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Humanist Archives: Feb. 12, 2022, 6:10 a.m. Humanist 35.524 - Man a Machine . . . and AI

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 524.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
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        Date: 2022-02-11 16:09:19+00:00
        From: Mcgann, Jerome (jjm2f) <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.521: Man a Machine . . . and AI

Dear Øyvind,

If I understand what Manfred is arguing, his approach to the general design of
computational platforms for "humanist" documents is different from mine.  I
don't think that, at the user-level, such machines should be working to
"minimize" or even eliminate contradictions.  The goal should be to clarify the
differential relations that constitute the system of natural language

We're all aware of the operational "contradictions" that pervade so-called
poetic discourse, but in my view such features are characteristic of all natural
language communication, which is always an exchange between different
(codependent0 agents.  So historical documents are fundamentally no different
from poetic documents, although the latter operate by foregrounding how they
deploy and exploit contradictions and differentials.

"At the user level" the platform should be setting the material's codependent
agent(s) free to expose these differential relations ("different
interpretations") by interacting with, and adding to, the history of these
differences ( = the "reception history" of the work(s) being investigated).
Briefly, these interpretive acts would be declarative sets of stand-off
annotations that the computational design reinvests in the reception history
(which looks to me a lot like the "running processes" that Manfred speaks of).
Current interpretive moves have to be reinvested because the receptions
histories of "the past" are always informing the moves of current agents.  As
Faulkner once shrewdly observed: "the past is never dead . . . it's not even
past".  Currently running processes are always re-running earlier processes . .
. which is why current users' moves have to be reinvested in the system.

I can't get into the technical details of how to do this -- I know some think it
is impossible -- except to say that we mean to implement certain affordances of
graph databasing (specifically Neo4j).  In general, the move is to atomize the
natural language materials so completely as to eliminate the need for any
relational database, which as David Schloen some time ago pointed out runs a
minimal form of natural language computing.  As such, it makes an unfortunate
compromise between the computational power of natural language documents and the
power of digital-electronic documents.  Our view is that if natural language
documents -- oral, textual, graphical, electronic -- are more radically atomized
than, for instance, is the case in the CEDAR Initiative, we could have
computational machines that will be useful prosthetic tools for studying the
differential operations of natural language materials.

I recently wrote a brief sketch of my general approach for a special issue of
Textual Cultures that Marta Werner is putting together for publication later
this year.  The topic for the issue is "Provocations for New Approaches to
Editing" (or something like that).  At present I'm trying to find the time to
expand it.


On 2/10/22, 9:49 PM, "Humanist" <> wrote:

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 521.
Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
Hosted by DH-Cologne
Submit to:

Date: 2022-02-10 16:02:47+00:00
From: Öyvind Eide <>
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 35.499: Man a Machine . . . and AI

Dear Jerry,

your email provoked me to pick up on but one of the things you mention. I do
this in gratefulness to a group of students with whom these issues were
discussed in a colloquium last semester:

The following two articles were the basis for the comment:

McGann, Jerome. “Texts in N-Dimensions and Interpretation in a New Key
[Discourse and Interpretation in N-Dimensions].” TEXT Technology : the journal
of computer text processing 12, no. 2 (2003).

Manfred Thaller (2017): Between the Chairs: An Interdisciplinary Career.
Historical Social Research, Supplement, 29, 7-109. Part 7: Next Life: My Very
Own Ivory Tower, 81–93.

>        Date: 2022-01-28 16:59:33+00:00
>        From: Mcgann, Jerome (jjm2f) <>
>        Subject: Re: Man a Machine . . . and AI
> I set this personal event in the context of the distributed computational
> network of human communication and get a sober view of AI.  By no means a
> dismissive view.  But the distributed network of any AI computational model,
> actual or conceivable, seems so minimal as to be all but without any
> or quantum relevance.
> Why?  Because unlike “natural” processes, the hardware of AI as currently
> designed has no access to its own quantum “histories”.  A reply from an AI
> visionary might be (has been?) that when AI software is designed to
> interoperate directly (seamlessly?) with an individual’s biochemical system,
> that limitation will be overcome.  Does anyone here know if such proposals
> have been advanced and perhaps also disputed?  (I know that the poet
> Christian Bok has been working on creating  what he calls a “living text”
> (biochemically coded).  No one, not even himself, has been happy with the
> results yet.

The question the students and I pondered on was the relationship between these
two paragraphs in the articles mentioned above:

> We might begin from the following observation by the celebrated mathematician
> René Thom: “In quantum mechanics every system carries the record of
> every previous interaction it has experienced – in particular, that
> which created it -- and in general it is impossible to reveal or
> evaluate this record” (Thom 16). A literary scholar would have no
> difficulty rewriting this as follows: In poetry every work carries
> the record of every previous interpretation it has experienced – in
> particular, that which created it -- and in general it is impossible
> to reveal or evaluate this record.” It is impossible because the
> record is indeterminate. Every move to reveal or evaluate the record
> changes the entire system not just in a linear but in a recursive
> way, for the system – which is to say, the poetical work – and any
> interpretation of it are part of the same codependent dynamic field.
> Consequently, to speak of any interpretation as “partial” is
> misleading, for the interpretive move reconstructs the system, the
> poem, as a totality. This reconstruction corresponds to what is
> termed in quantum mechanics the collapse of a wave-function into its
> eigenstate. (McGann, p 15)

> 10) An information system fit for the handling of historical sources
>  should exist as a set of permanently running processes, which try to
>  remove contradictions between tokens. Such tokens are used to
> represent data. They do not directly map into information.
> Information is represented by a snapshot of the state of a specific
> subset of the concurrently running processes. [...] 11) The data in
> the totality of historical sources, or any subset thereof, forms a
> mutual context for the interpretation of any set of specific items
> contained therein. It can be envisaged as a set of n-dimensional
> configurations of tokens representing physically existing sources,
> each of which exists in an m-dimensional universe of interpretative
> assumptions. Information arises out of these data by permanently
> running processes, which try to minimize contra- dictions and
> inconsistencies between subsets of the data. 12) This model is both,
> a conceptual one for the hermeneutic “understanding” of historical
> interpretation, as well as a technical one for future information
> systems supporting historical analysis. (Thaller, pp 89–90)

Is ”the collapse [...] into its eigenstate” to be compared to ”a snapshot of the
state of a specific subset of the concurrently running processes”¯

Is the interpretative move (McGann) the same as the context-based interpretation
(Thaller)? Or are they analogous, parallel, or at least comparable?

> Realizing that seems to me important as we try to design and build digital
> tools for investigating and sustaining human exchange in both natural and
> worlds, including language exchange.

So to my main (and quite naive) question: Is the system suggested by Thaller an
operationalisation of quantum poetics, applied to historical disciplines?

All the best,


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