13.0016 mutability

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Fri, 14 May 1999 22:53:19 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 16.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Fri, 14 May 1999 22:53:10 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: mutability

Dear colleagues:

One feature of the electronic medium -- perhaps THE feature -- causes
many of us grief, worry and extra work. I was reflecting early this
evening, as I turned a leafy corner on my walk from the tube station to my
house, how potentially fortunate we all are because of this mutability. I
was musing for quite other reasons on how our training as scholars
programs us to be right in every argument and how for still other reasons
I had been recently beaten back from what seemed unassailable
righteousness to admit fumbling ignorance of nearly everything, and how
this seemed so much better to suit the scholar's real work, and the
teacher's. Advancement in the profession is, of course, still
what it always was, but for the moment let's think only of scholarship.

There comes a point in the development of every argument I make when
enthusiasm for a new approach, a new realisation becomes cloying, then
quickly claustrophobic. Unfortunately the enthusiasm doesn't last very long
but the intellectual claustrophobia does -- until some kind but severe
friend points out a misconception or stupidity, or I run across a helpful
argument, usually in some utterly unrelated field, like physics. Then the
cycle begins again.

I am reluctant to think that they way we've always done things is inferior
to a new way we could do things, but I wonder, and would appreciate your
comments on, the notion that the conversational style that seems an almost
inevitable product of the electronic medium suits the actual impermanence
of scholarship better than the printed book. The Ozymandian monument, the
fortress against time, the definitive work. Or, I think more likely,
perhaps the medium in which I now write is really MUCH better for
criticism, in particular the sort of thing that gets into a journal
article, a book review and (alas) so many monographs. This is not a new
thought, but it perhaps needs stressing that it is a blessing for some
things to disappear, or take up no space at all, and that the electronic
medium so easily conveys this blessing.

Perhaps the philosophy of dialogue would be helpful here -- something that
gives us a philosophically rooted recognition that the most annoying
feature of this medium is its greatest blessing.


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