14.0089 thoughts on commentaries & humanities computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Date: Tue Jul 04 2000 - 07:15:30 CUT

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                    Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 89.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Tue, 04 Jul 2000 08:12:32 +0100
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: thoughts on commentaries & humanities computing

    To my request for thought-experimenters in Humanist 14.73 there may have
    been many responses, but none (except for Prof Dr Ott's) have
    actually-virtually come across my desk and so been published here. (I was
    going to write "actually come across my virtual desk" when I realised that
    the desk is quite solid; it's the coming across that requires the
    qualification, which I am tempted to expand into a not irrelevant
    meditation on the philosophy of science, but won't :-). One member of this
    group asked for a summary of Glenn Most's book, Commentaries -- Kommentare,
    which I mentioned as a good source for thoughts on the commentary form, but
    I didn't respond because this would have required days of work. However a
    search of the very fine Bryn Mawr Classical Review
    <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/> reveals a solid piece on the book by
    James O'Donnell, <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2000/2000-05-19.html>,
    distinguished author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace
    (Harvard, 1998) -- read it tonight!

    Nevertheless I thought I'd set out some desultory, scattered (and doubtless
    flawed) thoughts provoked by the essays collected in Most's book, in order
    myself to provoke the silent thought-experimenters into at least the same
    if not better. It seems to me that the problem of what we might do with the
    commentary in the electronic medium is made to order for us computing
    humanists. Considering it is, among other things, a way of defining our
    common perspective on research in the humanities. That someone like me, who
    is little better than a scholarly tourist in nearly all of the fields,
    traditions and historical periods covered by Most's book, can sustain a
    professional interest is remarkable. (Kind wit, be silent!) I think sorting
    out what across such essays proves relevant, what irrelevant to the
    computational transformation of the genre provides a very good way of
    expanding that "remarkable" beyond the phatic moment (and out of wit's
    grasp) into a realisation of what we're about.

    The editor, Professor Most (Greek, Heidelberg/Chicago), worries at the
    beginning about how to define what a commentary is; he notes the
    possibility of a definition by formal properties -- chiefly the
    subordination of one text to another -- "X is a commentary *on* Y -- but
    rejects that because it does not distinguish between a genuine commentary
    and a parody (he mentions Nabokov's Pale Fire; see also Lee Siegel's
    delightful, even useful Love in a Dead Language
    <http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/756971.html>). It seems to me
    that formal properties are exactly what we have to think about, and that
    whether something is a "genuine" commentary or a parody matters not a whit
    to us. But what might these properties be? Subordination collapses or has
    to be qualified into near meaninglessness quite quickly, as there are
    clearly "non-submissive" commentaries in which the commented text is little
    more than an occasion for the commentary, and even more radically (as could
    be argued about the proto-typological connections within the Hebrew Bible
    and about Galen on Hippocrates) the very act of commenting on can be said
    to create the authority of the text commented on, if not come close to
    create it as a text. It may be, Vallence writes, that Hippocrates was the
    only great authority nebulous and distant enough for Galen to tolerate;
    source-criticism on the Bible seems to me to drive us to the same conclusion.

    Another important qualification is provided by Daniel Boyarin's essay on
    Midrash as commentary, in which he points out that interpretation defines
    only one kind of commentary. If, as in Midrash, the Platonic/Orphic notion
    of soul distinct from body -- and thus meaning from text -- does not
    operate, even provisionally, then the act of commenting on is made even
    more problematic than we may have thought. Simon Goldhill says in his own
    essay that the commentary form depends on philosophical ideas about
    language (and literature). He asks, where is the meaning in a theatrical or
    textual event? This is the sort of question we ask. "The words of the Torah
    are poor in their place, and rich in another context."

    An interdisciplinary, trans-historical examination of commentaries, like
    one of concordances, is an exercise that drives one to the brink of
    silence: it seems as if almost anything can be called a "commentary".
    Somewhat less vaguely, as a genre it seems to slip easily from the form a
    classicist would recognise as such (e.g. Dodds on Euripides Bacchae, Nisbet
    and Hubbard on Horace) to the interpretative essay, the new composition,
    the translation and the lexicon. Here Goldhill's approach I find especially
    helpful: he defines the genre by the operation of two principles: citation
    and morselisation. The genre is driven, with tighter or looser focus, by
    the (not necessarily subordinating) reference ad loc., which implies a
    synchronic view of the text and which, as Fowler notes in his essay, means
    the recontextualisation of the referenced morsel.

    Referencing and the recontextualising of data-morsels should be immediately
    recognisable as operations that computing is well suited for. Fowler
    helpfully runs through a number of possibilities that computing suggests,
    one of which is the dynamic creation of many different kinds of commentary
    from the same body of material (e.g. the now bog-standard notion of
    suppressing or revealing material as the user wishes). More radical is the
    idea of creating a commentary by assembling morsels not originally made for
    the purpose, e.g. my colleague David Yeandle's project to create a
    commentary on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival from bibliographical
    references to discussions of individual passages -- his
    "Stellenbibliographie zum Parzival Wolframs von Eschenbach", for which see
    <http://www.kcl.ac.uk/kis/schools/hums/german/parzdescr.htm> (German
    version also available).

    So, we let 100 flowers bloom, but as computing humanists we study the
    mechanics of blooming. Goldhill's social constructivist perspective on the
    commentary tradition reminds me of what Ian Hacking, quoting Nietzsche,
    says about "unwrapping the mummy of science" to see it as an historical
    process. Hacking points out, in The Social Construction of What? (Harvard,
    1999) that to see something as "constructed" can be liberating, as
    constructivism tells us that the constructed thing does not have to be the
    way it now is, or is regarded. We are constructors; can we be liberating?
    Goldhill asks, is it possible to have a commentary that pays attention to
    the modern ideas of a plural text, that is not integrally related to
    discredited ideas about language? It seems to me that here is a
    paradigmatic problem for humanities computing and that arriving at the
    point of formulating it (however crudely managed here) holds a mirror up to
    the field.



    : how we sort relevant from irrelevant . Apart from Reading the fat volume
    of learned essays, dealing with the genre in several traditions and
    historical periods (within most of which I am little more than a scholarly
    tourist), I found myself
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
    voice: +44 (0)20 7848 2784 fax: +44 (0)20 7848 5081
    <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
    maui gratias agere

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