Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 584.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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 From: "Stefan Gradmann" <firstname.lastname@example.org- (56)
Subject: 17.567 humanities computer science: semiotic turn!
 From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com> (96)
Subject: humanities computer science
Date: Fri, 30 Jan 2004 08:18:35 +0000
From: "Stefan Gradmann" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: 17.567 humanities computer science: semiotic turn!
After following this thread (17.567 humanities computer science) for quite a
while I would like to add one specific point (while basically sharing most
of Manfred Thaller's ideas):
In the section headed
> (b) However, WHAT does form a discipline?
A "non-exclusive list" is given of fields of competence requested for HCS
related work. No objection here - but at least one element is lacking in
this list that seems over-focussed on the 'CS' aspect while including no
specific 'H' competence.
This is where I would like to suggest an additional item, which may add to
the constituent elements of HCS.
When trying to conceive _specific_ aspects of HCS as opposed to CS (in terms
of 'hard science' CS) one of the most obvious aspects are the different
information models underlying scientific discourse in the humanities and the
sciences respectively. The prevailing semiotic model in the latter is rather
simple: it conceives the relation between sign and information (or between
discourse and 'results') as a relation of carrier/container and content (or
sometimes one of pointer and object). Information can be transposed from one
container to another in this model without loosing substance. The
information model in the humanities is much more complex and - even though
mostly unaware of it - very much rooted in the very complexity of the
process of 'signifiance' structuralist and post-structuralist semiotics have
made us discover.
Without going any further here it should be clear that the complex and
interwoven relation of discursive practice and core scientific work in the
humanities would suffer a lot when organized along functional principles of
CS that are rooted in the simple 'carrier-content' information model of hard
And this is why I strongly advocate including a good background in semiotic
theory among the core fields HCS scholars should be well aware of: this
enables them to better grasp the truly specific aspect of HCS: the important
point is that our field is about a way of dealing with signs and 'meaning'
that differs substantially from the semiotic paradigm of the 'hard'
And without awareness of this aspect not many useful insights will come from
HCS. Whether we consider it a discipline or not.
Dr. Stefan Gradmann / Virtuelle Campusbibliothek
Regionales Rechenzentrum der Universität Hamburg
Schlüterstr. 70, D-20146 Hamburg
Tel.: +49 (0)40 42838 3093
Fax.: +49 (0)40 42838 6270
GSM : +49 (0)170 8352623
Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth,
more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is
subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible,
thought is merciless to privilege, established
institutions, and comfortable habit. Thought looks
into the pit of hell and is not afraid. Thought is
great and swift and free, the light of the world,
and the chief glory of man.
- Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)
Date: Fri, 30 Jan 2004 08:48:18 +0000
From: Willard McCarty <email@example.com>
Subject: humanities computer science
In response to Manfred Thaller's generous contribution in Humanist 17.567,
allow me to make a couple of comments.
Whether one agrees with Manfred's choice of the "framework" metaphor
(connoting a rigid structure, of wood or metal, that isolates, encloses and
so defines the framed object), it's hard to disagree with the proposition
that humanities computing would gain from greater definition and more of a
consensus than it currently seems to have. It just may be time, yes again,
to consider summoning all and sundry for a discussion of curricula,
especially now that we have a number of healthy programmes up and running.
Were such a discussion to happen, face to face, it would not, I think, lack
for the equivalent of the heat and pressure required for making diamonds
from carbon. As many have observed in similar circumstances, curriculum
lies at the heart of the disciplinary question.
Manfred's "non-exclusive list of what a follower of HCS should... be aware
of" is a good place to begin. I would certainly not strike anything from
that list, indeed would likely add more of the same. But other lists are
possible. Indeed my own would begin with thorough training at the
undergraduate if not also (post)graduate levels in one of the older
disciplines of the humanities -- it would not, I think, matter a great deal
which one -- supplemented by the following:
(1) basic issues in the history and philosophy of science and technology,
(2) historiography and ethnography;
(3) qualitative and quantitative analysis in the social sciences;
(4) basics of cognitive science, including psychology;
(5) fundamentals of linguistics, esp. corpus linguistics;
(6) material culture (bibliographic, archaeological, art historical)
(7) literary studies
The basis for such a broad scope can be (and, as I write and you read, is
now being) laid by a suitable survey course at the undergraduate level at
some institutions I know of -- Reed College, as my alma mater, leaps
immediately to mind. Such a course can, of course, give only a brief taste
of each disciplinary perspective and historical period on which it touches,
but no one should underestimate the value of letting a student know what is
there to be studied properly, if and when the desire arises to do so.
In discussions of the engineering curriculum, for example, it has been
noted that requirements for professional certification are so demanding of
time that a student can do nothing else, and perhaps not even what is
required -- unless professional training is pushed into the (post)graduate
years. In other words, when we think of curriculum we should have both
undergraduate and (post)graduate years in mind, reserving the latter for
the specialized training, which can take several branches, the choice for
which is grounded in the earlier period. Some technical training at the
undergraduate level is, of course, highly desirable, but given that we
speak of the humanities here, a greater emphasis on them is hardly mistaken.
The other point I wish to make in response to Manfred's note is his
complaint that we do not have and have not seen "a well ordered
cross-referential discussion" during the last four decades. If I read this
complaint rightly, it echoes with the often voiced complaint of our
tendency to "reinvent the wheel". This is not the place to repeat an
analysis of why it is so difficult in such a multi- and cross-disciplinary
field to find out about much less stay on top of work going on in the
several languages in which it is articulated, and sometimes primarily
articulated in things rather than in words. We are all, to varying degrees,
guilty of ignoring or forgetting about foundational work. But in some
measure the notion of this "well ordered cross-referential discussion" is
illusory if we take it to mean a normative state characteristic of the
proper disciplines. We would do well to be more like the older disciplines
of the humanities in this regard, but even they are far more chaotic than
one tends to imagine. We also need to realize, I think, that in an evolving
field identifying particular works of scholarship (such as Gardin's) as
foundational is a recurrent act of interpretation by which we say what we
think we are doing. The more insecure we are the more we will indulge in
promoting particular heroes as having "done it". All this amounts to a
recognition that we don't yet know how to write the history of what we're
doing -- but that's a huge topic for another time.
Let me end with a story. During an MA year, studying English literature, I
took a course in literary criticism from a very learned former student of
Cleanth Brooks. He assigned us all a paper in which we had to do a
New-Critical analysis of some poem by Donne, I think it was. Bubbling over
with ideas, I went to him to talk them over. At every turn in the
conversation he would say something to the effect of, "interesting, but
that's the X heresy", or "what you're really trying to say is...". (That
night I dreamt of attempting to get across a field consisting almost
entirely of deep pits between which my task was to walk. I kept falling
in.) In any case, by the end of the conversation, I had no ideas left at
all. Yes, I DID learn something, a meta-something! Years later, while
writing my PhD dissertation on Milton's Paradise Lost, I studiously avoided
all Milton criticism until my ideas were fully formed and most of the
dissertation written. I then went on a binge of reading the criticism --
only to discover (you will not be surprised to learn) that, no, no one had
done "it" before, that there were many points of contact with the argument
I had developed, and it was no trouble to fit my work into what had been
said. I had learned what I had in me to say.
The notion that our kind of knowledge accumulates is highly problematic at
best. Somewhere Northrop Frye, referring to the use of information
retrieval to find the topics of completed dissertations, joked that a
student who discovered his or her proposed topic in the database 16,437
times would have solid proof that it was a worthy one and so should proceed
in complete confidence.
Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || firstname.lastname@example.org
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