20.360 good cheer for your solsticial hibernatory

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Thu, 21 Dec 2006 10:51:15 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 360.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
  www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/humanities/cch/research/publications/humanist.html
                        www.princeton.edu/humanist/
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Thu, 21 Dec 2006 10:26:30 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: good cheer for your solsticial hibernatory

Dear colleagues,

In the Oxford English Dictionary there is one recorded instance of the
word "hibernatory" -- not an adjective, as I had hoped, but a noun
meaning "A place for keeping plants in during the winter", used in 1852,
in Beck's Florist. I thought I had been feeling rather hibernatory, but
now, respecting grammar, can do no better than to be "hibernal", namely,
"1. Of, pertaining to, or proper to winter; appearing in winter.... 2.
fig. Pertaining to the winter of life; late." The former is supported by
4 quotations (including one from Sir Thomas Browne), the latter merely
by one, and that from a mid-19C sermon -- reason enough for me to prefer
being wintry in the seasonal sense only, my study a hibernatory and I a
flowering plant lovingly carried in doors for the winter. In this one
instance I won't hold with figuration --

>When I do count the clock that tells the time,
>And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
>When I behold the violet past prime,
>And sable curls, all silver'd o'er with white;
>When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
>Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
>And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
>Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;
>Then of thy beauty do I question make,
>That thou among the wastes of time must go,
>Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake,
>And die as fast as they see others grow;
>And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
>Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

"Save breed". Here is a powerful, profligate force of nature. But
figuratively is our concern. A great scholar whom I count as friend
compared publication of a book of his to dropping a rose petal into a
deep canyon and waiting for the splash. I know what he means, but the
splash is none of our concern -- except when we get splattered from the
impact of someone else's rose petal. Then we really should write to the
spasher and say thanks. Again I quote Terrence Deacon:

>A symbolizing mind has perhaps the widest
>possible locus of causal influence of anything
>on earth. Minds that have become deeply immersed
>in the evolving symbolic ecosystem of
>culture--as are all modern human minds--may have
>an effective causal locus that extends across
>continents and back millennia, and which grows
>out of a locally least-discordant- remainder
>dynamic involving hundreds of thousands of
>individual communications and actions. Each
>symbolically mediated thought is the emergence
>of a specific 'constitutive absence'; each is a
>specific variant instance of an evolved
>adaptation within this vast spatially and
>temporally distributed ecology. ("Emergence: The
>Hole at the Wheel's Hub", in Clayton and Davies,
>The Re-Emergence of Emergence, 2006, p. 149)

or Shakespeare's near contemporary, Basho (1644-94),

>An old pond
>The frog jumps in --
>Splash!

But back to the OED. The lesson about "hibernatory", as it happens,
curiously coincides with a discovery, via a review in the Times Literary
Supplement (for 15 December, p. 36), of the persistent delusion known as
"hollow earth". In the book under review, David Standish's Hollow Earth:
The long and curious history of imagining strange lands, fantastical
creatures, advanced civilizations, and marvellous machines beneath the
Earth's surface (Oxford: Da Capo), the author recounts the dream-vision
of one Cyrus Teed in 1869. "As he dreamed, God appeared in the form of a
beautiful woman.... Gently, God explained, we do not live, as mankind
had previously believed, on the exterior of the globe, but rather on its
inner concave surface, kept from tumbling into the depths by centrifugal
force." (Teed's story is a fascinating one -- he founded a commune in
Florida and had at one time more than 200 followers -- but for more on
it, you'll have to get the book, or at minimum read the review, at
http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25549-2501663,00.html.) The
reviewer, Jon Barnes, being not unaware of the Internet, concludes his
article by noting that its "clammier reaches... have proved fertile
ground for similar speculation". He claims 12 million hits via Google
for "hollow earth". I get only 1, 690,000 -- but even this smaller
number is true only if one omits the quotation marks; with them one
gets, as of now, a mere 275,000. Thus the Internet is, in fact, only
2.275% as fertile for hollow-earth nutters as he says, or at least the
kind who stick to the exact phrase, as they tend to do in their
"pugnacious dreaminess". When, o when, will the the TLS and similar
high-profile publications start asking those who actually know how to
use the tools? (In oracular practice world-wide, has it been the case
generally that a skilled intermediary stands between the person with the
question and the source of the oracular pronouncement? So much depends
-- I suppose always has depended -- on how the question is put, what
part of the oracle bone is put into the fire etc.)

