[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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