[Humanist] 24.136 digital palaeography?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Jun 22 10:53:43 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 136.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 22 Jun 2010 09:40:48 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: digital palaeography?

I would like to get a grip on the current state of thinking about digital
palaeography. I'd like to know in broad terms, techno-intellectually, (a)
what now is demonstrably possible; (b) what we have good reason to think we
can do in the relatively near future; and (c) where we can dream of going
someday. Provision of what we now call "high-definition" images is a given.
That's fine. But that's not the end of the matter, I hope.

Surely with palaeography as elsewhere throughout the humanities, there is a
fundamental, enlightening but unavoidable difference between the precision
of digital tools and the rather different qualities of scholarship. Since
Turing's definition of computability and the machines that have followed, we
have tended to go around and around in a vicious circle, from that which can
be precisely stated to that which can be computed and back again. Which
leaves anyone not in that circle imprecise, vague, muddled....

Some write about a "crisis" in palaeography, by which I gather they mean to
say that the intermixture of human judgement (which cannot be computed) and
historical fact (which presumably can) is a problem, the kind that can be
solved -- or at least that having much less of the former and more of the
latter is a good and achievable thing. Digital tools are supposed to help.
But with what, exactly, can they help the palaeographer, without the
pretense that handwritten letterforms are a different kind of thing than
they actually are?

Is the root crisis the problem of being an embodied creature in time?

Of course we can choose to ignore the fact that *every* letterform is a work
of art, however highly repetitive its production, however far to the back we
shove its individual aesthetics. (Look at the Book of Kells in Dublin and
then tell me that those aesthetics aren't important.) Every letterform is
something produced by a living hand at a particular historical moment in a
particular place, though one or more of these coordinates may be unknown. Of
course we want to make more of the unknown known (to "push back the fence of
the law", as Jacob Bronowski said), but great scholarship needs unblinking
recognition of what we don't, and perhaps can never, know. Yes?

And, it seems to me, there's a persistent tendency to downplay the fact --
stressed by calligraphers, who like painters to the art historian tend to be
suspect because they *do* what the scholars study -- that handwritten
letterforms are traces of movement in time involving moment-by-moment
variation in the conditions of production. The workaday scribe (as opposed,
say, to a Jackson Pollock of the edged pen) will want to reduce that
variation to an absolute minimum, but part of being skilled involves the
ability to respond instantaneously to the unexpected, e.g. a defect of the
writing surface. Logically it would make sense, I'd suppose, that capturing
the dynamics of production would get us closer to the identity of the
historical writing hand than mere classification of, say, a Carolingian
minuscule "a" with such-and-such a characteristic bowl or serif. And it just
might open up new questions.

Is progress being made on that front?

What is the state of the art? (Note I didn't say, the state of the science,
but that, too, is a question and needs to be asked simultaneously.)


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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