Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 16, No. 663.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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Date: Tue, 06 May 2003 08:37:44 +0100
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Francois Lachance)
Subject: influenza computing
A tangent to the "consumptive humanities" thread...
Deep deep in the machine one encounters the human.
I have been impressed by how the question of technicity (the relation to
the tools: who is to serve and who is to master) has turned to a question
of ethics (trust between human beings). If one were to recast this
familiar discursive twist for the puppet theatre one might stage the
entrance of the shade of Hegel with a chorus of Luddite ghosts... I am
reluctant to contribute to "done by" narratives that begin with the
"clash" [especially those that pit machine against "man"] and have in the
past posted to Humanist attempts to evade such (for me) inauspicious
narrative beginnings and hoped to reframe the discourse [in terms of
cogitation "done with" the human body]. In particular, I have called for
the potential in exploring the territory in the semantic field between "to
calculate" and "to compute".
As yet another variation on theme of the embodiment of mind, I beg your
indulgence to let me introduce a mini-theatre of the hands.
I turn to Stoke, Casterline and Croneberg _A Dictionary of American Sign
Language on Linguistic Principles_ (1965; new edition 1976) and the entry
related to "calculate". And I turn to them and the entry from within the
a particular environment of information interchange. I currently operate
across platforms where character sets beyond ASCII as well as super and
subscript notations are encodable but not necessarily renderable
adequately. The notation system of the Stoke, Casterline, Croneberg
dictionary of course depends upon super and subscripts and sigila not
contained in 96 printable ("screenable") ASCII . It is in this case a
translation limitation that supports a suggestive ekphraksis.
The sign for "calculate" differs from the sign "to multiply" only by
repetition. A repetition of multiplication
The sign for the verb "calculate" also has a nominative function --
"arithmetic". It morphologically ressembles a series of signs
"mathematics" "algebra" "trigonometry" and "geometry". It differs from
them in one important respect: the plane of movement. The sign for
"arithmetic" moves towards the signer along what may be referred an in/out
axis. The signs designating the other mathematical branches move across a
plane parallel to the speaker (i.e. sideways motion).
It is possible to generate a new sign. Scholars or signers far more
familiar with ASL than I will be able to inform us if such a sign has been
made and what lexical value it might hold. Consider the possibility of
"arithmetic" signed in the plane of "algebra" or "calculus": a to and fro
movement rather than and in/out movement. A possible ASL sign for "number
theory" which Robin Gandy describes as "fascinating because it combines
the paticular (each number has, so to speak, a personality of its own)
with the general, and because simply stated problems may require
sophisticated ideas for their solution" (Fontana Dictionary of Modern
Thought, 2nd edition) which may serve as an analogy to the relation
between object of study and humanities scholar?
[Aside: The sign for "multiply" can also serve a modifier function
ranging comparative "worse" to superlative "worst". As well, the
lexico-narratological inclined reader or those fluent in ASL will find
"geometry" is morphologically close to "quarrel" and "hurt";
"arithmetic" close to "tournament" and "problem". The anthropomorphics
at work in the play of expressing separations and conjunctions in ASL
might provide a fruitful field students interested in creating automatic
poetry generators as tools for the analysis of semantics.]
Apart from plane-of-motion there is another interesting morphological
difference from the set of other ASL signs for branches of mathematics,
the ASL sign for "arithmetic". The sign for "arithmetic" is not composed
like that for "calculus," "algebra" or "trigonometry" by recourse to the
manual alphabet configuration for the first letter of that word in English
("c" for "calculus"). It so happens the ASL poet can evoke binary
conotations because it so happens that the ASL sign for "to calculate is
constructed from of the open two-finger configuration (like a "V") of the
active hand. And those of you, forsaking for an instant interface
devices such as mouse or keyboard and waving with your hands in air will
feel how close the binary tones are to the sign for scissors.
The poetic reach is here meant to evoke the repetitive multiplication of
the activities that the binary machine (whatever its incarnations)
to cut, to parse, to analyse: choose choose choose.
And to exceed grasping: those who in body are quadrapelgic, handless or
have a facial paralysis or can in mind imagine themselves such likely
understand that being a machine-for-the other is part of being human.
This being a machine-for-the-other is not just at heart a cyborg fantasy,
digital dream of occupying the ever-functional (until decommissioned) CPU
notwithstanding shifting arrays of peripheral devices and organs. There is
also here an encounter not so much with the wish for babble and noise as
with the fascination with the random.
Consideration of such soma-psychodynamics can lead to a reframing of the
initial position-question of the user-as-slave-of-the-tool. One can ask:
what kind of events can I direct to this machine (structure)?
What questions can I ask of this text-machine?
What multiplication can I repeat with this artefact-structure?
What question posed to a machine-structure is not a multiplication of
--- wanting to generate the unpredictable depends to a certain degree on
suspending the determinations of trust and service
--- humanities computing, in part, operates in the open-air theatre of the
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