12.0404 culturally traumatic ideas

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Fri, 5 Feb 1999 20:12:00 +0000 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 404.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (27)
Subject: blows and course-changes

[2] From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu> (17)
Subject: Re: 12.0398 Freud on ego-blows

[3] From: "Dr Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan@cse.msu.edu> (28)
Subject: Re: 12.0398 Freud on ego-blows

Date: Fri, 05 Feb 1999 20:16:38 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: blows and course-changes

My intention in floating the topic of the cultural trauma caused by
revolutionary ideas and inventions (crudely, blows to our self-conception)
was to direct the collective understanding of such trauma to the effects of
computing on the humanities. For the sake of argument, let us say that
computing is culturally traumatic. Is there not something very important to
learn from the fact that the machine is forcing us not just to redraw the
old line between humans and everything else but to redefine what drawing of
such lines is for?

I keep coming at this topic, coming at it doggedly from every angle I can
think of, because I smell real food here and am determined to get at it.
Until, perhaps, some kind soul leads me to a better smell. Please, if there
is one. The scent is of what happens when we model something with a
computer, the model works pretty well, but in fact fails to perform in some
crucial respects. Or, put it in terms of the cultural-trauma theory, the
computer sends us spinning because it does most of what we thought was our
business, and so forces us to rethink what exactly we're good for after all.
At least the healthy among us will react that way.

Is there a good argument that other culturally traumatic inventions have
pushed our understanding of what we're about in this way? If so, what does
their techno-cultural history tell us?

Enlightening comments eagerly awaited!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5081
<Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
maui gratia

Date: Fri, 05 Feb 1999 20:16:48 +0000
From: Jascha Kessler <jkessler@ucla.edu>
Subject: Re: 12.0398 Freud on ego-blows

re Freud: was "bestial" really the term? It is not a pleasant
connotation in English. Animals may be beasts, but they dont seem to
be "bestial" as are we at our worst. I should rather think that
Freud was pointing out that there are animal processes at work in the
very construction of the development of the psyche. The unconscious,
Das Es, or It, or Id, is not animalistic, but part of the structure
unavailable to us, and in it the various energies work. Eros, in
Plato's SYMPOSIUM is the working force, and Freud called it in us
libido, and thought it was a sort of energy, and the sexual drive
part of its makeup. It is not a simple thing, but a dynamic process,
not a faculty, or object. So far as I understand it.
Jascha Kessler

Jascha Kessler
Professor of English & Modern Literature, UCLA
Telephone/Facsimile: (310) 393-4648


Date: Fri, 05 Feb 1999 20:17:05 +0000
From: "Dr Donald J. Weinshank" <weinshan@cse.msu.edu>
Subject: Re: 12.0398 Freud on ego-blows

On Tue., 2 Feb 1999, Willard wrote:
Cultural evolution has been characterised by a series of great blows to our
self-conception: Copernicus' astronomy, to the centrality of the earth,
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
Turing's machine.

As this discussion has proceeded, I have noticed that there is one
major revolution which nobody has mentioned: the rise of mechanism
in biology.

Decades ago, I taught three introductory courses to non-scientists.
Each started with a reductionist statement designed to "hit the
students upside the head."

1. "You are nothing but a speck in an unknowable universe (Copernican)."
2. "You are nothing but an animal (Darwinian)."
3. "You are nothing but a biological machine (through Crick & Watson)."

[Notice my sequencing of names in deference to our U.K. hosts!]

By the end of the course, students could argue the adequacy or
lack thereof of each of these reductionist formulations.

I think that the third is at least as powerful as the other two
(plus, of course Freud and others) in shaking the "me-centered"
view of the universe.

Don Weinshank
Dr. Don Weinshank weinshan@cse.msu.edu
Phone (517) 353-0831 FAX (517) 432-1061
Comp. Sci., Michigan State http://www.cse.msu.edu/~weinshan

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