[Humanist] 23.335 working

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Oct 2 07:50:27 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 335.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 1 Oct 2009 10:23:02 +0100
        From: "Lopez, Tamara" <tamara.lopez at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.334 working
        In-Reply-To: <EDDC90B880FD3F43AABC161A06AD560441B5DAC52D at KCL-MAIL03.kclad.ds.kcl.ac.uk>

Hi Willard,

Many years ago, when I was a girl and still performing, I was in a play called Chekhov in Yalta- a biographical sketch of Chekhov that gently satirizes the playwright by portraying the characters of his life like those of his most famous works.  A clever piece and a good way for students to play with Chekhov without butchering the real thing - I was the playwright's sister Masha (think Sonya from Uncle Vanya).

Anyhow, your post reminded me of one night during the run of this play when the actors were warming up on stage before curtain.  As you may know, this is a time when an actor stomps around and feels the boards, plays with the voice and stretches the body.  This time is particularly important when the show is being performed in a new house, because it is an opportunity for an actor to be himself in the space, to confront anxieties, to calibrate, etc.  On the night I mention we were in a new house, and the company spontaneously began to sing together during this time.  It was the holiday season, and I believe it was a standard Christmas carol that we we sang - completely unrelated to the play we were working on.  

I've no doubt that for observers, the moment was as cringe inducing as it is in the retelling, but I know for certain that for each of us, the moment was something quite different.  It was something we made, something we earned, and maybe was the defining point of the whole experience - a moment when our bodies and minds and spirits were so closely aligned from months of working together that we knit for a few bars into a single, clear instrument.  I think it was made more special by the fact that it was not given to the audience, but was instead a private moment that we claimed for ourselves.

The show was not a great success -  my crowning glory came in a performance during which I tripped and dropped a tray of filled champagne glasses all over the stage.  

Is theatre art?  Is programming creative?   I don't know if everyone agrees on either point.   In any case, I reckon that that moment is one of my bookcases.  

Tamara Lopez
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
26-29 Drury Lane, London WC2B 5RL (UK), t: +44 (0)20 78481237

----- Original Message ----
> Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 334.
> Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
> www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
> Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> Date: Thu, 01 Oct 2009 06:27:06 +0100
> From: Willard McCarty 
> Subject: working
> Years ago, somehow, I ran into a famous study by the oral historian Studs
> Terkel, Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel
> about what they do (New York: The New Press, 1972, rpt 2004). I recall being
> quite moved by (as a reporter for the New York Times wrote) "the
> extraordinary dreams of ordinary people", such as a fireman's, talking about
> what motivated him. Recently, reading Pamela McCorduck's Machines Who Think,
> I came across a reference to it in her discussion of people's reactions to
> AI. So I've returned to it to see what's there, again after all this time.
> Let me quote here a very small sample, from a transcript of an interviewwith a 
> labourer:
> > I'm a dying breed. A labourer. Strictly muscle work... pick it up,
> > put it down, pick it up, put it down.... You can't take pride any
> > more. You remember when a guy could point to a house he built, how
> > many logs he stacked. He built it, and he was proud of it. I don't
> > really think I could be proud if a contractor built a home for me. I
> > would be tempted to get in there and kick the carpenter in the ass
> > (laughs), and take the saw away from him. 'Cause I would have to be
> > part of it, you know. (p. xxxi)
> There's much in the remainder of the interview that keeps one from
> getting nostalgic about a world of noble labour passing away, and
> scattered throughout the book are comments about automation and
> computers. For example, this same man, Mike Lefevre, comments a bit
> further on,
> > Automation? Depends on how it's applied. It frightens me if it puts
> > me out on the street. It doesn't frighten me if it shortens my work
> > week.... Machines can either liberate man or enslave 'im, because
> > they're pretty neutral. It's man who has the bias to put the thing
> >  one place or another. (p. xxxiii)
> The remarks on automation are of particular interest to me. But I mention
> the book, and this interview in particular, because of what Lefevre says
> about wanting to be able to take pride in his work. It seems to me that
> amidst all the high-level matters we consider with respect to computing we
> might pay more attention to the appeal computing has to this very same want.
> I suspect many of us have it, and may already be taking pride in cooking,
> joinery, sewing or whatever of the kind, or somewhat more abstractly, in
> crafting a fine edition, getting the words just right and so on. Or in
> designing and putting into place an institutional structure that allows
> others to have work they can take pride in.
> I wonder, then, if rather than, or in addition to, the appeal of the
> practical side of the digital humanities to the possibility of usefulness
> elsewhere ("transferrable skills"), we might profitably stress what a fine
> thing it is to make something and then take pride in it. To this day I take
> pleasure, sometimes conscious, in a bookshelf I designed and built 20 years
> ago. It's, in a sense, part of me.
> What about the pleasures in programming? In following a research projectthrough 
> to its conclusion, beholding the structure of it? This isn't
> itself research (unless you're a participant-observing social
> scientist), but it's strong motivation to do research, and to keep doing
> it despite the contrary ways of the world.
> Here also is a connection with the arts, no?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> 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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