[Humanist] 23.675 Yale, the past and the future

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Mar 4 08:14:20 CET 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 23, No. 675.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 3 Mar 2010 08:45:51 -0600
        From: Douglas Knox <knoxdw at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 23.669 Yale, the past and the future
        In-Reply-To: <20100302060521.98CF84E1C7 at woodward.joyent.us>

This has been an interesting discussion, and I have followed it generally
with much agreement. But thinking back to the conference that provided the
occasion for this thread, "The Past's Digital Presence," I wonder about some
directions the discussion did not take. It seems to me that the metonymy
that is Yale here may have distracted from aspects of the conference quite
unrelated to its location.

I did not attend the PDP conference, but of the many recent conferences I
have failed to attend, this was one of the most intellectually engaging. I
caught some sense of it intermittently through digital humanities folks on
Twitter, enough to make an effort to go back and find out more. The fact
that it happened to be at an Ivy location didn't matter to me; the fact that
senior scholars participated did register, but if a sense of intellectual
excitement reached me remotely, I was well aware that much more junior
people from a variety of places were not just the means of conveyance but
largely the source.

In addition, what I saw remotely in the conference didn't suggest to me it
was claiming to be a signal moment in the disciplinary institutionalization
of "digital humanities" as such. Since reading this thread I have listened
to Jana Remy's podcast of the roundtable, and it seems to me that what Ed
Ayers was welcoming was the sign that graduate students within existing
humanities disciplines were not waiting for ivy departments and tenured
positions to give them permission and make it safe to organize themselves
and to think through what digital methods and resources might mean for the
intellectual questions they are grappling with in their work.

This conference, multidisciplinary but focused on the study of the past,
seemed to me to provide hints of some salutary developments in the
engagement of history with related historical disciplines in the humanities
and with thinking through "the past's digital presence." Of all the
humanities disciplines, history has perhaps been the least driven by theory,
and the politics of theory has been quite different from what it has been in
literary studies or other fields; different relations to theory have indeed
often been part of boundary-drawing between disciplines.

What I thought I glimpsed between the tweets about PDP2010 was nascent
home-grown theory arising out of methodological reflection within
historically oriented disciplines. Digital challenges to presumptions about
research, evidence, analysis, communication, and audience certainly call for
this reflection throughout the humanities, not just in humanities
departments but in libraries, archives, museums, and publishing enterprises
driven by an intellectual mission. The grad students who came together for
PDP recognize the necessity of thinking about, and historicizing, the role
of libraries, archives, their own collecting and publishing, and, not least,
the dark matter of missing information, in the production of knowledge about
the past.

I don't know whether PDP itself will have much significance or promise from
the perspective of  strategizing to further institutionalize digital
humanities as discipline and departments. But if it represents another
instance of those who have something to bring to digital humanities as a
rich, plural, open intellectual trading zone, there's reason for optimism
(as Willard remarked), and reason to welcome those who have chosen not to
wait for pedagogy or for tenure to discover for themselves what is already
at hand, and how it matters to them. The subject line of this thread has
highlighted the past and future, but the conference title (as Ayers noted)
was not about the past's speculative future, but about its presence. The
past for our time is already here, and intellectual engagement with it is
already decentralized and ongoing.

Douglas Knox
Newberry Library

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