[Humanist] 23.288 how we keep becoming different?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Sep 11 08:14:26 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 288.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 11 Sep 2009 07:08:41 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: how we keep becoming different?

I've asked this question before, but let me try again from a slightly 
different angle: who has studied historical challenges to human 
identity? One of these, or a whole series of them, happened when 
human-like creatures were discovered, e.g. the orangoutan and other 
great apes, leading to a frightened or at least nervous attempt to draw 
a line in the biological sand, and to worry the notion of a "missing 
link". Darwin's arguments come in the wake of this nervousness and made 
the refiguration of human identity an irresistible force. Freud's work 
did much the same psychologically. Laura Otis, in her book Networking, 
says that "perhaps because of the popularity of automata", Babbage et 
others took great pains to distinguish them from the human brain. As 
I've noted before, when digital computing began to emerge in the mid 
20C, we see a very similar nervous defensiveness, often accompanied by 
energetic attempts to define the purpose of the new machines as servants 
for the performance of drudgery, i.e. distinguished in principle from 
the higher powers of human thought. Of course there was, and remains, 
drudgery, from which liberation is hard for us to see as anything but 
good. But to say that anything or anyone is *for* drudgery is a 
different matter. We all (I assume...) clean house, but (I suppose) few 
of us would like to be told we're housecleaners by nature.

One way of handling the Darwinian and Freudian revelations, along with 
the Copernican et al., is to talk about blows to the human ego, Man (as 
in all of the writings until very recently) successively displaced from 
successively lower perches. This is a popular line of argument, and it 
often gives strong moral force to those arguing for the superiority of 
scientific method. But this argument does assume that "human" is one 
objective thing from which layers of pretense have been stripped, rather 
than, say, a self-made construct that from time to time needs to be 
reconstructed. What I'm asking about, in order to throw light on 
computing's effects on us, are those historical moments of 
reconstruction, considered historically, i.e. from the perspective of 
those who found themselves in need of a new suit of psycho-cultural 
clothing. Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman is relevant to this 
sort of questioning, but I am specifically after historical analyses 
with a focus on such reconstructions (if that's a fair metaphor) prior 
to the one we're currently in the midst of.

Thanks for any suggestions.


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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