Commentary

Ginzburg V: Bertillonian word portraits in the age of tag clouds

Ginzburg dwells on the use of signs to identify individuals in his essay. His main example is the emergence of fingerprinting as a semiotic practice to identify and diversify crowds into individuals. But he also looks at how graphology grew out of the understanding of one’s characters – in writing – reflected one’s character – in psychology. Through the series of examples of signs and symptoms used to identify the individual (also used to warn us of recidivist criminals, like in Dumas) he tries to show that our need for a connection between the semiotic and the biological is a need that has roots in our need for accountability, and legal responsibility. In passing, Ginzburg also mentions Bertillon’s use of word portraits, a practice that was suggested to escape the simplistic physiognomic descriptions in early criminal records. And here we find something interesting. Bertillon suggested that a linguistic description of an individual would be more interesting than one in which we try to measure a few biological qualities. He immediately ran into two problems: one was the problem of linguistic ambiguity – how do you create a literal description of an individual that can be used for uniquely identifying that individual? The other was the problem that the system was, as Ginzburg notes, wholly negative. Someone who did not fulfill the description could be eliminated, but would a word portrait really uniquely identify someone? Anyone who has read a description of criminal or seen a so-called phantom image of a…

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Philosophy

Agency and autonomy II: Sorrow, pain and soul

The problem with determining agency is that it looks as if we are determining a quality in an actor in the moment. In fact, that is not what is happening. When Wittgenstein examines psychological states he notes that some of them have what he refers to as “Echte Dauer” – real duration – and some do not. Hence, it works to ask when pain starts and stops, or to speak of an instant of extreme pain, but if we were to do the same when it comes to sorrow the result would be almost comical. “Do you feel sorrow now? When did it start, when does it stop?” – Those are questions that make no sense. Sorrow, Wittgenstein suggests, is something we discern over time in the tapestry of life, in a sequence of events. The attitude to a soul would probably be the same thing. We decide that something has agency not on the basis of a single moment, but the attitude to a soul is something that grows over time as we adopt and accept a pattern of behaviour as one that exhibits soul. Could we ever do this for a machine? If we leave aside the rather simplistic answer that if we did it would not be a machine anymore – a valid if somewhat insipid answer – we seem to end up in a very difficult discussions about the corporeality of soul. Can we say about a disembodied system that it has a soul. Would we…

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Commentary

Ginzburg IV: The origins of narrative

A large part of Ginzburg’s essay concerns the nature and origin of narrative. Ginzburg’s hypothesis is as daring as it can be controversial. He writes: “Perhaps indeed the idea of a narrative, as opposed to spell or exorcism or invocation (Seppilli 1962), originated in a hunting society, from the experience of interpreting tracks. […]The hunter could have been the first ‘to tell a story’ because only hunters knew how to read a coherent sequence of events from the silent (even imperceptible) signs left by their pray” (p 89) This idea, that gatherers invoked, prayed and casts spells, whereas the real story tellers were hunters, opens a whole space for speculation about the role of narrative in our societies, and helps explain the rise and growth of the detective story to its prominence. The detective story is the hunt, in this case for human prey and predator, and remains a dominating narrative form. The tracing of prey, the interpretation of tracks across the sands of time becomes the main form of narration. The appeal of this hypothesis is that it also seems to suggest an explanation of the communal nature of narrative. Why do we, as a species, prefer to share stories to the extent that our cultural consumption more or less describes a power law distribution? If we believe that it is because stories originated as hunters’ tales then we know that sharing these meant sharing a set of communal ideas, insights and histories that could be used to create…

