21.401 regularities in law-less practices

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 8 Dec 2007 08:53:20 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 401.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 07 Dec 2007 09:03:14 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: regularities in law-less practices

In an important new book, Science without Laws: Model Systems, Cases,
Exemplary Narratives, ed. Angela Creager, Elizabeth Lunbeck and
Norton Wise (Duke, 2007), the several authors collected together here
consider how a range of disciplines achieve their coherence and
explanatory power not on the basis of abstract laws but by developing
exemplary objects. These disciplines range from the biological
sciences (in which model organisms fulfill that role), through
economics (with its game theorizing based e.g. on The Prisoner's
Dilemma), to anthropology (specific ritual practices) and, as Carlo
Ginzburg calls it, microhistory. It's a brilliant collection of
essays, each of which would make for a good discussion, but to keep
this brief and at least close to the humanities, I'll mention only
Clifford Geertz's piece on anthropological ritual and Ginzburg's on
the life-history of a late 17C merchant, Jean-Pierre Purry. The
question I want to work toward here is this: what exemplary models
might we be developing in humanities computing?

Geertz, in "'To exist is to have confidence in one's way of being':
Rituals as model systems", surveys the rituals that have emerged from
the beginnings of anthropology, concentrating on Malinowski's
Trobriand kula and Turner's Ndembu mukanda. His title relates not
primarily to what we have learned about particular rituals in
culturally if not geographically distant societies but to what ritual
did and does, for those societies and for us -- providing, as he says
at the end, "a model system of a particular way of engaging with the
real, of worlding the world" (222). From a disciplinary perspective,
the crucial point in the development of anthropology came when ritual
changed from a question to a means of seeking answers: "From being an
object *to* study, a sort of sociological natural kind, it became an
object to study *with*, a means and a modality: the microscope, not
the bug under it" (213). Particular rituals became "model systems" --
cases which gained a stability and transferrability that made them
common disciplinary tools to think with.

Ginzburg, in "Latitude, Slaves, and the Bible", traces his
inspiration for microhistorical writing to Eric Auerbach's strategy
of developing "Ansatzpunkte", concrete details from which global
processes can be reconstructed. Ginzburg asks, "can an individual
case, if explored in depth, be theoretically relevant?" (679f). The
microhistory of Purry's adventurous life constitutes, one might say,
something like John Milton's use of his own autobiography "in specie
aeternitatis", as a means to reflect on the eternal or transpersonal
correlate of a particular mortal career -- a particular man as a
means of glimpsing human kind, or man as Man, to use older
terminology. Like Milton Ginzburg does this by connecting Purry's
recorded thoughts and actions with the biblical narrative according
to which he consciously lived his life. Ginzburg uses that life as an
exemplification of a broad historical reality, connecting the one to
the other through common participation not so much in beliefs as in a
way of thinking.

Had Northrop Frye been alive when this collection of essays was
assembled, my guess is that he would have contributed an essay,
connected to the rest, as may be obvious, through Ginzburg's
brilliant argument. Unfortunately literary criticism is not
represented here, though it could have been by adding what Frye
called literary archetypes to the list of methodological entities in
the subtitle of Science without Laws.

What cases do we have to think with? I've repeatedly argued that one
should not think in terms of models but modelling, i.e. the restless
process of computing rather than any software product, and on
occasion I've approvingly cited Alan Perlis' epigrammatic question:
"Is it possible that software is not like anything else, that it is
meant to be discarded: that the whole point is to see it as a soap
bubble?" (74, http://www.cs.yale.edu/quotes.html). Yet clearly we are
not adrift on a sea of constant change. Particular software models
may be soap-bubbly, but exemplary studies, which inform all work that
follows them, we do have. In the area of statistical analysis of
literature, one thinks immediately of Mosteller and Wallace. What
others would you name?

In the technical area of text-encoding, the TEI would seem to be a
model system -- one might say, a certain kind of ritual by which text
is made intelligible within the computational world. Relational
database design would seem to be another, a "data model", as we say.
The KWIC concordance yet another. In each case we name not a product
but a kind of stable intellectual object. Is John Burrows' Delta
another one of these?

Let me end by quoting the final paragraph from Science without Laws,
from Mary S. Morgan's Afterword:

>Sciences dependent on simulations, model organisms, cases, and exemplary
>narratives indicate that they are, perhaps only for the moment or for certain
>purposes, sciences without usable laws. But such sciences are not, as we have
>seen from the essays in this volume, sciences without knowledge,
>relevance, or usefulness. Rather, the human, social, and natural
scientists of
>these disciplines investigate particular cases, exemplary
>narratives, and model
>organisms in modes that uncover relations, variations, similarities,
>and differences,
>and then use these to develop meaningful accounts. As we have seen,
>they do not just inquire into those objects but use them to inquire with, and
>thus develop broader and deeper understandings within their fields. Not all
>models and narratives support these broader investigative uses.
>Those that gain
>exemplary status are able to do so because they are taken to say something
>about a wider set of particular cases or situations than the one
>from which they
>grew. This wider relevance indicates how such objects gain the autonomy to
>function more broadly as instruments of inquiry. In these human, social, and
>natural sciences, such models, cases, and exemplary narratives seem
to provide
>the stability that some other sciences find in laws. (273)



Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Sat Dec 08 2007 - 04:11:14 EST

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