9.410 what are we doing?

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Thu, 21 Dec 1995 19:46:58 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 410.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.princeton.edu> (77)
Subject: book review

Allow me to draw your exhausted attention to a book review in the
latest issue of <t>Computers and the Humanities</t>, 29.5 (October
1995), "Understanding (hyper)Media: Required Readings", by
Allen Renear. He is reviewing two apparently very important
books ("absolutely first rate" is what Renear says), <t>Writing
Space: The Computer, Bypertext, and the history of Writing</t>,
by Jay David Bolter, and <t>The Electronic Word: Democracy,
Technology, and the Arts</t>, by Richard A. Lanham. The entire
review is of great interest, but here I wish to discuss and quote
from Renear's "Preamble", in which he establishes the
context into which Bolter's and Lanham's books fit.

Renear begins with the provocative argument made recently by Mark Olsen,
who argued that "computer-aided literary studies have failed to make a
significant contribution to literary research, let alone play a role
in any of the important literary controversies of the last thirty
years" (CHum 27, 1993, 309-14). "Moreover", Renear notes, "he suggested
that our community was failing to take advantage of emerging research
programs that are fielding theories and hypotheses which seem particularly
tractable to computational techniques" (389). Renear concludes that
"he is, unfortunately, very much more right than wrong: computer-based
literary research remains largely dominated by a narrow range of concerns
and strategies and has, despite every reason why things should be otherwise,
failed to be a serious presence in even the narrowest fields of literary
studies, let alone a factor in the broader intellectual conversation".
Personally I think John Burrows' counsel to patience and continued, patient
labour is right -- it does, after all, take a long time and much work to
understand how the computer may be applied to imaginative literature.
Results obtained more quickly by use of the computer in more obvious
ways should not be taken as proof or even suggestion that the more
ambitious of us are wasting our time.

Renear continues, however. "Yet as striking as this failure is," he says,
"it pales beside another. Over the last decade it has become clear, if
it had not been clear enough earlier, that those technologies of communication
that are fundamental to our intellectual lives - in particular the various
technologies of writing and reading - are undergoing profound changes.
In addition it is evident that given the nature of these changes, and
given the key role of reading and writing in the construction of our
intellectual and cultural lives, these changes will ripple throughout all
aspects of society: science, commerce, education, art, entertainment, and
everyday life. A decade ago this may have been a prediction, but it is now
rather a description of the current emerging state of affairs - for most of
us reading and writing are already largely electronic activities. And if
we take a close look at these new technologies we can see that however
embryonic their distinctive features may be, those features are indeed
maturing to become radically new ways of reading and writing. Literate
culture at the end of the 20th century is thoroughly electronic, and soon
will be thoroughly hypertextual - and that's a difference that makes a
difference" (389).

What astonishes Renear is that "with a few exceptions, the humanities computing
community has been almost entirely absent from efforts to understand, evaluate,
or contribute to these developments - few if any ACH/ALLC members are prominent
in these discussions of the new technologies and ACH/ALLC conferences generally
have only a very modest participation on these topics" (he notes exceptions in
CHum). Here it is my turn to be at least mildly astonished, since for
the last several years Humanist has again and again returned to the
topics that exercise my good friend Allen Renear. I certainly take his
point, that in its more conventional manifestations our community has
been surprisingly, perhaps even shockingly cool to what is happening all
around us. Why, for example, are we not leading the world in innovative
applications of the Web for academic and scholarly publishing?

Renear is optimistic about "our potential to play a vital role in the current
conversation about the nature of the new reading and writing" (390). Again
I must point out that this conversation has been going on through Humanist
for many years now, and that manifestations of it are all over the
world defined by the Internet. Perhaps, however, it is better for us to take
his optimism as encouragement to make Humanist a much stronger and more vital
instrument than it has been, rather more of a podium than a quiet
retreat -- just as we take Olsen's argument as a challenge in an ongoing
conversation rather than a mere statement of fact.


In any case, get to the issue of CHum, read the entire review, and bring
your thoughts back here, please.