[Humanist] 26.435 what is in (or made to be in) a name

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Oct 30 08:00:12 CET 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 435.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 29 Oct 2012 11:22:35 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: what is in (or made to be in) a name

Essays in David M. Berry's very interesting edited collection, Understanding
Digital Humanities (Palgrave 2012), are hardly alone in deploying the term
"digital humanities" as if (to use Berry's quotation from Katherine Hayles'
contribution) the term had been "meant to signal that the field had emerged
from the low-prestige status of a support service into a genuinely
intellectual endeavour with its own professional practices, rigorous
standards, and exciting theoretical expectations" (3). That such an
emergence has been underway during the last 8-10 years (since the
publication of the Blackwell's Companion, for which "digital humanities" was
adoped) is, I think, generally agreed. The problem is that a simple equation
of a change in name, whatever the intention, to a change in character badly
muddies the historical waters and in effect severs what we do now, and the
predicaments we have now, from the formative period of the field. That is a
thoughtless tossing out of a very valuable inheritance.

Matt Kirschenbaum, in "What is Digital Humanities and What's It Doing in
English Departments?"
pp. 2-3) quotes our colleague John Unsworth on the origins of the term:

> The real origin of that term [digital humanities] was in conversation
> with Andrew McNeillie, the original acquiring editor for the Blackwell
> Companion to Digital Humanities. We started talking with him about that
> book project in 2001, in April, and by the end of November we’d lined up
> contributors and were discussing the title, for the contract. Ray
> [Siemens] wanted “a Companion to Humanities Computing” as that was the
> term commonly used at that point; the editorial and marketing folks at
> Blackwell wanted “Companion to Digitized Humanities.” I suggested
> “Companion to Digital Humanities” to shift the emphasis away from
> simple digitization.

My own decision to entitle a book Humanities Computing (Palgrave 2005)
was based on a love of the oxymoronic collision of "humanities" with
"computing" and a conviction that I still hold, in opposition e.g. to Brian
Cantwell Smith, that the difference thus marked is essential, not an
accident of history we now no longer need suffer from. Indeed, I'm working
on a book which takes that difference to a new level, or so I hope. My
decision was in one respect unfortunate, however, since now, with a
truncated view of our history in wide circulation, potential readers are
likely to assume that my book is old hat. It *is* showing signs of age, as 
one would expect, but the essential difference I've noted isn't one of them.

The same holds true of other constructions of this history, such as
Schnapp's and Presner's "waves" or Berry's "layers". Schnapp and Presner, in
the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0, posit a first wave in the late 1990s
and early 2000s, as if what happened prior to that isn't worth mentioning. 
Someone taking an historical view is perfectly justified in saying what he
or she thinks was tending to happen, as Schnapp and Presner do, but 
all too often "tend", even if accurate (which remains to be shown), covers
up highly significant developments with the actions of a numerical majority. 
Furthermore by naming the Manifesto according to the convention by which
versions of software are designated, history is conceptualised as if it
progressed in the manner of our technologies. No wonder, as Ryan Cordell has
said in his recent call for Petcha Kutcha contributions to a roundtable at
the Northeast MLA for 2013, we're in effect still being ignored by the
mainstream. What real historian would credit this?

The big problem, as I said, is the anti-historical, triumphalist
progressivism that we seem apt to fall into by cutting off rather than
recovering and seeking to understand the incunabular period of our field,
from its beginnings to the onset of the Web. The going was at times rough
then, but it is our history. This history, when one bothers to look into it,
in fact reveals "a genuinely intellectual endeavour with its own
professional practices... and exciting theoretical expectations" -- way back
in the mid 1960s. It uncovers much signalling of real change by those few
who understood that more than relief from drudgery was in the offing. This
is signalling that is actually attested in the historical record rather than
dreamed up. I think it's time we took the humanities seriously.



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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