12.0390 two topics

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 2 Feb 1999 21:52:03 +0000 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 390.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Tue, 02 Feb 1999 21:44:07 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: two topics

Two interesting topics on which comments would, I think, be useful.

Cultural evolution has been characterised by a series of great blows to our
self-conception: Copernicus' astronomy, to the centrality of the earth,
hence humankind, in the universe; Darwin's evolution, to our unique place
among life-forms; Freud's psychoanalysis, to our notion of inner freedom
from the bestial; and now, of course, Turing's machine. But there are other
machines we can learn from. In "Magic Media Mountain: Technology and the
Umbildungsroman", Geoffrey Winthrop-Young argues that the X-ray device and
other medical technologies seriously eroded the notion of a soul. "New media
that explore and store the body without paying the
slightest attention to any resident immaterial spirit have only one message:
a body is a body is a body. Even Goethe's Olympian leftovers [his body
immediately after death was an arresting and beautiful thing, apparently],
if propped up behind an X ray screen, would be nothing but skull and bones"
(in Reading Matters: Narrative in the New Media Ecology, ed. Tabbi and Wutz,
p. 39).

My question is this. To the degree and way that new technologies have such
traumatic effects, apparently showing what was formerly feared or respected
to have been imaginary, what can we learn about the nature of language and
literature, say, when viewed through the instrumental computer? Someone will
undoubtedly note that for example the corporeal notion of a soul, as if it
were some inner organ, may have been shown to be piffle, but the idea behind
it has metamorphosed rather than simply vanished. In other words, the
horizon is no less real for not being reachable, and meanwhile we find new
ground. How about computing a "natural" language? *Where* is meaning? Oh
yes, in the context, sure. But what is "context", exactly?

Humanists may enjoy reading an article in the latest Mother Jones
Interactive webzine, G. Pascal Zachary, "The World Gets in Touch with its
Inner American", on the assimilation of the distinct cultures of the world
to the American through free-market capitalism and high-tech communications.
It would be interesting to know the degree to which the article itself
manifests an American perspective on global changes that from different
national perspectives do not appear thus. Is there any evidence that would
lead us to believe that a communications technology might have such an
effect, e.g. from the history of past technologies? If we presume for the
sake of argument that this assimilation is happening, might it be the case
that (to use a military metaphor) someone in the city has willingly unlocked
the gates?

I wonder if anthropology or related disciplines might come to our aid here.
What does the very old debate of diffusion vs. spontaneous creation of
cultural forms tell us? Dredging up long disused ramblings around in
cultural history, I recall the suggestion that most appealed to me: that the
arising of a cultural form which we know to have pre-existed elsewhere and
can reasonably suppose to have been brought in some sense from there is
assimilated if it finds an answering need or desire in the new culture.
Anecdotal observations during my travels have further suggested to me that
people tend not to take over a foreign cultural form entire but change it in
interesting ways, as it answers to who and what they are. In other words,
vital cultures tend to survive through change. Metempsychosis!

Comments most welcome.


Dr. Willard McCarty
Senior Lecturer, Centre for Computing in the Humanities
King's College London / Strand / London WC2R 2LS
+44 (0)171 873 2784 voice; 873 5081 fax
maui gratia

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