[Humanist] 23.271 BBQ and fire (on the knee)

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Sep 6 10:07:02 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 271.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 06 Sep 2009 09:06:06 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: not a bad knee

In reply to Wendell's Humanist 23.269: my point about which label we use 
amounts to the argument that words have meaning, and that words which 
say what something is, i.e. categorise it, affect how we think about it. 
In its strong form, the argument I am making says that such a label 
indeed constitutes what the labelled thing becomes for us. This is not 
to say that the label is the only reality, rather that has a very 
powerful shaping influence, and that if those influenced are the ones 
creating it through what they do, then what that label says is what the 
labelled thing is.

I am put in mind of Laura Otis' very useful book, Networking: 
Communicating with Bodies and Machines in the Nineteenth Century, in 
which she argues convincingly along with Tim Lenoir that the metaphors 
scientists used to understand neurophysiology in the 19C,

> are not simplified translations used to communicate complex or
> abstract ideas to the public, nor are they decorative rhetorical
> figures added to engage readers. As can be seen by studying
> comparisons between organic and technological communications systems,
> metaphors do not "express" scientist' ideas; they *are* the ideas. (2001: 47f)

So, the question I am asking is, what do we think we are conjuring with 
our words? Is the conjured practice strain to leap beyond what is 
currently possible, or is it compromised down to a poor second-best?

I agree wholeheartedly with Wendell about the politics, about the threat 
(and what we do IS a threat to the impoverished thing we have) and about 
how reactions are handled by the reactionaries. That's as always has 
been. But what worries me far more is our own compromising with 
ourselves. Desiring better is problematic to be sure, but so is making do.

Wendell's solution is fascinating, admirable (if I may say so), 
fortunate, fitting by virtue of no small amount of wisdom -- but not 
mine. I'm where that doesn't work because my world isn't structured that 
way, as he says. Unfortunately the battle is often lost just as he 
describes: a candidate for tenure loses a popularity contest. Or wins it 
but is scarred for life. Or what may be worst, the candidate conforms so 
convincingly for so long that he or she becomes something less than once 
was. But this doesn't always happen. There are survivors one can admire, 
indeed many of them.

What I think all this amounts to in our particular circumstance is the 
duty on those who have survived one way or another -- e.g., Wendell's 
way, my way -- to imagine, reflect and argue to the best of our 
abilities in public. And, of course, to do the best work we can, 
writing, coding, designing and so forth. But also yammering on in places 
like this, repeatedly. I maintain (as the quality of Wendell's 
contribution demonstrates) that such yammering isn't the Bad Knee of 
Humanist but the very function that got it going in the first place and 
has sustained it for quite a long time.



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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