[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
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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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