17.608 humanities, humanism, engineering & humanities computing

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty ) (willard@mccarty.me.uk)
Date: Thu Feb 05 2004 - 04:06:31 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 608.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 05 Feb 2004 08:28:14 +0000
         From: Wendell Piez <wapiez@mulberrytech.com>
         Subject: Re: 17.602 humanities, humanism, engineering & humanities

Hi Julia,

At 04:12 AM 2/3/2004, you wrote:
>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.).

I'm glad you foregrounded this issue. It's often struck me as a problematic
one, and it's not a trivial point, but in fact the source of a great deal
of confusion both among us, and among those who observe us from the next
yard over and figure out where we're trying to go with this.

(Sadly, I can report personally of how I have sometimes been faced, when
trying to engage with someone unacquainted with HC, with the implicit
notion that because I work with computers therefore I must be the "old
kind" of "humanist", uninterested in and untouched by post-structuralism
and the last 35 years of critique, as if working with computers meant that
one mothballed oneself and tucked oneself away in the closet with the
woolens.... I don't know how to account for this, but there it is.)

The thing about the humanistic tradition at its best, however, is that like
any strong and sustainable tradition, it contains within itself the seeds
of its own renewal, through a basic commitment to *thinking for oneself*. I
think of Buddhism, for example, where it's often made explicit that if you
just mouth the Master's words it's not enlightenment at all: you have to
realize the teachings in yourself, firing them in the crucible of
experience and burning up all the inessentials that only "adorn" them but
don't have anything to do with their essence. Similarly I have also
wondered whether bishops and hierarchs, when among themselves around the
dinner table, don't permit each other their heresies, in some sort of
recognition that the divine does speak through the downtrodden.

Given this, I wonder whether there isn't actually another reason for the
relative absence in our discourses of "counter-humanistic" arguments (using
your term) -- which of course may be deeply humanistic despite (because of)
their critique of humanistic verities -- having to do not with the
fertility of the field for the work, or perceived lack thereof (a
perception I think you and I agree is mistaken: the field is very fertile),
but rather with deeper stresses and questions about what kind of work is
worth doing. Is theory and meta-commentary (whether criticism of criticism
or flights into epistemology) a sufficient good in and of itself to be
worth the energy given to it? (At the end of the day, if your day is spent
standing on a soapbox urging the masses to revolt, but they do nothing, has
it been well spent? How about after several weeks?) While the contemporary
humanities seem built on the premise that theory and the meta-meta are not
only worth doing, but are the only thing worth doing (they get you tenure),
nevertheless I think there's actually quite a bit of discontent with this
status quo, as both invidious (theories come and go and come again with new
labels, but there's only so much attention at one time to go around, so
this privileging makes for a "star system" whose effects are not all to the
good), and ultimately at variance with other values besides the intellect
for its own sake, indeed necessary complements to it.

The solution to this stress, in my mind, ought to be simple, though complex
institutional reasons may make it hard to realize in practice: it has eight
letters, starts with a "T" and ends with "eaching". :-> (Fire the theory,
that is, in teaching's hot crucible of experience.) Given how hard it is to
realize this solution in any systematic way, however, we scholars may find
ourselves -- even those of us who are not actually intellectual throwbacks,
but having been indelibly impressed with the post-modern critique, can in
no way buy into naive ideologies of "progress" or any other certitude
imported from a less reflective discipline -- looking, albeit skeptically,
for some kind of work that promises a new synthesis between Word and
Meaning. In short, I wonder how many of us "computing humanists" are not,
in some measure at least, refugees from the Culture Wars. If this is the
case, it might help explain why we have such difficulty articulating a One
True Way of our own.


Wendell Piez mailto:wapiez@mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc. http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207 Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD 20850 Fax: 301/315-8285
    Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML

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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