20.019 requirements for a better metaphor

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Wed, 17 May 2006 12:02:07 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 19.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 16 May 2006 08:18:11 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: requirements of the metaphor

Francois Lachance's questioning, in Humanist 20.017, causes me to
reflect further on the job I want a metaphor of future-sight to do,
specifically to ask myself how I think humanities computing is
constructing its near, not quite predictable future. In phrasing the
question that way I am suggesting that "the future" is already
shaped, made a particular kind of thing, by the context within which
it is imagined. And by asserting such a strong role for context I am
suggesting further that "future" is one of those terms, like
"theory", "imagination" or "realism", which for convenience we use as
if they referred to some one thing but which on close examination
(seldom conducted) we realize are more placeholders for what
particular contexts need them to be. Yes, all words are like that to
some degree, but words having to do with mental phenomena would
appear to be so receptive that they belong in a class of their own.

When, for example Descartes writes in his Discourse on Method (1637)
that, "many people... never lift their minds above sensible things",
that they are "so accustomed to consider nothing except by imagining
it (which is a way of thinking appropriate for material things)",
that "everything unimaginable seems to them unintelligible", he is
speaking of an idea of 'the' imagination radically different from our
own. Having recently read a few histories of what is presumed to be a
singular thing called imagination, some philosophies of a quite
different singular thing with the same name, several
literary-critical assessments and so on, I am forced to conclude that
there is a very loosely grouped gaggle of imaginations one can cull
from across time and disciplinary space, and that if in fact we can
speak of a grouping at all, it is functionally. "Imagination" is (as
Jerry Fodor says in Modularity of Mind) whatever *does* X. The job,
then, is to ask what X might be. And the way I am currently trying to
get at X is by looking at how its opposite is conceived in any given instance.

Another example. As epigraph to his article "Rethinking Bazin:
Ontology and Realist Aesthetics" (Critical Inquiry 32 (2006): 443-81,
Daniel Morgan quotes Bazin's Jean Renoir (1973), p. 85:

The word "realism" as it is commonly used does not have an absolute
and clear meaning, so much as it indicates a certain tendency toward
the faithful rendering of reality on film. Given that this movement
toward the real can take a thousand different routes, the apologia
for "realism" per se, strictly speaking, means nothing at all. The
movement is valuable only insofar as it brings increased meaning
(itself an abstraction) to what is created.

Note here: "movement toward the real".

So, I suggest, with the future-ing of humanities computing. To get an
idea of this future we look, of course, to the past, where examples
school us as to the conflicting roles of techno-economic
contingencies (as with the QWERTY keyboard), human desires, cultural
mythologies and so forth. The best we can do, I suppose, is then to
take these variables, read their current values and attempt to
estimate the trajectory of our practice. That is doing future.

The problem with a metaphorical horizon seen as one walks
metaphorically along is that it's more or less the same for all
walkers, unless we start to play with the conditions of seeing, e.g.
in a mist or fog, throw in a highly variable landscape and so forth.

Edsger Dijkstra remarks in Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Years
of Computing (ed. Denning and Metcalfe) that attempting to see into
the future that far hardly seems sane, yet educators do it all the
time: "when designing our courses, we do dare to decide what to teach
and what to ignore, and we do this for the benefit of students, many
of whom will still be active forty to fifty years from now. Clearly,
some vision of the next half century of computing science is
operational" (p. 59). I like his metaphor very much: "when building
sand castles on the beach, we can ignore the waves but should watch
the tide" (p. 60).



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44 (0)20 7848-2784 fax:
-2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Wed May 17 2006 - 14:20:21 EDT

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