13.0318 Happy/Merry Christmas &al.

Humanist Discussion Group (willard@lists.village.virginia.edu)
Thu, 9 Dec 1999 17:40:35 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 318.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Thu, 09 Dec 1999 22:35:42 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: Happy/Merry Christmas & al.

Dear Colleagues:

Twice a year, as long-time members of Humanist will know, I take the
opportunity to ruminate about our seminar, our field and, yes, on occasion
about my own life, which is to say, whatever bits seem relevant or are
simply irrepressible. Christmas is one of the two times when, as a Tammany
Hall politician named Plunkitt once said in self-defense, "I seen my
opportunities and I took 'em" (William Riordan, Plunkitt of Tammany Hall,
<http://longman.awl.com/history/primarysource_19_7.htm>). Like the early
morning before dawn Christmas brings silence, and before that an
anticipation of silence, and so for me the inclination to slow down,
listen, quietly observe and clackingly ruminate. It is a busy time, to be
sure, for me compressed this year as last by an imminent, eagerly awaited
departure across the pond to that "tankard scooped in pearl". Humanist will
continue, though perhaps somewhat less frequently, all the while. Like a
love affair, it requires constant care and feeding ;-). It is, in fact, a
kind of love affair, is it not?

Recently I was involved in a limited-term online seminar run by my
undergraduate college, Reed. Having proclaimed loudly the virtues of Peter
Galison's majesterial study, <title>Image and Logic: a material culture of
microphysics</title> -- perhaps the most intellectually exciting book I've
read in a long time -- I found myself officially launching and stirring up
the discussion of that book for the seminar. A good thing it was, too.
Galison's conception of the multidisciplinary bundle of fields we call
microphysics, as you may know, is based on the anthropological/linguistic
model of the formation of pidgins by disparate cultures that come together
to trade. He notes that in such situations, microphysics included, people
who disagree about the meaning of an object outside the particular
occasions on which they trade it can, when they come to trade, negotiate
meaning and value for the occasion. Galison uses this model with great
skill and attention to the historical detail, so it becomes a powerful
instrument for understanding what happens or can happen when different
fields come together. I got to wondering, however, about his notion of
global disagreement. In particular, I found myself asking, what then keeps
the operation going when there's no money involved or, as in the
humanities, when there's no government-funded project or practical
spinoffs. Do we really not agree beyond the local interactions, or are we
just too short-sighted to see that on the large-scale it's the group as a
whole that knows?

Yes, I realise this might seem to be steering toward a Gaia-type
hypothesis, which is intriguing but for my immediate purposes a
distraction. Rather I'm thinking of the fact that electronic communication
(such as we've been pushing along for the last 12 1/2 years on Humanist)
and other effects of computing are transforming the humanities into a much
more highly conversational way of working. At minimum that's a possibility,
if not a threat, that we really do need to pay attention to.

In the recent book <title>Speaking into the air: a history of the idea of
communication</title>, John Durham Peters noted that the common complaint
of "not communicating" is a fascinating and quite recent social phenomenon.
Not, once you think about it, a terribly surprising outcome -- discovering
that communication doesn't necessarily happen well when you exchange lots
of words. I wonder what are the byproducts of the activity, however, those
outcomes that are more or less independent of what is said? What kinds of
scholarly activity are now on the rise because we can collaborate at a
distance so easily, can ask questions in a diverse crowd such as this one
so easily? How is the idea of scholarship, of what it means to be a
scholar, changing?

I observe how deeply, intimately my own life is interpenetrated by all the
modern devices of communication, including the airplane about to
communicate me, body and soul. For the past 20 or so years I've put
together a nuclear-family Christmas card with contributions from everyone.
This year the contributions have come from three countries and across 9
time-zones, the results assembled in London with Photoshop and put online
for the daughter in Alaska and the son in Toronto to print out for their
own use. I'll not pretend that a face-to-face gathering wouldn't be
preferable, but for various reasons it cannot happen. It is true that the
technology we use to bring ourselves together was involved in creating the
distances in the first place, but I want to stretch beyond the irony of
that. My point is that the technology is part of who we now are, what we
have to hand to remake ourselves, and that life without it is inconceivable.

Galison talks about how computing fundamentally altered what the word
"experiment" designated in physics, what it meant to be an experimenter. Do
we really need to talk about computer-implants or artifically intelligent
body parts, indeed about artificial intelligence at all in order to measure
our own transformation by this invention of ours? In humanities
scholarship, I would argue, the most important computing we do is done in
wetware, for example in the marking up of a text, when anticipating how
what we perceive about the text must be rendered for the computer to
process it, we think now like a computer, now like a human, and as a result
zero in on the zone between. And as a result start to think very
differently about the old cultural artefacts. Scholarship begins to mean
something new. It must. Without the need for implants, or really very
"advanced" computing.

Were we face-to-face I'd be tempted to ask, "Am I making sense?" And
someone might quote St Paul's powerful formulation, "Now we see in a glass
darkly.... nunc per speculum in aenigmate...." and so suggest that
face-to-face promises an apocalyptic fulfillment devoutly to be wished for
-- as indeed it is, and will be so valued when it occurs. (That's a
promise.) Several times in the past I've compared virtual gatherings such
as Humanist to its historical/literary predecessors, for example as
depicted in the Decameron, though we do not tell stories quite like those
Boccaccio relates (for which see
<http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/dweb.shtml>). We're
not so different either. My point here is that face-to-face and
screen-to-screen complement each other, or can, and that both are means of
communicating better than before. Humanist and other virtual gatherings
like it are not substitutions for anything; they are manifestations of the
desire to communicate that increase that desire, no? If the observation
that lack of communication is a recent complaint is true, then could it not
be as much due to an increased desire, pricked on by the expanding
opportunities, as to a modern failure in performance? Formerly we thought,
if only I could talk to him or her. Now we can, and we discover that
communion requires more, including a whole new set of skills mirroring the
characteristics of the medium and people's behaviour in response to these.
The demands on us reach farther down into us.

Has Humanist been a part of the change so far? Undoubtedly. But as in
classroom teaching, there's really no very good way to measure the effects,
to know what's happened that might not otherwise. (Personally I could make
a long list that would define the life I now live, but that's a somewhat
special case, I suppose :-). Humanist itself has not changed very much in
quite a while. In the past year, thanks again to John Unsworth and most
recently Malgosia Askanas, its operations have become easier and more
reliable. I continue to hope that others will more often be inspired to
stir the pot. At the moment, however, as the year, the century and the
millennium wind down to a close, I wish only to praise what we have made
together, to celebrate it with you, to recognise that the ONLY reason why
it is what it is and why it continues is that we wish it so. Everyone under
his or her fig tree; this is ours.

So, salutations from your editor, from his very quiet 99 year-old house in
Wesley Road, in the village of Leyton, at the southern tip of the Epping
Forest, in the London Borough of Waltham Forest, in the southeast of
England, getting toward midnight on the 9th of December. Happy/Merry
Christmas! -- and may your cultural translator render this very merry wish
into whatever form is most welcome to you.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
<Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
maui gratia

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