[Humanist] 22.403 writing and pioneering

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed Dec 24 10:53:58 CET 2008

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 403.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 24 Dec 2008 09:52:41 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: writing and pioneering

At the beginning of her astonishingly resonant book, Open Fields: 
Science in cultural encounter (Oxford, 1996), Dame Gillian Beer writes 
about Keats and Darwin -- the poet's insistence in "The Fall of 
Hyperion" that "only the written gives any hope of survival", and the 
naturalist's transcribing of what he saw. "Darwin, energetically 
observing and writing before the establishment of genetic theory," she 
says, "had to have the patience of the pioneer -- the patience not to 
know for sure within his lifetime 'Whether the dream now purposed to 
rehearse / Be poet's or fanatic's', whether it would prove to be 
authentic or delusive." (p. 14).

So, for us a question and a consolation of sorts.

The question is, does the same hold true for the digital humanities, 
that "only the written gives any hope of survival"? Given the short 
life-span of software artefacts, our ignorance of how to read them and, 
as Peter Galison has noted for non-verbal artefacts generally, their 
polysemous existence beyond the meaning assigned by their creators, can 
any such artefact ever stand for itself wholly without written 
commentary and explanation? Solid work in the history of science and 
technology gives us the intriguing idea of "thing knowledge", but in any 
given case, can we say what that knowledge is without using words? Is it 
knowledge without words?

(Those here who know their Swift will recall in Gulliver's Travels, book 
3, chapter 5, his description of the Laputan "Scheme for entirely 
abolishing all Words whatsoever": "that since Words are only Names for 
Things, it would be more convenient for all Men to carry about them, 
such Things as were necessary to express the particular Business they 
are to discourse on.... which hath only this Inconvenience attending it, 
that if a Man's Business be very great, and of various kinds, he must be 
obliged in Proportion to carry a greater bundle of Things upon his Back, 
unless he can afford one or two strong Servants to attend him. I have 
often beheld two of those Sages almost sinking under the Weight of their 
Packs, like Pedlars among us; who, when they met in the Streets, would 
lay down their Loads, open their Sacks, and hold Conversation for an 
Hour together; then put up their Implements, help each other to resume 
their Burthens, and take their Leave." Of course a laptop with a fair 
sized hard disc isn't nearly as heavy.)

The consolation is, I suppose, that we may look back at those, like 
Darwin, who were as uncertain of what they said and did as we are of 
what we say and do. Often I contemplate by example what a mature 
discipline allows its practitioners to do. We can only hope, I suppose, 
for a magnanimous audience and do what we can to cultivate it.


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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