Walter Ong Defining the Humanities for Congress

Man can even reflect upon his own earlier reflections as these are registered in books and elsewhere. All this is what ultimately the humanistic subjects deal with: Mankind’s life world, [page break] everything around and in men and women insofar as it affects or is affected by human consciousness.

The humanities–and I think we should get this clear–are not defined by being set against a field of science and technology presumably hostile to them. This is a fashionable, but essentially cheap, way of treated both fields.Walter Ong, “Defining the Humanities for Congress”

Browsing through the Notes from the Walter Ong Collection I came across an extended quote from Ong’s address to Congress from 1978 when he was president of the MLA. The address was in support of a resolution to authorize the President to call a conference on the humanities. Walter Ong quotes a definition of the humanities which he wants to play with,

The joint resolution introduced by Mr. Brademas on October 27, 1977, in the House of Representatives follows Congress description of 1965 in stating that:

“The term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history, jurisprudence; philosophy; archeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, theory, and practice of the arts; those aspects of the social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.”

He then goes on to conclude,

However, if the humanities need technology, technology also needs the humanities. For technology calls for more than technological thinking, as our present ecological crises remind us. Technology demands reflection on itself in relation to the entire human life world. Such reflection is no longer merely technology, it includes the humanities even though it needs to be done especially by scientists and technologies.

Ong, Walter J. “Statement of Rev. Walter J. Ong, Professor of English and Professor of Humanities in Psychiatry at St. Louis University; and President, Modern Language Association of America.” White House Conference on the Humanities. Joint Hearings before the Subcommittee on Select Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, and the Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities of the Committee on Human Resources, United States Senate, Ninety-Fifth Congress, First and Second Session, on H.J Res. 639 to Authorize the President to call a White House Conference on the Humanities. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1978. 684-88.

New Horizons Conference

New Horizons LogoSo I’m at the New Horizons Conference where I’m going to be on a panel on Thursday between the Open Library and Google Books.

The opening talk was by Dan Cohen of George Mason and Zotero. Zotero (Albanian for “I learn”) stands out as a phenomenal success for digital humanities (and he talked about the challenges of that success). Their server talks to about million instances a day, they have a very active user group, they are in alliances with various organizations to extend the project. Now they have figure out how to get ongoing support to keep on improving it.

See my Conference Report (which is being written as I attend.)

Conference ’08 – ConfTool Pro – BrowseSessions

SDH Logo The 2008 Congress programme for SDH-SEMI is up. It looks like the conference on June 2nd and 3rd will be good. I will be giving a couple of papers and participating in panels:

  • 1.2.1 “Building Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities in Canada” with Ray Siemens and Michael Eberle-Sinatra
  • 1.3.2 “A Big Bridge: High Performance Computing and the Humanities” with Hugh Couchman
  • 2.4.1 “Into Something Rich and Strange: The Digital Humanities in the Humanities” with Ray Siemens, Harvey Quamen, and Stan Ruecker

Notes from the Walter Ong Collection » Blog Archive » Defining the Humanities for Congress

I came across a long quote from Walter Ong in 1978 when he was president of the MLA – Defining the Humanities for Congress. It is interesting to look back at this and how clearly Ong saw the humanities and technology.

The humanities depend on writing and on print as well as, less directly, on newer media and although oral speech, on which all verbal communication is always ultimately based, is not a technology, writing, print, and the electronic media are all technological developments. The printing press constituted the first assembly line. The humanities need technology.

However, if the humanities need technology, technology also needs the humanities. For technology calls for more than technological thinking, as our present ecological crises remind us. Technology demands reflection on itself in relation to the entire human life world. Such reflection is no longer merely technology, it includes the humanities even though it needs to be done especially by scientists and technologies.

See also the Technology category of this Notes from the Walter Ong Collection. I particularly like the quote “Nothing is more human than artifice.

