New Directions in the Humanities: 17-19 June, UBC

directions Overview I had never heard of this conference, but wanted to attend to stretch my limits a bit. Speakers from 25  countries here; all sessions in the modern and well-appointed Forestries building, about a kilometre from the UBC bus loop. And coffee and free lunch to boot. At least some of the papers seemed marred by combining an obvious but perhaps overlooked instance of injustice with an overwrought and needless theoretical superstructure, complete with jargon and references to Derrida,, Foucault et al, which appeared to do nothing. Nonetheless much of the conference was enlightening, informative, and even  inspiring.


Plenary Session: Katherine Hayles  Some people resist digital advances because of fear of quantitative data and empirical research. The gap between data analysis (description) and interpretation is not so vast; more like a Moebius strip. All claims are theory-laden, so interpretation can lead to research questions. Ex.: suspicion about a work of fiction (“Only Revolution”) led to research that proved the word “or”never appears in that book. Much cognition is non-conscious; conscious thought is slow, costly, and subject to error and confabulation. Conscious cognition is much slower than trading algorithms. Non-conscious processing  does much of the work automatically and quickly.  Cognition exists at all levels of life, including bacteria. If so, implications for AI. Cognition (df): interprets info in context , connection to meaning. This implies that somehow technology is implicated in ethical action. Drone warfare removes risk from combatants,  as assassins rather than warriors.


The Future of The Humanities English departments are multidisciplinary. But often just an excuse to do some professional activity, rather  than a serious consideration of some aspect of human life. English just studies out of date theories. If all subjects are  “texts” and English can study texts, then English can study anything. The key problem is textuality, since it encourages metastasis. Challenging, relevant, and timely paper.

Concentric circles: individual interior – individual exterior – collective interior – collective exterior – numinous. Purports to offer a theoretical model to interpret any subject. The numinous area studies the “spirit”.  And the planet is a circle! And so is Stonehenge! Archaeologists are mean because they wanted to keep people out of Stonehenge to protect it! The next session was packed and I had no chance to blog during the session. This is what I remember.

Was Mao a Monster? Speaker says no,despite reports he killed 70-100 million people. People still  celebrate his birthday, His servants who he didn’t kill like him,  and the Chinese communist government he helped found records record hits for Mao on their website. Relies on several dubious assumptions: The Chinese government is honest;  Chinese people are free to express their political opinion, and actually understand what Mao did.

War Resistance in US Military: Compares anti-war opposition during Vietnam War and second Iraq War. Categorizes sources of opposition and kinds of resistance, up to and including mutiny. Very good talk. Clarified the ways in which the Iraq war is even worse than  the Vietnam war was.

Municipal Elections in Saudi Arabia: Only 10% % of eligible voters (all male) voted. Largely dye to poor communication and 10 day campaign, so voters  were unaware of candidate positions. But perhaps also due to  voter cynicism: voters may have believed King would give no real power to municipal officials. But the speaker didn’t consider this possibility.

Divine Command Theory: Starts with the Euthyphro dilemma: does God command x because x  is good or is x  good because God commands it? Reference to Job. But there are counterintuitive consequences to other moral theories. And we are in no epistemic position to question God’s commands. But for  this theory to work, then God must be good, and it seems that It’s not important to follow God’s will since there is no consensus on what he wants us to do. Speaker replies that there is no  way for us to know God’s will.

Numbers: Numbers long recognized to be important. Unlike objects, numbers can be multiplied to infinity. The talk is almost incomprehensible. Two set paradoxes: Cantor and Russell. The search for mere continuousness does not require infinite  extension.

Jewish Spirituality. No working def’n of “spiritual”. Concept is inchoate.  “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.” Prayers of thanks form a “spiritual connection”. Ditto treatment of time, the Torah, and personal relationships, moral obligations, human organizations,  etc. Seems to define spirituality as merely “important” without saying any else important. Doesn’t mention spirits at all, which is odd, since One couldn’t be a Marxist without  thinking about Marx.  Speaker concedes that atheists can be moral, so maybe spiirituality is doing no work at all. Lots of vague generalities about being good.

