RNA project opening speech, May 21, 2005
Author: Eelco Bruinsma
(with a word of thanks to Prof. Dr. L. M. de Rijk)
Ladies and gentlemen,
On the occasion of the official opening of the RNA project, I would like to briefly discuss with you 'the shady individual', a title to which I have added the subtitle 'a difference of two amino acids'.
For the record, when I say shady individual, I am in no way referring to Hans Nederbragt, whose tireless perseverance has helped an idea that was born from a round of short phone calls and email messages evolve into a valuable and promising project. No, I have borrowed the term shady indivdual from Lambertus Marie de Rijk, a professor in classical and medieval philosophy, semantics and metaphysics at the University of Leiden, who used it in his 1981 foundation day lecture to refer to the way in which the individually existing thing or, as he called it, the 'concrete individual being', kept reappearing in Western philosophy and science as disseminator and stumbling block of thinking.
Anybody whom, merely on the strength of the title of this opening speech and the project title, attempts to puzzle out what it is that we are exactly engaged in, will probably assume that we are practicing a peculiar type of molecular biology-oriented criminology. When this person learns more about the background of those present- people from the cultural heritage world, the government, new media and companies who specialise in knowledge technology, the doubt will set in. And if he then hears that we have received a substantial grant in this capacity from the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, perplexity may give way to despair - or a feverish attempt to create another highly unlikely consortium with an equally unlikely mission. That, apparently, is a sure way to secure a government grant.
All of this is thanks to the shady individual, but why? And how does this concern us?
According to De Rijk, the individual being is a shady individual. Because it continuously manages to escape from our attempts to approach it rationally and to fit it nicely into a system that we developed. As a consequence, any attempt on our part to refer to that individual in a uniform way is never really successful. That is why our theories never really hold. That is why our libraries always need shelves for books that do not fit in neatly with the other tomes. That is why our card trays must always include cards saying 'see also', and why we never really find, or quickly find, what we are looking for on the Internet. These are just a few examples of the shady individual's tendency to frustrate our attempts at organised thinking and rational organising.
We're still running into the problem that had at one time been tackled by the intellectual giants Plato and Aristotle and which played a central role in the philosophy and theology of the Middle Ages, namely rationalism versus universalism.
This is not the time for philosophical self-importance, but it so happens that Hans has asked me to introduce the project on a philosophical note of about 20 minutes, so please bear with me if you will.
Plato and Aristotle saw that philosophical thinking faced a fundamental problem, and came up with diametrically opposed proposals for solutions, that to this very day resonate in the tradition of Western thought. Plato believed that the universal existed independently of the individual things we see around us, in a sphere that we may perhaps be able to approach rationally, but could never comprehend through thought. Knowledge, in the sense of knowing one-on-one what such a universal thing looks like, apart from the individual things surrounding us, is therefore not really an option. Well, it may be possible in the extreme and hardly imaginable case that a person would be able to penetrate into the realm of these universal forms through the realm of the mind and comprehend what is present there. Philosophers come closest to achieving this. So what does this mean in practice? That every individual thing in the here and now has within its self not only an unstable universal element, but also something that is beautiful and good. We could say that such an individual thing participates in a universal form. And that's where the trouble starts, at least for us, because not only does the individual thing participate in a single universal form, or, and this is a term that everybody will be familiar with, in an Idea (Eidos), but in many forms, in principle, in an unlimited number of forms.
In other words, if the individual could be caught in a single universal form, in a single Idea, one label or one sticker could serve as a marker for all. However, the shady individual will not co-operate. It hides behind a kaleidoscope of forms, or universalia.
Years ago in Leiden I heard a road worker jeering at his colleague: "you're already big and ugly, but you still need to become green and strong!" He was referring to The Incredible Hulk, the popular American comic-strip character featured in a television series in those days about a scientist whose genetics have been modified through a failed experiment in such a way that he would swell up and become green each time he was angered by something, and burst out of his clothes and smash up the place. Without his knowing it, the road worker's funny remark neatly fits in with Plato, and in particular the Politeia, which I happened to be reading at that time. This is because he was referring to his colleague as the Hulk, but at the same time he wasn't. His colleague was a near-Hulk, , because he was still lacking in some essential features. If the colleague had been green and strong, he really would have been the Hulk. In a single linguistic act, the road worker managed to refer to the Hulk, Hulk as a fictitious creature that only exists when the scientist becomes green and goes about in a ripped t-shirt smashing furniture to pieces, and at the same time to someone who is not the Hulk. Because when the scientist doesn't do all of those things, he isn't the Hulkeither. Nobody will refer to him in daily life as the Hulk if he is simply being Dr. Bruce Banner. We can translate this situation in slightly modified Platonic terms. When a number of properties is brought together in an individual thing, the Idea of Hulk will trigger itself. What is peculiar, is that something that seems to be an essential characteristic, namely Hulkness, can be present and completely absent at the same time. So what is the individual? What is the thing in itself? What are we talking about when we refer to this thing? The moment you look at all the individual characteristics, the individual will seem to back away from scrutiny. It refuses to be trapped by thought, and, to skip a few steps, we will never really be able to trap it with language.
