[Humanist] 29.569 solstitial darkness and Christmas cheer

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Dec 21 10:00:41 CET 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 569.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 21 Dec 2015 08:41:39 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: solstitial darkness and Christmas cheer

Dear colleagues,

Since 1987, with a brief hiatus (when Humanist was Canadian) I've sent 
a message at this time of year on behalf of us all to wish all of us the 
best of the solstice, the winter one for those of us in the Northern 
Hemisphere, the summer for those of us in the Southern. A few here will 
not need to be told the brief history of these notes, but the great 
majority will by this point in the reading of this one, I hope, no 
longer be puzzled. To invoke something the British do supremely well, 
this was once for everyone a cozy message from the cold and dark of the 
solstice to others enjoying the same conditions. But now we are much 
more numerous and widely scattered, some celebrating the time of year in 
the heat of Christmas, even on the beach. (I recall the shock when, 
reading Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection for the first time, 
encountering that phrase, "the heat of Christmas"; it has stood the test 
of time as for me the marker of difference such global distance makes. 
Distance that, I hope, this and other postings from Humanist partially 

Then, too, Humanist was the only means of the few in digital humanities 
to communicate with each other. Now there are many ways, most of which 
(to show my age and inclinations) I have only heard of and determinedly 
not exercised. In spite of those many ways Humanist continues to grow.

We have, I think, spent far too much energy arguing over what to call 
the field that Humanist was created to serve. I don't think, however, 
that anyone has yet reflected on the great flexibility of the current 
term, "digital humanities", which can be both singular and plural. 
"Humanities computing" had the advantage of being rather more obviously 
(as one Australian immigration officer, curious about what I did for a 
living, remarked humorously to me) an oxymoron. I remain convinced that 
our discipline is built on a fruitful contradiction, which is to say 
that its genius is kept alive by the via negativa of algorithmic 
reasoning -- hence as some wisely insist, the necessity to have or to 
have had one's hands into coding. But the stubbornness of "digital 
humanities" in reminding us of the simultaneous unity and diversity of 
the field is indeed also a great gift.

Forgive the philological musings. A brief time in childhood and a longer 
in parenthood have schooled me to put and find gifts under a tree at 
this time of year, to participate in a wrapping up and unwrapping and to 
go on celebrating as long as possible. So here we are. In one of the 
following messages, for example, will be an announcement of research 
associate positions in the Digital Humanities Research Group at Western 
Sydney University. And more quietly, unannounced here, are other signs 
of vigorous growth of digital humanities in Australia. The field grows 
everywhere it has been planted. Major branches are pushing out.

Diversity is insistent. I find the biological metaphor useful, since for 
one thing it reminds us that life is insistent, finding a way in stony 
ground (as it was in 1987 for anyone humanist associated with 
computing). But in the cultural arena of disciplines the metaphor can 
mislead us into thinking that this disciplinary growth happens all by 
itself, independent of what we do, and that just isn't so. Diversity must 
be insisted on, helped, guided. In Chance and Necessity geneticist 
Jacques Monod brilliantly works out an elegant mechanism for life, 
describing three major properties: teleonomy (orientation to an end), 
autonomous morphogenesis (generation of new forms) and 
reproductive invariance (preservation of a specific structural standard), 
or in the terms of this note, the future we desire, the diversity we insist 
on through disagreement and political initiatives and the unity we must 
struggle to maintain. This, it seems, is an age when diversity, even 
incommensurable separateness dominates the attention. It's a 
counterbalancing, of course. But when it takes the form of the 
revolutionary, catastrophic "post-" malady, which identifies a radical 
turning point and denies historical continuities, we must put weight in 
the opposite pan. For the moment at least the imperative, I'd think, is to 
recover and exhibit those continuities, that unity.

Isn't this what Christmas and other solstitial holidays can accomplish? 
So, chucking off the moralizing, allow me in a celebratory spirit, 
without politics, to wish you a happy time and a very fine New Year -- 
in May the start of Humanist's 31st!

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, Western Sydney University

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