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Commentary

Ginzburg III: On the serendipity engine

Ginzburg explores the role of traces in understanding the world, and usefully repeats the myth of the three sons of the King of Serendippo. The myth is originally found in several folk tales, and roughly goes like this, according to Ginzburg from a 1557 re-telling: the three princes of Serendippo meet a merchant and tells him that they think an animal has passed by. The Merchant, who is missing a camel, asks them to describe the animal and they go onto say that it is a lame camel, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. The merchant then thinks that they, since they know the camel so well, must be the ones who have stolen it – so he charges them. They manage to be acquitted when they show how they by simple inferences together deduced their description. The genealogical connection to Sherlock Holmes, and the detective story over all, is abundantly clear, and Ginzburg informs us that Horace Walpole later coined the term “serendipty” to refer to cases where “accident and sagacity” allow for knowledge discovery. Now, in discussions about the web today some have called for more accident – thinking that the increasing focus on filters will create bubbles around us. That, in itself, is an interesting discussion – but not one that Ginzburg engages in. What he does, however, is to suggest that the etymological genealogy of the word presents anyone who…

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Philosophy

Agency and autonomy I: Agency and an attitude to a soul

The notion of agency is essential to understanding our society. If we cannot say who did something, or what it means to be the one actual acting in a specific case, then all of the language games of legal liability, contractual freedom and intellectual property – to name but a few subjects – falter and fail. Agency lies at the core of our legal philosophies, it is a concept so deeply entrenched that it is easy to miss. What, then, does it mean to be an agent, to act, to have agency? There is no simple answer here, but there is a simplistic one: we believe that we all act with agency, that whatever we aim towards, what we will, is what we should be responsible for. It is also fairly obvious that we never hold artefacts or systems responsible for their actions. Indeed, we do not think that systems act, they simply function. We could make an observation here about language games and action. Wittgenstein captures the essence of action in saying that “my attitude to him is an attitude to a soul”, and in that simple sentence he also captures a lot of the complexity around agency and intention. We treat those systems as responsible towards which we have an attitude to a soul. If there is no soul, there can be no agency, and hence no responsibility. We do not arrest the machine that kills a worker. We examine it for flaws, and if necessary we fix…

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Commentary

Ginzburg II: Complexity, clues and the emergence of conjectural computing

Ginzburg discusses the gulf between natural sciences and their increasing abstraction and the concreted and detailed nature of the human sciences, almost always engaged in the individual case, about which natural science almost always remains silent. The “individuum est ineffabile”-imperative will simply not work in history, for example, where the individual case remains a node in a network of clues used to understand and think about history. History, and the social sciences, Ginzburg seems to suggest, need to work from what he calls a conjectural paradigm – and we need to understand the merits and de-merits of that system rather than try for the mathematization of all disciplines. This particular discussion has developed even further in our time, where the computational turn in the humanities to some represent the logical end point for sciences suffering from physics envy, but now consigning themselves to uninteresting discoveries of patterns where deep insights were once to be had. Ginzburg writes: “Galileo has posed an awkward dilemma for human sciences. Should they achieve significant results from a scientifically weak position, or should they put themselves in a strong scientific position but get meager results?”(p 110) But Ginzburg’s warning should not, I think, be read as a warning against the use of computer models and methods in the human sciences, but rather as a reminder that what we need are models that allow for the messiness of the individual case. The computational turn can, in fact, mean that we can explore Morellian space for individual…

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Commentary

Ginzburg I: The exploration of Morellian space in the age of data science

Carlo Ginzburg explores, in a magnificent essay entitled “Clues: Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes” featured in The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce (ed. Eco, U and Sebeok, T, 1988), a series of ideas that not only touch deeply on the nature of semiotics and the divide between natural science and social as well as human science, but also on any number of very interesting threads that interest me deeply. In a series of posts, I will explore and discuss some of those threads – but for anyone interested in engaging with a fascinating piece of writing I can only recommend reading the essay and working through its rich ideas and complex structure carefully.  The focus of Ginzburg’s essay is the art historian Morelli, who, under a pseudonym published a work intended to help attribute paintings more accurately. Morelli’s method was simple, but a stroke of genius. Instead of focusing on the attributes that everyone associated with a master – i.e. the smile of Mona Lisa and others in Leonardo’s paintings – Morelli suggest that the attribution of authorship might actually be done more precisely and exactly by looking at details in the paintings that the masters were not associated with. Ginzburg reprints and shows a series of collections of ears, fingernails and noses that Morelli studied carefully and used to re-attribute a large number of works of art in an often spectacular way. Morelli’s method – focusing on the involuntary details and clues provided by the author of a…

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