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Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 663.

Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/humanist/

Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

Date: Tue, 06 May 2003 08:37:44 +0100

From: lachance@origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)

Subject: influenza computing

Willard,

A tangent to the "consumptive humanities" thread...

Deep deep in the machine one encounters the human.

I have been impressed by how the question of technicity (the relation to

the tools: who is to serve and who is to master) has turned to a question

of ethics (trust between human beings). If one were to recast this

familiar discursive twist for the puppet theatre one might stage the

entrance of the shade of Hegel with a chorus of Luddite ghosts... I am

reluctant to contribute to "done by" narratives that begin with the

"clash" [especially those that pit machine against "man"] and have in the

past posted to Humanist attempts to evade such (for me) inauspicious

narrative beginnings and hoped to reframe the discourse [in terms of

cogitation "done with" the human body]. In particular, I have called for

the potential in exploring the territory in the semantic field between "to

calculate" and "to compute".

As yet another variation on theme of the embodiment of mind, I beg your

indulgence to let me introduce a mini-theatre of the hands.

I turn to Stoke, Casterline and Croneberg _A Dictionary of American Sign

Language on Linguistic Principles_ (1965; new edition 1976) and the entry

related to "calculate". And I turn to them and the entry from within the

a particular environment of information interchange. I currently operate

across platforms where character sets beyond ASCII as well as super and

subscript notations are encodable but not necessarily renderable

adequately. The notation system of the Stoke, Casterline, Croneberg

dictionary of course depends upon super and subscripts and sigila not

contained in 96 printable ("screenable") ASCII . It is in this case a

translation limitation that supports a suggestive ekphraksis.

The sign for "calculate" differs from the sign "to multiply" only by

repetition. A repetition of multiplication

The sign for the verb "calculate" also has a nominative function --

"arithmetic". It morphologically ressembles a series of signs

"mathematics" "algebra" "trigonometry" and "geometry". It differs from

them in one important respect: the plane of movement. The sign for

"arithmetic" moves towards the signer along what may be referred an in/out

axis. The signs designating the other mathematical branches move across a

plane parallel to the speaker (i.e. sideways motion).

It is possible to generate a new sign. Scholars or signers far more

familiar with ASL than I will be able to inform us if such a sign has been

made and what lexical value it might hold. Consider the possibility of

"arithmetic" signed in the plane of "algebra" or "calculus": a to and fro

movement rather than and in/out movement. A possible ASL sign for "number

theory" which Robin Gandy describes as "fascinating because it combines

the paticular (each number has, so to speak, a personality of its own)

with the general, and because simply stated problems may require

sophisticated ideas for their solution" (Fontana Dictionary of Modern

Thought, 2nd edition) which may serve as an analogy to the relation

between object of study and humanities scholar?

[Aside: The sign for "multiply" can also serve a modifier function

ranging comparative "worse" to superlative "worst". As well, the

lexico-narratological inclined reader or those fluent in ASL will find

"geometry" is morphologically close to "quarrel" and "hurt";

"arithmetic" close to "tournament" and "problem". The anthropomorphics

at work in the play of expressing separations and conjunctions in ASL

might provide a fruitful field students interested in creating automatic

poetry generators as tools for the analysis of semantics.]

Apart from plane-of-motion there is another interesting morphological

difference from the set of other ASL signs for branches of mathematics,

the ASL sign for "arithmetic". The sign for "arithmetic" is not composed

like that for "calculus," "algebra" or "trigonometry" by recourse to the

manual alphabet configuration for the first letter of that word in English

("c" for "calculus"). It so happens the ASL poet can evoke binary

conotations because it so happens that the ASL sign for "to calculate is

constructed from of the open two-finger configuration (like a "V") of the

active hand. And those of you, forsaking for an instant interface

devices such as mouse or keyboard and waving with your hands in air will

feel how close the binary tones are to the sign for scissors.

The poetic reach is here meant to evoke the repetitive multiplication of

the activities that the binary machine (whatever its incarnations)

permits:

to cut, to parse, to analyse: choose choose choose.

And to exceed grasping: those who in body are quadrapelgic, handless or

have a facial paralysis or can in mind imagine themselves such likely

understand that being a machine-for-the other is part of being human.

This being a machine-for-the-other is not just at heart a cyborg fantasy,

digital dream of occupying the ever-functional (until decommissioned) CPU

notwithstanding shifting arrays of peripheral devices and organs. There is

also here an encounter not so much with the wish for babble and noise as

with the fascination with the random.

Consideration of such soma-psychodynamics can lead to a reframing of the

initial position-question of the user-as-slave-of-the-tool. One can ask:

what kind of events can I direct to this machine (structure)?

What questions can I ask of this text-machine?

What multiplication can I repeat with this artefact-structure?

What question posed to a machine-structure is not a multiplication of

repeated answers?

--- wanting to generate the unpredictable depends to a certain degree on

suspending the determinations of trust and service

--- humanities computing, in part, operates in the open-air theatre of the

coin-toss

---

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