[Humanist] 28.525 a new computational humanities

Willard McCarty willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Tue Dec 2 09:28:42 CET 2014

Andrew Taylor's reply to my note on accurate representation as a goal 
gets right to what I was wondering about. I hear colleagues who work in 
visualisation talk about the problem of how photo-realism, say in a VR 
representation of an ancient building which survives only in fragments, 
can be dangerously misleading. What then is an accurate representation? 
The most obvious response, I suppose, is one that informs the viewer 
somehow of the difference between that which survives and that which is 
inferred, ideally representing degrees of certainty. But what if as the 
scholar with the questions you're interested not in the appearance of a 
site but some performance that happened in it? What if you want enough 
of an illusion to be able to imagine a play that happened in the 
virtually reconstructed theatre, or the sermon preached in the 
reconstructed space? I'd suppose that you do not want an *inaccurate* 
representation, but in the circumstance I am imagining, accuracy is just 
a stepping-stone.

I wonder further if this isn't quite close to the historian's tricky 
question of getting to "what actually happened" (von Ranke's famous 
phrase). Even if counterfactual history is your thing, I'd think you'd 
be doing it in order better to illumine what did (in some sense 
actually) happen. Historians are quite sensitive about counterfactual 
studies and about the degree to which history-writing is creative. At 
the same time an accurate, let us say complete, chronological account is 
not a history, only the beginning of one. I like to think of Aristotle's 
distinction between history (what actually happened) and poetry (the 
kind of thing that is always happening) as a range of possibilities. 
Where you are in that range depends on what you're after, or allowed to 
be after depending on the academic values of the time. How imaginative 
is work in digital humanities allowed to be?

If what you do is find, organize and maintain an archive for the 
historian to use, then I'd suppose your goals are different from the 
historian's. An archivist could be an historian, but his or her 
professional, institutional life would likely be different. If what you 
do is to edit texts, you produce a work of scholarship as accurately as 
possible, but 'accurate' in this instance also must be qualified. Would 
you count yourself, or be counted by others, as a literary critic? If 
you also did literary criticism, otherwise not, but editorial decisions 
are, I'd suppose, likely to be informed by literary concerns.

I think I'm meandering my way to two kinds of statements: (1) the map is 
not the territory; and (2) your work can be of great value to a group to 
which you don't belong but whose goals and methods you understand. And 
there's perhaps another: (3) each practice, discipline or field of 
activity needs autonomy just as each person does. As an archivist or 
textual editor what makes you especially valuable is your resistance to 
the historical or literary-critical fashions of the moment.



On 02/12/2014 06:11, Humanist Discussion Group wrote:
>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 525.
>              Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                         www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                  Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>          Date: Mon, 01 Dec 2014 15:04:18 -0600
>          From: Andrew G Taylor<agt2 at rice.edu>
>          Subject: Re:  28.521 a new computational humanities?
>          In-Reply-To:<mailman.3.1417431601.25531.humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org>
> On 12/1/2014 5:00 AM, Willard McCarthy wrote:
>> Apart from the radical simplification of the field, contracted to
>> simulation, isn't it interesting that the author should hold up accurate
>> representation as the scholars' goal and space-time travel as
>> scholarship? How widespread are such notions?
> Can work outside of scholarship still be considered "Humanities"?
> I understand this is a scholarly listserv, but here are my two cents as
> a non-Humanities scholar trying to make complex materials more available
> to people via new technology.
> One could argue that creating accurate simulations is not scholarship,
> but is still valuable and falls under the Humanities mantle.  It is
> certainly impossible to create a "realistic" (accurate is impossible)
> historical simulation without drawing on the scholarly fields of
> history, archeology and anthropology - so is it applied scholarship? And
> can novel representations serve as launchpad to new scholarship and
> interpretation?
> This relates to an ongoing question - what is the role of the
> non-scholar working in a Humanities ecosystem?
> I'm not a professional scholar - I'm a visualization/database person who
> loves making historically-inaccessible images and information more
> accessible to people using New Media platforms.  I look at this as the
> librarian or archivist role - creating entry-points that enable  (and
> improve?) Humanities scholarship.
> Occasionally while processing materials (and  reframing the materials in
> a new way) I may come up with/run into a scholarly insight, but that is
> not the goal. My intention is to give people interested in the
> Humanities better access to materials and information.
> Sophisticated knowledge about a Humanities subject requires years of
> study and focus - I'm focusing my attention differently. I'm developing
> an understanding of New Media representation and presentation, but not
> about any specific area of Humanities.
> Regards, Andrew Taylor

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

More information about the Humanist mailing list