17.599 where in the dichotomy?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Sun Feb 01 2004 - 05:46:16 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 599.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Sun, 01 Feb 2004 10:32:39 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: where in the dichotomy?

Summarizing the contents of The New Media Reader, ed. Wardrip-Fruin and
Montfort (MIT Press, 2003; see http://www.newmediareader.com/), Janet H.
Murray, in "Inventing the Medium", characterizes a "two-cultures" dichotomy
separating humanists and engineers:

>The disciplinary humanists in this volume, whether artists, theorists, or
>scholars, are engaged in foregrounding our cultural confusions, tuning up
>our sense of existential befuddlement before the scientifically revealed
>world of the twentieth century. The engineers, on the other hand, put
>their faith in the invention of the proper instruments, that, like the
>microscope and telescope before them, will let us focus on the things that
>baffle and unhinge us so that we can think about them in a systematic way.
>The right instruments organize not just the outer world but consciousness
>itself, a phenomenon that is feared by the humanists and embraced by the
>engineers. The engineers see the central task of our time -- finding the
>key to survival in the atomic age -- as a challenge to our intellects. The
>world has become more difficult to understand, so we need better ways of
>thinking about it, more powerful methods of mastering complexity. The
>library shelf and the chaptered book create both overview and close-up and
>allow us to move between them without losing our place. What the computer
>offers us is a more capacious shelf, a finer grained division. The
>engineers articulate a vision of a new metabook, a navigable collection of
>books that will carry us gracefully to the next level of information
>control and systematic thought, just as the invention of print did 500
>years ago. The humanist voices in this survey start off at a greater
>distance from the material basis of the new medium, and they are often
>much less hopeful. They find the punch cards of the early information age
>of little use. They are surveying the wreck of ideologies, coming to terms
>with the failed promises of print, the horrifying trajectory of the
>rationalist arrow. They insist that we experience the flickering focus,
>the slipping away of meaning between the signifier and the signified, that
>is the intellectual predicament of the second half of the twentieth
>century. (p. 4)

Of course this is a rough and synthetic division of views, but a highly
stimulating one, it seems to me. I find myself largely (though not
entirely) siding with the engineers, and wondering if Murray has been
entirely fair to the humanists. It does seem to me that humanities
computing looks both ways, if both are fairly represented. But her
formulation of the import of computing, which lets us "focus on the things
that baffle and unhinge us so that we can think about them in a systematic
way", seems just right.


The New Media Reader, by the way, has much to recommend it as a whole.


Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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