[Humanist] 27.599 a poetics of and for computing?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 7 09:59:23 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 599.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 06 Dec 2013 11:21:13 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: poet and technician

Norman Cousins, in an often quoted article in the magazine Forum (UCLA, 
Spring 1989), zeroes in on "The essential problem of man in a 
computerized age", namely the temptation to imitate the machine, lose 
his and her humanity, to confuse facts spilling in abundance from the 
machine with wisdom so hard and painful to obtain. Until the very end 
this brief article reads like many other jeremiads of the time. But then he 
says this:

> Without taking anything away from the technicians, it might be
> fruitful to effect some sort of junction between the computer
> technologist and the poet.  A genuine purpose may be served by
> turning loose the wonders of the creative imagination on the kinds of
> problems being put to electronic tubes and transistors.  The company
> of poets may enable the men who tend the machines to see a larger
> panorama of possibilities than technology alone may inspire.

This reads to me like a call for digital humanities to do much, much more 
than it had been doing, indeed as it is now doing. Such calls are few across 
its history. As far as I know (and would love to be corrected) they began in 
writing with Cambridge linguist and philosopher Margaret Masterman in 1962 
and on the other side of the Pond with Louis Milic in 1966. I don't know of 
any others remotely equal to his until this hint of such thoughts in 1989. 
Mostly (as I keep saying) we get the kind of negative assessments Rosanne 
Potter catalogued in 1991, with finger-pointings at a variety of bogey-men, 
such as French critical theory. And then the Web hit, and we forgot the 
question. About a decade later the literary-critical establishment noticed 
what Mark Olsen had seen, that you could do interesting things on a large 
scale. And about a decade after that Alan Liu helpfully started making much 
of the theoretical poverty Potter had shown to be the problem in 1991. 

Someone (of a more melancholic disposition that I will own to) might say, no 
wonder we want to call what we were doing before the Web a different and 
inferior practice so that no one bothers to rescue it from the effects of 
professional amnesia. But your mileage may differ, as the hackers used to 
say. What landscape do you see?

Norman Cousins' article is at  

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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