[Humanist] 29.1 Happy Birthday Humanist!

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu May 7 10:07:31 CEST 2015

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 1.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 06 May 2015 09:52:04 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Happy Birthday Humanist!

Remembrance of Humanist's past, from 7 May 1987, which I yearly celebrate,
was this time triggered by something older. I was looking into the history
of our discipline and serendipitously came across a chapter by Joseph Raben,
"Content analysis and the study of poetry", in a book on content analysis,
The Analysis of Communication Content (1969), ed. Gerbner et al. In it Raben
writes as follows:

> This chapter, on possible inferences from the content analysis of
> poetry, should alert us to the recognition of a reciprocal
> relationship: critics and historians of literature may learn from the
> content analysts a new and potentially valuable approach to their
> subject matter, but an awareness of what this method, as presently
> construed, cannot tell us when applied to literary art may broaden
> the definition of content and spur us to find new ways of measuring
> it. Such an extension is appropriate now, partly because the field is
> new and therefore pliable enough to mold, and partly because attempts
> are already being made to transfer the techniques evolved for
> psychosociological investigations to what (for want of a better term)
> we call "creative" writing. Not only must these techniques be greatly
> refined before they can be properly used in this new application but
> such refinement may also increase their utility in their original
>  sphere.

How widely, I found myself wondering, do we appreciate this form of
reprocity? Ambient technological determinism works against it. The idea of
impact and the billiard-ball theory of history behind that idea impedes it.
Implementation services -- and, of course, the demand to show impact in
scholarly work -- opposes any realization of it with institutional force.

But here we have Joe Raben 46 years ago pointing to the relationship of
reciprocity between the two phenomena named in the title of his journal,
Computers and the Humanities. Experience suggests to me that we still
struggle to realise it. This is so not only because articulating ideas or
forms of research, many of them tacit, is difficult in computational terms.
We struggle also, I suspect, because the cycle of reciprocal exchange
between the two, as Langdon Winner points out in Autonomous Technology
(1977), results in technomorphic humanity as well as anthropomorphic
technology. Scary that. Easier just to lie down and be impacted?

You may be thinking that this is a strange way to begin a birthday message
to Humanist as it enters its 29th year -- even unprecedented, as presenters
on the evening news programmes are fond of saying. But, since Joe was in the
room when the idea of Humanist began, his disturbing words of alert are
especially relevant. Humanist was intended originally to do something about
our situation as then institutional, disciplinary pariahs. Now things are
different, wonderfully so, but aren't they also the same, or nearly so, as
far as Joe's disciplinary reciprocity is concerned? True, the lecture
circuit for digital humanities is an information superhighway (to quote a
quaint phrase), professorships are being advertised, PhDs being granted in
the subject. But how much closer are we to being actively reciprocal in
Raben's sense?

Much of the reciprocity I suspect is hidden (because never published) in
technical practice that surfaces when the demands of research in a
humanities discipline run into the primitive state of the technology. The
great challenge to the latter leads not only to inventions and clever
work-arounds but also to the frustration that could, perhaps sometimes does,
provide a glimpse of a better, a different computing. I wonder if the
anxiety to prove itself valuable to its institutional betters turns digital
humanities aside from such glimpses? Not that they are easy to get. Our
pretty much total lack of the means to describe them stands in the way. I
know, I use loads of words to say that I have none. :-)

Allow me to suggest on this birthday, with Joe's help from long ago, that
what matters is not what scholars know that they want or need but what they
cannot get and mostly don't pause to investigate. Not reasonable hope but
wild, impossible, frustrated desire. Decorously omitted from annual reports
and workload models, of course, but the life-blood of Humanist and other
worthy forums.

Happy Birthday Humanist!


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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