[Humanist] 22.404 thing knowledge

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Dec 26 12:07:09 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 404.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 11:08:54 -0700
        From: Stan Ruecker <sruecker at ualberta.ca>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.403 writing and pioneering
        In-Reply-To: <20081224095358.092DB2AD30 at woodward.joyent.us>

This is a question that has been exercising me lately. I believe that we 
do have categories of artifacts that both reify knowledge and 
communicate it. Hand tools are an example. Not all hand tools, 
certainly, can be interpreted outside their historical context. Anyone 
doubting that statement need only visit one of the Saskatchewan Western 
Development Museums (although perhaps not their web site). But in 
general, if I have opposable thumbs and an elbow, which I do happen to 
have, then a hammer seems fairly straightforward to interpret. 
Pre-existing knowledge about nails does help.

Another example is art. Certainly not all art is accessible without some 
training in how to look at it, but a kind of knowledge is often 
available by direct observation. I would argue that the same is true for 
photography and architecture.

I think there are two questions: is there knowledge without words? and 
is the knowledge without words the same as the knowledge with words? My 
answers would be yes and no, respectively. For some categories the two 
kinds of knowledge may be closer than for others, and for every category 
there is the option of adding knowledge with words to the knowledge 
without words, as we do in art history, for example. There are also 
cases like literary studies, where we add knowledge with words to 
knowledge with words, but that is a different case.

Now the main issue for digital humanists is where in this terrain to 
place artifacts such as software, interfaces, visualizations, and 
prototypes. Lev Manovich at DH2007 famously stood up and said "a 
prototype is a theory. Stop apologizing for your prototypes." I have 
heard similar statements from others in our community.

If we take that principle as a way forward, then it seems to me that we 
haven't really found a solution to a conundrum, but we do have an 
opportunity by analogy (or identity, depending on how strongly you 
interpret Manovich). I would say that theories are for discussing, 
strengthening or weakening with evidence, testing in various ways, 
inventing experiments for, and also using as lenses to turn onto other 
material, in order both to frame specifics within the general, and to 
inform in turn our understanding of the general. We can also set one 
theory against another for comparison. We can try our hand at taking 
thesis and antithesis and reaching synthesis.

If a prototype is a theory, then we should be able to do all those 
things with one.

Stan Ruecker

Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 403.
>          Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 09:52:41 +0000
>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>         > 
> At the beginning of her astonishingly resonant book, Open Fields: 
> Science in cultural encounter (Oxford, 1996), Dame Gillian Beer writes 
> about Keats and Darwin -- the poet's insistence in "The Fall of 
> Hyperion" that "only the written gives any hope of survival", and the 
> naturalist's transcribing of what he saw. "Darwin, energetically 
> observing and writing before the establishment of genetic theory," she 
> says, "had to have the patience of the pioneer -- the patience not to 
> know for sure within his lifetime 'Whether the dream now purposed to 
> rehearse / Be poet's or fanatic's', whether it would prove to be 
> authentic or delusive." (p. 14).
> So, for us a question and a consolation of sorts.
> The question is, does the same hold true for the digital humanities, 
> that "only the written gives any hope of survival"? Given the short 
> life-span of software artefacts, our ignorance of how to read them and, 
> as Peter Galison has noted for non-verbal artefacts generally, their 
> polysemous existence beyond the meaning assigned by their creators, can 
> any such artefact ever stand for itself wholly without written 
> commentary and explanation? Solid work in the history of science and 
> technology gives us the intriguing idea of "thing knowledge", but in any 
> given case, can we say what that knowledge is without using words? Is it 
> knowledge without words?
> (Those here who know their Swift will recall in Gulliver's Travels, book 
> 3, chapter 5, his description of the Laputan "Scheme for entirely 
> abolishing all Words whatsoever": "that since Words are only Names for 
> Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, 
> such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they 
> are to discourse on.... which hath only this Inconvenience attending it, 
> that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be 
> obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his Back, 
> unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have 
> often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their 
> Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets, would 
> lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an 
> Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume 
> their Burthens, and take their Leave." Of course a laptop with a fair 
> sized hard disc isn't nearly as heavy.)
> The consolation is, I suppose, that we may look back at those, like 
> Darwin, who were as uncertain of what they said and did as we are of 
> what we say and do. Often I contemplate by example what a mature 
> discipline allows its practitioners to do. We can only hope, I suppose, 
> for a magnanimous audience and do what we can to cultivate it.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM

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