[Humanist] 23.68 fear itself

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jun 4 14:33:55 CEST 2009

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 68.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Alan Liu <ayliu at english.ucsb.edu>                         (80)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.67 fear itself?

  [2]   From:    Haines Brown <brownh at historicalMaterialism.info>         (105)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.67 fear itself?

  [3]   From:    Elijah Meeks <elijahmeeks at gmail.com>                      (37)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.67 fear itself?

        Date: Tue, 2 Jun 2009 03:32:29 -0700
        From: Alan Liu <ayliu at english.ucsb.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.67 fear itself?
        In-Reply-To: <20090602052517.ED1E68B4D at woodward.joyent.us>


I am hijacking your thread in what seems to me a necessary antithetical

As one of the participants in the National Humanities Center's "On the
Human" project you mention (http://asc.nhc.rtp.nc.us/about/index.php), which
began with its "Autonomy, Singularlity, Creativity" series (
http://asc.nhc.rtp.nc.us/asc/), I would say that what is also needed as an
antithetical complement to your query about techno-computational anxieties
among humanists is a project with a similar cast of participants titled "On
the Humanist."  My brief weeks at the NHC were cut short by a death in the
family, so I was not able to share notes with you, Kate Hayles, and others
during that first year of the NHC initiative as much as I would have liked.
But what I saw indicated some non- or mis-comprehension about what humanists
do and why they have anything new to say about the "human" relevant to folks
from the cog-sci, neuro-psych, evolution-science, and other tremendously
interesting science- or techno-oriented rethinkers of the human.

There was similar non- or mis-comprehension at a brave but discordant
conference I participated in some years ago on "rational choice theory and
the humanities" at Stanford, where I was struck not just by the famous
rational-choice theorist (whom I much admire) who denounced the humanists as
not having a clue about rational choice, but perhaps even more forcibily by
a friendly economist who sat down with me at lunch and after fifteen minutes
of conversation finally smacked his forehead and said (approximately): "Now
I get it.  I didn't know that when you talk about 'the humanities' you are
talking about humanities scholars in the university.  I thought you were
talking about things like literature, theater, art, and Shakespeare."

Willard, I note that in your characterization of humanists as ordinary
people who indulge in media and children, etc., there is an undecidable
slide between the terms "humanist" and "humanist-researcher."  I put it to
you that from the point of view of many parts of society today, the
"humanist-researcher" is a stitched-together Frankenstein's monster that is
the mirror image of the more familiar, if now largely obsolete, Frankenstein
complex about sci-tech.  (Apple or Steve Job is the new Dr. Frankenstein.
When was the last time you heard someone express horror as opposed to
"cool!" about their iPhone?)  While humanists may or may not be anxious
about computational-tech (I'm seeing fewer who are, except in terms of their
competence; this may be a non-issue), there are folks in other academic
disciplines and in society at large who are anxious about the
"humanist-researcher" monster.  This monster has been stitched to the
hulking creature of the modern research institution and its
government-funded sci-tech emphasis (when was it, actually, that humanists
acceded to calling what they do "research"?).  The "humanist-researcher"
monster is also allegedly politically correct, which is a way of
characterizing the academic humanities as a Golem mechanized by a
humanities-specific (and social-science-specific) program.

There is some kind of "strange loop" problem at play here, as Douglas
Hofstadter might say.  Humanist-researchers are anxious about
sci-tech-computation.  But the rest of the world is anxious about
humanist-researchers.  (However, this is not to mention the interior
frictions between "science" and "engineering" in the "sci-tech"

I have myself taken a page from your own Humanities Computing book, which I
assign my students in my various "Literature+" courses.  (See my article
about these courses in Currents in Electronic Literacy,
http://currents.cwrl.utexas.edu/Spring08/Liu). We humanist-researchers are
going to have to open up our hoary notions of "interpretation" and
"critique" so that they overlap with such notions as building and modeling
(but also adaptation, translation, migration, performance, rendering,
simulating, etc.)  Only so will humanities-research seem less monstrous,
more a partner, in the great sci-tech-computational adventure of our
society.  It is to be hoped that we can be a partner able to contribute
value-added "humanist" emphases.

By the way, since I became chair of my department, and thus enslaved to the
great institution of humanities-research, I have been hindered in
participating in Humanist discussions.  Sorry to have been so silent in the
company of your own tremendously fertile intellectual seed-thoughts for the
Humanist list; and sorrier still that I will likely again be absent in

--Alan Liu


        Date: Tue, 02 Jun 2009 09:45:52 -0400
        From: Haines Brown <brownh at historicalMaterialism.info>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.67 fear itself?
        In-Reply-To: <20090602052517.ED1E68B4D at woodward.joyent.us>

Willard, you ask such a broad and non-technical question that perhaps
you will allow me to reply in kind.

Let me start by saying that I personally do not feel the anxiety
("technoscience" vs. humanities) that you express. Although I taught
history for thirty years and currently do research in history and
theory, I also have a technoscience background and continue to some
extent being a technogeek.

So the first issue I must raise is whether such a gap or tension
actually exists. I think it does, but in limited ways. For example, I
encounter many a fellow historian who is technically sophisticated,
who finds TeX a better way to produce papers than Word, who makes use
of SQL databases, set up a WordPress site for papers,
etc. Furthermore, much of the issue may reduce to a generation gap. My
wife uses a computer, but is endlessly frustrated and frequently begs
for help; my four year old g-grandchild has no problem at all using my
wife's computer to play games on the Disney site.

