[Humanist] 26.679 "forensics" a magic word?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jan 15 08:35:35 CET 2013

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 679.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 14 Jan 2013 16:08:32 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: forensics

I like to notice words and probe what they're doing, especially what 
they're doing that tends to pass unnoticed. A word may give us a big 
push in some direction or other without our knowing we've been pushed. 
In the linguist J. R. Firth's day, he thought, one of those was "plan". 
In "The Technique of Semantics" (Transactions of the Philological 
Society 1935: p. 69), he notes that,

> One  of  the  magic words  of  the  age is plan. The mere use of this
> word and its derivatives releases certain forces of opinion and
> experience and gives the word weight. Its association with certain
> influential contexts gives it a power over us in this age of
> uncertainty.

This, I suspect, is an observation which always works for one or a few 
words at any given time. And what age is not an age of uncertainty? 
(See Anthony Giddens' discussion of risk in Modernity and Self-Identity.) 

On occasion such a "magic word" betrays what an author has in mind 
but does not want to say, does not realise he or she is saying. It is a 
tool we can use to get further than we would by just following a person's 
argument. Ian Hacking uses this tool with great subtlety to powerful 
effect in his analysis of psychological language in Rewriting the Soul: 
Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory, for example.

I wonder if for us one such word is the term of law and legal 
investigation, "forensic", in the OED's only full definition, 
"Pertaining to, connected with, or used in courts of law; suitable or 
analogous to pleadings in court." I wonder further if when used in an 
argument having nothing to do with courts of law and their proceedings 
"forensic" (in a culture saturated by CSI and its kind) this word does 
not push us toward easier acceptance of an argument as law-like, 
scientific, safely dangerous, culturally sexy?

Court-room metaphors are ancient and powerful -- at least from the time 
of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. ("I know that my redeemer 
liveth" sounds in my mind, with Handel's music, of course.) I am not 
saying I think they're illegitimate, only asking if we want to own to 
all the work they do in the 21st Century discourse of the digital 
humanities? But in any case we can derive much enjoyment from spotting 
those "magic words", as Firth called them.



Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Humanities and Communication Arts,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist (dhhumanist.org);

More information about the Humanist mailing list