[Humanist] 24.44 how quaint the revolution

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri May 21 08:32:11 CEST 2010

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 44.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

Date: Fri, 21 May 2010 07:25:27 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: how quaint the revolution

Our field -- ragged, criss-crossed by others, ill-defined as it is but
at the centre of considerable activity (I stop here to consider it) --
has among its characteristics the frequent claim of being
*revolutionary*. What is meant by that term isn't that what goes around
comes around in one more revolution along a rutted circular path, but
that everything has changed or is changing, must be re-thought,
re-edited, re-constructed etc etc for a new world into the dawn of which
we are emerging. (Note the re-.) But I wonder about all that.

I think first of all of the great Russian Revolution, and in particular
of Arsenij Avraamov, now best known for his Symphony of Sirens
(sonification.eu/avraamov), who at some point proposed that all existing
musical instruments be destroyed because *everything* had changed. How
quaint (and frightening) that seems now. I think also of the sometimes
embarrassing assertions by those who understandably have to get ahead in
the world that what they're proposing to be paid to do is *innovative*
(softer synonym of "revolutionary"), in which the word is used as an
unqualified virtue, without definition or specification of what's new,
exactly. To my mind there's an urgent, anxious rush past the really
interesting questions to a never quite visible vision of something
somehow better. Out with the old, in with the new, whatever it may be.
Don't worry, you'll forget the sounds of cello and choir and learn to
appreciate the Theramin, even the factory siren and chorus of
machine-gun fire.

I also think, as recently here, about such things as e-book readers both
existing and imaginable. It's not just that wholesale replacement of the
codex is manifestly silly. Rather what I find interesting is how certain
uses of the codex and more generally of printed artefacts are being
resorted, some into e-book containers, some not. Clearly an experiment
in progress. In a parallel correspondence a very bright senior colleague
(who always seems to be up-to-the-minute before the minute has arrived
for most of his younger colleagues) made the observation that,

> Levenger could sell e-books, along with reading desks and revolving
> bookcases and fountain pens.  But they don't sell books.

(If you're not N American, see www.levenger.com/.) That for me sums up
something important about the illustrative change.

Last night, during the launch of the new Centre for Digital Humanities at
University College London (www.ucl.ac.uk/dh/) -- a most welcome addition to
the academic scene -- the keynote speaker James Murdoch, CEO of News
Corporation, Europe and Asia, dwelt on another turbulent resorting, of the
creative output of musicians, artists, filmmakers et al via the likes of
Pirate Bay rather than through channels such as his. (News Corporation
funded Avatar, for example.) Curiously amidst all the talk of the new,
though not surprisingly, he was in effect arguing for a law-enforced return
to the situation prior to the Web, though he didn't say that exactly.

I wonder, what are we doing to ensure that amidst all the shouting
ofrevolution and the rearguard action against change we clear a space in
which the changes may be contemplated and the choices we must make are well
informed? What are we doing to observe rather than merely assert? To train
the next generation of scholars to be able to *see* what is happening? To be
able to recognize the new?



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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