20.559 scholarly works of art

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 6 Apr 2007 10:00:48 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 559.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 06 Apr 2007 09:49:10 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: scholarly works of art

This in response to Wendell Piez's comments in Humanist 20.552.
Having assumed that computing is a suitable medium for scholarship, he says,

>one then might ask why, if a word processor or set of hypertext pages or
>series of graphs of word distribution is a suitable medium for
>scholarship, a painting is not? Or another case, closer to the
>boundaries: a series of photographs.

The answer is implied by the preposition in "a suitable medium FOR
scholarship" -- i.e. FOR some intellectual operation in which the
photograph does not itself participate. One can easily imagine a
photograph serving as evidence for a scholarly argument -- even if
the argument were implicit, and the photograph were offered as proof.
But what this line of reasoning (my own here, not Wendell's) takes
for granted is that scholarship is verbal argument, and that clearly
does not hold, e.g. in the case of a scholarly critical edition as a
whole, or a prosopographical database -- or for a text-analysis program?

The word "scholarship", according to the OED, means a scholar's
attainments, learning, erudition, also "the collective attainments of
scholars; the sphere of polite learning", which puts the idea in no
necessary relation to objects or concrete media of expression. (Those
who trouble to check the OED will discover that I just left out the
qualifying phrase, "esp. proficiency in the Greek and Latin languages
and their literature". Some will say, "Ah ha! Here's an old prejudice
hiding under the covers!") The suffix "-ship" indicates a quality of
being ("the state or condition of being so-and-so"), not an object or
set of objects.

Is the crucial point, then, what we accept rather than what is? If it
can be shown that a particular style of work in a particular medium
advances our understanding of the questions that we care about, then
we admit the style? But this merely pushes the question onto the
acceptance that some activity advances understanding. How do we know that?

Wendell goes on to say, in response to my question of when we accept
an algorithm and start working with what it generates,

>To me it appears the question here is not "when do we accept it" but
>"what do we accept it to be?" Is it more interesting and illuminating
>for its transparency or opacity?

Depends on what we have in mind, I suppose. At one moment we use a
long piece of strong wood to lift a weight and think nothing at all
about the piece of wood. Then we notice that something interesting is
going on, examine it and derive a theory about levers, which is so
successful that we cease being interested in such things and just use
them -- perhaps teach the theory of levers to the young but otherwise
pay little attention. Then we find that the lever provides a very
powerful analogy for something we don't understand as well, and so we
pay new attention to the theory of levers to make sure of the
analogy. In most areas of life there's clearly a cumulative effect, a
sense of progress that is real and whose fruits we depend on. But in
the humanities and in the sciences, the line is never a straight one.
It's always got enough of a twist in it to make it a spiral. At any
moment we have to be able to go back to beginnings, to open the black
box, inspect the contents and rejigg them.

This is why, I keep thinking, that the most important matter of
computing is the ability to change what we have, quickly, easily as
possible, at least from the point of which we regard its embedded
knowledge as interpretative. Is this a matter of the scale at which
we are able to regard the software artefact as intelligible?



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
Received on Fri Apr 06 2007 - 05:10:40 EDT

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