Language as embodied consciousness. How skepticism (Plato’s Cave, Descartes’ meditations) can lead to different conclusions: Plato’s hero returns ti the Cave;  Descartes saddles us with skepticism. Since then, western civilization has gone to hell. And Cartesian graphs are to blame! We need to abandon “mind over  matter”. But we are an exceptional species. And animals can communicate! But  they don’t have existential crises. We use  language too  much. Cartesian duality is somehow to blame for rationalism –> global warming + drone warfare. Cites Heidegger as a superior model for philosophy.  But if it’s possible to detach H’s Nazi sympathies from his  metaphysics, then why not forgive Descartes as well? Kinda sermon-like.

Silenced Memories: In Peru and Guatemala, human rights abuses by the right is met by leftist insurgency. (Dos Demonios). Indigenous groups are most disadvantaged by globalization. Activism met with violence. Guatemala: Land reform (50s) opposed by United Fruit Co; reds under the bed. CIA involvement. leads to 35 years of “civil war”,  no prosecutions. 93% of those killed by military are civilians. Guatemala still a dictatorship. Peru: uneven land reform in ’68; indigenous peoples as peasants. Shining Path also oppresses natives. Fujimori opens all land to multinationals. Truth and Reconciliation hearings thwarted. A recitation of two histories of oppression, read almost verbatim from Powerpoint.

Unmasking Dissent: Cdn Gov’t criminalizes masks at protests since they  conceal identity. Guy Fawkes as conspirator in Gunpowder plot. But now the mask has different meaning. Anonymous hacker group uses Fawkes mask. Post-modern Carnivalesque. “Challenges State monopoly on representation”. lots of over-heated analysis of protestor motives, unsupported by empirical research. Used widely. Meaning of mask will continue to change. Speaker seems to think that the claim that masks have multiple functions overrides the government’s interest in identifying people possibly engaged in criminal activity.

Child Trafficking in Nicaragua for Sexual Exploitation: Exploitation is extension of colonialism. Tardy enforcement and recently criminalized. 100,000 women and children trafficked across borders. SSHRC funded study  interviewed 105 subjects; most victims 12-14; many johns are truckdrivers. Join gangs for safety.

Plenary: Digital Humanities Origins of library science. Df “digital humanities”? Study of how digital resources and the humanities intersect.

Digital archive of 1937 Parsley Massacre in Dominican Republic. Case study: Government troops slaughtered an estimated 20,000 suspected Haitians. 21st century media is changing how we see the world. Closure impossible if historical record is erased.  Reference to Border of Life website.

GIS and Heritage Landscapes: Research focused on Chinese/ Japanese farmers in North Okanogan Valley in 19th and early 20th century. Communities were well integrated in local economy, but underrepresented in archives. Who were they? Did they  own land? Why did their enterprise collapse? BC shaped by its mountainous geography. Focus on landscape phenomenology: understanding how landscape shaped experience. 1913: Fruit growers lobby govt  to probihit Asian land ownership. But Asians still hired as workers. Presenter researched records fro archives from many sources, som digitized. Problem: find data, centralize, and interpret.

Digital German Colonial Archives: Linguistic/empirical implications of archives. Language as means of colonialism. Colonialism is mostly white/European. Lots of studies available. German colonies: 4 in Africa, a few in Pacific; all lost in WWII. Colonialism = power + knowledge. Archives are intensionally (functionally) and extensionally (kind) organized. Archive ranges from 1906-1940, and is heterogeneous and has physical counterpart.

Autodidacticism in Jailhouses: Some students “pushed out” of HS to boost Hs ratings. Leads to criminalization. No degree programs in prisons since Clinton. US incarceration rate 750/100,000; highest in the world. Many rejailed on parole violation; disproportionate numbers of black men. Harris County Jail (Houston) 220 prisoners. University started program at jail: reading circles led by profs and grad students  who tutor for GED. But no post-GED programs. Autodidacticism as possible solution. But autodidacts don’t exist. All were taught informally by others. Sounds like this program is in its infancy and having growing pains.

Older Doctoral students’ journeys: Pilot study. Interviews with older (55+) students; difficulties with digital resources, including email. Motivational shift from career goals to self-satisfaction, giving/receiving, overwhelming desire to learn. Intense struggle with IT.  Lots of cutesy and endearing anecdotes about seniors messing up IT.

Auto/ethnography and aboriginal education: Dominant knowledge is racially biased and partial. But self-awareness leads to “enlightenment”. How? By eliminating intersubjective review and collaboration? I agree that dominant theories have biases, but so do minority  theories and subjective reports. And to the degree that they aren’t subject to high standards and intersubjective review, the latter may be worse.


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