However, despite qualifications such as these, I suppose the tension
you point to does exist, and it raises interesting issues. I'd like to
mention two possibly contributing factors, one less speculative than
the other.

The first looks to inadequacies in our education. When we were exposed
to the natural sciences, it was in the form of a now defunct
positivism. We were told about the laboratory and the "scientific
method" without any hint regarding the artificiality of the first and
contentious nature of the second. What is really odd is that the
broader implications of natural science that should be conveyed in
general education is still couched in positivist terms, and I suspect
there are reasons for this. The positivist outlook did indeed
contradict that of the humanities, but it should no longer be taken

The points so far relate to personal shortcomings and possible
educational reform, but more interesting and less amenable to possible
rectification would be any intrinsic contradictions between the
humanities and the natural sciences, should they exist.

I could go on at quite some length to argue that the conception of the
world that prevails in the natural sciences today (among more
reflective scientists and among philosophers of science who today are
able to communicate much more effectively with the scientific
community than in the past), is entirely compatible with that of
historians (or at least reflective historians before the linguistic
turn). That is, I believe that any possible gap or tension needs to be
shown to be true rather than presumed and be articulated in specific
terms that can be explored and debated.

My other point is more controversial. As we know, anxiety about vague
universal threats from the outside are likely to arise from
inadequacies or insecurities coming from within. That is, I wonder if
this tension or gap is might not be primarily an effect of historians
having lost any legitimate or useful social function. Indeed, there
seems a good deal of empirical evidence that the profession is in

My word "social" is important here because historic consciousness can
satisfy a wide range of needs, and not all are in jeopardy. Historic
consciousness can do useful things for the individual: it can be
entertaining, it can expose one to the Other; it can stimulate the
emotions (which, incidentally, may be a source of danger). There's no
doubt that popular writers of history continue to enjoy
success. Historic consciousness can also do useful things in terms of
our personal relation to the past: we can acquire a richer definition
of Self through a study of our roots; we acquire an attachment to
nation and empire (which might help account for the persistence of
positivism in our education because positivism systematically excludes
outside factors such as social and moral values).

But we are also social beings, and so what function can historic
consciousness have for that aspect of our being? This becomes
particularly important if our social existence contributes much more
to the development of our capacities than our private existence.

There are certainly precedents for an important social function for
historic consciousness. With the development of class contradictions
in the 19th century, we have spokesmen for the dominant class such as
Lord Acton suggesting that historic conscious is a cornerstone of
human liberty (I can't actually pin this down in Acton, and would
appreciate being told where he says something to this effect), and
Marx held much the same position regarding the emerging working class.

For a variety of reasons, class consciousness atrophied in the 20th
century, and so in place of the old class function of historic
consciousness we instead see vague suggestions that an awareness of
history fortifies a belief that history is an open ended process that
in turn lends support to a confidence that we can shape our own
future. This sounds good, at least until we begin to think about it
critically. although I am unaware of anyone who has done so, except
Nietzsche. I suspect the idea is really empty of any real content and
might persist merely because of its ideological function, much as
consumerism serves to convey the illusion of democracy, of having
meaningful choices.

In parallel with the history of print media from the 18th century
until today's crisis, there seems to be a loss of social function in
terms of our social existence as citizens. Just what is the social
function of historic consciousness today? Has it atrophied because our
sense of having some control over our future has declined? The
position of North Americans in relation to the rest of the world is
changing; our economy is not serving us well; detrimental
environmental forces are at work over which we have little real
control. Is this lack of confidence that we are in command of our
future related to the growth of a critical skepticism in the
profession that reduces historic consciousness to a highly privatized
function that presumes a passive relation to the world?

I do not wish to divert the thread away from the original question,
but I suspect that when we look for the deeper reasons for the gap
between natural science and the humanities, it is because the
humanities, unlike the natural sciences, no longer supports the
expectation that consciousness represents any significant force for
change. I believe historic consciousness could perform that function,
but not in its present form and not separated from real social forces.

Haines Brown

        Date: Tue, 2 Jun 2009 07:44:49 -0700
        From: Elijah Meeks <elijahmeeks at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.67 fear itself?
        In-Reply-To: <20090602052517.ED1E68B4D at woodward.joyent.us>

Do you not think it's a bit of a mistake to focus on the machine-like
aspect of the computer?  When we associate the computer with the host
of electronic and digital equipment that has bubbled forth in the past
half-century, we neglect, I think, a critical difference between early
electronic devices and modern computers.   While obviously computers
are technological marvels and to understand the inner workings of the
CPU, the frontside bus or I/O interface would require a depth of
techincal training, the actual systems that run on these machines are
based in a much more humanistic realm: Logic.  When I studied logic in
my undergraduate, it was not in the engineering or mathematics
department, but in philosophy.  Creating modern software is not an
interaction with the machine--or to use your language, the
technoscience aspect of the computer--but an interaction with a
particularly formalized language and rhetoric, be it ActionScript,
C++, R or PHP.  When coders write about creating software, they speak
in terms of linguistic precision and logical elegance.  Electrical and
mechanical engineers are not going to take over the humanities, just
as they haven't taken over biology.  But the pervasive and inclusive
nature of software means that software engineering is different, and
it's a bit of a misnomer to refer to it as engineering (You might as
well, then, refer to every person skilled at creating complex works as
an engineer--for instance, 18th Century French Language Engineers).
It's a shame that many humanities scholars can only deal with software
as a metaphor, and that we do little to distinguish it from hardware
or even within itself.

Elijah Meeks

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