[Humanist] 24.604 Solstitial greetings and reflections

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Dec 21 11:18:01 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 604.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 20 Dec 2010 08:55:09 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Solstitial look into a frosty mirror

On each winter solstitial morning I have for some years felt compelled to
reflect on the year that has passed and post the results -- compelled by a
self-made habit to look back at the very recent past forming itself into a
story. I want to see what I can see that will be of some use to us and to
celebrate the activity that, I fancy, helps in some minor way to form a
group of practitioners into an intellectual community. "Community" is a
heavily over- and mis-used word, I know. I am often not at all certain what
it is supposed to indicate -- an unfocused and unexamined desire to be part
of something bigger than oneself? But like many abused words we nevertheless
continue to need it. I want to think that Humanist's job is for this
particular group to give tongue to that unexamined and inarticulate desire,
to make the word work for us, by reflecting on what Humanist does and has
done this last year. That's one way of putting it. Perhaps you have a better

Humanist's community is special in part because all of its existence lies
within living memory and was largely formed under the influence of nearly
instantaneous world-spanning communication networks. Now I am not for a
minute going to assert that these networks have transcended time and space.
That they haven't becomes very clear once one lives and works in widely
separated places (and takes those places seriously). But e-mail, the Web and
all that have followed have certainly altered both time and space. These
altered parameters are part of our problem and what we do to solve it. For
one thing entities such as Humanist float free of particular departments,
universities and countries. Commitment and loyality can only be to the
discipline, cannot be to any particular institution or any particular model
of how the discipline is instantiated. Quite subversive (which was, of
course, an originating intention). At the same time institutional
instantiation is fundamental. Without the social mandate to do what one does
(or wishes to do), it has been my experience that thinking clearly and
acting effectively are profoundly impeded. That mandate is life-giving. One
can go on without it -- I certainly did for many years, as did many others
here, I expect -- but not easily. So if being free of instutional bonds is
part of Humanist's genius, part of its reason for being is to help form
those bonds.

Since so little has been forgotten or otherwise lost since the last time I
composed one of these messages, this account has to be highly personal,
diary-like (if a likeness is needed). The diary-like character adds to that
which made Humanist, as one here said a while back, something like a blog
before blogging began, though keeping a ship's log of the journey never was
the ambition. When Humanist began, with Listserv in 1987, the thing was
called a "list" and the person who managed it the "moderator". This didn't
seem to me to fit at all. The aim was not to have a list of names and
addresses, rather to make an intellectual community, hence (as we said at
the time) an "electronic seminar". The job-title "moderator" didn't seem
right either. The originating ambition was never "to make less violent,
severe, intense, or burdensome; to make moderate" (OED), though breaking up
fights and flame-wars was not an unknown part of the job. Rather the
opposite: in particular ways, rather it was to enflame. "Agent provocateur"
was and remains my ambition, despite the fact that far more time is spent
reformatting than provoking. My imagination in these matters was not even
late 20th-century, and certainly not the sort exhibited by
www.agentprovocateur.com. Rather it formed from watching cartoons as a child
of 1950s America, specifically of the devilish little man with his plunger
and explosive, at a time when in then recent memory blowing things up was
thought to be heroic rather than evil.

This particular solstitial morning, here in East London, it's very cold, or
so we're told, and (for London) rather snowy. Stories about how difficult
life is for predatory birds, farm-animals, commuters and travellers abound.
Images of people sleeping in airports and queued up for hours abound.
Weather becomes a subject for calculations and, if you're in charge of
Heathrow, severe recriminations. (One traveller asked, "How can three inches
of snow stop one of the world's major airports?" No answer was forthcoming.)
But if you can get anywhere you need to go by walking and can afford to heat
your house, the weather is perfect for a northern hemespheric Christmas.
Epping Forest yesterday was all white at midday, with spots of warm brown
from the underside of tree-branches glowing in the declining sun, the snow
powdery underfoot. 

The year past from this snowed-in perspective? Despite the economic disaster
that has affected so much of the world, jobs in our field have been popping
up here and there at what seems an increasing rate. (Indeed the problem, in
some instances quite acute, is to find qualified people.) The PhD programme
at King's has this year been joined by one at UCL, and perhaps by others?
(News of them most welcome.) Humanist has been growing at its slow, steady
pace, which given the proliferating means of communication online is a very
encouraging sign of health. Within the year digital humanities has been
called "the next new thing", or something like, which I'd dismiss as trivial
but for my memory of a time when known association with computing meant
relegation to academic obscurity. 

Bigger challenges than any so far lie ahead. Of course they do. If they
didn't then all this wouldn't be worth the candle. It's worth wondering what
is the hardest problem? Is it how to make a digital instrument as resonant
for what it has to help us to do as a violin is for playing music? Or is it
to keep our collective eye on the intellectual ball and mind on the game,
and not become distracted with the club's account books, its logo, internal
organisation and the cheerleaders? Or something else? What would you say?

Time enough for resolution and resolutions in the New Year of 2011, however.
Now is time to shut down, water the Christmas pudding with something tingly,
make mince pies and so on and so forth, if that's in your calendar. If not,
do those things that are. At least we all share atronomical regularities,
though of opposite effect for those of us Downunder, perhaps accompanied by
shrimp and champaigne on the beach in the heat of Christmas, or torrential
warm rains on tin roofs for days at a time. Speaking of which, news has just
come in of "Language Individuation: A Symposium in Honour of John Burrows",
to be held in the Australian winter, 4-8 July 2011, at the Centre for
Literary and Linguistic Computing, University of Newcastle NSW
Almost a decade ago the organizer of the coming event, Professor Hugh Craig,
put on in Newcastle the best conference I have ever attended -- best because
the capable people there, speakers and audience, were given the time in
which to consider what each speaker said (for one hour per speaker) and to
discuss it at length (two hours following each paper). So, in 2011,
something eagerly to look forward to, in addition to DH2011 at Stanford in
June (dh2011.stanford.edu/).

Now over to you. What, I wonder, are your professional reflections on the

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.

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