[Humanist] 28.354 everything and nothing?
Humanist Discussion Group
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Sep 26 08:10:50 CEST 2014
Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 354.
Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2014 06:34:41 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
Subject: everything and nothing
Ever since I became involved with computing in the humanities ca. 1984
I've observed two characteristic ways of dealing with the still puzzling
collision of the two: one is to assert in the manner of a revolutionary
that everything has changed, or slightly more cautiously, that
everything is about to change; the other is to counter by asserting that
nothing has, and furthermore that the revolutionaries' cries will die
down and soon fall silent as once again we take the temporarily new for
granted. Since (Andy Warhol might have said had he been less flamboyant)
fame tends not to last very long, and most people just want to be left
in peace, the reactionary position almost always wins out. Don't worry,
everything's taken care of, you can go home now.... And of course some
of the revolutionaries, having made their fortunes, retire to enjoy them.
Variants of the nothing-here argument come to mind. One is what I call
the quasi-Marxist argument that once the revolutionary guard has done
its work, the State will wither away and the proletariat will rule.
(Read: everyone will eventually be digital, so there will be no need for
"digital humanities" as a distinct entity. After all, do we have a
"typewriter humanities"?) Another, which I think of as belonging to
Brian Cantwell Smith from a talk he gave in the early naughties, is
this: the genius of digital computing is that it renders digital
representation irrelevant. (Well, yes, if what you're interested in is
the product rather than the process.) Another is to use digital
humanities as a springboard to leap off into realms of abstraction,
a.k.a. e.g. "digitality", and so achieve a safe distance from the
dirty, noisy machinery.
Thus the polarization of the digital into everything and nothing. It is
remarkably like the usual, and quite uninformed, views of the humanities
from the perspective of the sciences and of the sciences from the
perspective of the humanities. Two cultures, incommensurable and
mutually unintelligible. Or, actually, the view of any discipline from
any other discipline -- unless, to follow Northrop Frye, you take your
discipline as a starting point, a centrum ubique circumferentia nusquam.
Stanley Fish argued long ago that there is no perfectly neutral
standpoint from which to view all disciplines. True enough. But there is
the expanding, which creates intersections that challenge, enlighten,
inform. Because computing is not only what we know now but a scheme for
the inventing of indefinitely many computings, and because the
humanities cannot stand still whatever our personal failings, however
low the declining enrolments fall, it seems to me that the intersection
of the two will be an exciting place for a long time to come. Or so I
hope and strive to help make so.
These, by the way, are reflections on reading the very stimulating
column by Thomas Haigh in Communications of the Association for
Computing Machinery (CACM) readable without subscription at
news of which he has circulated on SIGCIS (http://www.sigcis.org/).
Comments most welcome here, of course.
Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney
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