[Humanist] 24.550 a digital stylistics?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Dec 4 10:16:46 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 550.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 04 Dec 2010 09:08:04 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: digital stylistics

The other evening I found myself at a seminar at which a very impressive 
textual resource was presented. This resource was originally put 
together for print by a scholar trained long before the popularity of 
the digital medium would have brought alternatives forcibly to his 
attention. Apart from being deeply impressed by the scholarship it 
represents and makes available, I was struck by its oldfashioned 
qualities, and I made some rather silly remark along those lines. But 
looking further at a typical paragraph of its output, I realised that to 
make it newfashioned would require a complete revision, root and branch, 
which in turn would almost certainly mean that a properly born-digital 
version would never see the light of day. So the choice was clear.

But thinking about it now, what strikes me is the more general 
phenomenon of change in the stylistics of reference in scholarship. If I 
had written a commentary, say in the 1950s, and had to refer to a 
published work, I might well have written something like this:

> ... for the inflection of the Latin verbs of motion see Angela Dixon,
> "Irregular patterns in Latin verbs of motion", Journal of Latin
> Studies 23.4 (Winter 1944), pp.5-8...

What would I write now? I'd be thinking about someone who would want to 
find all works written by Dixon and similar sorts of questions, and 
would have to hand mechanisms for linking to a standard bibliographic 
reference, and so would do something very different.

More subtle are the effects of wide-ranging digital bibliographic 
resources, bringing to light connections between an argument and others 
in several other disciplines. I find myself always tempted as a result, 
to write in a highly referential style, citing, because I had the 
references to hand, numerous other authors and places 
where one could find parallel or more developed arguments.

On the one hand this is good, I suppose. My readers can  
rejoice (I have told myself) in the treasure-trove of references, 
speeding from my argument into the network of scholarship I have 
uncovered. On the other hand they leave my argument quickly behind. 
Indeed, I am implicitly urging them to do so. Let's say I had 
something important to argue and did it well; indeed, let's say I 
had something unique to contribute. Would my highly referential style be 
the best way to write?

Or let us say that I am replying in a more conversational mode, as on 
Humanist, to someone else's questions. How easily I might fall into an 
even unintended dismissal of my interlocutor's argument by piling on the 
references, so easily dredged up, saying in effect, "you silly, this 
topic has been addressed numerous times, e.g. in X, Y, Z, W....". Let's 
say that my interlocutor's intention had been to reconsider that topic. 
All my helpful references would do the opposite of 
what I had intended. Or let us say that I was annoyed by the 
question he or she had raised. It would be far easier than it ever 
has been to bury that question in a welter of distractions.

My point? It is that the stylistics of digital scholarship is a new 
ball-game, demanding attention to how we write.


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

More information about the Humanist mailing list