[Humanist] 22.415 thing knowledge

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jan 1 11:26:43 CET 2009

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 415.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

[1]   From:    Francois Lachance <lachance at chass.utoronto.ca>            (24)
Subject: Thing-Theory thing

[2]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (86)
Subject: "no idea but in things"

Date: Wed, 31 Dec 2008 11:46:53 -0500 (EST)
From: Francois Lachance <lachance at chass.utoronto.ca>
Subject: Thing-Theory thing


I would like to propose some loose notes on the Thing-Theory Thing (or thread).

Both prototype and theory are objects of discourse.

As objects of discourse they productive of stories.
They are especially productive if they are considered as events (as any
object can be considered as a reified event).

I think the submerged theme to this thing-theory thread is the question of
what types of stories should be told (this in the guise of what stories can
be told).

I point out that the intervention that produced the hook (prototypes _are_
theory) arose in reaction to statements of humility (coded as apology).

I would venture an imperative ... the discourse of humanities and by
extension that of humanities computing must address not only the present
discursive community, some of its message must be destined to those yet to
come. The route to such an engagement with the future sometimes passes
through forms such as the dialogue of the dead. Sometimes such a regard for
history and the future is cultivated by the sense of an audience that lives
extra muros. Every blog entry, every posting to a discussion list, every
syllabus available online, every archived transcription of the transactions
of a learned society, contributes to an aggregate sense of engagement.  

Good stories happen to those who can tell them well. Telling a story well
takes practice. 

I believe that good practice begins when the metaphoric leap (X _is_ Y) is
eschewed and a more comparative mode is commonplace (A is like B or C or D).
Metaphors run to inflationary hype. Modest comparisons create linkages and
an expansive discursive economy. Mind you, an overarching metaphor is
sometimes perfect for stiring the pot but there are other ways to cook or
prepare food.

-- Francois Lachance, Scholar-at-large

Date: Thu, 01 Jan 2009 10:23:36 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: "no idea but in things"
In-Reply-To: <20081231070005.7A0182A57C at woodward.joyent.us> from "Humanist

In the discussions of "thing knowledge" so far, often we've slipped into
using words in a rather thing-like fashion, or rather, in the half-aware
way that we treat things themselves, as if they were simply lumpishly
"out there". A number of comments on the epistemic, culturally informed
way that things exist in the world we share with them, even those not
made by us, have brought forward the core of what Davis Baird means by
his term "thing knowledge". Perhaps words are so familiar to us that
they -- esp "theory", but also "experiment" in the present context,
indeed also "context" -- have become even more dull, lumpish,
object-ified than things have been.

The point I wish to make has been made quietly, too quietly perhaps, by
Laval Hunsucker ("If one thinks of a theory as..."), Martin Mueller
("You can call that implicit purpose a theory...") and perhaps others.
Let me shout it with a New Year's enthusiasm for an improving turn.

We are using "theory" as if its meaning were singular and clear -- which
it is most definitely not -- as a result of which the word takes on the
trendy mind-stopping, experiment-snuffing force it has in so much of
literary studies and in Manovich's utterance as it has been quoted.
(Compare the similar effect of "socially constructed".) Of course
there's truth in what Manovich says, but if it isn't a tautological
truth, as Martin has argued, then it's very close to that. So I ask,
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY "THEORY" in each of the contexts in which we use that
word? What is a "theory" not? How, in any given use, would a word such
as "idea" or "concept" or "notion" not be as good -- or better, perhaps
much clearer? And now that we're on a roll philologically speaking, with
our dictionaries out, let us also ask, WHAT IS AN "EXPERIMENT"? When
would a replacement of "to experiment" by "to try out" result in an
improvement of sense?

A cynic might think that (forgive the demeaning of a noble tool) words
are to us like hammers, to have the maximum possible IMPACT on our

I commend to everyone's attention Peter Galison's Image and Logic: A
Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago, 1997), and for present
purposes chapter 6, "The Electronic Image: Iconoclasm and the New
Icons", pp. 433-552. A couple of quotations will help in the present

Galison is discussing the popular idea, e.g. in Andrew Pickering's
analysis of a particular situation, that the experiment in question was
tuned in a "theory-laden" way on the basis of a pre-existing
"theoretical construct". He comments, "This sort of dichotomy,
characteristic of both positivist and antipositivist philosophy of
science, has obscured a richer, subtler spectrum of registers in which
experimental augmentation proceeds.... <i>Data are already
interpreted</i>. But 'interpreted' does not mean shaped by a governing
theory.... There are no original, pure, and unblemished data. Instead
there are judgments, some embodied in the hardwired machinery, some
delicately encoded into software.... But to call these moves of
interpretation 'theories' is to grossly misread the nature of
experimental culture." (pp. 543-4)

What this says to me is that having turned away from uncritical uses of
the term "theory", taking on board Kuhn's and Hacking's arguments (from
the 1960s and 1980s) about experiment having "a life of its own", as
Hacking says, and before we start thinking of what we properly do as
"experiment", it would be wise to check out how the latter word is used
by all those colleagues of ours in the tradition running back at least
as far as Bacon.

Significantly Galison has turned to anthropology for explicating the
"richer, subtler spectrum of registers in which experimental
augmentation proceeds". Allow me to leave you with the following:

> As the "tradition of the instruments" makes clear, objects travel
> clothed in culture and human interactions. Objects (like the paten
> and chalice) are encumbered, covered with meanings, symbolisms,
> power, and the ability to represent but also to preserve specific
> elements of continuity. Yet precisely because things come dressed
> with meaning, it is essential not to picture the handing down as
> occurring without alteration. There are no purely neutral exchanges
> or donations, no "technological transfer" that is isolable from the
> contexts of origin and destination.... So while it would be an error to
> suppose that machines can be plucked cleanly from their context, it
> would be equally distorting to assume that objects carry the totality
> of their cultural embedding with them. Clothes wear away, dyes fade,
> and meanings themselves shift over time. One of the central arguments
> of this book is that there is a partial peeling away, an (incomplete)
> <i>dis</i>encumberance of meaning that is associated with the transfer of
> objects.... Our histories must be dense and specific enough to
> understand the limits of the malleability of objects and meanings as
> they travel from domain to domain. Objects draw together clusters of
> cultural practices the way pidgins and creoles bind languages."  (pp 435f)



Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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