[Humanist] 31.113 an over-published topic

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jun 19 08:24:57 CEST 2017

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 113.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (57)
        Subject: the over-published topic

  [2]   From:    Andrew Cusworth <andrewdjcusworth at gmail.com>              (68)
        Subject: Re:  31.112 an over-published topic

  [3]   From:    Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>           (53)
        Subject: Re:  31.112 an over-published topic

        Date: Sun, 18 Jun 2017 06:59:07 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: the over-published topic

For some of us, including me, doing on the one hand, thinking and writing on
the other, are not distinct categories; thinking and writing are doing.
While I admit to getting annoyed with the seemingly endless stream of
writings which worry the definition of 'digital humanities', I don't agree
that all reflections on the field's state and nature are simply
self-aggrandising noise. My view is that the problem lies with what some of
the literature is paying attention to and why that's happening.

Toni Morrison wrote somewhere (in The Bluest Eye?) that we cannot do
anything about the why, we can only deal with the how. She was talking about
something far more serious, but her point is translatable. Nevertheless I
think it's important to identify potential candidates for the why. To begin
with, my leading candidate is the in-toxic-ating blend of popularity and the
anxious state of academia. Once upon a time -- cane-thumping alert -- any
sign of involvement with computing on one's c.v. spelled the end of a career
in the humanities. Now we ageing revolutionaries behold it as 'the next new
thing'. Although some of us have landed academic jobs, acquired PhDs etc in
digital humanities, the underlying problem has not been solved, only
acquired a new form. The fundamental problem, which requires all forms of
doing to be solved, remains: discovery of the common intellectual ground 
or (to summon Galison) trading zone where computing and all the
disciplines trade their goods.

I think that we digital humanists (including myself) have grossly
underestimated the difficulty of connecting with the other disciplines, even
on the rare occasion when invited to do so, even when we've been alert
enough to realise how important such connecting is for a practice that goes
everywhere and so needs everyone's help and gives everyone help. Connecting
amounts to many grand challenges, as the computer scientists are wont to
say. There's first of all the prodigious amount of homework, discipline by
discipline. There's developing the self-awareness of how partial one's own
perspective on each one is. There's the vigilant defence mechanism awakened
within each discipline by any serious but poorly tutored attempt
to connect. That's just for a start. Then we get to the challenge of
awakening our interlocutors and ourselves to the fact that in talking what
sounds like inept history or philosophy or mathematics or literary studies,
say, we're trying to do something new and asking for help in doing it. Some 
of them are exceedingly bright and learned people. Sometimes they just 
don't get it. That's how difficult the job is.

Publishing as 'making public' is vital. But we should be slow, I think, with
turning out books until we know how to write ones that don't annoy Henry and
Jan -- and me. Let's hope for some other next-new-thing to come along and
take the heat off so that others can work in peace.

Sure, for the historian, philologist or whomever, focused on his or her
current research, as long as the digital chisel holds its edge and so allows
the scholar to 'attend from' it (Michael Polanyi's term) to the work at
hand, all this chatter can only seem to be about nothing real. But we know
the tool won't always be -- in fact never quite is -- the right one. Those
over in the digital humanities corner, together with their colleagues in
computer science, need to be left in peace so that they can understand the
sufficiency needed and come up with better tools.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London; Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney
University and North Carolina State University; Editor,
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20)

        Date: Sun, 18 Jun 2017 12:57:52 +0100
        From: Andrew Cusworth <andrewdjcusworth at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  31.112 an over-published topic
        In-Reply-To: <20170618051046.84E731DEE at digitalhumanities.org>

Henry Schaffer's last message chimed with something I felt compelled to
write in my PhD thesis a couple of years ago. Having followed the list
silently for a few years, and wonder if the moment has come to briefly
surface and to share a thought on this. What I wrote then is,
approximately, what I continue to think:

'If digital humanities, its methods and its proponents have a purpose, it
is to vanish, fully integrated into the normal procedures of scholarship.'

It's not entirely in context here, so it sounds more dramatic a statement
than it might otherwise.

