[Humanist] 29.595 where attention goes?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jan 5 10:23:15 CET 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 595.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 5 Jan 2016 07:02:31 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: where attention goes

Writing of the promotion of mechanization in the late 18th and early 
19th centuries, William Ashworth remarks that,

> Debates over the replication of human intelligence have less to do
> with what it is to be human and far more to do with making it fit the
> criteria of the prevalent culture.... Thus attempts at inscribing the
> workings of human intelligence into a machine were (and are)
> ultimately about making humans appear to think like machines too and
> then claiming it as 'natural'. 
("England and the Machinery of Reason", in Bodies/Machines, ed. 
Iwan Rhys Morus, p. 47)

Thus when we present evidence of improved grasp and so understanding of 
our subjects by means of computing, with implicit if not explicit 
argument that we should be thinking of them in this new way, is not the 
process of naturalizing the machine well underway? The problem I see 
here, often exacerbated by promotionalism, is the unspoken imperative 
that we should redirect rather than enlarge the scope of our attention. 
The new way, whatever it is, means a tradeoff, a loss as well as a gain. 
Losing the loss seems to me a real loss.

Take the view of literature that statistical processing enables, for example. 
It's a genuine gain to have better command of the background against 
which a particular novel or poem is read. (Back in my days as a doctoral 
student of English literature, before any of this was possible, Northrop 
Frye was arguing tirelessly for the value of bringing into focus the whole 
Western literary corpus.) But is there a danger here of forgetting actual, 
literal reading? Literary history is indeed well served by the sharper, more 
comprehensive overview, but it in turn serves individual reading of 
individual works. We fret institutionally and some of us personally over 
the connection between intra- and extra-mural life. At their meeting point 
is the work of literary, visual, musical, material art. What can be done 
right there, with our tools, to help them come alive?



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

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