21.001 Humanist's 20th!

From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 07 May 2007 16:46:39 +0100

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 1.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Sun, 07 May 2007 11:02:27 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Humanist's 20th

In their recent book, INEQUALITY.COM, Kieron O'Hara and David Stevens
have argued that the great revolutionary dream of the Internet's
democratization of the world turns out to be quite a mixed bag. On the
one hand, as Jon Garvie says in his summarizing review of their
argument, "Will the digital age bring equality?" (TLS 2 May 2007),
"the distribution of the power to create and store information online
has not been been matched by reduced inequality in the world at
large". Where the Internet is now a daily fact of life, there is in
fact an argument that quite the opposite has happened. "In a clever
reading of Marshall McLuhan," Garvie notes,

>the authors suggest that his famous term the 'global village' should be
>read less as a metaphor for the interconnectedness of far-flung places
>than as a forecast of the 360-degree surveillance, much of it prurient,
>that a digitally contracted world renders possible.

On the other hand, the Internet,

>is at least a political space in which an enhanced form of popular
>deliberative democracy might be possible. In the most hopeful scenario,
>it is a forum in which an actively engaged citizenry might reap the
>benefits of streamlined public services, hold the government of the day
>to account and take part in edifying debate born of mutually
>enlightening differences.

The closer one looks, the more the uncertainties, and not much we can
do about them directly. Toward the end of the review, however, Garvie
voices criticism which points to what we can do and in fact are doing:

>Inequality.com constitutes a worthy attempt to apply the conceptual
>rigour of political philosophy to ICT, but the two areas too often
>refuse to meld, and the gap between the authors' respective
>specializations is glaring: O'Hara is a lecturer in computer science,
>Stevens a senior researcher in political theory, and the chapters tend
>to veer between these two intellectual spheres.

Collaboration is a fine thing, but merely working together is not
enough, as the metaphor suggests in its depiction of a person's
imagined spatial entrapment within his or her surrounding sphere,
which seems all the world, but isn't. Building a common perspective
on computing -- or better, a shared way of gaining perspectives -- is
the state of maturity we've been growing ourselves into for more than
the last 20 years of Humanist's being-in-the-world, which I celebrate
today. I like to compare our socio-intellectual place to a sea-going
explorer's, on board a methodological vessel in an archipelago of
disciplines. Northrop Frye, combining the ancient definition of God
as "centre everywhere, circumference nowhere" ("centrum ubique,
circumferentia nusquam") with Blake's metaphor of "expanding eyes",
spoke of one's own discipline-of-origin as a centre of all knowledge
that expands into all others. The key is the expanding.

I tried some of this the other day IN PUBLIC. A philosophically
inclined historian I know was giving a talk at a high-powered
specialist centre in a nearby institution, so I went to hear him.
His talk was very good, very stimulating -- no surprise, he's
first-rate. Stimulated thereby I ventured during the question
period afterwards to connect his call for more adventurous ways of
talking about his subject to some of the more adventurous reading I
have been doing, reading well outside the discipline represented by
the specialist centre. By the sucking in of breath among the others
in the small audience and by the momentary look of panic on his face
I knew immediately that the collective disciplinary immune system had
detected invasive ideas and was immediately responding. I knew at
once that I was suddenly in the role of the talkative casually
dressed grey-bearded barking-mad nutter whom all speakers fear. Now I
was not citing reports of crop-circles, or intercourse with
extraterrestrials (cf. http://www.billymeier.com/billy_meier.htm),
rather arguments made by anthropological linguists about jazz
improvisation, and other arguments by theoretical biologists about
self-organizing systems. In other words, what triggered the immune
response was the gesture of expanding. What really did it, I think,
was the word "jazz". I mean, theoretical biology is a science, and we
gotta respect THE TRUTH, right? But jazz???? According to Lafcadio
Hearn, summarizing the consensus of opinion among (white)
musicologists in 1912, the word began as *jass*,

>a verb... meaning 'to excite' with an erotic and rhythmic connotation.
>Later becoming pronounced 'Jazz,' it was used attributively to describe
>bands which by the intensity of their rhythm produced excitement...
>[verging] upon the orgiastic.... (quoted in H. Brook Webb, "The Slang of
>Jazz", American Speech 12.3, Oct 1937: 179-80).

