[Humanist] 22.392 solstitial celebrations 2008

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Dec 21 10:47:23 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 392.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 21 Dec 2008 09:38:14 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: solstitial celebrations

Dear colleagues,

Those relatively new to Humanist may not know that each year at this 
time I indulge in a long, personal and somewhat whimsical meditation to 
mark the holidays. A celebratory, generous but still not, I hope, 
unreasoning mood dominates. On this particular Solstice I find in fact 
several very good reasons to celebrate. It is true that they are 
unlikely to impress the taxi driver who asks you what you do for a 
living, or the person who cuts your hair and wants to know what the 
social benefits of your research might be. And while these reasons to 
celebrate are less spiritually transformative than was meant by the Zen 
master when he said, "I drank a cup of tea and stopped the war", they do 
help to keep the emotional carborundum at bay, and so us in a better 
state to answer the hard questions of taxi drivers and cutters of hair 
-- and to attempt an understanding of how seriously that Zen master 
meant what he said.

My first reason to celebrate is Humanist's new, shiny (but to you almost 
entirely invisible) vehicle. It replaces an editorial mechanism for 
processing messages originally designed and implemented by Michael 
Sperberg-McQueen, then after many years reworked by Malgosia Askanas. 
Her perl-scripts lasted for quite a while -- more than 8 years, I think 
it has been. But during this time changes in the complexity of e-mail 
communications and development of supporting systems made those scripts 
increasingly inadequate, my job more and more frustrating. Then, over 
the last many months, thanks to the extraordinary generosity of the 
Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO, 
www.digitalhumanities.org), Malgosia was paid to rethink, redesign and 
rebuild all of the mostly invisible infrastructure. Hallelujah!

[All those unaffected by British popular culture should skip immediately 
to the next paragraph. For those who are affected, I intend no X Factor! 
Rather, as antidote, substitute Jeff Buckley's version, which is much, 
much better.]

Now is the first occasion in some years, I think, that Hanukkah itself 
begins on the Solstice. I looked up the date because I wanted to send 
proper greetings to a Jewish friend of mine. This in turn prompted me 
with extra urgency to make sure the annual Humanist message was sent out 
on the Solstice. In addition my Muslim neighbours, whose children are 
deeply fascinated by our Christmas tree, reminded me that Muharram 
(Islamic New Year) begins on 29 December. Other festivals for very good 
reason cluster around this time and give varying light in the gloomy 
darkness. But here I must of course relativize my cozy picture of a 
gathering of candles in the darkness, connoting unity in the diversity 
of the world, since the world is in fact round and orbits the sun in a 
particular way. An Australian colleague, finally handing in a chapter of 
a book I am editing, commented that now he could go off to enjoy the 
lazy days of Summer. I still find the reality of a blazing, hot 
Christmas impossible to get my mind around, having been Downunder only 
once during the Summer, and then rather further south than the really 
hot weather reaches. (In mid Summer Tasmania can be quite chilly!) So I 
hope friends and colleagues in Australasia can forgive all the cozy 
darkness that has crept into my prose, and perhaps they can contribute 
some of their warmth.

And that's not all. I must also acknowledge my quite inadequate 
experience of winter darkness in comparison to that of friends in the 
REAL north. An Australian ex-pat living in Umea, Sweden, once attempted 
to describe to me, on a very sunny late evening in mid Summer, a typical 
season of darkness there. He spoke of vivid, hallucinogenic dreams. But 
then he was Australian and had not lived there all that long.

On the home-front geographically speaking there is, I think, good cause 
to celebrate our growing and developing PhD in Digital Humanities at 
King's. Its principal constraint is funding, not interest in it from 
potential students, which is strong, nor the willingness of colleagues 
in other departments to collaborate. It will surprise no one that the 
degree is primarily collaborative: a majority of our students with other 
departments, e.g. Portuguese, History, Byzantine and Modern Greek and 
the social sciences. But a majority of these have come to the degree 
because of the "digital humanities" label, and so we have had the 
pleasure of inviting other departments to participate. There are a few 
potential applicants in the wings developing their ideas, potentially 
with English, Computer Science, Philosophy and perhaps Geography. We 
could easily have 3 or 4 times the number currently enrolled if the 
funding were in place. We're working on that and on ideas, such as the 
"semi-distance PhD" I've mentioned before.

There now can be no doubt that our subject is capable of vigorously 
healthy research at the most advanced degree level. Put that under your 

And there is no end to the intellectual ferment the combination of 
computing and the humanities brings to the older disciplines, as our 
colleagues in other departments will attest. Two of the areas that 
particularly concern me are the development of an historical sense in 
the field, with the light that throws on the affected disciplines, and 
the particular way we do interdisciplinarity. I'm astonished at how much 
raw historical material there is. Even a rather shallow sampling turns 
up many if not most of the intellectual concerns on our plate today and 
exhibits great intelligence and imagination. Such has been our 
progress-driven habit of mind that we've often lost sight of such 
valuable work. It's not so much that we end up "reinventing the wheel" 
(an example of a misleading metaphor, as if ideas, and ideas in 
software, were stable objects like wheels) but that we get caught up in 
an endless cycle of forgetting. As a result we have great difficulty 
developing a disciplinary sense of ourselves and so a helpful sense of 
our disciplinary relations. Every once in a while someone notices that 
we've not had an IMPACT on a particular field of research.  (Feel the 
billiard balls collide, o wooden heads!) Such complainers seem oblivious 
to the long history of complaint, dating back to the early 1960s, and so 
miss the highly intelligent responses to these litanies of failure, the 
very useful misunderstandings they illuminate and the parallel phenomena 
in the wider culture. It's a curious shtick but, as I say, helpful as a 

I digress away from celebration and so beg your forgiveness. Allow me to 
return via a problem I find particularly fascinating at the moment: the 
relation of progress (characteristic of technology) to questioning 
(characteristic of the humanities). The fact that the former cannot be 
denied seems new in the humanities, at least since codex technology 
became part of the furniture. Recently a classicist friend of mine 
wanted to know why it was that I keep going on about changing things. 
Did I have imperial ambitions? he asked. This got me to thinking about 
the origins and effects of my progress-affected field, and especially 
about the fact that new tools actually can augment the intelligence with 
which we begin and so enable us to think in new ways. So I began to 
wonder about what the leaven of progress is doing to the bread we bake.

In sum the imaginative richness of our own brief past is surely a fine 
Christmas present to be unwrapped -- again and again. Is there room under 
the tree?

And finally in my catalogue is a great cause to celebrate, directly for 
us in the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King's College 
London, indirectly for the digital humanities as a whole: the result of 
the U.K. 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, to which we were submitted 
as an academic department for the first time in this round. The details 
are complex, but suffice it to say that as these things are measured our 
field now has robust standing among the disciplines in the U.K. de jure 
as well as de facto. Whatever one may say about such processes -- 
indeed, there is much to say both positive and negative -- gaining 
recognition of this kind allows many good things to happen that would 
otherwise have little chance nowadays. (Thank you Harold!)

Again, being a northern hemispherean, what strikes me is the playing off 
of our cozy warmth and good cheer against the chill and, and on this 
day, darkest time of the year. Yes, we are all, as John Donne said, 
riding westward. But what a ride! Perhaps life would be better at this 
moment on a beach somewhere in the sun. I certainly hope it is good for 
computing humanists enjoying such circumstances (with a fast wireless 
connection, of course).

Anyhow, for the twenty-second time I wish you all a happy, merry 
Christmas, a joyous Hanukkah, a hopeful Muharram and as many sweet 
etceteras as there are at hand to be enjoyed.


Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.

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