[Humanist] 26.396 disciplines of resistance?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Thu Oct 18 08:17:31 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 396.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 18 Oct 2012 06:56:49 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: resistance

It is curious to observe what battles were fought, or not fought, over 
the incursion of computing into various disciplines of the humanities. I 
have investigated so far two disciplines for their uptake of computing 
in the first three decades of activity (essentially the 1960s-1980s): 
literary studies and history. One might think that both these 
text-centred disciplines would have had a relatively easy time of it, at 
least with English-language materials. But they didn't.

As far as I can tell, mainstream literary criticism simply ignored 
computing, despite the heroic efforts of people such as Joe Raben, as 
Rosanne Potter said was happening in 1989. As many have observed, 
critics simply headed for the high-ground of literary theory, leaving 
their digital colleagues (as we would now call them) with their 
concordances, despite declarations of a "quasi-scientific revolution" -- 
Stephen Parrish's words, citing C. P. Snow, in 1964. In history, 
however, as one can see from Jacques Barzun's Clio and the Doctors: 
Psycho-History, Quanto-History and History (1974), computing was met 
with explicit and open resistance. Sometimes this was noisy, quite 
over-the-top, as in the Oxford Professor of Modern History Richard 
Cobb's "Historians in white coats", number 12 in the Times Literary 
Supplement series, Thinking by Numbers, for 3 December 1971. Cobb saw a 
dark apocalypse ushered in by the end of history as he knew it. Quite 
disturbingly sexual imagery was sometimes used.

Among other things the different reactions teach us unsurprisingly that 
different disciplines saw computing differently. Superficially, at 
least, it is not all that difficult to find an explanation for why 
literary critics went one way and historians another. The former were at 
the tail end of a by then positivistic style of criticism; critical 
theory provided an attractive new way of thinking about literature. For 
the latter computing had strong allies in the economic historians, who 
had numbers to crunch and much experience doing this by hand. 

What interests me, however, is what the literary critics and historians 
had in common in their quite different reactions. I would be *very* 
interested in recommendations for other disciplines that reacted in 
quite specific ways to computing ca 1960-1990. Many thanks in 



Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Professor, School of Computing, Engineering and Mathematics,
University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
(www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

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