File /Humanist.vol22.txt, message 87

Date: Tue, 24 Jun 2008 08:45:35 +0100
From: "Humanist Discussion Group \(by way of Willard McCarty              <>\)" <willard-AT-LISTS.VILLAGE.VIRGINIA.EDU>
Subject: 22.085 strangers in a strange land
To: <humanist-AT-Princeton.EDU>

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 22, No. 85.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
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         Date: Tue, 24 Jun 2008 08:42:48 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <>
         Subject: strangers in a strange land

Out of the richness of Geoffrey Rockwell's and Stephen Ramsay's
responses to my note about the problematic, fluid identity of us
humanities computing practitioners, allow me to extract these bits
for comment. First on Geoffrey's,

 >         Date: Mon, 23 Jun 2008 07:08:06 +0100
 >         From: Geoffrey Rockwell <>
 >         >
 >Ultimately, as Wittgenstein pointed out about so many phenomena that
 >philosophers try to nail down, we seem to be able to function just
 >fine with multiple models and we even seem to know when to switch.
 >Further, we enjoy the slippery areas poorly explained by either and
 >inversions of treating books as performances and Today's Special as
 >something to be catalogued. So I would way that in trying to apply a
 >method rigourously, as we are forced by the computer, we run up
 >against the limits of the model it hides thereby rethinking the theory.

There's a danger here that we succeed in breaking away from the
sclerotic taking of philosophical positions, as if they were
possessions, even egos, only to make ourselves into binary creatures,
flip-flopping from one way of dealing with the world to another. Do
we in fact switch? Or is this setting up of alternative states
something we construct in order to simplify how we conceptualize our
fluid swervings from one side of the road to the other? This is
especially relevant to computing. Geoffrey says, "in trying to apply
a method rigourously, as we are forced by the computer..."; I do know
what he means and applaud the expression of modelling. But I wonder:
how much of this sense of being forced is a function of the
interface, specifically its temporal responsiveness? Being now in the
midst of reading through the historical traces of literary computing,
I've become acutely aware of the influence of the technology we have
at any moment on how we think about computing itself. The old
batch-orientated environment really did impose a binary way of
thinking: you did the rigorous thing with the computer then responded
to the results. (I recall waiting hours in the Really Bad Old Days.)
But what happens to this way of thinking as response-time disappears
beneath the threshold of perceptual reality?

Second, on Steve's,

 >         Date: Mon, 23 Jun 2008 07:09:33 +0100
 >         From: Stephen Ramsay <>
 >         Subject: Re: 22.077 strangers in a strange land
 >  > 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.
 >There's no doubt that one's originary discipline has a profound effect
 >on the way one views just about everything.  And I think it runs even
 >deeper than your examples suggest.  It's not just that the historian,
 >the logician, and the literary critic view things differently.  I'm
 >always struck, when talking with historians (for example), by the fact
 >that we differ in *what* we think is interesting (about a given text
 >or cultural phenomenon).  I don't know that it's an impediment --
 >except that very often we can, at our extreme peril, start talking
 >past one another.
 >But I would like to know where "digital humanists" fit into this?  You
 >suggest that we do digital humanities differently depending on how we
 >were trained, but do we do our "core discipline" differently for
 >having been "trained" in digital humanities?  Do we bring a
 >particular, identifiable intellectual framework to the table in
 >discussion with others outside our field?

This is a very fine question. My answer (which I very much hope
provokes others) is based on my own experience of many years talking
to people across the disciplines on their own research. The metaphor
I keep returning to is the anthropological explorer on board his or
her ship, who sails around in what I call "the archipelago of
disciplines", visiting now this epistemic island culture, now that
one, participant-observing, telling stories and learning them,
trading goods, then sailing off. From this person's perspective, the
intellectual framework Steve asks about is, I suppose, ethnographic,
polymathic -- and courageous, to venture out in such a way in a world
which treats such persons mostly as outlaws (in the etymological
sense). It's hard not to think of big and small intellectual spaces.
But I recall what Northrop Frye said, that it doesn't much matter
where you begin as long as you begin within an intellectual structure
which can expand into all others.



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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