[Humanist] 25.353 simultaneous but divergent

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Oct 8 09:47:56 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 353.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    "Anna-K. Mayer" <annak.mayer at gmail.com>                   (57)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.352 simultaneous but divergent?

  [2]   From:    "Prescott, Andrew" <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>           (124)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.352 simultaneous but divergent?

        Date: Fri, 7 Oct 2011 09:12:15 +0100
        From: "Anna-K. Mayer" <annak.mayer at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.352 simultaneous but divergent?
        In-Reply-To: <20111007070607.B51481D061A at woodward.joyent.us>

This very much seems to be a question you want to run on the
history/sociology-of-science/technology lists, starting with e.g. mersenne.

On 7 October 2011 08:06, Humanist Discussion Group <
willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:

>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 352.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>        Date: Fri, 07 Oct 2011 08:05:13 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: simultaneous but diverging?
> This starts as an historiographical question but may wander elsewhere:
> who has written about more or less simultaneous developments that we
> would expect to reinforce each other but which in fact pass each other
> like ships in the night? I am thinking, for example, of Robert Connor's
> pondering of the question of why "computer technology became available
> at precisely the wrong moment" in the development of Classics, when
> "[t]he era of traditional lexical and textual studies had largely
> passed..." ("Scholarship and Technology in Classical Studies", in
> Scholarship and Technology in the Humanities, ed. May Katzen, 1991, pp.
> 52-62). Connor goes on to consider the same chiasmus in literary and in
> historical studies. Anthony Kenny points to Connor's question in his
> British Library lecture on computing in the humanities (1992),
> speculating that scholars fled the juggernaut of quantification with
> which computing was associated, especially in the early years. One might
> finger scarier, more repellent things, such as the military uses of
> computing at that time, e.g. SAGE, the "electronic battlefield" of
> Vietnam &c. But rather than dig only into those historical data for an
> explanation of that particular crossing in the night, I'd like to know
> about the whole class of such anomalies, and other examples, perhaps
> even non-technological.
> Suggestions and comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
> College London; Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western
> Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org);
> Editor, Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/);
> www.mccarty.org.uk/

        Date: Fri, 7 Oct 2011 10:51:45 +0100
        From: "Prescott, Andrew" <andrew.prescott at kcl.ac.uk>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.352 simultaneous but divergent?
        In-Reply-To: <20111007070607.B51481D061A at woodward.joyent.us>

Dear Willard

Anthony Kenny repeated the question posed in his 1992 lecture at a
symposium organised four years later by the British Academy, and it has
haunted me ever since. Introducing the symposium, Sir Anthony urged
speakers to find examples of original scholarly work in the humanities
which could not have been done without a computer.  Many contributors
found it difficult to respond to Sir Anthony¹s challenge, and Sir Anthony
reflected that Œthe promise once held out by enthusiasts for computing in
the humanities remains largely unfulfillled¹. I think we could make a much
more confident answer now, and could point to substantial achievements
such as the Oxford Historical Thesaurus which could never have been
completed without a computer. And of course one would point now to the
ubiquity of commercial packages such as ECCO or EEBO on which many
scholars are now utterly reliant. However, I think Sir Anthony would then
ask how this has generated new scholarly conceptions and we might still
find that we struggle.

It is indeed striking that, while the humanities have undergone a complete
and profound reshaping over the past fifty years, computers have had very
little to do with it. The changes have been the result of the impact of
cultural theory which has revolutionised the way in which humanities
scholars think about and approach their work. Major overarching themes
such as gender, ethnicity, space, the body, perception and discourse are
now central to many humanities disciplines. There is an element of
suspicion about what computing represents from these theoretical
standpoints which perhaps partly accounts for the way in which computing
has not been part of the humanities revolution: not so much its links to
the military-industrial complex, as a suspicion that it promotes an
inherently quantitative and empirical methodology - these concerns are
evident in the 1996 British Academy volume introduced by Sir Anthony. But
I think the problem posed by Connor is a readily explained one: computing
provided a means by which it looked as if new life could be breathed into
disciplines which were under threat or declining, such as Classics.
Computing offered a way in which (for example) the creation of editions,
formerly at the apex of literary scholarship but now very much a neglected
activity, could be seen as a cutting edge scholarly initiative, building
links across to the sciences.

We could debate the success or otherwise of this strategy in reviving
interest in older but neglected humanities disciplines and methods, but I
think one has to feel an anxiety as to the impact of this strategy of the
digital humanities as a whole. If a major component of the digital
humanities is simply a restated version of scholarly activities which
(rightly or wrongly, and for whatever reason) have become marginal or
otherwise neglected, then the digital humanities itself will be seen only
as a home for refugees from those disciplines, and will not emerge as
something capable of influencing scholarship more widely or of generating
the kind of original scholarship that Sir Anthony Kenny asked for. In
other words, the digital humanities has become disconnected (through its
preoccupation with the theology of the pointy bracket, and other marginal
issues) with wider humanities scholarship, and urgently needs to rebuild
those links. A recent New York Times article on Humanities 2.0 declared
that 'Members of a new generation of digitally savvy humanists argue it is
time to stop looking for inspiration in the next political or
philosophical ³ism² and start exploring how technology is changing our
understanding of the liberal arts. This latest frontier is about method,
they say, using powerful technologies and vast stores of digitized
materials that previous humanities scholars did not have¹. I think that is
a fundamentally wrong-headed view, and declaring that data provides the
path away from the theory will continue to ensure the marginalisation of
the digital humanities. Rather, we need to engage more wholeheatedly with
the '-isms' and explore how digital technologies can give us new and
original insights into those major theoretical issues with which
humanities scholars are now concerned.

All the best


Professor Andrew Prescott
Department of Digital Humanities
King's College London
28-29 Drury Lane
London WC2B 5RL


More information about the Humanist mailing list