[Humanist] 23.162 dull and sharp

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 16 10:29:05 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 162.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Alan Corre <corre at uwm.edu>                                (16)
        Subject: Re: Humanist 23.157 why so dull?

  [2]   From:    Paolo Rocchi <PAOLOROCCHI at it.ibm.com>                     (32)
        Subject: dull and sharp

  [3]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (68)
        Subject: dull

        Date: Wed, 15 Jul 2009 10:22:04 -0500
        From: Alan Corre <corre at uwm.edu>
        Subject: Re: Humanist 23.157 why so dull?

My favorite English poet, Alexander Pope, does not give us much hope for 
abolishing dul(l)ness:

In eldest time, ere mortals writ or read,
Ere Pallas issued from the Thunderer's head,
Dulness o'er all possessed her ancient right,
Daughter of Chaos and eternal Night:
Fate in their dotage this fair idiot gave,
Gross as her sire, and as her mother grave,
Laborious, heavy, busy, bold, and blind,
She ruled, in native anarchy, the mind.
Still her old empire to restore she tries,
For, born a goddess, Dulness never dies...

Alan D. Corre
Emeritus Professor of Hebrew Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

        Date: Wed, 15 Jul 2009 16:07:51 +0200
        From: Paolo Rocchi <PAOLOROCCHI at it.ibm.com>
        Subject: dull and sharp

I find extraordinary Jim's remark:
"Some people are more interested in people, 
Some people are more interested in things, 
Some people are more interested in concepts."

My initial background stems from classical studies and I was convinced 
that culture was the ultimate authority in society. Unfortunately fashions 
changes and I find high-culture representatives more concerned on things 
than on tenets and knowledge.

In particular 'utilitarism' seems overwhelming in computer science where 
wisdom and operations progress at different speeds. Hardware/software 
products have changed the life in the world but the inner nature of 
computing is still rather mysterious. The latest systems pervade firms and 
organizations but the principles of those machines date back to half a 
century ago: an incommensurable span of time respect to the rate of 

Cultural movement in informatics turns out to be dramatically late in 
front of the feverish advance of technology, as a consequence ?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?. 
I believe the responsibilities are of ?some [culture] people more 
interested in things' than in ideas and concepts.

Paolo Rocchi

SWG Research and Development
via Shanghai 53,    00144 ROMA
phone: 39-6-5966-5213
fax  : 39-6-5966-3618
url  : http://www.edscuola.com/archivio/software/bit/eauthor.html

        Date: Thu, 16 Jul 2009 07:00:44 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: dull

Another approach to the question.

I quote from Walter Kintsch, Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition
(Cambridge, 1998), page 2. The passage that follows doesn't address
dullness, rather gives an example of something that misses the kind of
opportunity which keeps technical discourse from being dull.

> The terms *understanding* and *cognition* are not scientific terms but
> are commonsense expressions. As with other such expressions, their
> meaning is fuzzy and imprecise. To use them in scientific discourse,
> we need to specify them more precisely without, however, doing undue
> violence to common usage. First, understanding and comprehension are
> used as synonyms here. The choice of one or the other term is thus
> purely a matter of linguistic variation.

Now Kintsch's basic question is hardly either dull or irrelevant to the
concerns of people like us. Inter alia, he is saying, let's pay attention
not to text-analysis (words on the page, as if they were sufficient) but to
what happens in the mind when we read, between the time our eyes focus on
the page and the time when we are aware of reading something or other. Nor
is Kintsch an unskilled writer. But in the above paragraph he quickly
brushes aside the concerns of the literary reader without even seeming to
notice: he identifies the two terms he targets as "commonsense", hence
"fuzzy" and "imprecise" -- attribution of those two qualities being by
implication derogatory; accepts without question the idea that two quite
different words can be simply "synonyms" (from another point of view a
"commonsense" notion); and makes the choice between the words he targets
"purely" (i.e., merely) a matter of "linguistic variation", i.e. of no
particular significance.

Now you might say that given his intended audience, all of this is
unproblematic. Indeed, it is. But by jumping without pause from *as-if* to
*is*, he leaps over the fullness of language to a denuded understanding of
what language can do, in fact does. With a couple of sentences -- let's be
demanding and ask for a whole paragraph -- he could have indicated to the
majority, non-technical audience of people like me how to situate his own
work into the much larger landscape of human discourse. Hence his book may
seem quite DULL, e.g. to those who cannot forget they are lover-readers of

Recently I had the misfortune of listening to a paradigmatically DULL
academic performance -- not a paper, since the speaker had not written
anything out but was merely speaking anecdotally off the top of her head.
The clear intention of the performance was to exhibit to us how brilliant
she thinks she is, how famous, how distinguished. The intention was, I'd
say, not to communicate but to announce, to show off. Her words seemed like
(small-denomination) coins thrown to the poor as her glittering carriage
speeded past. 

In other cases I have listened to DULL papers in which the person in
question was exhibiting not his or her narcissism and self-constructed
superiority, rather how tightly the bolts had been fastened down in the
object he or she had built, how smoothly it operated etc. Now it's hard to
find fault with a beautifully made object -- who does not love well-made
things? But is it asking too much to ask the maker to ponder if not merely
to point out the questions raised by that object and the making of it? The
opportunities for further research -- and why we should care? The
tentativeness of it all? The interesting failures? The matters problematized
that we assumed previously were unproblematic?

These days I am paying much attention to what people in the early days of
computing found fearful. Such fears provide very powerful clues for an
understanding of what was happening at the time. Similarly, I'd think that
what people find DULL might prove quite useful, if for no other reason than
it gives the speaker/writer evidence of an opportunity missed, and so of an
opportunity that next time might be grabbed.



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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