[Humanist] 25.449 methodology vs style?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Nov 4 11:41:43 CET 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 449.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 04 Nov 2011 10:33:59 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: methodology vs style

In "The Politics of Explanation: an Alternative" (Knowledge and 
Reflexivity: New Frontiers in the Sociology of Knowledge, ed. Woolgar, 
1988), Bruno Latour argues that our inherited idea of explanatory power 
inherently separates us from that which we study, indeed that this power 
is proportional to the distance between an explanation and that which it 
explains. From the theorem that contains all instances, the law from 
which all behaviours may be derived, the object that stands for all of 
its kind we derive a sense of control, command, satisfaction. With them 
we are able to act at a distance. Those who think about geophysical 
space will recognise the relevance of arguments concerning the politics 
of mapping. Programmers will recognise the pleasure of building software 
that in a sense replaces all its output because that output can be 
generated at any time. (I know: who does that any more other than
systems programmers?)

Latour is concerned specifically with social scientific and 
historiographical explanations, i.e. with those in which the loss 
imposed by this distance, by mapping the territory of interest is 
severe. For the humanities it is perhaps even more severe, though I 
think that it's a pointless competition. The alternative he proposes is 
not to abandon the distancing, and so the formulation of causes. (The 
robustness of the idea of causation suggests its usefulness, but see R. 
G. Collingwood's brilliant essay, "On the so-called idea of causation", 
in JSTOR.) Rather it is to display all the work of formulating the 
explanation. This, he points out, is irreductionist: it adds the work of 
reduction to the rest rather than subtracting the rest once the 
reduction has been achieved.

(For an example of a history written in this way, brilliantly, see 
David Mindell's Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control and
Computing before Cybernetics, 2002.)

Latour notes the resultant deflation of methodology. Instead, he recommends, 
the function of methodology should be done by style, that is, by 
rendering as detailed, lively and engaging an account as possible. Our 
own focus (to which I plead massively guilty) on methodology, on "the 
methodological commons", has that reductionist tendency, though I think 
in practice that the pace of change in computing  makes this a common 
space in which styles of acting are exhibited far more often than great 
monuments are erected. But there is a problem created by our talking as 
if methods were durable objects rather than wills-o'-the-wisp, or as 
Alan Perlis said, soap-bubbles.

You can see where this is going: in the direction already being explored 
by Geoffrey Rockwell's and Stéfan Sinclair's Hermeneuti.ca (name and URL 
are identical). And yes, of course, this makes our job of staking out 
turf increasingly more difficult. But perhaps this is a liberation.


Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's 
College London; Professor (fractional), 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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