19.234 failure of interdisciplinarity

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 30 Aug 2005 07:14:20 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 19, No. 234.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

   [1] From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois (112)
         Subject: myth encore: intercollaborative discipline

   [2] From: Lynda Williams <lynda_at_okalrel.org> (25)
         Subject: Re: 19.229 failure of interdisciplinarity

         Date: Tue, 30 Aug 2005 07:05:26 +0100
         From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
         Subject: myth encore: intercollaborative discipline


With Humanist 19.116 (Myth, practice, theory) I mused about the stories
that animate Humanities Computing and inform how computing in the
humanities is done.

Wendell's answer to Matt's call (19.141 the trouble with tribbles)
suggested to me two mythemes that traverse many a narrative retold by many
a computer in humanities. Wendell's rejoinder had two themes that one can
find in many communications by computing humanists. The one theme, the
importance of the quotidien, is of course easy to highlight in a
discussion of blogs. However the value of the incremental and an
appreciation for the small contribution that cummulate is, I believe,
present in many a tale of computing in the humanities. The other theme is
perhaps less <del>persuasive</del> pervasive. The peroration on the
"coming to an end" of a particular hegmonic formation is provisional.
Indeed, we are admonished: "you must continue doing what you are doing"
that is encourating scholars to engage with communities. It is not the
impulse to share and cultivate, nor the the value of ties to a readership,
that struck me as a worth mytheme. It was the invocation of a withering
away of the "old guard".

I hope Wendell will forgive such a reductionist reading of an empassioned
appeal but the imagery of decadence is too striking not to serve my
purposes here. I too am tempted by the tone of indignation: "Theirs is a
losing battle, and the condescension the attitude of heirs of an old
family who, having squandered their inheritance, now watch the
tradespeople cart the furniture, linens, silver and crystal away." Just
desserts makes for a good story ending. But apart from the anonymous
commentator in the Chronicle who are "they"?

"They" are the luddite. The technophobe. Are they vanishing? Receding from
the scene? Hardly.

I am reminded of this by Julia Flanders who in her contribution [Humanist
19.221] to the thread on collaboration invites us to consider a more
introspective turn. The project management failures, the time-sensistive
and necessary interventions, that Julia identifies as crucial and personal
responsibilities, are a set of skills familiar to students of social
reproduction. Success in collaboration requires fruitful resistence. I am
not recommending some immersion in a Jungian shadowland or a deep
encounter with the technophobe-within. I want to get at a more
foundational myth.

In the interests of a such a journey, I have been pondering a classic
expostulaton which dates back to yes, an older generation, but the
sentiments survive:
[A] grand reductive process begins in which culture is redesigned to meet
the needs of mechanization. If we discover that a computer cannot compose
absorbing music, we insist that music _does_ have an 'objective' side, and
we turn that into our definition of music. If we discover that computers
cannot translate normal language, then we invent a special, more
rudimentary language which they can translate. If we discover that
computers cannot teach as teaching in its most ideal way is done, then we
redesign education so that the machine can qualify as teacher. If we
discoer that computers cannot solve the basic problems of city planning --
all of which are questions of social philosophy and aesthetics -- then we
redefine the meaning of 'city', call it an 'urban area,' and assume that
all the problems of this entity are quantative. In this way man is
replaced in all areas by the machine, not because the machine can do
things 'better,' but rather because all things have been reduced to what
the machine is capable of doing.
Theodore Roszak "The myth of objective consciousness" _The Making of a
Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful
Opposition pp. 230-231 [1968]

Here the machine is idolized. Likewise Julia's message implies that a
worship of speed which ironically tends to make project teams skimp on
planning and thereby waste time. Computers are excellent at tracking
multiple time lines. They can work as clocks and calendars, cycle
plotters, scenario generators. Quick to chasten, Roszak invokes the image
of the limited object, the _slow_ computer, the stupid machine.

It would now seem nugatory to invoke the Turing commonplace that the
machine is reconfigurable. Certainly not of great value to speculate upon
the possible links between the fetishization of hardware (or its hype) and
lure of the cachet of speed.

It was Richard Cunningham in 19.231 failure of interdisciplinarity who
gave me the hint that reconfigurability depends upon a plurality of
machines. It is his particular reading of Patrick's forumlation that
provided the hint:

     The second comment that prompts me to write is Patrick Durasau's
     description of the university as being "conceived of as libraries and
     librarians, research facilities and a gathering of inquisitive minds
     [that] provides all the opportunity necessary to transcend the
     boundaries of
     disciplines." This hasn't been my experience of any university at
     which I've had the privilege and pleasure of studying and working,
     and in our age of reduced circumstances, wherein all gains by any
     module are viewed fearfully by others as potential losses to their
     own status quo, the provision of opportunity to transcend
     disciplinary boundaries seems as distant a horizon as it ever was.

A gathering of inquisitive minds. Experience. Or more accurately
"experience of" -- the genetive. A reconfigured machine would subsitute
the accusative formulation "experience at".

If the university is an idea, just as the machine is an idea, then a
gathering of inquisitive minds need not be a gathering in the flesh of
contemporaries. Ah, the old dialogue of the dead. Another terrain of the
quotidien reproductions of immanence, living with the vision that "_even
the dead_ will not be safe". And we have the access to the heros of
fiction such as Knecht in Hesse's Glass Bead Game or Dumbledore from the
Harry Potter novels of J.K. Rowling. Indeed, the figure of wise wizard and
professor obliquely tells Harry very much about the nature of discursive
machines and moveable feasts when he says at the closing of a chapter:
"Let us not deprive Molly any longer of the chance to deplore how thin you
are." To read "pleasure" for "chance" is but part of the story.

To have the chance to be surprised by machines, to be perpetually
surprized, to find the negentropic in the nugatory. Is that not a
worthwhile myth to serve as a pattern for stories to come?

Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large

Skill may be the capacity to manipulate perceptions of
<del>knowledge</del> experience. Magic does as magic does.

         Date: Tue, 30 Aug 2005 07:05:54 +0100
         From: Lynda Williams <lynda_at_okalrel.org>
         Subject: Re: 19.229 failure of interdisciplinarity

>By definition, the scope of any discipline is limited. If we want
>(and need) to transcend disciplinary boundaries, we need to know
>more, not less, about the disciplines or "intellectual homes" involved.

But not, perhaps, everything about each as defined by their respective
authorities, exactly because any domain of study must be limited. New
disciplines must shed some baggage in order to be productive--with
justification, naturally. Interdisciplinarity is the customization of
disciplinary boundaries. Seen in that light, it fits right in with 21st
century approaches to a lot of things, from medicine to blogs.

>One suspicious circumstance about the term "interdisciplinary" is the
>fact that we do not seem to know when and how it was first defined or
>used. There is some indication that it turned up among pragmatist
>scholars around 1928 within the context of programs of polytechnical
>instruction for applied sciences. Any more precise information is
>highly welcome.

In that case, perhaps the term need to be revitalized, lest its past impede
its future.

>Best regards,
>Dr. Hartmut Krech
>The Culture and History of Science Page

Book #1 "The Courtesan Prince" (SciFi)
and related novellas "Kath" and "Mekan'stan"
http://www.okalrel.org lynda@okalrel.org
Received on Tue Aug 30 2005 - 02:24:15 EDT

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