Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 819.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Subject: Re: 17.817 what's needed
 From: Willard McCarty <firstname.lastname@example.org> (50)
Subject: making trouble
Date: Fri, 23 Apr 2004 08:06:08 +0100
Subject: Re: 17.817 what's needed
On Thu, Apr 22, 2004 at 08:13:15AM +0100, Humanist Discussion Group (by way
of Willard McCarty <email@example.com>) wrote:
> For those working in
> text anaylsis, electronic editing, digital libraries, and related
> fields: are we able to point to actual cases where a problem has been
> solved, a question has been answered, received wisdom has been
> overturned, or new things have been learned? In the same way we can
> point to new knowledge that has come from the advent of the Hinman
> collator or the scanning electron microscope.
Matt anticipates objections to his query on the grounds that it
proposes a far too positivistic vision of the use of computers. I
believe it does, but I would rather object to the question by
pointing to the (I think) profound disparity between the sort of
discourse prompted by the use of scanning electron microscopes and
the sort of discourse that sustains humanistic inquiry.
I am rather at a loss, for example, to answer Matt's question using
the last few years of Shakespeare studies or literary theory as the
object of such questioning. Wisdom overturned? Problems solved?
Well, in a manner of speaking, I suppose, but not at all in the way
that SEMs overturn wisdom and solve problems.
Here are the last two paragraphs of a paper I wrote examining the output
of a text analytical tool I wrote for studying stage dynamics:
-- clip --
The confluence was technically visible in the previous graphs, but
this one draws our attention to its singularity: Antony and
Cleopatra share not only Alexandria, but the two liminal locations
moving away from Rome; and besides these, another uncertain location
``outside Alexandria.'' At first unaware of the status of the
battle, Antony briefly exits the scene for a better view (``Where
yond pine does stand / I shall discover all'' (4.12.1--2). Like
"Taenarum," this scene is a site of extraordinary confusion and
rupture. Here Antony witnesses his own men going over to Caesar's
army and subsequently accuses Cleopatra (who appears but offers no
response) of betrayal.
*Antony and Cleopatra* reveals itself as a play in which the
tragic pattern of apparent reality yielding to the unseen forces of
actuality is enacted not merely among characters moving within the local
circumstances of a minor court, but in a series of events occurring
on the grand stage of human history. The stable knowledge that
precipitates the tragic awareness of fragility and contingency is
located not merely in the psyche of the main characters (who are
neither driven to madness nor paralyzed by inaction), but in the
larger sweep of cultures and kingdoms. *Antony and Cleopatra*,
which is both a history play and a tragedy, is in this view a play
about the tragic undercurrent of history itself.
-- clip --
I am not all sure that I have created "new knowledge" with this
trajectory. I suspect I have not, but instead provided a new
platform with which to examine some old knowledge. I am not at all
sure that I have solved a "problem," if we mean by that some sort of
communally shared bit of puzzlement. Like most critics, I think I
have (rhetorically speaking) both created and solved a problem that
didn't really exist in that sense. Have I overturned any wisdom? I
certainly feel wiser. I am trying to make others feel this way as
well by displaying the path of my investigations in rigorous terms.
I am honestly not beset by the anxiety which I think I hear in
Matt's post, because I am not beset by this anxiety as it relates to
the humanities more generally. Perhaps others feel differently?
For my part, I would rather ask: Has anyone done anything
interesting lately? I think the answer is "yes."
-- Stephen Ramsay Assistant Professor Department of English University of Georgia email: firstname.lastname@example.org web: http://cantor.english.uga.edu/ PGP Public Key ID: 0xA38D7B11
-------------------------------------------------------------------- Date: Fri, 23 Apr 2004 08:07:00 +0100 From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com> Subject: making trouble
Matt Kirschenbaum, in Humanist 17.817, has effectively stirred the pot by asking if humanities computing has solved any problems recently. Can we point "to actual cases where a problem has been solved, a question has been answered, received wisdom has been overturned, or new things have been learned"?
I think we can be morally certain that practitioners have solved numerous problems and answered questions of the technical sort, i.e. that problems of the kind that by nature can be solved have been solved, questions answered to which the proper response is an answer. Received wisdom overturned? That's easy: I hereby overturn the received wisdom that humanities computing succeeds if and only if it solves problems and answers questions, and I do this by pointing out that as a practice within and of the humanities its central concern is to problematize, to answer questions with better questions. Indeed, as Don Fowler said, its duty is not to solve problems but to make them worse. Of course as a technical practice it fulfills this duty by solving numerous problems en route -- one cannot uncover interesting, worthy problems by means of software unless the software is effectively designed and actually functions. But that is hardly the end of the matter. How about learning new things? I'd say, pick up the latest issue of Literary and Linguistic Computing or Computers and the Humanities. Perhaps not every article will show you something new, but I suspect nearly all of them will. Problematizing and posing better questions? I'd say, go to the same source -- or wait about a year until my book is published, then read it :-).
One of the central problems we face -- I certainly hope we can solve this one -- is to remind people that in the humanities WE REMOVE OBSTRUCTIONS TO QUESTIONING, "for questioning is the piety of thought", as Heidegger said. Or take George Steiner's word for it: "The font of genuine thought is astonishment, astonishment at and before being. Its unfolding is that careful translation of astonishment into action which is questioning." (Heidegger, 1978, p. 56) Or if you prefer humour, read David Lodge's Changing Places, esp. for Morris Zapp's great ambition to write the commentary of commentaries on Jane Austen, the definitive study, such that once it is published all reading of, writing on, study of Austen will cease because all possible questions concerning her works will have been answered, all problems solved.
Ok, one could go on and on in this vein, making fun and worrying Charles Taylor's poignant question, "What tempts people to adopt a poorer theory of self?" (Philosophy and the Human Sciences, p. 4) But if our purpose is to generate better questions from poorer ones, then what question should we be asking? I suppose something of the form "what have you done for me lately?" might be a starting point. What are we doing for the world that is of some value to it, and what sort of value is this?
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