17.602 humanities, humanism, engineering & humanities computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Tue Feb 03 2004 - 04:12:28 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 602.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 03 Feb 2004 08:54:36 +0000
         From: Julia Flanders <Julia_Flanders@Brown.edu>
         Subject: Re: 17.599 where in the dichotomy?

One thing that strikes me powerfully in the account of humanism here is
that it groups together (both implicitly and explicitly) several very
different kinds of thinkers. The term "humanists" in the quotation seems to
refer to "those who practice the disciplines which are termed 'the
humanities'" rather than "those who believe in humanism" which I would
argue is an entirely different thing. Within the humanities disciplines
there are strong and important currents which are quite critical of the
notion of "humanism" (e.g. much of post-structuralism, certain types of
Marxism and feminism, etc.).

Once we're taking note of those internal differences, it seems to me that
the relationship between engineers and humanists becomes more complex and
more interesting. Engineers are often quite "humanistic" in the more
specific sense described above, in that they are less willing than some
humanities-types to be critical of the epistemologies that underly our
ideas of measurement, observation, tool-building, etc. And some within the
humanities are, like the engineers, willing to be either optimistic about
Where Things are Tending (because of progressive beliefs about the human
spirit) or pessimistic (because of a feeling that things are in a decline
because of a loss of cultural certainties)--while on the other hand the
non-humanistic humanities types or "counter-humanists" on the contrary are
apt to be either pessimistic (because they have no such beliefs about the
human spirit) or optimistic (because they can see the loss of cultural
certainties as a step in the right direction).

I think in general that "humanities computing" tends to fall very much on
the "humanism" side of things, with its beliefs that increasing access to
information and improving the quality of that information will generally
make things better, improve our understanding of the textual world, etc.
One does see counter-humanism (particularly in related fields like new
media) but it often stops short--it explores and suggests, but the
arguments are not fundamentally counter-humanist (in the sense that they
soften the blow before it lands). I'm thinking of things like Murray's
_Hamlet on the Holodeck_, Hayles' _How We Became Post-Human_, even parts of
Landow's _Hypertext_. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that even
discussions like the ongoing "What is text really" line of thought (most
recently extended by Allen Renear and Paul Caton's exchange at ACH2003) are
powerfully, if subtly, "humanistic" in ways that constrain their direction
of ultimate outcome. It would be really interesting to see what would
happen if the humanities computing community were infiltrated by some
hard-core counter-humanists from the humanities disciplines--wouldn't a
little Foucault shake things up? It would certainly shed a different light
on phrases like "wreck of ideologies...failed promises of
print...horrifying trajectory of the rationalist arrow...slipping away of
meaning...intellectual predicament".

Best wishes, Julia

>>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.
>> 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)

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