[Humanist] 28.16 reactionary responses

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon May 12 00:56:24 CEST 2014

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 16.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 12 May 2014 06:35:06 +1000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: reactionary responses

Some here will already know Ryan Cordell's defense of digital humanities 
against the castigations of critics, "On ignoring encoding" 
(http://ryan.cordells.us/blog/2014/05/08/on-ignoring-encoding/). Cordell 
aims in particular at Adam Kirsch, "Technology is taking over English 
departments", in The New Republic, to which he links. He also summons 
articles by Ted Underwood, "The stone and the shell", and by Glen 
Worthy, "Why are such terrible things written about DH?" Yes, as 
Underwood has said from an American perspective, "Hey, you haven't 
really arrived till you get attacked in TNR". But the attack is more 
interesting than that and has a sting I don't see recorded in the 
exchanges. The stinger himself does not seem to realise it's there, 
possibly because he'd have to take the subject he is attacking much 
more seriously and comprehensively than he has.

Part of this sting lies in the fact that the attack is reactionary, which 
raises the question of what it is reacting to. I'd say it's a reaction (but no 
more than that) to the trivial pseudo-revolutionary bandwagon 
next-new-thing hoohah that's been going on in various venues for some 
time. Nice to be cheered, but cheers may (as they have in this case) 
invite boos. Mob illogic.

And this part leads to the rest of the sting. Worthy notes that Kirsch's 
fear (that digital humanities is taking over English departments) is 
"pure paranoia". Recently, in Humanist 28.8, I noted another paranoid 
reaction, also of the taking-over kind, and commented on its eerie 
summons of the Luddite Cold War paranoia some of us older ones thought 
had been safely buried (while some of us younger ones didn't even know 
was underfoot). But the living dead has emerged in Kirsch's piece and 
elsewhere. The sting is that its re-emergence signals our lack of history.

I've argued in as prominent a place as I could find -- itself (forgive 
me for the self-publicizing) to re-emerge shortly in LLC -- that this 
paranoia is a treasure because it is evidence for an historical argument 
which could put us on far quieter and firmer footing among the other 
disciplines, not valued because of the noise and confetti but because we 
have something to say that strikes caressingly to the roots of the 

Because all this seems to be going on in the U.S., I would hope that 
someone there -- the ACLS, for example? -- would see to it that we get 
more than missiles fired back and forth at a safe distance. How about a 
public forum, face-to-face, then published in, say, Daedalus or Critical 
Inquiry? And please let's climb out of the English department subculture, 
as generous as that may be.


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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