[Humanist] 23.157 why so dull?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jul 14 11:21:59 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 157.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 14 Jul 2009 10:20:44 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: why so dull? 

Recently at a synmposium for the digital humanities a colleague remarked
to me that she found a distressing number of conference papers at our
gatherings to be dull -- competent yet lacking any sign of intellectual
excitement or any provocation that would stir it up. I agreed, having
witnessed the same dull reports-on-things-done, with ontologies, XML or
whatever (or what another colleague, long gone off to make money by 
applying such things, used to call "me, my dog and my project" papers). 
We wondered why, and how the situation might be changed.

This morning, as it happens, I was reading one of Jacob Bronowski's last
lectures, "The Imaginative Mind in Science", in The Visionary Eye:
Essays in the Arts, Literature, and Science (MIT Press, 1978).
(Bronowski was a poet, literary critic, biologist, mathematician and
gifted popularizer, whose work all by itself could form the basis for a
good education; see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Bronowski.) In this
lecture Bronowski is considering the common experience of people who "do
not find it as pleasurable to read a theorem as to read a poem", though
they are capable of both. In other words, those who find science dull.

> They have been taught science at school, they have tried from time to
> time to keep up with it, but now they find that the processes of
> scientific reasoning do not engage their deep interest. They may
> still like to read about a new discovery, but they no longer follow
> how it was made.  
> "They no longer follow how it was made": that clause reveals to us
> how it happens that people who want to be interested in science find
> it dull. They gape at the discovery from the outside, and they may
> find it strange or marvelous, but their finding is passive; they do
> not enter and follow and relive the steps by which the new idea was
> created. But no creative work in art or in science, truly exists for
> us unless we ourselves help to recreate it....
> It is not possible to appreciate the deep conceptions that science
> has created, and the beautiful discoveries which express them, unless
> we do something to recreate them for ourselves. This is a hard
> saying, but it is true. If a theorem in science seems dull to you,
> that is because you are not reading it with the same active sense of
> participation which you bring to the reading of a poem. No poem comes
> to you ready-made -- you have to help to remake it for yourself; and
> no theorem comes to you ready-made either -- you have to help to
> remake it for yourself. (23f)

Where, my colleague asked a few days ago, is the questioning in these 
reports-on-things-done, the evidence that in asking questions of 
well-polished solutions an attempt to recreate something fundamental has 
turned up something new, anomalous, disturbing?

I recall an anecdote told by the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who in 
May 1946 attended the first meeting of what later became the Macy 
Conferences on cybernetics. What made this meeting significant for the 
later development of cybernetics, and so human-computer interaction and 
much else, was a paper by the Mexican physiologist Arturo Rosenblueth, 
who presented a model that drew strong parallels between what organisms 
do and what certain analogous machines do. Steve Heims, in Constructing 
a Social Science for Postwar America: The Cybernetics Group, 1946-1953, 
quotes Mead on her reaction to this paper: "Mead later recalled the 
excitement it produced among the social scientists, with the comment, 'I 
  had not noticed that I had broken one of my teeth until the Conference 
was over'" (15).

Perhaps we humanists are a less excitable lot. Perhaps we never break 
our teeth. But it is worth considering how (and, of course, in Mead's 
case, historically why) excitement at such a level could be found in the 
work we do. It does seem to me that potential for it is *everywhere*.



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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