[Humanist] 27.948 social dynamics of the new

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Apr 6 12:04:11 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 948.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 05 Apr 2014 09:09:23 -0400
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: social dynamics of being new

Some here will doubtless be thoroughly familiar with writings on the
social dynamics of disciplinary interrelations and with the writings of
Pierre Bourdieu in particular. I'm a newcomer to these, so forgive, if
need be, the pushing forward of what you already know. But I don't see
much evidence in the discussions of digital humanities on the academic
scene, esp. in the U.S., that gets beyond bandwagon and backlash, who
belongs and who does not and so on, and so forth. Hence the relevance of
the following from Science of Science and Reflexivity (2004/2001):

> Someone who introduces a new legitimate way of doing things shakes
> the power relations and introduces time. If nothing happened, there
> would be no time; the conservative agents would like to abolish time,
> to eternize the present state of the field, the state of the
> structure that is favourable to their interests because they occupy
> the dominant positions within it, whereas the innovators, without
> even seeking to 'compete' with anyone, introduce change by their mere
> intervention and bring about a specific temporality of the field. (p.
> 64)

We should note that the "conservative agents" are not necessarily, and
perhaps not even primarily, the senior members of a given academic
grouping who "occupy the dominant positions", since I would think
conservatism tends to settle with the insecure, and these may well be
those who occupy no position at all, or a shaky one.

I wonder, though, what good does Bourdieu's observation do us other than to
keep us from being surprised when, with no imperial ambitions, we offer
interesting new questions to members of some discipline or other and are
greeted with hostility? It may happen, as it has to me, after being asked
"so what's new about all this?" -- which is another way of resisting. I
suppose the question is, how do we get between the clashing monsters of
boredom on the one side and hostility on the other?

The hostility is very interesting, of course. I've heard more than one
person say that digital humanists and their fellow travellers set up a straw
man of opposition, that this opposition is a thing of the past. Recent
experience has taught be quite otherwise. In fact anxieties that the
historical literature tells us were commonplace in the 1960s-1980s,
expressed as the fear of being replaced, scholarship being mechanized and so
on, I have heard uttered by highly intelligent people this year. As a result
one can have quite an interesting and valuable conversation in an attempt
not so much to allay the fear as to get to the heart of the matter, e.g. by
asking, what *are* the limits of automation? When do we think that making
the attempt is dangerous -- because, though it will surely fail if pressed,
one's students won't press it and then will make do with whatever 
automated delivery or analysis delivers to them?


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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