[Humanist] 24.825 refiguring the human & literature?
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Mar 29 09:21:07 CEST 2011
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 825.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2011 08:18:24 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: refiguring the human & literature?
As far as I can tell Sigmund Freud was the first in recent history to
make a list of those great ideas that have forced our kind to refigure
who and what we are. In his "Eighteenth Lecture", published in A General
Introduction to Psychoanalysis (trans G. Stanley Hall, pub 1920), he
refers to his own work in the context of Copernican cosmology and
Darwinian evolution as the "most irritating insult... flung at the human
mania of greatness” (246f). Today that list seems rather more crowded.
We should certainly put Turing-machine computation on it -- which
includes, or should include, everything we digital humanists do
professionally, I should think.
The biologist Jacques Monod deepens the question in Chance and
Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (trans
Austryn Wainhouse, pub 1972). He likewise refers to "the anthropocentric
illusion... that ancient mirage" (p. 47). Like Freud he lists
heliocentric theory and evolution as helping to dispel that illusion --
but ignores psychoanalysis. He adds entropy and what he calls "the
principle of objectivity", by which he means the postulate that true
knowledge cannot be obtained in terms of a final cause. But such blows
to our vanity, he says, were also not enough. His last straw is the idea
that the universe is fundamentally statistical -- an idea, by the way,
that gets Ian Hacking's vote as the most important discovery of
20th-century physics (in The Taming of Chance).
So, along comes literary stylometry, which in the work of John Burrows
and others has delivered to us the result that literature participates
in this stochastic universe on the verbally microscopic scale. The
million-book library, read only at a considerable distance (as Mark
Olsen noted in the 1990s and Franco Moretti more recently), seems to
show that telescopically the same is true of it. So all's hum and buzz
very near and very far away.
My question is this: what is the significance of these statistical
behaviours for those of us in the middle ground, those of us who still
think that literature is for reading, close up and slow? Can our beloved
machine only serve the reader by serving up texts in whatever format and
allowing him or her to search them? How do we bring statistical results
*directly* to bear on read-ing (i.e. the process, not the conclusions
drawn) and not simply have them as facts?
Comments? Better questions?
Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
College London; Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western
Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org);
Editor, Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/
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