There are problems with Hearn's etymology. The OED, more cautious
and sober, notes "Origin unknown". More interestingly, however, the
language of the context from which I've extracted this quotation is
racially polarized (e.g. "to produce the same effect in whites the further
stimulation of alcohol is needed"), suggesting that in all probability
the musicologists of the time went for a particular meaning with
conditioned alacrity -- and thereby blocked from musicological sight
for many decades aspects of jazz we have only begun to understand
fairly recently. (See e.g. Paul Berliner's magnificent Thinking in Jazz:
The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago 1994.) But whatever may
be the case, the subterranean connotations of the word retain the
power to expand the mind to the point of discomfort and stress.

But I digress.

Of course one needs to do all one can to keep from exploding, or
expanding to the point of ineffectual dissolution, or acquiring books
the reading of which demands more time than one has in the probable
remainder of one's life. One needs focus. But that does not mean
myopia or the tunnel-vision of the stiff-necked, space-cramped coal
miner, who sees sharply only what's immediately within the brightly
illuminated spot of his headlight.

These 20 years of Humanist have for its ringmaster been dedicated
not just to an expanding field of vision but to working out the
implications of the operative participle of our practice, to
"expanding eyes".

Evidence of a good result, from this and other efforts, is not just
devoutly to be wished for. It is to be found e.g. in the recent book, Mind
Technologies: Humanities Computing and the Canadian Academic
Community (Calgary, 2006), ed. Ray Siemens and David Moorman. (Read
it tonight.) I cite but a few examples, with no surprise that they
are Canadian.

In a delightful chapter, "Forswearing Thin Potations: The Creation of
Rich Texts Online", Michael Best (Professor Emeritus, Victoria,
http://www.engl.uvic.ca/Faculty/MBHomePage/) begins by invoking
Falstaff's declaration that, "If I had a thousand sonnes, the first
humane principle I would teach them, should be, to forsweare thin
potations, and to addict themselues to sacke". He pulls out of
Falstaff's typically corrupting inclination the wherewithal to voice
"my conviction that the way ahead for Humanities Computing lies in
taking the initiative, forswearing the thin potations consumed by
those who would have us conform to the pale demands of tradition" (p.
1). While recognizing our duty to preserve our inheritances, he goes
on to say, "I think it not an understatement to claim that there is a
powerful pressure of tradition in academia generally to be safe, to
progress through accepted and understood channels, to publish in
accepted journals and presses, to take no risks as one aspires to
tenure, promotion, and the small carrots of prestige and salary
increments that the profession offers" (p. 2). Be adventurous!
(When you can.)

At the other end of the volume, Andrew Mactavish and Geoffrey
Rockwell examine the distrust which still characterizes reactions to
computing in the humanities and find in it some complex questions
about the relation between the humanities and technology. They
examine historically as well as philosophically basic assumptions of
the humanities, asking how these are challenged by the legitimization
of technical practice (p. 229). In the Afterword, on the Canadian
TAPoR project (http://tapor1.mcmaster.ca/home.html), Rockwell asks,
what are the interesting questions of humanities computing? Are they
new? He argues that development of tools arises from craft theory as
well as generates it. But this theory is rarely articulated by the
people who develop the tools, except insofar as the tool is itself an
articulation. (In what sense can this be?) For me what jumped off the
page is his statement that craft theories "come to light when we have
a sufficient number of competing tools that others need to articulate
why one would use one tool over another" (pp. 294f). Indeed -- take
text-analysis and relational database design as our prime example.
Tools are not only part of the interpretative object, he writes, they
are part of the interpretative possibilities of a text, for all texts
are embedded within or manifested by tools that authorize or make
difficult different types of interpretation. What changes, or could
change, when we use what tool?

A field in which questions of this sort can be asked, and are asked,
has come of age in an important way. Yes, so much remains to be done
-- more accurately, appears on the horizon as we approach it. We
feel, or at least I feel, so adolescent in clumsiness and so
possessed by an ignorance that compelled to speak comes out ofttimes
as arrogance. But now is no time to be a wall-flower drinking thin
potations, if any at all, under the strict gaze of sophisticated
parental traditions. Play-time. Jazz-time.

Reach for the strong stuff and drink to Humanist's continued health!


Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |

Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Mon May 07 2007 - 11:48:22 EDT

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