Richard Rorty Dies at 75 – New York Times

Richard Rorty, Image ofThe New York Times has an obituary for Richard Rorty by Patricia Cohen, Richard Rorty, Philosopher, Dies at 75 (June 11, 2007). Rorty, when I was a Haverford, was presented to us as a philosopher looking to the American tradition of James and Dewey to reconcile Continental and Anglo-American philosophy.

Gary Madison has an essay online, Coping with Nietzsche’s Legacy: Rorty, Derrida, Gadamer that nicely positions Rorty in postmodern philosophy.

What we need from universities

DeLuca and Rockwell PictureWhat sorts of graduates does Canada need? Bill Gates in a opinion piece At risk: innovation (subscription required) in the Globe and Mail about a month ago argued for more computer science and engineering graduates arguing that our ability to innovate is at risk. This triggered a response, that Technology’s overrated and that what we need are more business students. Frankly I think they are both wrong, we need social content innovation. The innovations of the Web 2.0 (from blogging and wikis to Flickr and YouTube) are not technical innovations, but content innovations involving innovative ways for groups of people to communicate meaningful content. The areas of growth in information and communications technology are those areas that intersect with creative practices like digital imaging and computer games, as the resport Beyond Productivity points out.

What we need are more arts, humanities and social science students who are comfortable with communications technology and curious to use it in interesting ways. We need what Eugene Roman of Bell Canada calls “content scientists”. Companies like Bell have neat technologies, but need people to find ways to use them to create value. Toys are not enough, people need to play with them to give toys meaning and that is what arts, humanities and social science students do. Imagine a world where we made soccer balls but never organized a game – that’s what Gates, Martin and Milway will leave us with. Instead, as Chad Gaffield, the new president of SSHRC, puts it, Canada should support the human sciences which encourage understandings of people and developing talent.

In the picture above, I am with Gerry De Luca of Bell Canada after a meeting between Bell Canada representatives and colleagues at McMaster where we discussed the problems we face in teaching and research. Can we find an appropriate way for an enterprise like Bell to support the development of talented content scientists? What’s in it for them? This is not an easy problem in the content disciplines as industry engagement carries different risks than in science and engineering. When industry supports research in engineering the site of the engagement is a matter of patentable property ownership that is relatively free of controversy. When industry supports the creation of content it is a matter of copyright or expression, something that resists control or ownership. On the one hand there is too much content making most new content worthless; on the other hand content innovation takes freedom and rarely has a commercialization pathway when free. To support innovative expression you have to be willing to risk the tasteless, the controversial, the political, and the just plain bad. What entreprise would want to be associated with a chaotic explosion of content, even if there were a gem or two? Likewise, how comfortable are universities allowing industry engagement in content science.

If I were Prime Minister…

Picture of David SuzukiLast night I went to hear David Suzuki at his Hamilton stop to the If YOU were Prime Minister… tour. This is a 50 city tour to “turn concern into concrete action”. Here in Hamilton the event was held in Hamilton Place which was close to full. In the lobbies there were displays from local ecological and political action groups. There was thus both large scale mobilization (Suzuki asked us to “vote” for the environment by filling out a card/petition for Ottawa) and there was local mobilization. He asked us to take the Nature Challenge, “10 easy life tweaks”.

One of the interesting points Suzuki made was that widespread concern about the environment is not new, the problem is getting concrete action. In 1988 there was a similar groundswell of concern, but politicians despite lip-service, didn’t deliver change. “If YOU were Prime Minister…” is about mobilizing us to concrete action at the local, national, and international level. It is about keeping an accountable focus on the environment.

So, what would I do if I were Prime Minister? First, I would develop a program that encourages communities to implement traffic calming so that our communities are more livable and not transportation corridors. I love the idea of the woonerf – Dutch for “living street”. For an extreme take, see Why don’t we do it in the road? by Linda Baker. Second, I would develop a national road toll system so that commuters have to pay for using all highways. The funds raised would go directly to public transportation along the corridors where the tolls are raised. The more traffic, the more funds for public transportation. This might work as traffic calming on the large scale. The idea would be to retake our streets and fund alternatives to highway use, two initiatives that would affect the carbon dioxide emissions from transportation, a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.