Let's look closer at home, to the world of cultural heritage. The individual objects that fall in the category of cultural heritage, that is to say, heritage objects, as a matter of fact behave themselves as Hulks, and in doing so, they, as individual objects, are being exceptionally shady. In this case, it is mainly the context that seems to connect them to the Universal Forms. Aha! Those well versed in semantics will now sigh with relief, because the famous example by Gottlob Frege seems to apply here. On the basis of this example, namely the statement that 'the Evening Star is the Morning Star', Frege demonstrates the difference between Sinn and Bedeutung, or connotation and denotation. Depending on the moment of observation, we conceive the same object, the clearly radiant planet Venus, as both the Evening Star and Morning Star. In our heads, the concept's content, the connotation, changes with the moment of observation. In the morning we see the Morning Star, and in the evening we see the Evening Star. However, if we consult an astronomical guidebook, we will find that the thing in itself, the "extension", the planet in question, the denotation, is Venus. That is semantics in a nutshell.
Objects from non-western cultures, often referred to collectively by the art trade as tribal art, were initially, to wit in the nineteenth century and the twentieth century, collected for the purpose of comparative religious science, or for anthropological purposes. In the Netherlands, another factor was at play: people wanted to gain a better understanding of colonies such as Dutch New Guinea by studying their material culture. This was done for governmental reasons. The aesthetic aspect of the collected objects hardly played a role. People tended to find these objects ugly rather than beautiful, and often obscene, which only served to reinforce the condescending attitude towards their makers. It was not until the period between the two world wars that a shift occurred. Particularly in Paris, where surrealists such as André Breton (and later Michel Leiris, who made his career at the Musée de l'Homme) were active, objects from the French colonies were regarded as the products of subconscious creative processes and therefore as symbols of creativity. They were increasingly featured in artworks and were collected by artists in particular. It didn't take long before a wealthy elite discovered the new value of this material and private collections were formed, and an art trade evolved in their wake. In the Netherlands, after World War II it was mainly the members of the Cobra art movement who came to collect ethnographics, as they were referred to at the time. They had become aesthetic objects that produced favourable effects when they were hung on the wall next to abstract modern art. At the Fondation Dapper, a wonderful, private museum at the fancy Avenue Victor Hugo, the objects of the religious material culture of yore are on display as entirely aesthetic objects; the religious connotations now serve roughly the same purpose as the subtle lights that heighten the aesthetic sense of mystery around the objects.
So does this solve our problem? And why are heritage objects like little Hulks? Well, because the Ding an Sich, the Thing in Itself, to borrow a term from another famous philosopher, does not really matter in this case. The name we assign to a gigantic lump of space dust floating in an elliptical trajectory around the sun may be Venus, but it says nothing about its essence. We are not even sure if it has an essence. The Romans named the planet after a goddess, not because they thought it would be a beautiful name for a planet, but because to them the planet wasan actual goddess. The Greeks looked up to the skies and what they say was gods, not planets. We can regard Venus as a planet with an orbit of 108,200,000 kilometres and a diameter of 12,103.6 kilometres, or as an example of a greenhouse effect that has completely gone out of bounds, resulting in an surface temperature of 400 degrees Celsius. Venus, by the way, in its capacity of morning star, was also referred to as Lucipher, another particularly shady individual.
Now can we refer to Venus without detriment to this wealth of connotations? We can't. The astronomer who switches to his romantic mode at night to write a poem for the light of his life will see two different Venuses, and probably think of two different Venuses while he's searching for synonyms in different reference networks. Is the denotation really the planet with 95 percent of the earth's diameter and 80 percent of the earth's mass? Or is it something we are still unable to formulate because we won't be able to develop the necessary scientific set of instruments and matching conceptual system until 300 years from now? Will astronomers gleefully put us in the same category as the Romans, 3 centuries from now?
