File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 404

From: Humanist Discussion Group <>
Date: Sun, 28 Dec 2008 09:41:19 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: [Humanist] 22.409 more on thing knowledge

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 409.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to:

        Date: Sat, 27 Dec 2008 16:06:07 -0400
        From: Richard Cunningham <>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 22.406 more on thing knowledge

Could I ask for a context for Manovich's original comment: "stop  
apologizing for your prototypes."  What prompted that?

I just wrote a few paragraphs which I thought would contribute to this  
discussion, only to realize that I hit a wall when I got to the part  
that is newest to me, the proposal that a prototype is a theory.  I  
can certainly see myself agreeing with that, depending on, as Willard  
has noted, what is meant by "theory" and, I'd simplify even further,  
what is meant by "prototype."  But before I can either agree or  
disagree, or even intelligently join the discussion, I find myself  
substituting "theory" for "prototype" in the assertion Stan offered as  
his point of departure, Manovich's "stop apologizing for your"  
theories.  If "stop apologizing for prototypes" is followed by "a  
prototype is a theory" then it follows that whatever else a "theory"  
is, it is assumed to be the kind of thing one doesn't have to  
apologize for.  Where?  In what context?  When speaking to or with whom?

If the rock is the prototype of the hammer, I can see how it is also a  
theory of the hammer.  But I can also see the rock tied into the cleft  
at the end of a stick as a better prototype and better theory of the  
hammer.  Thus, if I'm tasked with developing a hammer, the engineer  
who handed me just the rock has, to some extent, wasted my time  
(albeit unintentionally).   Does that proto-engineer  then owe an  
apology?  This is why I feel I need some context for the original  
comment.  What was being apologized for, and to whom were the  
apologies offered?  I guess at a fundamental level I don't get why,  
aside from taking people in the wrong direction and thereby wasting  
time, money, and energy, anyone would apologize for a prototype,  
whether or not a prototype is a theory.  I should probably add that  
I'm in higher education rather than industry because I prefer to doubt  
the entire concept of wasted time and energy in such a context.  If we  
didn't learn what we thought we'd learn, well, did we learn something  
else?  Confirm a known something (theory, fact, whatever)?  Disprove  
something?  I find it almost impossible to waste time doing.  And any  
point along the line of developing then testing then discarding or  
adopting a prototype is doing.

But I remain curious about the apologies.  Can anyone fill me in,  

Richard Cunningham

On 27-Dec-08, at 6:26 AM, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:

