From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (87)
Subject: Solstice 1996
Today is the Solstice, the depth of the solar year that many of us
make into a great height of celebrations and so illuminate the
gloom that follows. Since moving to London I understand a bit better
what northern gloom is like, though not a few Humanists will think me
light-headed to be saying that southern England has a dark winter.
(After all, the sun doesn't set until after 4 p.m.!) On Thursday, due to
the great kindness of a good friend, my wife and I saw a production
of Henrik Ibsen's "John Gabriel Borkman" at the National -- a wonderful
performance -- so now, perhaps, I am a bit better informed about what I
miss by living so far to the south. (Forgive me, northern friends, I know
it was a play and not a transcription of ordinary life.) Nevertheless,
we will make the most of the contrast between the bright tree in the
warm house and the dark, chilly streets. My daughter and son will soon
be here to help (first time in England for both of them), filling this cosy
Victorian pile with noise, curiosity, and demands of all sorts.
It is, nevertheless, a meditative time, and so my habit as editor of
Humanist to reflect a bit on the world we share, the profession some of
us practice and to which others contribute from the vantage point of related
disciplines. Personally this year has been momentous for me, of course,
with cultural shock-waves of quite astonishing subtlety and extent. The
trivial differences, e.g. of language and social organisation, take little
time to understand and assimilate except insofar as they come to represent
the more profound differences in ways of thinking. As is commonly noted,
learning how to understand what people do not say is the hard part. The
transition from North America to England, it seems, is from a society
that tends toward the explicit to one that depends more on an unspoken
context. Jane Walmsley's entertaining <cite>Brit-think Ameri-think</cite>
(Harrap) hardly scratches the surface, but it gives some indication.
After less than four months here I can hardly claim to understand
the differences that matter, and so offer any kind of guide to those who
are fascinated by questions of perspective in an international seminar
such as this one. Those of us in humanities computing itself are
constantly dealing with (or, alas, avoiding) the discrepancy between
claims for the new medium and what we can see of the realities, if they
are that, emerging from the fog. What are the cultural inflections of
the disembodied, contextually attenuated voices that come through
Humanist and other such groups? Does this attenuation favour those
who tend to be more explicit, and so work toward the N. Americanization
of the world? How are our lives affected, profesionally and personally,
by living a portion of them in such conversation with colleagues all over
the world? It's easy to assume that space is transcended and time
foreshortened, but experience quickly shows that this is not so. How
our perceptions of both are changed we can, however, make some
attempt to describe. Much work here for sociologists. Pointers to
current research would, I'm sure, be welcome.
It's 3:30 in the afternoon, most parts of the house are too dark to
see well enough to do anything by. So one puts lights on, and since
electricity is expensive, learns to turn them off when not needed.
Like almost everywhere else in the world except N. America, local
telephone calls are charged per unit time, which has to have a profound
effect on the way people use the Internet from home. Consider, for
example, how one's e-mail writing style is affected by the economic
pressure to write offline or write only very short notes online.
Consider also how the same pressure affects one's browsing of the
Web, most of whose sites, I expect, are N. American, and therefore
in fact expensive for a European to access from home. Might there
then be a stronger tendency than we expected for cultural myopia
in Internet communications as they currently exist?
All this is very gloomy and melancholic, isn't it? Can't have that, not
now. Time to pull out the Monte Python, switch on the lights on the tree,
or light candles, or something similar, perhaps find a good bottle of
something or other, or warm one's self with the satisfaction of not doing
that, and enjoy the warmth and brightness of human fellowship. May
Humanist give you good fellowship, as much as may be, along with the
useful information, and I hope, from time to time, challenging thoughts
that will help us all push the field along.
Allow me to leave you with some lines of poetry, which I wish I
knew in the original, but which even in translation say what I think
but haven't the wit to express.
"As I think of rhymes and verses, my beloved says,
Think only of my form.
I answer: Will you not sit beside me and rejoice,
O Rhyme of my thought?...
Then what are these letters that they should absorb your mind,
what are they?
Why, they are the thorns that surround the vine.
Yes, I shall annul the letter by means of voice and language,
And I shall hold with you a converse beyond all letters,
Beyond all voice and language."
Jalal al-Din Rumi
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer
King's College London / Strand / London WC2R 2LS
+44 0171 873-2784 / Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk