[Humanist] 23.202 making a difference & the dematerializing book

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Jul 30 07:05:05 CEST 2009

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 202.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>          (156)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.199 on Grafton's dematerializing book

  [2]   From:    John Laudun <jlaudun at mac.com>                             (69)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.199 on Grafton's dematerializing book

  [3]   From:    Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>                    (80)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.197 making a difference

  [4]   From:    Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>                    (31)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.192 making a difference

  [5]   From:    Peter Batke <batke_p at hotmail.com>                         (16)
        Subject: Grafton

        Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 07:22:41 -0500
        From: Martin Mueller <martinmueller at northwestern.edu>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.199 on Grafton's dematerializing book
        In-Reply-To: <20090729052448.EB7611DFBC at woodward.joyent.us>

I am struck by easily the metaphor of 'whoring after false gods' still  
comes to our minds and how it is always right in some ways and wrong  
in deeper ways. A sixteenth-century Italian, whose name I don't  
recall, said that 'the pen is a virgin, the printing press a whore'.  
Plato was more polite about the disadvantages of writing. But the  
point is always the same: a tool that makes something easier and  
faster is seen as a threat because it replaces hard-earned wisdom with  
easy knowledge.

Similar arguments apply to statistics, perhaps with greater relevance.  
I dimly remember an exchange in the New York Review of Books in which  
Ian Hacking (I think) argued that people shouldn't use statistical  
procedures if they don't understand the math.  And perhaps we will all  
be ruined by those new thoughtless and split-second trading tools ...

But barring that event, Barnes' complaint is just another version of a  
very old cost/benefit calculus. When an invention lowers the time cost  
and difficulty of doing X,  the benefits of doing X more easily and  
cheaply will be offset to some extent by using X recklessly or without  
understanding.  What Barnes says about the TLG is just as true of the  
Liddell and Scott print dictionary or of the OED, as you can see by  
varying the quotation

The {TLG|LSJ|OED}  is a lovely little resource
(I think that's the word) and I use her all the time. But she's
strumpet-tongued: she flatters and she deceives. "What an enormous
knowledge you have, my young cock -- why not let me make a real
scholar of you?" And the young cock crows on his dung-hill: he can
cite anything and construe nothing.

Behind all this is the nightmare of mechanized learning. In Pope's  
Dunciad and Goethe's Faust there are funny and eloquent evocations of  
it. On the other hand, some of the people that Pope poked fun at look  
quite good in retrospect. And everybody, including Barnes, proves by  
his behaviour that the benefits exceed the costs: "I use her all the  
time".  I won't go into the  gender aspects of all this: ancilla,  
handmaid, handbook . . .

If we were all virtuous and living by the motto of 'per aspera ad  
astra', every scholarly act would be the Heraclean choice of climbing  
the mountain without rain gear or ropes. In the late fifties I was  
very briefly employed by British Railroads, and my task was to add up  
the milk and chocolate sales from vending machines. When I showed up  
in the office I noticed an adding machine on the top of a bookshelf. I  
asked "why don't you use this?"  I was told sternly that it would ruin  
our math skills to use this machine and that the office used it only  
to check results. That never struck me as a very plausible policy.

        Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 08:24:55 -0500
        From: John Laudun <jlaudun at mac.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.199 on Grafton's dematerializing book
        In-Reply-To: <20090729052448.EB7611DFBC at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear All,

It strikes me that both the ongoing discussion about what difference  
digital makes and McCarty's wonderment about Grafton and company  
really are two facets of the same jewel at which we all seem to keep  
staring, mistaking it, if I may continue the metaphor for just a  
moment more, for the light which it refracts. (I'm going to return to  
this Gothic moment later.)

The point of reading, it seems to me, is to engage in better and more  
diverse kinds of dialogue. Wisdom does not flow from books, but from  
conversations between people. Perhaps this reveals my own deep  
indebtedness to philosophers like Karl Jaspers but such an idea is  
found in folk philosophies around the world. (E.g., the rural Irish  
concern for the man who keeps too much to himself.)

Here, digital does make a difference, even if only that difference is,  
as other posters have noted, once of making things happen more  
readily. Still, the chance conversation between the scholar and the  
ordinary citizen is much more likely to happen in a place where both  
can be, if not simultaneously, at least in a deferred fashion. For  
this, I look no further than my own research with rice farmers and  
meta shop workers who regularly check my blog and my Flickr account to  
see what I've been up to and to wonder why I forgot to interview so- 
and-so. (I really should.)

In turn, they submit to me, and to others, there own photographs and  
videos from their own archives, greatly expanding the historical  
record as they do so.

I am fairly certain that many, many of us share this active difference  
that the digital makes possible -- and by active difference I mean an  
orientation by action. Some of this is born out by the analysis that I  
am currently doing looking at the narratives collected by Project  
Bamboo from a variety of scholars sprinkled across the nation. So far,  
the common themes are really things people want to be able to do:  
access, search, digitize, manage, collaborate, preserve, compute.  
(It's interesting that compute really amounts to the smallest  
percentage of actions people wish to perform.) They want all these  
actions to be pervaded by two properties: annotated (metadata) and  
authentic (authorized).

What's interesting about these actions is that under "collaborate" a  
number of the narratives/scenarios are really about opening up the  
scholarly convention not only to students but also to just regular  
people, who have their own ideas and practices. (And, to answer from a  
folklorist's perspective an earlier conversation about is a prototype  
a theory? Yes, from my own experience as a field researcher, most  
folks do not have theories about why they do what they do. They don't  
need to. It's embedded in the doing. It can be drawn out to some  
degree, but not directly.)

So I don't mind if the book dematerializes. Let it go. The codex is a  
particular manifestation of a much longer-lived idea: that marks in  
the physical can lead to conversations that lead to ideas. (And, yes,  
this probably resembles Heideegger's sense of "aletheia," but I did  
warn you with a reference to Jaspers up front where this note was  

All of this reminds me of the construction binge our good Abbott Suger  
kicked off and put a whole lot of masons to work, all of whom had  
competing senses of what the right proportions were. The legacy of the  
ideas they carried in their head can be glimpsed in the architectural  
mess that is Chartres, among other cathedrals. The advantage we now  
enjoy is that many of those same workers carry smartphones and  
regularly check e-mail and our blog pages, if we but invite them.


John Laudun
Department of English
University of Louisiana – Lafayette
Lafayette, LA 70504-4691
laudun at louisiana.edu
ResearcherID: A-5742-2009
Twitter/Facebook/Flickr: johnlaudun

        Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 12:39:26 -0400
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.197 making a difference
        In-Reply-To: <20090729051502.32F2D1DD67 at woodward.joyent.us>

Hi again,

I agree with Steve Ramsay's latest post so much, I wish I had written 
it myself. But of course, I couldn't have, not sitting in the same place.

In any case, among other things, he writes:
>I am more and more convinced, though, that humanistic inquiry is a deeply
>ethical endeavor -- that it can and should lead to something that was once
>called "wisdom."  Certainly, I believe that of the classroom.  But I am also
>coming to believe that unless we put forth a basically ethical definition of
>what we do as researchers, we might well be doomed.  The idea that the
>"liberal arts" so called would make you a more tolerant, compassionate,
>understanding individual -- that it would make you less prone to knee-jerk
>reactions and reductive generalizations -- is one that persisted for
>centuries, but it seems like an idea that embarrasses us today.
>That, at least, is the conclusion I draw from a yearly ritual in the U.S. in
>which the panels at the MLA are publicly mocked in the pages of prominent
>national magazines, and we respond with chilly silence.  I suspect that our
>real response to such charges -- something like what I've briefly and
>tentatively outlined above -- feels a bit too conservative to us.  But then
>I wonder *why* we regard such ideas as conservative, and not liberal in the
>positive, traditional sense.

It seems to me there are three related problems here:

1. The problem of understanding and affirming ourselves and our work.

2. The PR problem -- what Melissa Terras referred to when asking how 
we justify ourselves to the boards and bureaucrats, and what Steve 
refers to when pointing to the perennial dance in the media (here in 
the US) between journalists and their erstwhile classmates who have 
gone on to deliver papers at MLA.

3. The problem of embarrassment, which both encompasses and 
complicates both of these.

Because, of course, it is proper to be embarrassed by what one is 
most proud of.

See, the thing is, I (and perhaps many readers here) actually concur 
with the journalists that MLA panels have a ridiculous aspect. On the 
other hand, what the journalists don't allow is how they also have a 
deeply serious aspect. Really, MLA papers, taken together or 
individually (and they are always ridiculed individually), are no 
more ridiculous than the collections that appear seasonally on Paris 
fashion runways. Probably less so. But popular culture tolerates and 
even celebrates haute couture, for all its ridiculousness. Why is 
this? Well, for one, the core of the fashion industry, being as 
wealthy as the inner precincts of any other self-sustaining economic 
activity (which the humanities, blessedly, are not and never have 
been), need apologize to no one in our material world.

But for another, their lack of embarrassment is reflected in the 
media, who somehow seem to understand and acknowledge that for all 
its ridiculousness to those of us unschooled in fashion -- indeed, 
inseparably from it -- these people who design clothes and handbags 
and sunglasses are actually legislators, in Shelley's great sense of 
that term. They teach us what to see and feel, what to regard. They 
lead us to renewal and self-acceptance. Although these might be 
frivolous goals in themselves, we understand they are also 
prerequisites of more positive and series engagement: that for all 
its childishness, this is also vital and hopeful.

To return to the problem of the digital humanities as such, these 
issues then fall into themselves like Russian dolls, as Steve and 
Melissa try to justify their work with the digital to colleagues 
inside a profession, the academic humanities, which itself looks for 
justification and affirmation without finding much and without the 
means to buy it.

So how can we respond but with boldness, like a fashion model, 
wearing a ridiculous getup, stepping in front of the lights and cameras?

To this end, I think we need to recognize and affirm the ethical 
dimension that Steve discusses: the humanities are educative of the 
heart as well as the mind, and of both together, as each educates the 
other. We start by practicing identity politics, but in the inquiry 
into what makes our nation or tribe distinctive, we discover what 
connects us with our world and makes us human. The digital aspects of 
our work need to be recognized as an extension and instrument of this project.


Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street                    Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207                                          Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD  20850                                 Fax: 301/315-8285
   Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML

        Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 14:48:06 -0400
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at mulberrytech.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.192 making a difference
        In-Reply-To: <20090728060054.82585328D6 at woodward.joyent.us>

Hi again,

Something else occurred to me not long after I sent my latest.

At 02:00 AM 7/28/2009, Melissa wrote:
>I'd just like to chip in and say this is what the funding councils are
>calling "Evidence of Value" - and are asking us to show evidence for the
>value of digital humanities research.  Its important, as funding cuts in
>this area (such as the withdrawal of funds for the AHDS) are based on
>the perceived lack of evidence of value. Unless we can articulate, as a
>community, the better/faster/more nature of digital, we will struggle
>even harder for funding in years to come.

One of the interesting questions at the heart of these concerns is 
whether the humanities in general or DH in particular need to justify 
themselves in terms of commodifiable output, or whether anything can 
ever be justified on the grounds that it is a good idea and someone 
should be doing it.

By "commodifiable output" I mean the implicit or explicit premise 
that something offers a "skill" or "knowledge" that might enable a 
student to do something "productive" such as build a bridge, try a 
case in court, sell hosiery, or end world hunger.

This is a problem in the sciences too, isn't it?


Wendell Piez                            mailto:wapiez at mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc.                http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street                    Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207                                          Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD  20850                                 Fax: 301/315-8285
   Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML


        Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2009 17:17:03 +0100
        From: Peter Batke <batke_p at hotmail.com>
        Subject: Grafton
        In-Reply-To: <20090728060054.82585328D6 at woodward.joyent.us>

Another New Yorker article ["Future Reading," by Anthony Grafton. New Yorker, November 5, 2007] by the star humanities Professor Anthony Grafton gives a rather ambiguous view of the Google book digitization project. One fact cannot be escaped, when Professor Grafton speaks, the humanist profession listens.

