[Humanist] 24.597 a positive rhetoric of failure?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Dec 17 11:34:05 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 597.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2010 10:29:07 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: a positive rhetoric of failure?

Certain standard topics in computer science and the digital humanities 
appear to me actually to hide a compromise that has been made, once to 
much noise that has now died down. Or perhaps I am not listening in the 
right places. Or perhaps I am simply not understanding how words are 
used in technical discourse. This is to enquire what is the case.

One of these is "interoperability", which is used quite casually as if 
it were unproblematic, which it certainly isn't: to make two 
independently designed digital objects communicate with each other in a 
non-trivial way seems to me to be an enormous challenge not yet met. Is 
that true?

Another is "semantic web", sometimes annoying referred to as "The 
Semantic Web", as if it were a reality, which it isn't. I suppose we do 
want the Web to be "semantic", i.e. to deliver to us what we want rather 
than what we can specify with current mechanisms. But I find it curious 
that when the dream of a semantic web is spelled out it proves to be 
more or less the same as similar dreams were in the mid 1960s, i.e. an 
environment that reminds granny to take her pills and you to pick up the 
kids because it's your turn that day. This would suggest an imaginative 

Two others, though in different ways, are (a) "digital library" and (b) 
"digital edition". These, it seems to me, are terms the meaning of which 
we are trying to discover while at the same time they are being used 
unhelpfully to denote (a) any collection of digital materials meant to 
be read, listened to or looked at, and (b) any version of a textual, 
musical or visual work that has in any sense been edited, respectively.

I am reminded of something that G. Spencer Brown says at the end of his 
astonishing mathematico-logical treatise, Laws of Form (1969). Writing 
as a philosophical mathematician (and a man of a rather different age, 
when one could unselfconsciously write to other academics about divine 
states, plain truth and mortal sins), he observed,

> Discoveries of any great moment in mathematics and other
> disciplines, once they are discovered, are seen to be extremely
> simple and obvious, and make everybody, including their discoverer,
> appear foolish for not having discovered them before. It is all too
> often forgotten that the ancient symbol for the prenascence of the
> world is a fool, and that foolishness, being a divine state, is not a
> condition to be either proud or ashamed of.
> Unfortunately we find systems of education today which have departed
> so far from the plain truth, that they now teach us to be proud of
> what we know and ashamed of ignorance. This is doubly corrupt. It is
> corrupt not only because pride is itself a mortal sin, but also
> because to teach pride in knowledge is to put up an effective
> barrier against any advance upon what is already known, since it
> makes one ashamed to look beyond the bonds imposed by one's
> ignorance.  (pp. 109-10)

Perhaps, even in or especially in technical discourse, we should more 
often explicitly recognise and quietly celebrate, though not take pride 
in, our ignorance? I say "quietly" because without boasting of 
achievements, however qualified, who in a position to reward academic 
work will do so? Hence the rhetorical challenge, esp for those who work 
in a technologically orientated area: to invent a positive discourse of 

Comments? Suggestions? Objections?

Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Professor, Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney,
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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