>                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 406.
>        Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>               Submit to:
>       Date: Sat, 27 Dec 2008 10:21:04 +0000
>       From: Willard McCarty <>
>       >       In-Reply-To: <>
> Stan Ruecker's note on "thing knowledge" raises two questions I'd like
> to push a bit further. One is about the degree to which physical
> objects, such as hand-tools, communicate what they're about without
> verbal gloss, the other about prototypes as theories.
> To heft a hammer is to understand its basic purpose almost  
> immediately.
> The fist at the end of the arm is almost a hammer. A stone gripped in
> the hand is even closer. Any heavy, hard, proportional object tied to
> the end of a stick is a hammer, "An instrument having a hard solid  
> head,
> usually of metal, set transversely to the handle, used for beating,
> breaking, driving nails, etc." (OED, where the etymological note  
> goes on
> to say, "The Norse sense ‘crag’, and possible relationship to Slav.
> kamy, Russ. kamen stone, have suggested that the word originally meant
> ‘stone weapon’."). A caliper mimics the opposed digits and so needs
> little glossing. Chopsticks require, I'd think, someone using them to
> show one what they are for and how to use them. And we can go on from
> there, to objects that definitely require words, spoken and/or  
> written.
> (A piece of Ikea furniture often features humorously to illustrate the
> need for a perspicuous symbolic language.) And when we go from
> knowledge-of-use to meaning? What about Thor's hammer? The hammer and
> sickle?
> About prototypes as theories -- Manovich's point, which Stan cites. It
> seems to me that his declaration, "a prototype is a theory", is
> circular. The work it seems to do is first to assert by implication  
> that
> the term "prototype" is poorly understood ("a prototype is"), then to
> secure its understanding by identifying it with something that is well
> understood ("a prototype is a theory"). The main problem is, however,
> with the word "theory", which not at all well understood in this
> context. It is marvellously polysemous and adaptable, having in fact
> many different meanings across the disciplines. So before we all  
> relax,
> breathe a sigh of relief and get on with making prototypes, we need to
> ponder what exactly we mean by "theory". What does a "theory" in our
> field look like? What is a "theory" not? An understanding of this term
> that makes everything qualify won't be very useful to us.
> It's a rather different thing to say that something, like a prototype,
> is "theoretical", i.e. that it can be involved in the activity of
> "theorizing". Anything can qualify. Still the problem isn't solved.  
> So I
> ask again, what does a "theory" in our field look like? What work does
> it do? For a great example of an attempt to deal with this question,  
> see
> Clifford Geertz's essay, "Thick Description: Toward an interpretative
> theory of culture", in The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973.
> But apart from that struggle, the question of how software objects
> communicate remains, which is also the question of whether an  
> unglossed
> complex human artefact can by itself qualify as research output. To
> answer in the affirmative would, I'd think, require us to show that  
> not
> only can it be put to immediate and proper use (like a hammer) but  
> that
> its particular contribution to some field or fields of enquiry, its
> "contribution to knowledge", be self-evident -- and that anything
> requiring words to become evident be discounted. Or am I being too
> demanding?
> I recall a case of an undergraduate dissertation at Reed College in
> mathematics that comprised a half-page of equations with the single
> word, "Behold!", at the end. One could say that the single word was
> otiose, a witty flourish, a bit of bravado. Anyhow the dissertation  
> was,
> I think, awarded a distinction.
> Mathematics is in some sense a language. So do we look for the sense  
> of
> a self-explanatory artefact in the gap between a mathematical  
> statement
> and a machine? Where do we put software in this interval?
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>>                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 404.
>>        Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>>               Submit to:
>>       Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 11:08:54 -0700
>>       From: Stan Ruecker <>
>>>       In-Reply-To: <>
>> This is a question that has been exercising me lately. I believe  
>> that we
>> do have categories of artifacts that both reify knowledge and
>> communicate it. Hand tools are an example. Not all hand tools,
>> certainly, can be interpreted outside their historical context.  
>> Anyone
>> doubting that statement need only visit one of the Saskatchewan  
>> Western
>> Development Museums (although perhaps not their web site). But in
>> general, if I have opposable thumbs and an elbow, which I do happen  
>> to
>> have, then a hammer seems fairly straightforward to interpret.
>> Pre-existing knowledge about nails does help.
>> Another example is art. Certainly not all art is accessible without  
>> some
>> training in how to look at it, but a kind of knowledge is often
>> available by direct observation. I would argue that the same is  
>> true for
>> photography and architecture.
>> I think there are two questions: is there knowledge without words?  
>> and
>> is the knowledge without words the same as the knowledge with  
>> words? My
>> answers would be yes and no, respectively. For some categories the  
>> two
>> kinds of knowledge may be closer than for others, and for every  
>> category
>> there is the option of adding knowledge with words to the knowledge
>> without words, as we do in art history, for example. There are also
>> cases like literary studies, where we add knowledge with words to
>> knowledge with words, but that is a different case.
>> Now the main issue for digital humanists is where in this terrain to
>> place artifacts such as software, interfaces, visualizations, and
>> prototypes. Lev Manovich at DH2007 famously stood up and said "a
>> prototype is a theory. Stop apologizing for your prototypes." I have
>> heard similar statements from others in our community.
>> If we take that principle as a way forward, then it seems to me  
>> that we
>> haven't really found a solution to a conundrum, but we do have an
>> opportunity by analogy (or identity, depending on how strongly you
>> interpret Manovich). I would say that theories are for discussing,
>> strengthening or weakening with evidence, testing in various ways,
>> inventing experiments for, and also using as lenses to turn onto  
>> other
>> material, in order both to frame specifics within the general, and to
>> inform in turn our understanding of the general. We can also set one
>> theory against another for comparison. We can try our hand at taking
>> thesis and antithesis and reaching synthesis.
>> If a prototype is a theory, then we should be able to do all those
>> things with one.
>> yrs,
>> Stan Ruecker
>> Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>>>                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 403.
>>>        Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
>>>               Submit to:
>>>       Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 09:52:41 +0000
>>>       From: Willard McCarty <>
>>> At the beginning of her astonishingly resonant book, Open Fields:
>>> Science in cultural encounter (Oxford, 1996), Dame Gillian Beer  
>>> writes
>>> about Keats and Darwin -- the poet's insistence in "The Fall of
>>> Hyperion" that "only the written gives any hope of survival", and  
>>> the
>>> naturalist's transcribing of what he saw. "Darwin, energetically
>>> observing and writing before the establishment of genetic theory,"  
>>> she
>>> says, "had to have the patience of the pioneer -- the patience not  
>>> to
>>> know for sure within his lifetime 'Whether the dream now purposed to
>>> rehearse / Be poet's or fanatic's', whether it would prove to be
>>> authentic or delusive." (p. 14).
>>> So, for us a question and a consolation of sorts.
>>> The question is, does the same hold true for the digital humanities,
>>> that "only the written gives any hope of survival"? Given the short
>>> life-span of software artefacts, our ignorance of how to read them  
>>> and,
>>> as Peter Galison has noted for non-verbal artefacts generally, their
>>> polysemous existence beyond the meaning assigned by their  
>>> creators, can
>>> any such artefact ever stand for itself wholly without written
>>> commentary and explanation? Solid work in the history of science and
>>> technology gives us the intriguing idea of "thing knowledge", but  
>>> in any
>>> given case, can we say what that knowledge is without using words?  
>>> Is it
>>> knowledge without words?
>>> (Those here who know their Swift will recall in Gulliver's  
>>> Travels, book
>>> 3, chapter 5, his description of the Laputan "Scheme for entirely
>>> abolishing all Words whatsoever": "that since Words are only Names  
>>> for
>>> Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them,
>>> such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business  
>>> they
>>> are to discourse on.... which hath only this Inconvenience  
>>> attending it,
>>> that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he  
>>> must be
>>> obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his  
>>> Back,
>>> unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I  
>>> have
>>> often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of  
>>> their
>>> Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets,  
>>> would
>>> lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an
>>> Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to  
>>> resume
>>> their Burthens, and take their Leave." Of course a laptop with a  
>>> fair
>>> sized hard disc isn't nearly as heavy.)
>>> The consolation is, I suppose, that we may look back at those, like
>>> Darwin, who were as uncertain of what they said and did as we are of
>>> what we say and do. Often I contemplate by example what a mature
>>> discipline allows its practitioners to do. We can only hope, I  
>>> suppose,
>>> for a magnanimous audience and do what we can to cultivate it.
>>> Comments?
>>> Yours,
>>> WM
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> -- 
> Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
> King's College London,;
> Editor, Humanist,;
> Interdisciplinary Science Reviews,
> _______________________________________________
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Richard Cunningham
Associate Professor, English & Theatre
Director, Acadia Media Centre
Acadia University

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