[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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