[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
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        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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