File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 599


From: Humanist Discussion Group <willard.mccarty-AT-mccarty.org.uk>
To: humanist-AT-lists.digitalhumanities.org
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 09:24:25 +0000 (GMT)
Subject: [Humanist] 22.614 looking back



                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 614.
         Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
                Submit to: humanist-AT-lists.digitalhumanities.org



        Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2009 09:16:21 +0000
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty-AT-mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: Re: why looking back?

In Humanist 22.609, Renata Lemos asked me directly about the purpose 
behind several recent postings of mine, specifically

> why is it that you are looking to the past when you search for answers
> concerning the future. do you really believe that such answers could be
> found there? it seems to me that it would be a much more interesting and
> fruitful endeavor to look for answers in what is happening in the
> present, namely the very interesting developments in nanotechnologies,
> namely nanocommunication and quantum information processing... things
> that you insist on calling "hype". 
> 
> I truly do not understand what is so important about the past, when our
> present is so much more exciting and so much more relevant.

I can think of two kinds of responses to this, one having to do with us 
all, the other specific to practice in the digital humanities. The 
first  is a question not just for historians, though I suppose they do 
what  they do based on a very old understanding of why the past is 
always relevant to us humans. I imagine that it's the sort of question 
an historian might expect to get in a taxi on the way to the airport, 
say, or at the hairdresser's.

I guess if I were an historian I'd ask the questioner to imagine the 
circumstances under which knowledge of the past would be totally, 
completely, utterly unnecessary. I'd guess that if you kept at it 
relentlessly (that's the key to this reductio ad absurdum) you'd end up 
imagining an edenic state of total bliss and complete enlightenment -- 
not only for yourself but for everyone else (since Eden cannot be a 
gated community). No need to understand what happened  yesterday, or 
indeed 5 minutes ago, because the present is only good -- indeed the 
present is eternal. No  need to remember how to string a bow, plant a 
crop etc etc. Anything  less than Eden, such as the state we're in, and 
there have to be questions from perplexity, questions of the 
where-from-here kind, since here is for most of us most of the  time, if 
not all of us all the time, not exactly where we want to be if we have 
any imagination at all.  Such questions would lead the clever person to 
look to the past for  better knowledge of the present and so guidance 
for what we have at hand  to build a better future. And assuming that 
not everything is under  one's own control, as it isn't in the 
sub-edenic state, these questions  would include the where-are-we-going 
kind too, i.e. what trajectory all  of us are on whatever the individual 
may decide to do, which requires knowledge of where we've been, at what 
speed and rate of change, and so by something analogous to intertia, 
where we're likely to end. It's against that inertia that we steer our 
course.

One can imagine situations (for example, the situation many people found 
themselves in after the Second World War, or others later who managed 
to  survive whatever killing fields) in which the past is so horrible 
that  learning from it seems impossible even if it were psychologically 
supportable to make the attempt. Or, to take another example, 
revolutionaries right after a great revolution, such as the Russian one, 
for whom the past is meaningless, a nightmare from which one is 
awakening. Or, to modulate into the techno-scientific, one can cite a 
Kuhnian scientific revolution, such as the Einsteinian one. But what do 
we think now, e.g. about  proposals to destroy all musical instruments? 
Once the pain or fervour  abates, don't we turn to the past for 
understanding of the past? Even in the case of the profound changes in 
physics because of Einstein, we now understand not just that Newtonian 
physics is of the good-enough kind but also the principle of emergent 
order that marks the boundaries of its relevance. Where would we be if 
we had tossed out Newton entirely?

Is this the sort of argument that an historian would give to the taxi 
driver or hairdresser -- if that historian had a long enough ride?

I suppose for an academic or technician in the digital humanities, one 
takes that broad situation and applies it. Take text-analysis, for 
example. As a whole text-analysis isn't terribly successful or 
satisfying, as many others in the field keep saying, and have said year 
after year since the early 1960s. Indeed, the postgraduate course in 
text-analysis that I  teach is based on the question of why it is we 
(firmly in  the present, with eyes fixed on the then present moment) run 
unto a  metaphorical brick wall so soon after getting started; or less 
metaphorically, how we can get beyond the level of the individual word 
and individual words nearby, lemmatized or otherwise, to whatever it is 
that could be considered "context"; or, more philosophically, how we 
can  possibly justify what we consider "context" to mean in any given 
textual  situation. Most other activities in the digital humanities seem 
to be cooking with gas -- though I would  argue that they're cooking the 
low-hanging fruit-- but digital literary studies not -- because, I would 
argue, we cooked all the  low-hanging stuff quite a long time ago and 
are now trying to figure out  how to build a ladder to reach the 
higher-hanging stuff. We also speak at length  these days about "digital 
editions" but, according to those in the midst  of the editing trade, 
don't really know what one of these creatures  should be like.

So the literary critic or textual editor, focused on interpretation of 
texts, doesn't find  him- or herself in a particularly good situation 
with respect to  computing. Yet at the same time, let us say, he or she 
has this nagging  feeling that the computer really could be useful, 
somehow. And, let us  say, this critic, firmly in the present moment, 
has ideas about what went wrong and might be done about it. Isn't it 
important at such a moment to know what's been  tried already? Isn't it 
equally or more important to be able to  extrapolate from the trajectory 
that text-analysis, say, has taken all  these years to where now it 
makes sense to go? If we're going to blame Chomskyan linguistics or 
Theory or whatever for the ineffectuality of text-analytic approaches to 
literature, we may be able to make a plausible case, but based 
essentially on a causal argument, it is a naive one, as awareness of the 
last 60+ years of text-analysis clearly demonstrates. As Anthony Kenny 
suggested rather obliquely in his 1991 British Library lecture, we 
should be thinking in terms of coeval developments rather than causal 
chains.

Nanotechnology or any other technology isn't itself hype, but there is 
much hype surrounding it that takes possibilities as inevitabilities if 
not present reality and asks us to suspend judgement. As awareness of 
those last 60+ years will show again and again, this sort of promotional 
blather has come in waves repeatedly, always casting up on the shore 
much more modest achievements than have been predicted. I say, let's 
think now about what we have now (in the light of the past, of course).

Comments?

renata lemos wrote:
> cher willard,
> from your recent posts on humanist, I have been wondering why is it that you
> are looking to the past when you search for answers concerning the future.
> do you really believe that such answers could be found there? it seems to me
> that it would be a much more interesting and fruitful endeavor to look for
> answers in what is happening in the present, namely the very interesting
> developments in nanotechnologies, namely nanocommunication and quantum
> information processing... things that you insist on calling "hype".
> 
> I truly do not understand what is so important about the past, when our
> present is so much more exciting and so much more relevant.
> 
> comments?
> 
> yours,

-- 
Willard McCarty, Professor of Humanities Computing,
King's College London, staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/;
Editor, Humanist, www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist;
Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, www.isr-journal.org.



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