American Council of Learned Societies
METHODOLOGIES FOR COMPUTING
John Unsworth of the Institute for Advanced Technologies in the Humanities has posted on the Web a wonderful talk about methodologies in the humanities, "Not Your Average Fool: The Humanist on the Internet." In many waysand unlike John I am your average fool, and so may seem the least likely person to perform this morning's task. Among humanists, I am considered to be more an artist, a writer, than a humanist. (This distinction may strike computer scientists as curious.) Among writers, as a hypertext novelist, I am considered a technologist. Among technologists, as the developer of a microcomputer hypertext system and structure editor, I am considered hopeless.
My state is interstitial, betwixt rather than between. And in that state I am neither truly hopeless (in fact, I am full of hope); nor, as you might expect, am I truly the least likely person to perform this task.
In the special anniversary issue of Communications of the ACM [February 1997], William Wulf draws upon Asian art to urge us to undertake an interstitial dialogue of exactly the sort we contemplate today. "As in oriental art and gardens," Wulf says, "a full appreciation requires a look at these spaces to discover the relationships." Wulf offers as examples the work of IATH scholars like Jerry McGann and Ed Ayers. It is both inevitable and important that we hear today about the methodologies of hypertextual historiographers like Ed, textual theorists like Jerry and my Vassar colleague Nancy Ide, and Willard McCarty. We will need to consider specific instances of scholarly work with data sets and data bases, text encoding and texts, image annotation and recognition, electronic publication and communication, global information systems, synchronous and asynchronous virtual communities, search engines and software agents, immersive computer environments and simulations, and the several other areas of humanities computing which are represented here today and whose methodologies I would not presume to characterize in detail.
Instead, I wish to touch on broad methodological perspectives and interstitial relationships. The American poet Charles Olson defines methodology as "how to use yourself and on what." I want to talk about the uses to which we humanists put ourselves in computing environments, and what spaces we inhabit and increasingly create. Humanists create potentiated spaces in computer environments. By "potentiated spaces" I mean the kinds of morphogenetic computational objects that H. Van Dyke Parunak sees as a variety of artificial intelligencewhere human beings supply the inferences, connections, and natural language processing which computers cannot provide. I want to characterize a few of these methodological spaces or perspectives for you.
The first such space is what we might call aporetic space, the space of doubt, skepticism, and consideration which eventually yields possibility, valorization, persistence, and meaning. In his ACM essay, Wulf says that looking at computational objects rather than spaces "can be distracting and misleading, focusing on the 'now' rather than the 'can be.'" While humanists might agree with him about the distraction, I hope that in the spirit of today's dialogue I can suggest a potentiated space of difference. For a humanist might amend Wulf's comment to say that we must focus on both the "can be" and the "continues."
We are surely not the first, but we are surely the most self-conscious age in terms of seeing ourselves living before a constantly impending future. In our technologies, our cultures, our entertainments and, increasingly, the way we constitute our communities and families, we live in an anticipatory state of constant "nextness." There is, of course, a branch of philosophy, eschatologythe study of ultimate destinieswhich concerns those who see themselves as inhabiting the time before the future. Eschatological ages have both their virtues and their particular vices. The chief virtue is hope, that constant anticipation of the next which keeps us poised, unsettled and open to change. The chief vice is, paradoxically, inactiona self-satisfied belief that there is no need to act in the face of a decisive and imminent history.
Most of us humanists see our task as encouraging virtues and discouraging vices insofar as we can recognize the difference between them. As a humanist and writer deeply involved with technology, I have for some time been concerned with the passivity that electronic media may encourage. The Web, for instance, too often seems a lonely pursuit, something which douses the crispness of difference and community in a salsa of shifting screens. Our culture has slipped the Web over our heads like a lonely guy slips on a T-shirt from the Hard Rock Cafe. The Web privileges the culture of brand names and corporate logos over the weave of our own multi-threaded culture and history. Like the lonely guy in the Hard Rock T-shirt, we haven't anyplace to go. The old places seem either deserted or dull and the infoscape seems paradoxically crowded and lonely, already mapped by somebody else, and often without a clear place for us. We are caught between a Hard Rock and Melrose Place.
The humanist's aporetic space, the space of considered doubt and possibility, of what continues and what persists, is meant to bookmark our passive acceptance of nextness with a space for reflection and action. And so when my Vassar history colleague and Ed Ayers protégé, Rebecca Edwards, builds a Website which considers women's political cartoons of the golden age, she highlights the continuing differences among us which are the fabric of what we have in common. More importantly, as Wulf notes about McGann's and Ayers' projects, Edwards creates "an environment in which students participate in the process of scholarship rather than its product." To the person in the Hard Rock T-shirt, such a process offers not only somewhere to go but somewhere to be, an arena for action.
In fact, each kind of space which humanists create or inhabit within computer environments is meant as an arena for action. A second kind of potentiated space is what I would call metaleptic space. Metalepsis is an obscure word even for many humanists, a rhetorical term with varying usage and not much currency. Yet the term describes a common human experience as well as an objective of certain domains of computational science. For metalepsis is a haunting, emergent meaning, "autopoesis," the way one form seems to anticipate, echo, transform, or transform into another.
Computer scientists will recognize how what at first glance might seem the dryly computational pursuits of the best known and longest established areas of humanistic technologytext encoding initiatives and the development of textual corporaare at their best active efforts to create metaleptic spaces. To use Wulf's terms again, in such spaces the "now" of the text oscillates with both the "can be" and the "continues." Thus, through textual analysis my Vassar colleague Don Foster finds both the active making and emergent form of either a Shakespearean elegy or a contemporary political satire in the structured evidences of haunted language which computer scientists would recognize as knowledge representations. Other humanists are concerned with how the body is haunted by the machine and vice versa. Following the example of feminist scholars, "Queer Theorists," and others, new humanists like N. Katherine Hayles, Sherry Turkle, and Jay David Bolter seek to locate and affirm the importance of embodiment, of our physical humanity, in the face of increasingly seductive and polymorphous computer environments. They do so not as Luddites but as Harawayian co-evolutionists, conspirators, and cyborgs, participants in the continuous and transcendent techne of human civilization which haunts current and future technologies.
The last space I want to characterize is one which we are inhabiting even at this moment, since we are as much within a technology as we sit together in this room as when we interact in a computer environment. Here we are visible within an invisible technology; elsewhere we are invisible within a visible technology. Morphogenetic space is the space of constant potentiation and oscillation, where form dissipates in Prigogine's sense into form. All of us in this room, computer scientists and humanists alike, have experienced the human longing to touch upon, if for only a moment, the swirling and transformative stuff of human possibility and nature itself. All of us in this room, whether informed by scientific or humanistic scepticism, know that such moments exist only in the retrospection and reflection from which we fashion our representations. Humanists increasingly use computers as such spaces whether creating VRML models for metaphors and metalepsis, or creating or analyzing multiple narratives of a changing world in hypertexts, or experiencing first hand through MOOs and more sophisticated virtual spaces the shifting perspectivalization which characterizes the transcendent and historical present tense which marks us as mortal beings.
Everywhere I speak or write I argue the same thing: that the value of our presence as human persons in real place continues as a value not despite but because of the ubiquity of virtual spaces. In this we humanists and scientists share reciprocal methodologies. Our embodiment graces actual and virtual space alike with the occasion for value and action which brings us together today.
I. Introduction and Background
II. Toward a Common Language: Methods and Context
III. Software and Standards Development
IV. Economic and Institutional Issues
V. Next Steps: Talk First to Select Actions Better
Notes | APPENDICES