[Humanist] 28.355 everything and nothing

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Sep 28 08:43:32 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 355.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2014 12:44:47 +0200
        From: Tim Smithers <tim.smithers at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re:  28.354 everything and nothing?
        In-Reply-To: <20140926061051.23BDA65BD at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard,

I read with interest your "everything and nothing" post, and
went straight on to the Thomas Haigh CACM piece: also

This coincided with reading a piece in Aeon by Tom Uglow:

The arts electric
Digital art and culture mustn’t get caught up in the tools
of its making or it will never transport us somewhere new
by Tom Uglow
Aeon :   http://tinyurl.com/mqkwsqx

Uglow, like some of your Digital Humanist types seems anxious for the
revolution to happen, in digital arts, in his case.

I think Uglow, perhaps like DH revolutionaries, mistakes what makes a
revolution.  He starts his piece pointing us back to 1914 (and there
abouts), and to the (now seen as revolutionary) works of Schoenberg,
Duchamps, Nijinsky and Stravinsky, Cubists, and the like, and argues that
what we have in the digital arts to day--or at least some of it--will, in
about one hundred years, be seen as being equally revolutionary for what it
does with digital stuff.

What made the cited works from around 1914 revolutionary was the different
things done with the same kind of stuff others had been using and some still
were--paint, musical sounds, dance movements.  These works were not
revolutionary for doing things with new stuff.  They were revolutionary for
doing different things with the same stuff.  That's what mostly shocked
others, as Uglow reports.

Doing things with new stuff--new things or similar things--is part of normal
evolution.  Using computers, computation, the digital in the arts has been,
and still is, just part of the way the arts have been and are evolving. 
It's not been, and won't ever be a revolution.  I don't think.

Perhaps we can say the same for the Humanities more generally (since I take
it we'd want to say they include the arts): doing Humanities with new
stuff--digital stuff--is all part of the evolution we'd expect to see going
on, because there always is some evolution in the ways we do things; it's
hard to stop this happening.

Of course, at any point in time, we can see certain people messing around
more with doing things with the new stuff, and we might call them the
revolutionaries, but this doesn't make it a revolution.  It's just the usual
way evolution in practices go.

Revolutions can be exciting, and even leave behind some good things, but
they don't do much exploration.  Evolution, on the other hand, if left to
just get on, tends to do a lot of exploration ...  of what can be done, of
what is practical, illuminating, and usefully discovering of things new.

So, unlike Thomas Haigh, I'd say there are Digital Humanists about today,
quite a few of them: these are the Humanists who are messing around with and
exploring what you can do with the kinds of digital stuff that has become
quite pervasive today.

Depending on what these explorations discover, the evolution of the practice
of the Humanities might move on to become almost all digital in some way or
other.  Then we'll probably just drop the name Digital Humanities, and be
wondering about what we call the next kinds of explorer types in the
Humanities ...  you know, Nano Humanities, or Quantum Humanities, or
something just as strange.  Humans, after all, do seem happy trying to
become all sorts of different kinds of beings.

And, I'd say, contrary to Uglow, getting caught up with the (digital) tools
of its making will take us to places new in the arts, but by evolution, not
by revolution.

Best regards,


Tim Smithers
Donostia / San Sebastián
The Basque Country

On 26 Sep 2014, at 08:10, Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 354.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                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
> http://www.tomandmaria.com/tom/Writing/CACM-WeHaveNeverBeenDigital.pdf
> news of which he has circulated on SIGCIS (http://www.sigcis.org/).
> Comments most welcome here, of course.
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> 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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