What this means, and this takes us to the very core of the project, is that every pretence of authority with regard to naming the things surrounding us, including the objects of cultural heritage institutions, will be unfounded. Context, intention, aspect, perspective play a part in this, and all of them are concepts that indicate relativity. Each reference taxonomy is based on conventions, agreements, habits, group behaviour, and in some cases on group interests or the need for groups to exert control over a particular area by claiming the naming primacy.
That is the reason why there are so many reference systems!
In the former analogous world, this would pose a problem for researches who had to look for material in various scientific disciplines, in different libraries or other countries. This also proved difficult for researchers who did not have any routine or knowledge in the field of reference structures. They were forced to search like madmen.
In the digital world, which we have come to refer to with terms such as information society, knowledge society and knowledge economy, the problem of reference systems throws a spanner in the works that were not exactly well-oiled in the first place. We assume that the use of reference structure will not only make it easier to find objects and documents, but also that the creation of underlying connections - and that is where the real power of the digital media lies - should be based on reference structures. If that is the case, we will be faced with the dilemma of having to choose between competing or even mutually exclusive reference systems.
Cultural heritage in itself is not cultural heritage.A material or immaterial object will become a cultural heritage object when we decide to refer to it as such. When we find a particular constellation of features beneficial, we pull an invisible lever. And then the object becomes a cultural heritage object that can be described, conserved, managed, leant, published and subsidized. In cultural policy, this process is called selection. How we describe it, once it is added to a collection, will strongly depend on the context in which the object has become a part of the cultural heritage. The way in which we refer to it when we want to say something intelligent about it to others, will depend on our background, our intentions and our target group. The way in which we, or others, will be able to retrieve the object and our story about it, and preferably both, will depend on yet other factors. That is what the RNA project is about.
On the project's website you will find an interesting article by Gertjan van Heijst on the UDC, the Universal Decimal Classification. This ambitious project, on the basis of which Paul Otlet from Belgium elaborates the work of Melvil Dewey, offers, as Gertjan van Heijst puts it, a set of indexing instruments that can be used to effectively share even the largest document collection. He is right, but from our point of view more is going on here. The UDC opens up document collections using a particular perspective, namely one based on the scientific disciplines that we use to comprehend the world. For that reason, the instrument is also eminently suitable to share documents, while it would be substantially less suitable, for instance, to share object collections, unless those objects formed part of an academic collection, that is to say a collection that has been created from the perspective of a scientific discipline.
What we would prefer to see is a universal system that can share both documents and objects, and simultaneously and coherently share them as concepts. Unfortunately, that is not an option. The best we might achieve is a way to connect existing systems - which are probably not all that universal - in a smooth and logical way, so as to be able to maintain the coherence between the objects and the matching documentation, or knowledge, as best as possible when we search for information.
The majority of case studies defined in the framework of the RNA project are examples of attempts to view the world from at least two perspectives rather than from a single perspective. This is a neat tactic that may yet corner the elusive shady individual. The answer of the RNA project to the complexity of information present in the world is not a frontal attack based on a universal system, but rather an equally complex and intelligent amalgamation of multiple systems.
[...] The Army Museum case study focuses on the linking of two reference networks, a heraldic dictionary and a visual glossary. The Rijksdienst voor Oudheidkundig Bodemonderzoek [National Service for Archaeology, Cultural Landscape and Built Heritage] plans to connect a purely conceptual reference structure to a physical reference collection, and so on. Thus, bridges are being built between systems that are in itself autonomous and exist in their own right. Consequently, it is such a powerful element that this consortium is assisted by knowledge technologies and the top guns of the semantic web, so that we are able to, or at least attempt, to quickly produce results that are beneficial to our society.
The RNA project not only focuses on finding information in objects, but also on ways of linking and associating objects and documents, the latter in particular on the basis of the concepts and ideas that they include. Only in such a case will the element of knowledge come into play. That is what makes this an important project. Although we cannot carry the weight of the knowledge society on our shoulders, we are able to deliver a contribution to a solution for some of the core issues.
'So will he get back to those two amino acids referred to in the subtitle?', you may wonder, and rightly so. Yes, I will.
In another interesting article, The role of language in Aristotle's empiricism, De Rijk refers in amusement to the fact that the difference between the language skills of man and apes is determined by just two amino acids in the so-called FOXP2 gene. In particular, this involves the power to conceptualise, so signify, to refer to things without having to indicate them time and again, so that we are also able to communicate on issues that are outside our visual range.
A fantastic evolutionary step, in other words, and if the shady individual wasn't around to throw a spanner in the works, we would be living in a knowledge-technologically perfect world! And that is something we should be thankful for!
Thank you for your attention. Have a pleasant afternoon.