[Humanist] 29.557 the innocent arrogance of objective fact

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Dec 17 07:13:34 CET 2015


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 557.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Dr. Hartmut Krech" <kr538 at zfn.uni-bremen.de>            (111)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 29.556 The innocent arrogance of objective
                fact

  [2]   From:    Matthew Lincoln <mlincol1 at umd.edu>                        (98)
        Subject: Re: 29.556 The innocent arrogance of objective fact

  [3]   From:    Christian Wittern <cwittern at gmail.com>                    (81)
        Subject: Re:  29.556 The innocent arrogance of objective fact


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Wed, 16 Dec 2015 14:09:00 +0100
        From: "Dr. Hartmut Krech" <kr538 at zfn.uni-bremen.de>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 29.556 The innocent arrogance of objective fact
        In-Reply-To: <20151216065603.5454C793D at digitalhumanities.org>

Willard,

Ever since the invention of objectivity at the beginning of 
the 17th century to save the puzzled European mind from the 
turmoil of the 10+ strands of belief that the Christian 
religion had dissolved into, European science has hoped for 
a "redemption of physical reality" (Siegfried Kracauer) 
through objective fact. But fact is always made-up reality.

For the first time in history, photography seemed to deliver 
an objective physical reality beyond compare, because 
photographs are always transporting details that are beyond 
the photographer's capacity to control his photographic 
output (the "Blow up"-phenomenon). A revelatory act indeed! 
Yet whoever has worked with historical prints will know that 
there is no such thing as an unchanging, permanent 
photographic impression. Organic materials like egg-white 
and gelatin were used to fix the image. When you are sharing 
company with those archival materials for some time, you can 
watch how these negatives and prints will change through 
time. Digitization may stop or slow-down the process of 
aging, if we can protect our storage devices from the 
interference of magnetic storms.

Even the first photographs were not culture-free, as I have 
shown in my dissertation, despite all scientific claims to 
their objectivity or "physical reality." The non-European 
subjects of anthropological photography were very much aware 
that they were acting a part in a European play. On the 
other hand, non-European photographers from a "frameless" 
aesthetic tradition like China and Japan recognized the 
angularity of the photographic format as something following 
foreign standards. I once showed a photographic assemblage 
with a glued-up pumpkin kernel to a Hopi Indian who tried to 
remove the kernel, as, to him, it did not seem to belong to 
a picture.

What will change through digitization or digitalisation, if 
both can be kept apart (there is only one word for both in 
German)? Grierson's documentary film genre as the 
traditional guarantor of objective reality has already 
changed, less because of docudramas as enactments of social 
reality, but even more so due to the ubiquity of the 
photographic medium implemented in telephonic devices. 
Documentary reality has become grounded as human action, the 
act of the presentation of reality. This is a healthy 
development, I would think, as it makes our minds free to 
ask ourselves which games we would like to play -- where is 
the Shakespeare of the Digital Age? And who is telling us 
what is relevant information and what is a fake or worse a 
manipulation of our sensory input and cognitive evaluation? 
And who is saving "the evidence" for posterity? If we fail 
to solve these questions, very soon we will be surrounded by 
digital reality only and without the material capacity and 
resources to live our organic lives.

A long time ago, I was sitting in the grass of the South 
Dakota plains. John Fire Lame Deer was waking up from his 
midday nap, leaning against the wheel of a dusty station 
wagon. He slowly opened his eyes, taking a deep breath, and 
said: "The White Man has only dreams. We Indians have a 
vision." Perhaps some truths will never change, no matter 
how much information you gather.

Hartmut
http://ww3.de/krech

Am 16.12.2015 um 07:56 schrieb Humanist Discussion Group:
>
>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 556.
>              Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                         www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                  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.
>
> Comments?
>
> Yours,
> WM
>



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Wed, 16 Dec 2015 10:10:28 -0500
        From: Matthew Lincoln <mlincol1 at umd.edu>
        Subject: Re: 29.556 The innocent arrogance of objective fact
        In-Reply-To: <20151216065603.5454C793D at digitalhumanities.org>


Willard,

For one, I'd suggest "quibble" is too faint a term for a truly critical
investigation of the social consequences of the materiality of film. Lorna
Roth, for example, has explored how historical decisions in the development
of emulsion chemistry made Kodak film unusable for subjects with dark skin:
http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2196

But to your main question: When it comes to historical simulation, or even
simple descriptive analyses of any kind of structured information, I like
to remind myself and my audience that all we are doing is generating one
*potential* image/measurement/model of what could have occurred in the past
to produce the extant evidence we work with today. (In the case of
stochastic simulations, one might say we produce a *range* of potential
pasts). Making claims for potential pasts is all that historians have ever
done, so I have found that establishing this framework of "potentiality"
helps to defuse misunderstandings about truth claims.

Moreover historical simulations are useful precisely because they *are* tied
to extant historical evidence. Start conditions for a simulation may be
based on evidence (e.g. this historical network had this many participants
spread across this many countries), and evaluation of the simulation is
likewise tied to that same evidence (e.g., does my historical explanation -
expressed via certain procedural rules - reproduce the same network
configuration that I observed from the extant evidence?)

Sincerely,
Matt


-- 
Matthew D. Lincoln
Ph.D Candidate
Department of Art History & Archaeology  http://arthistory.umd.edu 
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

mlincol1 at umd.edu
matthewlincoln.net



--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Thu, 17 Dec 2015 11:29:31 +0900
        From: Christian Wittern <cwittern at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  29.556 The innocent arrogance of objective fact
        In-Reply-To: <20151216065603.5454C793D at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

This goes into a slightly different direction, but to me this "fallacy of
the objective" through software (which I take to be the same issue, but
conceived slightly broader) has been ultimately driven home by the recent
Volkswagen scandal, which turned a light on the practice of using software
to cheat in testing procedures.  The fact that this lead to a scandal of
dimensions yet unheard of (and ultimately might lead to the crushing of one
of the world's leading automakers) does make this a watershed event also in
the public eye, which can hardly be ignored from now on. 

While the testing of material devices, for example light bulbs, but even
complicated things such as combustion engines is straightforward in the
sense that procedures devised for the testing should lead to predictable
results also in the daily operations in the wild, the introduction of
software as an intermediate agency of controlling the device leads to a
situation where the context of the testing itself can, and as has been shown
is in fact, detected by the software program and alters the outcome.

So to me, it is not just digital imagery, but the introduction of software
processing itself into the picture that can be seen as the ultimate cause
for this fall from grace.  For some applications, such as the modelling you
mention, there might be a way out by providing a complete audit trail,
including the source code of the programs involved, but it seems difficult
to see how this would be feasible in the general case.

What I find even more surprising than (the loss of) this "innocent
arrogance" is that we still widely use (digital!) images for documenting
purposes for news reports in digital and printed media and implicitly trust
them to be a faithful representation of the event reported.  The cultural
habit of trusting the visual presentation seems to have a hard time to
adjust to these new realities.

All the best,

Christian Wittern, Kyoto






More information about the Humanist mailing list