Sunday, June 12, 2011

Evan on Nietzsche and the impact of technology on scholarship

Evan has a post reflecting on a Nietzsche course this semester. I recommend the whole thing, but found this particularly interesting:

"As I mentioned in my last post, I have really benefited from the online material on Nietzsche, especially Nietzsche Source, which made working with the primary texts a good deal easier than having that many more physical volumes piled around my desk. Besides simply referring back to the German as I worked through the primary passages for my research, I found myself making use of a technology that was unavailable to many past interpreters of Nietzsche, even of the relatively recent past: a full text search function. The ability to search Trieb nach Erkenntniss (to give one example) across Nietzsche's corpus was terribly useful, but I found myself questioning exactly what implications for scholarship were inherent in such tools. It is likely that I ran across a textual connection or two that has remained unexploited, even by a Nietzsche reader of Walter Kaufmann's caliber. Is this right? One almost feels fraudulent citing a range of texts that is much wider than what one has worked through from start to finish. It obviously wasn't my depth of familiarity with Nietzsche that earned me this knowledge, nor my superior interpretive skills. Yet the knowledge sits in my lap and surely shouldn't be dismissed simply because I didn't get a hold of it the old-fashioned way. Best, I think, is to make use of these tools as far as possible while still retaining a humility about the task. A rule of thumb: If I have a good sense of the limits of my abilities to contextualize a passage that I run across in a text search, then I likely also have a good sense of the extent to which I can responsibly employ that passage within an argument that I am trying to make. A rule of thumb on Nietzsche with regard to the preceding: his use of aphorisms and paragraphs makes the question of contextualization simpler in some ways because of their fragmented nature... but in other ways deceptively simple."

Evan's young daughter, Sophie, apparently saw a picture of Nietzsche when he was working with him this semester and insisted that he was a character from Veggie Tales. Following Sophie's train of thought down its circuituous track can sometimes be tedious work, but this is what Evan was able to come up with on that one:


  1. Graduate students have been using indexes and skimming written works for a while now. I guess I fail to see much of a difference. Not every word that Nietzsche wrote is worth reading (if he is worth reading at all - obviously depends on one's POV).

  2. Yes, the index is a related technology, though a text search raises the level of what is being done to the point of categorical difference... an index ties the skimmer to an earlier, manual text search done by someone who had to judge what limited set of words would be most relevant.

    And of course the question of worth goes without saying, for Nietzsche or any other writer. The point is that one doesn't tend to know the worth of a text before investigating it... which is why it's important to ask oneself about the limits on proper interpretation inherent in targeted, selective readings of massive and intricate bodies of text.

  3. Evan,

    Well, what about your faulty, hmm, memory I guess, then? I've read Thoreau's _Walden_ eight times; I find that what I get out of it is selective and targeted upon each reading.

    Maybe you're far smarter than I, but I never get a "whole text" when I read it cover to cover. I always miss stuff. Sometimes because I'm reading and eating at the same time. Sometimes because I'm tired. Etc. Anything that helps me get over my very natural failings as a reader I consider a blessing.

  4. I recently re-read _The Road To Serfdom_ - even though I read the chapter, I was astonished that I had completely forgotten about his chapter on speech and free thought and planning.

  5. Yes, forgetfulness happens too.

    You seem to take all of these examples you're offering to be counterexamples, but I'm not sure what you intend for them to invalidate. Are you reading my thoughts on full text searches as an attempted invalidation of all other dilemmas of omission in reading? That isn't what I'm doing here.

  6. It's not an uncommon fallacy of his, Evan.

    I don't know how many times he mistakes the example of private space exploration as a counter-example to public space exploration. He has a very oppositional disposition. Very gnostic, you might say.

  7. Evan,

    I'm just wondering what you're worried about is all. They aren't counterexamples so much as, yeah, nothing is perfect examples, move on now.


    Because they are. Private space flight has been hindered for many decades by governmental approaches to space flight.

    Yeah, hypothetically, the government need not screw up private space flight opportunities, but in reality it does. Just like the government hindered the development of cellular phone technology.

  8. Daniel,

    What you'll do now is go, well, yeah, in the past, the government fucked shit up, but you know, going forward, these government space agencies have learned their lessons and they'll stop trying to protect their bailiwick so much.

    If NASA were relegated to what it clearly does pretty well - basic space science - then things would improve dramatically for all those who want to be involved in space flight. The problem is that NASA needs to do more than that to justify itself apparently (not to mention all the facilities it runs around the country and which are protected by various Congress critters); there is the whole heroism shtick (NASA is great at public relations) that it needs to engage in, well, to protect its budget. So the issue is, can extremely truncated national space agencies exist while private space is undertaken at the same time? Because that is the most likely future of those agencies - and it should have been their future in the 1950s too.

  9. Imagine if the 19th century private train industry used the same exact model of trains (with upgrades from time to time) for decades to run their rail stock. That's what you are facing with every space agency; they lock into very expensive launch vehicle systems and stick with them forever. This is also partly what is screwy with light rail and similar grand projects by national governments. All manner of technological lock-in. One has to stick with these projects due to national pride, the need not to admit error (which is a huge weakness across governments and government types for some reason) and the sheer desire not to have "wasted" taxpayer dollars.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.