File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 79

Date: Fri, 20 Jun 2008 10:09:19 +0100
From: "Humanist Discussion Group \(by way of Willard McCarty              <>\)" <willard-AT-LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU>
Subject: 22.077 strangers in a strange land
To: <humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU>

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 77.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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         Date: Fri, 20 Jun 2008 10:04:34 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: musings on an interesting phenomenon

Given the approaching Digital Humanities conference in Oulu next
week, the following seems particularly relevant. I'd appreciate your
thoughts on it.

 From time to time in discussions amongst ourselves arguments take
place about what is important and what is not. (If this didn't happen
we'd be in real trouble, no?) Paradigmatic is a particular incident
at the ACH/ALLC in Charlottesville VA some years back, a staged but
quite genuine dispute between a "text is an ordered hierarchy of
content objects" contingent on one side and a "text is an
n-dimensional autopoietic field" contingent on the other. Now I
happen to be firmly on the latter side of the house, but abstracting
myself from myself I note that the former has its origins in the
thinking of an analytical philosopher and a theologically minded
chap, with strong backing from a philologist and behind them all a
fellow whose life-long passion was the processing of highly
structured documents, indeed documents written to conform to
pre-existing templates. I also note that the latter has its origins
in literary studies of a particularly adventurous sort. You would
expect such an opposition to lead to a fight, would you not?  On
other occasions I have been party to arguments between historians on
the one side and, yes again, literary types on the other, the subject
of the argument being the degree to which interpretation compromises
the digital objects we build. Again, no great surprise, but the
difference between the opposed parties is not so great as in the
former example.

The by now obvious observation is this: that how we see what we do in
humanities computing appears very differently depending on how we've
been trained -- a training that tends to be tacit and thus a hidden
impediment to deeper discussion. For example, that which rigid
computational structures cannot accommodate is totally unimportant if
you are accommodating documents written to have none. If you're
accommodating highly factual data,  then the residue is not utterly
insignificant, but it is not impossible to come to a good decision
about how you capture what's most likely to be significant to the
most number of people. If you're trying to match such structures to a
literary text, considered as a work of imaginative language, then the
residue is, as McGann says, "the hem of a quantum garment", and
thoughts about how to use computing, it would seem to me, really do
have to go in another direction. So you're likely to have a very,
very different opinion on how things should go than even the historian

Where this is leading is a destination I think quite important for us
to contemplate: if humanities computing is only about method, then
there is nothing to say which is not said in the words of one's
discipline of origin (though perhaps with somewhat of a strange
accent), and what the future holds is more of the present:
disciplinary expatriots tending a common ground, not the beginnings
of a new nation; or, if you will, a permanently multicultural
society, never a core group of natives. And what we've got to get
better at is realizing where our differences are coming from. Hence
anthropology takes on a metadisciplinary role for us, I would think.
"The relativist bent...anthropology so often induces in those who
have much traffic with its materials, is thus in some sense implicit
in the field as such.... One cannot read too long about Nayar
matriliny, Aztec sacrifice, the Hopi verb, or the convolutions of the
hominid transition and not begin at least to consider the possibility
that, to quote Montaigne... 'each man calls barbarism whatever is not
his own practice... for we have no other criterion of reason than the
example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live
in.'" (Clifford Geertz, "Anti Anti-Relativism", Available Light:
Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics, Princeton, 2000, p. 45).



Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London | Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26). 


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