[Humanist] 25.211 subtle and not so subtle changes

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Aug 4 22:17:49 CEST 2011


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 211.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org



        Date: Wed, 3 Aug 2011 23:50:03 +0200 (CEST)
        From: marjorie.burghart at free.fr
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.208 subtle changes (and not so subtle)
        In-Reply-To: <2086304139.1364021312408165093.JavaMail.root at zimbra3-e1.priv.proxad.net>


Dear Leif, 

Thanks for taking the time and trouble to answer my grumpy email :) 
Actually, I can see how my email could be interpreted in a quite radical way, but I happen to agree with most of your points, and I'm particularly sorry if I came out as thinking that "back in the (g)olden days the material we had access to was 'good' and we are now swimming in garbage", because it's not my views at all. 

The point I was lamely trying to make was mainly about what I feel is a major shift in our relationship with our own memory, as scholars. The amount and nature of the things we have to commit to memory is changing - at least that's how I perceive it. This is probably not, BTW, particular to scholarship, and is just one aspect of a global evolution in our societies. 
You mentioned 10th Century Toledo, the invention of the printing press, or the development of academic journals as phenomena producing "masses of stuff" - right. But what I am interested in, here, is not the process of producing texts or data 'en masse', but the way the existence of those masses changes the way we process knowledge to produce scholarship. 
I do think that we should not neglect the impact of the way we use our memory on scholarship. Having committed to one's memory the same knowledge a medieval scholar had, for instance, cannot be without impact on one's scholarship. Just as being able to query masses of texts going far beyond the capacity of anyone's memory also has an impact. The shift is happening, and it's a given, not something for us to approve or disapprove, just to observe, and maybe reflect upon. 

Medieval scholars reflected a lot on their use of memory, and I believe we should give it more attention. 

Best wishes, Marjorie

----- Mail Original -----
De: "Humanist Discussion Group" <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
À: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
Envoyé: Mercredi 3 Août 2011 22h23:02 GMT +01:00 Amsterdam / Berlin / Berne / Rome / Stockholm / Vienne
Objet: [Humanist] 25.208 subtle changes (and not so subtle)

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 208.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Wed, 3 Aug 2011 13:31:09 +0100
        From: Leif Isaksen <leifuss at googlemail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.206 subtle changes (and not so subtle)
        In-Reply-To: <20110802202059.108EF18CCF9 at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Marjorie

I'm rather grateful for you bringing this up because I think it is a
quite commonly held view while also believing that it is profoundly
wrong for a number of reasons. I hope you will forgive me laying them
out in order to, respectfully, provoke debate.

- first of all I think we need to clearly distinguish between
capability and scholarship. In a world with wide access to resources
it is both possible to have narrow and focussed scholarship as well as
wide-ranging overviews (and mixes of the two). In a world with limited
access only narrow and focussed scholarship is possible. What people
choose to do is of course an important issue (which you raise) but
having a cjoice must surely be a better state of affairs than no
choice at all.

- 'masses of stuff' is of course an an entirely relative phrase.
No-one in their right mind would today claim that 10th Century Toledo,
the invention of the printing press, or the development of academic
journals has had a deleterious effect on scholarship, but the thing
that connects them is that their fundamental role was to produce
'masses of the stuff'. It's hard to see why the rise of the Web is
qualitatively different form these earlier developments.

- The most intuitive, but insidious, argument is that back the
(g)olden days the material we had access to was 'good' and we are now
swimming in garbage. This seems patently false. Not only was it of
highly varying quality, the stuff people had access to was entirely
arbitrary depending on the library facilities available to them. The
merry fellows of Paris (and London and Oxford and Cambridge) may be
better catered for. Those anywhere else were definitely not. That
scarcity in turn tends to have made them largely the preserve of those
wealthy enough to afford to study in such places which is not, in and
of itself, conducive to a meritocratic academy. And if the new stuff
really is so bad why do people complain about not having access to
post-1900 Google Books when (almost) everything before then really is
now freely available?

- ultimately, and I think this is what I feel most passionately about
- if we are concerned about the quality of scholarship we should focus
our criticism on that. Bad workmen blame their tools. In the digital
humanities it seems we blame other people's. I am the first person to
concede that much drivel has been written based on superficial
readings of source material and misunderstood technology. No doubt
I've contributed to that torrent myself from time to time. But it was
ever thus. Arguing that by limiting scholars to only reading 'the
right books' we can make them better academics seems to put the cart
before the horse. Surely it is the ability to judge what good material
is that makes one a good scholar?

In the rush to respond between email triage and a skype meeting I've
probably judged the tone of this email all wrong so I do hope I've not
have caused offence, but I think the idea that the level of
scholarship is declining and that access to resources is to blame
cannot go unchallenged.

With all best wishes

Leif





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