Professor Grafton is also suspicious of the profit motive of Google and others. He is also very correctly concerned with the poorest societies and non-Western texts. He is concerned with the lack of balance between population and library books in India and the UK. 1100/36 vs. 60/116 - population/library books in millions. He is appropriately concerned with the rights of the authors of out of print books (1923 to the present, but easily extendable by another fifty years some time soon). No one should accuse modern humanists of a narrow focus.

Professor Grafton does not believe in a trend towards universally accessible knowledge representation; he knows the raw materials of such a project too well. Since he can demonstrate an encyclopedic knowledge of the handling of information in the past and uncounted well documented problems, which he is not loath to share in detail, we can assume that he sees only problems and no solutions in Google's efforts. Of course Professor Grafton's work in the history of scholarship is first rate, as is his involvement with high profile digital projects, that is not the issue. The problem is one of past vs. future. A highly trained humanist, working with texts in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, etc. familiar with the development of the text tradition in the last 2000 years will not succumb to hyped vaporware. Computer scientists not so encumbered will attempt to make vapor coalesce into an alpha version at the low end of functionality; the future, after all stretches before us, and alphas become betas become Version 3.0. The highly trained humanist will appreciate, use and offer improvements on specific, high-quality digital humanities projects; however, we can not expect unqualified support for tentative beginnings.

It is not unlike trying to persuade a traffic cop at a Broadway and 34th in the year 1900 that at some point electric signals will replace his (I am pretty sure about this pronoun, historically speaking) function. Clearly at some point the traffic of the city will be controlled electronically by engineers monitoring the grid from satellites, but try to convince the cop at the turn of the previous century.

Yet there are some minor chinks in Professor Grafton's armor, not in his history of humanisms, or in his history of printing, if there are chinks there I would be the last to know, but in his demonstration of familiarity with electronic methods and work flow. Hands on familiarity with electronic files would have affected his discussion of questionable (read: faulty, incorrect) OCR. It would also not have let him refer to Gutenberg texts as hand-keyboarded when in fact most files represent cleaned OCR. Cleaning OCR is in fact the main task before us. The history of scholarship cannot be considered complete if the main problem of electronic representation of text is not recognized as the main tasks before us, today. There was a time when producing copies of Aristotle was the main task. Nevertheless, projects are mentioned, the balance between skepticism and informed critique is maintained.

Professor Grafton's notion that the road through the digital is easy and the road through books is narrow and hard, which concludes his article seems weak and contrived, although I suspect it is intended to be inspirational. Perhaps it is aimed at a younger generation that is all digital, perhaps he knows the readers of the New Yorker well, fair enough, but there are many laborers in the field of digital humanities that are trying to widen the access to texts and to take away some of the boulders in the road left by generations of pedants who became stewards of our textual heritage.

I believe that the Google founders, who have benefited from the best American universities have to offer and who optimized their educational experience and that of their co-workers, are simply not willing to see humanists disappear down a rabbit hole to perform mysterious rites with their texts. With very few exceptions, the high-resolution color image of a medieval manuscript on a laptop is a superior resource than the vellum lying on a varnished table. Electronic transcriptions of a manuscript tradition side-by-side in table format are superior to a printed "normal" text with variant readings in the footnotes. Photographing a 16th century folio and working with the color images of the 500 pages is far superior to trying to prop open the book on foam rubber wedges and hold down the pages with velvet bags of marbles. We can confidently expect libraries to keep busy and digitize their holdings and let us work with the images, OCR the text and clean it and let us develop data structures and statistical routines to organize textual communication. The smell of the parchment can be an entry in the metadata provided by the archivist if must be, I suspect it smelled differently in the 16th century.

I am sure we can look forward to more star humanists entering the lists urged by the increased functionality of the hyper-vapor, to quote Professor Grafton: "It is hard to exaggerate what is already becoming possible month by month and what will become possible in the next few years." One might respond humbly: "It is hard to know what that means, Professor Grafton, but we assume you also Google."

Peter Batke
batke<mailto:batke_p at hotmail.com>_p at hotmail.com<mailto:batke_p at hotmail.com>

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