20.337 Sassure's Cours de Linguistique at 100

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Mon, 4 Dec 2006 09:32:19 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 337.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Mon, 04 Dec 2006 09:25:09 +0000
         From: lachance_at_origin.chass.utoronto.ca (Francois Lachance)
         Subject: Saussure - 100th


The winter season of 06-07 marks the hundreth anniversary of the
first of three courses that Saussure gave, which became the
foundation of the influential Cours de linguistique general published
by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Why might one want to signal
this to group involved in ongoing conversations about the scope and
nature of humanities computing? By pausing to contemplate beginnings,
to invite contemplation of a perhaps incisive analogy.

The first chapter of the Cours de Linguistique generale offers a
quick survey of developments in the language arts. It dwells upon
comparative philology:

Mais cette ecole, qui a eu le merite incontestable d'ouvrir un champ
nouveau et fecond, n'est pas parvenue a constituer la veritable
science linguistique. Elle ne s'est jamais preoccupee de degager la
nature de son objet d'etude. Or, sans cette operation elementaire,
une science est incapable de se faire une methode.

I ask myself if the only route to method is through science and a
preoccupation with the object of study. Does humanities computing
offer a method without objects or rather without objects whose nature
has been completed elucidated? Just what is a computable object?

The introduction to the Cours de Linguistique generale goes on to
describe the principle error of comparative philology as an exclusive
focus on comparative rather than on historical relations and to
praise the neogrammarians (Junggrammatiker):

Grace a eux, on ne vit plus dans la langue un organisme qui se
developpe par lui-meme, mais un produit de l'esprit collectif des
groups linguistiques.

Still work remains...

Cependant, si grands que soient les services rendus par cette ecole,
on ne peut pas dire qu'ell ait fait la lumiere sur l'ensembel de la
question, et aujourd'hui encore les problemes fondamentaux de la
linguistique general attendent une solution.

And so I return to the computable object. It is compatible to what
type of probing? Is it like an organism? Is it a component in a body
of evidence? What probabilies does it expose? What niche disclose?

These biological terms -- organism, body, niche -- appeal to me
because they capture the sociological and cognitive dimensions of
digitalwork. They also appeal because of their resonance with
emergence and gradual decay.

Somewhat like the comparative philogists reconstructing indo-european
roots, in a rather poetic grasping, in a most unscientific manner, I
am striving to understand a neologism: computible.

So much of humanities computing is a training in discerning what is
passable, what it is possible to pass through a given
machine-process. Its object of study may be compatible with
computability without being computable by a given machine-process --
like so many creatures of the wild.

Humanities computing involves fieldwork: observing "computing in the
wild" (a phrase I came across with gleeful relish in reading Wendell
Piez's contributions to the TEI discussion list). This type of
fieldwork is the art or participant-observer domain of humanities
computing. An other area of activity is the lab. Site of controlled experiment.

Its object of study crosses lab and field. Its object of study is
mobile. It has the quality of locomotion.

What is exposed to computability is not the object in and of itself
but one of its phases observed in a site-specific location open to a
given machine-process.

Back in April 2004, Adrien Miles and Jeremy Yuille composed a
creative computing manifesto in which one of the key statements that
has inspired this recreation via Saussure is that computer literacy
is synonymous with network literacy. I am venturing the suggestion
that network literacy deals with "computible" objects. Such objects
are indeed computable they are also as often remarked fungible.

And yet I am totally unhappy with this ible/able play I have
initiated if it doesn't keep in mind that there is a material
substratum. The digital technologies allow us to play with faithful
copies. Replication is at the heart of the matter. And an ethics in
its structure. Yuille and Miles, in the context of their manifesto
and from the perspective of teaching students who work with the soft
artifacts of the creative industries, place _praxis_ between
_knowledge transfer_ and _learning_. Under the rubric of praxis is
the following single sentence: "Breaking, gleaning and assembling is
a theory of praxis for these literacies." Sure if you are dealing
with the breakible copies, the gleanible copies and the assemblible
copies -- morphs on the computible.

Morphiblia -- the object of study of humanities computing.


   -- Francois Lachance, Scholir-at-large
Received on Mon Dec 04 2006 - 05:00:31 EST

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