a few months back, and who built
the extraordinary Crystal Cathedral, with its computer run louvering
windows for air, etc., writes yesterday in the LA Times that cloning cannot
clone the soul. That is desperate ignorance of the matters of ethics and
science. I dont expect more than such obscurantist nonsense from the good
Dr. Schuller. We will surely soon clone a human being's DNA identity.
Where does soul come into it, and what is it? I tend to imagine that that
thing is something, if it is anything, that gets made in time, as Yeats
thought of it, that one makes the soul, which becomes what it contemplates,
a sort of tinkertoy concept with Neo-Platonic nerves threaded through it.
At least it was empirical and naive to an extent. The other kind of
soul-talk, which so disgusted DHL early on because it was meant to dominate
and suppress, is part of the oppressive social stuff and superstition that
was one had hoped part of the Galilean protest that evolved into the
Enlightenment, and was returned into play partly because of the terror that
godless warriors of all kinds imposed after the French REvolution. The
whole discussion is a long one, as we all know, but if we think about what
we learned once upon a time, we should know it is not either/or, or word
play like "sacralization" of the secular. That is to worship idols, and I
thought we learned not to away back with the Hebrew Prophets, whose like
never reappeared, interestingly enough, after philosophy got started, in
the East and the West, both.
Jascha Kessler

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

Date: Mon, 12 Jan 1998 12:29:12 -0800
From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu>
Subject: my PS

That posted quotation from TLS sounds to me like a review of a book that
came out in early 1997 in the USA, in which some professor argued that the
Secular was in the saddle, and how, in the US, and that it was not what the
majority of Americans cared to believe or act upon, or accept. This is a
terrific, in the Blakean sense, long range issue for the US, since the
religious and the secular had been shown by Martin Marty some decades ago
to have reached a good sort of accomodation, necessary because under the US
Constitution ALL sects were free to worship as they chose, and that led to
problems of doubt and faith, and competition (for tithes, too), and for
local power issues, etc. Americans think of themselves as a godfearing,
-following nation, but also of many varieties of faith in the One. It is
not so simple. Some religious types and thinkers are becoming restless at
their lack of domination and blame the secular for all the messes in common
life and society, and they are huge, etc. Religion is not really, I think
"marginalized," but kept on the margins if possible when legislation and
policy are pursued, and we have the abortion wars, which continue, etc.
Clone wars next? When one drives through the USA, one is struck (and
bemused) by the bemusing that upon entering most small towns, under 25,000
say, one sees signs listing upwards of 2 dozen or more of churches and
Clubs of all kinds, Elks, Lions, Masons, etcetc., and places and hours of
worship. It is an interesting thing. You wont find that in Europe. And
people organize themselves by their churches for 7 nights a week of
meetings and works of all kinds, and never have time to read or study or
think, but are busy busy busy, when not in bars, bowling alleys, or
roadhouses, doing other things, etc. It is when those sects and votaries
begin as the Christian Coalition shows it to group themselves together in a
"Common Front," that the attack on the secular begins to manifest itself. I
am not sure it is not our Elmer Gantryism, the legacy of the Protestant
fissiparous tendencies, that decries the secular and says it part of the
Evil of the non-Xtians, etc., and Masons, they used to be called, when they
were founding the US, etc. In short, it is not a simple thing that has
been brought up, unless one elides the life spent before the computer
screen as the ultimate in secularity sacralized. That would shade into
Luddism. Xtian Luddism? All this is for the 21st, and it is coming, the
attack on everything that is not of the nature and intent of the Taliban,
for instance.
Jascha Kessler

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

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