With apologies for the self-referencing,
Andrew Cusworth

On 18 June 2017 at 06:10, Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 112.
>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Sat, 17 Jun 2017 08:52:02 +0200
>         From: "Jan Rybicki" <jkrybicki at gmail.com>
>         Subject: RE:  31.109 an over-published topic
>         In-Reply-To: <20170617052132.D0DB71BF7 at digitalhumanities.org>
> > "I'm not going to comment. :-)"
> I am: the worst thing about that is that in any parts of the world (like
> mine), this is often the only way the general humanities crowd has contact
> with DH, and this obviously doesn't make us a lot of friends, because we
> seem like yet another instance of "qu'est-ce qu'ils ne vont pas chercher
> ces humanistes". I don't care if we shed the "digital" in front of the
> "humanities" in five, ten, twenty years - or never. I just want to do it.
> Primum esse, tum philosophari!
> Pragmatically,
> Jan Rybicki
> -----Original Message-----
> > From: humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org [mailto:
> humanist-bounces at lists.digitalhumanities.org] On Behalf Of Humanist
> Discussion Group
> > Sent: Saturday, June 17, 2017 7:22 AM
> > To: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
> > Subject: [Humanist] 31.109 an over-published topic
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 31, No. 109.
>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                        www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>         Date: Fri, 16 Jun 2017 13:22:34 -0400
>         From: Henry Schaffer <hes at ncsu.edu>
>         Subject: a view of dh from the outside
> What topic areas are overpublished? asked of university presses
> "Self-reflexive studies of the digital humanities. I want to see examples
> of how digital scholarship has transformed our understanding of particular
> issues in the humanities rather than yet another effort to define whether
> digital humanities is a field or not."
>  —Charles Watkinson
> Director of the Univ. of Michigan Press
>   I'm not going to comment. :-)
> --henry schaffer

        Date: Sun, 18 Jun 2017 15:56:23 +0000
        From: Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>
        Subject: Re:  31.112 an over-published topic
        In-Reply-To: <20170618051046.84E731DEE at digitalhumanities.org>

I will also comment and strongly agree.  I am a retired Early Modernist (of sorts) and have long been interested--largely from a quite old-fashioned  philological perspective--how computers can help you manage textual data of various kinds. I doubt whether there are any theoretically or "self-reflexively" interesting questions about the digital turn in this field. Marvell famously said "Had we but world enough and time." We don't, and therefore the question about any enterprise is whether it is quite literally "worth while." Computers change the time cost of many operations, often in very drastic ways. That may be the only theoretically interesting thing about them, and once you've got that point, there really isn't much more to be said about from a theoretical perspective. But a lot of very deep and practical consequences follow from it. 

Research into the Early Modern English-speaking world has been immeasurably advanced by the ca. 60,000 transcription of books by the Text Creation Partnership--for many practical purposes a substantially complete deduplicated library of printed materials from 1473-1700. But it will probably take another decade of work by many people in different places to make the query potential of these digital surrogates fully available to scholars.  There is a lot of "invisible work" to be done. It's often quite humble, it is not theoretically interesting--at least not in the ways in which humanities departments think about it, but in the aggregate it will make a big difference.

Mommsen's Corpus of Latin inscriptions offers a predigital analogy. In 1850 access to Roman inscriptions was a sometime thing. Over the course of fifty Mommsen oversaw the "autoptic" transcriptions of all known inscriptions. By 1914 a decent Latinist at Northwestern, then a provincial Midwestern university,  had access to all of them organized by time and space in more than a dozen heavy volumes that would fit on four feet of library shelving. Theoretically uninteresting, but of immense consequence for the study of Roman history.

The TCP corpus may have similar consequences for the study of Early Modern England. But the current data--whether the EEBO image sets or the TCP transcriptions--need a lot of correction, replacement, and metadata enrichment before they unlock their full potential. No single bit of any of this work is theoretically interesting, but the aggregate can be transformative.

A lot of little things add up.  Computers make it easier to coordinate and add up the little things. But they still need to be done, not self-reflexively, but patiently and accurately. The little things are invisible and do not count for much in the prestige economy of the academy. But you cannot build an adequate documentary infrastructure without countless hours devoted to little things. They don't get done by themselves, but need to be funded and recognized. More little things and less self-reflexion might be a good slogan. 

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