I must admit more than a little sympathy for Teed's vision, feeling
strongly inclined to imagine myself in a cozy cosmic hibernatory -- with
broadband, of course -- rather than on the surface of a whirling ball,
however apparently stationary. Nothing but dark, cold, mostly empty
space out there. Enough of the dark and cold here -- and, here in
London, dense fog.

Being inside my own hibernatory, with my thoughts and my computer, I
catch myself now wondering, thanks to a pointed question from Jan
Christoph Meister: what, exactly, is data? Ok, "that which has been
given" -- but by whom? "That which has been given" leaves us with the
impression of a comforting finality, a nothing-but-the-facts-ma'm
simplicity and purity -- as if God were the immediate giver of the
data-horse into whose mouth one need not look. But not so. If I want to
compute my Christmas tree, say, or (a seemingly easier case) a book of
carols, I need to render them "as data", which means, among other
things, deciding what concerning them I will ignore, what I will pay
attention to and then how I will translate the chosen ones into digital
form. So, I am the giver of "that which has been given" as well as the
receiver -- and (here's the rub) because of that, the gift is
subjectively delimited even if not subjectively interpenetrated with
(meta)data. In humanities computing at least, giver and receiver talk to
each other and discover that some aspects of the Christmas tree or the
carols have been omitted or are significantly warped in the
digitization, which then leads to interesting questions about how we
know this or that about Christmas trees and carols. But, in such an
epistemologically rich comparison, what's being compared? Two views of
something, both reductions, both interpretative. We create both ruler
and ruled, so what can we possibly learn?

You'll perhaps tell me that it's time to settle down on the sofa with
whisky and Wittgenstein. I have both but can communicate only the
latter. His Philosophical Investigations, not entirely oracularly opened
to the neighbourhood of Satz 100 and following (again thanks to Chris
Meister), give me 114: "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of
the thing's nature over and over again, and one is merely tracing round
the frame through which we look at it." Gregory Bateson is also good on
such occasions. Quoting Alfred Korzybski's famous aphorism, "The map is
not the territory", he writes in "Form, Substance and Difference" (Steps
to an Ecology of Mind, pp. 460-1),

>We say the map is different from the territory. But what is the
>territory? Operationally, somebody went out with a retina or a measuring
>stick and made representations which were then put on paper. What is on
>the paper map is a representation of what was in the retinal
>representation of the man who made the map; and as you push the question
>back, what you find is an infinite regress, an infinite series of maps.
>The territory never gets in at all. The territory is Ding an sich and
>you can't do anything with it. Always, the process of representation
>will filter it out so that the mental world is only maps of maps, ad
>infinitum. All "phenomena" are literally "appearances".

Fortunately for us, with our practical bent, such things, like those
rose petals, are of the mind. So they get into us and are there, working
away in our "rational unconscious" (for which see Helmholtz's 1877
essay, "On the sensations of tone"; Daston, "ěrsted and the rational
unconscious", in Brain and Knudsen, forthcoming), working their magic.
Or so I hope, since we need it badly! Wait until January, please, to
take a close look at your institution of supposed "higher education".
For now, sip and muse and be fortified.

To the whisky, Wittgenstein, family and friends! All the best, from me
to you, inner warmth and inner light as well as the outward kind, for
Christmas (in 4 or 17 days), Hanukkah, Eid Al-Adha and all the rest.

Yours,
WM

Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London
| http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/.
Received on Thu Dec 21 2006 - 06:25:43 EST

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