[Humanist] 23.203 politics and thought, continued
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 30 07:07:00 CEST 2009
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 203.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 09:18:19 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: more on politics and thought
Thanks to David Golumbia (whose book, The Cultural Logic of Computation,
should, let me say, be sitting on your desk too) for his defense of Paul
Edwards' central notion of the "discourse", to which I gave
insufficient treatment in my previous note. In my usual style, my
criticism was an attempt to bring an idea I am worrying to your
attention, hoping for help with it. Golumbia is quite right: Edwards is
deliberately trying to avoid anything as simplistic as a straight
causal explanation. But still permit me to wonder about the causal
force of things constituting a discourse, and by doing so to probe that
which constitutes in our eyes an explanation.
When I read some of the authors whose ideas get caught up in the
powerful maelstrom of World War II -- how can we even begin to imagine
what it was like then? -- what I get from their writings is the kind of
desire to know, the hunger for knowledge, that started me off about
the time that Senator McCarthy, in the paranoid wake of that war, was
doing his worst. So I wonder, what does it mean, as Mindell writes, for
so many people from so many different disciplines, all to be trying to
see the human being as a machine? McCulloch is my favourite example
because he was anything but "nature red in tooth and claw" in human
form. Anything but an anal reductionist thirsting for central control.
He was *curious* -- about why the mind is in the head, about what is a
man that he should know a number, about many other aspects of the human,
as he said.
What does it mean for ideas, things and people to be found together? Am
I wrong to hear hints if not declarations of "you are known by the
company you keep" in the idea of discourse that Edwards uses? I can
understand how it is that people get caught up in a discourse as in war,
when it becomes cosmological, as behaviourism once was. Is that what
we're talking about -- that bundle of stuff by which people get caught up?
In "The Ontology of the Enemy" (Critical Inquiry 21, Autumn 1994), Peter
Galison poses the question of relationship for the devices and designs
of the time. In Image and Logic (1997) he speaks of the partial
dis-encumberance of meaning that devices suffer as they pass from one
cultural setting to another, say cybernetic devices invented to shoot
down planes, then resurfacing in human-computer interaction research and
in devices, such as the GUI. Others, us included, speak of "thing
knowledge" and perhaps could speak of something less neutral which
things carry with them. But what happens to these ideas about ideas and
things when we look at them from the perspective of those who made them?
Some of these people, such as Wiener, did want guns to destroy planes
and worked very hard to make the guns better at their job. Others were
working where they lived, necessarily enveloped in the culture of
warfare but focused on ideas with a larger or at least different purpose.
Ethically one might ask, how deeply are we implicated in all this? A
biblical answer would be, root and branch, and this remains a useful
answer to keep us in check, I suppose. But from an historical point of
view, what appeals to me particularly is Mindell's or Mahoney's
historiography, depicting strands or trajectories converging and
diverging and demanding of us that we look out from where historical
individuals were standing.
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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