[Humanist] 24.344 mission-shrink

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Sep 20 23:24:35 CEST 2010

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 24, No. 344.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 21 Sep 2010 07:16:50 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: mission-shrink

In a forthcoming paper, "From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient 
Knowledge: Modes Of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology", the American 
anthropologist Pascal Boyer (artsci.wustl.edu/~pboyer/PBoyerHomeSite/) 
notes the steep decline in public attention to the field of cultural 
anthropology thus:

> “Mission creep” is the process, much feared by the military and some
> politicians, whereby a limited tactical goal turns into an impossibly
> ambitious political adventure. Cultural anthropology has in the last
> fifty years or so suffered from the opposite problem, a quite
> dramatic form of “mission-shrink.” Compared to its original agenda,
> and even to what is routinely claimed to be its mission in textbooks,
> cultural anthropology has gradually narrowed its focus to a few
> obscure problems.

The digital humanities (collective noun) is obviously very different in 
many respects, but changing what needs to be changed an object lesson is 
here for us as well. Though we do need to know what to say about 
computing to the broad public, in general our audience is comprised of 
our fellow academics. What of sufficient ambition do we have to say to 
them that will get their attention as scholars on matters of 
scholarship? When (as now happens from time to time) we are invited to 
sit at the table and join in on the conversation, what do we have to say 
that is recognisable as a genuine contribution? What do we have to say 
that makes a difference to the problems of the day? We simply cannot 
any longer afford to be indifferent to them.

It's not easy for a number of reasons, one of which is certainly that 
which people expect to hear from us, what they think they want, which 
quite often is at best something rather less than matches our 
capabilities. But I am concerned that we don't often enough try.

Yesterday I heard a postgraduate student (Jane Felstead, from Swinburne 
University of Technology, Melbourne) in a paper on game studies observe 
that, "the limitation of textual analysis is in its extrication of the 
player from the text". Do we have the wit to recruit such people when we 
find them and to figure out what they're doing that brings them to such 
a realisation? Or do we just shuffle on with our limited technical 



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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