[Humanist] 29.556 The innocent arrogance of objective fact

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Dec 16 07:56:03 CET 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 556.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 16 Dec 2015 06:44:34 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: The innocent arrogance of objective fact

Undoubtedly others have thought about the subject I am about to raise 
here. This is an open invitation for them to take it up. Again I quote 
from Brian Winston's Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited 
(1995), from the concluding chapter whose title is my subject-line:

> Unlike the challenge posed by postmodernism, the challenge of
> digitalisation cannot be resisted. Digitalisation destroys the
> photographic image as evidence of anything except the process of
> digitalisation. The physicality of the plastic material represented
> in any photographic image can no longer be guaranteed. For the
> documentary to survive the widespread diffusion of such technology
> depends on removing its claim to the real. There is no alternative. (p 259)

Of course one can quibble in the usual way, e.g. by pointing out that 
chemical photography involved transforming processes, and that the 
photographer could interfere in several ways (adjustment of the camera, 
treatment of the projected image with the enlarger, time in the 
developer etc.), but the scale of the difference made by the level and 
artificial intelligence of the digital processes which now intervene, 
including those directly manipulated by the photographer, is hugely 
different. Scale, like size, matters very much indeed.

My question is how the above (let us now take it as given) translates 
into the various scholarly applications of the technologies we use. One 
where the intervention of digital processing is especially significant 
is simulation (a.k.a. modelling turned loose). Because the result is 
evidence of nothing except the process of digital simulation (true? 
false?), are not claims on the real made by those who simulate at least 
partially misleading?

Where this leads, I think, is to the question of what our tools are for. 
Surely not proving anything, ever.



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

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