12.0299 old walls, new growth

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 9 Nov 1998 22:26:28 +0000 (GMT)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 299.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 9 Nov 1998 22:10:20 +0000 (GMT)
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: old walls, new growth

Humanist has been coming out somewhat fitfully of late because I have been
in Georgetown, Washington DC, five time-zones and too much competing
Internet activity away from home. For which all apologies -- for the
sporadic issues, not for the beautifully autumnal Georgetown. The turning
of the leaves, a striking sight to a resident of London, led me early this
morning to reflect on the cycle I've observed in my own thinking, by which
ideas first spring into the mind, grow with great vigour, then turn, fall
and rot. Or, to put the matter another way, intellectual claustrophobia
seems to set in almost as soon as the walls of a new intellectual
structure have been put into place.

The unwelcome, uncomfortable time is surely a sign of mental health, but I
find it most difficult to admit that the new structure has walls, and
that I am bumping into them. Take, for example, our own field, how
we conceptualise what we're doing. At first I was charmed by the thought
that rendering a complex text into something the computer can process
(marking it up) was like translation, with the inevitable loss, and that
the really interesting thing about it was this loss, what slipped through
the net of computation. Then I ran into Peter Galison's great study of
instrumentation, Image and Logic: the Material Culture of Microphysics,
which showed me that the translation model is only part of
the story: from the perspective of the instrument, our computer, the
activity is more like the creation of a pidgin or interlanguage between
two cultures, in an interdisciplinary "trading zone". Galison's borrowing
of the anthropological notion has the virtue of recognising the integrity
of our field, for the study of loss really belongs to the discipline
from the perspective of which there has been such a loss. We do
the interlanguage, or more broadly, deal in all the pidgins that arise
from the intersections of the humanities with computing.

Charming as Galison's model is -- and I am still in the phase of an
intellectual adoration -- experience is whispering in my ear that I should
be holding my arms out to feel for the wall I am about to bump into.
Unlike adoration of other kinds, this sort seems always to serve when one
realises that it points beyond itself to a more inclusive kind. What
might a better model be?

I have difficulty with the idea that, as one especially intelligent
colleague has argued, the computational representation of a text, for
example, is simply another representation, not necessarily a lesser one. I
can see that what we study is (to quote the title of Antonioni's last
great film, completed by Wenders) "beyond the clouds", i.e. that all forms
of what we study are representations triangulating on the unsayable.
I wonder if the next step is to turn our attention to what happens
when we read, i.e. to the process rather than to the artefact.

Reflections (in a mirror, in an enigma) would be most welcome. While
you're eating the chutney you've made from the tomatoes that never ripened
in the garden that erupted beyond all expectation, taking joy in the taste
of what has resulted from a most vigorous season of growth, please give
some thought to this problem I'm having, let me know where the next wall
might be, and what a more generous structure might be like. And save some
of that chutney for the solsticial celebrations.


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