[Humanist] 26.623 Happy Christmas 2012!

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Dec 24 12:51:51 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 623.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 23 Dec 2012 10:42:58 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Christmas 2012

Dear colleagues,

In case you have forgotten or are new here, I'll explain that every year I
write two ceremonial messages, one at Christmas, another for the birthday of
Humanist on 7 May. The Christmas event began many years ago, after a cold,
snowy and exuberant multi-cultural Solstice celebration at Kensington Market
in Toronto that, I thought at the time, marked the end of my involvement
with Humanist. But the separation was only temporary, and ever since the
remarriage I've taken the opportunity to muse on something too lengthy in
the working out for the ordinary working day. So, again today, in the
watery, gentle light of a northern hemispheric morning.

But before I turn to the annual contemplation in this conducive gloom, allow
me to announce the creation late last month of a new Research Group in
Digital Humanities at the University of Western Sydney with strong support
across the institution. The job-description of its founding Professor in
Digital Humanities (level E) will be circulated here and elsewhere early in
the new year, with adverts for other posts in the Group to follow later in
2013. This Research Group is the result of many years' thought by Professor
Wayne McKenna (outgoing Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research), and work in
recent years by Professor Harold Short and myself. It is to be located on
the Parramatta Campus in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts,
with strong ties to the School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
the Institute of Culture and Society, the Writing and Society Research
Centre and several other parts of UWS. 

What started me thinking of ruminating this time around, however, was much
older, French and philosophical: an observation that Henri Poincaré makes
in his preface to Science and Hypothesis (1902). I got to this crucial essay
thanks to a seminar paper Peter Galison recently gave at the Museum of
Modern Art in celebration of their exhibition, Inventing Abstraction,
1910-1925 (http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1291). Galison
points out that Poincaré "redrew the picture of science" prevalent at that
time, from the immediate prospect of rock-solid certainty "to one where
there was always a choice of different systems of description". In his
preface Poincaré describes the notion held by "the superficial observer
[that] scientific truth is unassailable, the logic of science... infallible
[and that] "if scientific men sometimes make mistakes, it is because they
have not understood the rules of the game". He then goes on to assert the
discovery of "the position held by hypothesis", i.e. how the world looks
when one knows only hypothetically. Superficially, he notes, this position
leads to the conclusion "that a breath would bring [the solid foundations of
science] to the ground". But "To doubt everything or to believe everything
are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of

I would suppose that no one here finds Poincaré's words surprising, though
there may be some for whom "everything is constructed" remains a battle-cry.
But I wonder if we (exposed and vulnerable as we are to the idols of the
marketplace and to received, unexamined assumptions) have really assimilated
the implications of that "position held by hypothesis", however primaeval
its realisation, however ancient the articulation. I often wonder if
not-knowing is for humans psychologically always a great struggle, often
seeming worse than the worst outcome, and so making that "position held by
hypothesis" simply too difficult to reach and hold.

What I had in mind and clumsily articulated a few days ago in that note on
XML & scholarship was the interrelation between ourselves as practitioners
of an interdiscipline and all those quite different, hypothetically grounded
forms of disciplinary life. What I was getting bothered by were the
arguments that consider XML -- or any other tool/method we might hold dear
-- absolutely, i.e. without considering the particular contexts into which
it enters. My suspicion is that we, standing outside the older disciplines,
slip into such absolutisms as to judge a tool or method good or bad because
we simply do not see the epistemic cultural particularities by which each
disciplinary context differs from the others.

The blinkered view is, of course, the fruit of disciplinary training: born
into a particular house we come to believe it is the world. But as Stanley
Fish pointed out many years ago, there is no being born other than in one
house or another. So the point, I'd think, is at minimum to look out the
window and see that there are other houses, some quite different, in which
behaviours, rules and expectations vary significantly from our own. What for
me makes the digital humanities so mind-expanding is the imperative to get
out of whatever house-of-origin, visit and learn to feel somewhat at home in
many if not all of these other houses.

Disciplinary blinkerdom is one level or kind of fixity that hypothesis
undermines. Another, perhaps more familiar is what one gets by rewriting
Poincaré's sentence from the point of view of the builder: To condemn a
technology or to believe it is good for all purposes are two equally
convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of experiment. It
seems to me that computing is fundamentally experimental but that we do not
yet properly appreciate what it means to do research and reason in that
style. Peirce somewhere said in his typical fashion that "hypothesis" is
merely another, somewhat more dignified way of saying "guess". Having made
one, we try things out repeatedly to see what happens in disciplined trial
and error. The much missed historian David Gooding has described the process
as the forming and exercising of *construals*: "flexible, quasi-linguistic
messengers between the perceptual and the conceptual.... [that] assimilate
the novel to the familiar..." (Studies in the History and Philosophy of
Science 17.2, 1986, p. 208). If we're onto something, these gradually
converge to become a stable interpretation, in the natural sciences some
would say, real.

Where, for example, does work like this fit into a doctoral dissertation in
the humanities? Into a book? What will more of this kind of thing do to
scholarship? And if experiment is centrally what computing is for as a way
of doing research, how is the digital humanities affected? If we shift
emphasis, as I have advocated in the past, from building vending machines
that please grant-funded colleagues to building experimental devices that
challenge them, at what level of granularity will the products of our
building be manifested? Can we expect that as in the laboratory sciences
there will be a number of standard instruments supplemented by an indefinite
number of special-purpose devices which come and go as research interests
shift? (Someone might say, this is what we already have, but do we think of
them in this way?)

I hear someone saying, or perhaps a chorus shouting, a great dinner (such as
many here will eat shortly) is hard enough on the digestion! But permit me a
moment longer.

Recently at a formal academic event at which a student of mine underwent his
doctoral viva/defense, and in a different mode afterwards at the celebratory
meal, I thought not for the first time, this is what the academic life is
all about, making such things happen. Years ago, during a seminar I taught
for a course led by Northrop Frye, I can recall thinking the same, and then
reflecting that all the nonsense which institutions of higher education
perpetuate in great abundance is at such moments justified. Frye himself
used to say that great works of art are done in a state of grace. I include
scholarship, even if mostly what we see through the fog is the beginning of
a path toward that state of otherwise unimaginable energy and delight.

But before foolishness overtakes me utterly, may I wish for you that at
Christmas, or its (what do I say?) equivalent, there is at least one such
moment of peace and fulfilment?

All the best for the holidays!

Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
(www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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