13.0001 HAPPY now we are 12 BIRTHDAY

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Fri, 7 May 1999 07:29:05 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 1.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Fri, 07 May 1999 07:29:39 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: HAPPY now we are 12 BIRTHDAY

Dear Colleagues:

Most of you will know from having been around Humanist's barn at least once
that on this day each year I commemorate the beginning of our seminar, 7
May 1987, when I was mccarty@utorepas (like Alcuin of York :-), knew next
to nothing about e-mail and very likely would have experienced total
cerebral meltdown had I known what the subsequent 12 years would bring.
Like many things Humanist changed very quickly at first, developing into a
robust entity by virtue of several crises and a stalwart, intelligent
membership. As I've said a number of times, the best thing I did then was
to let it find its way. As it has. For the last several years, however,
Humanist has held to a steady state, hovering around 1,100 members -- or,
rather, subscriptions; several of these are redistribution points. At one
time we did a yearly review of activities, but that grew to be too much of
a burden. In any case, I'm not threatening you here with a retrospection,
rather an introspection. I admit that looking at the subject lines of the
messages in the archive at IATH (Virginia) for volume 12 (1998-99) I am
greatly cheered and encouraged by the richness and variety of discussion.
We have every reason to expect this to continue through volume 13, into the
(oh yes) next millennium.

In 1900 the German mathematician David Hilbert gave a justly famous lecture
in Paris, "Mathematische Probleme", in which he surveyed his discipline and
set forth a programme of research for the century ahead. I doubt we can
quite manage that for humanities computing at the moment (though I continue
to try, and we have another year), but the lecture, translated into English
and put online at <http://aleph0.clarku.edu/~djoyce/hilbert/problems.html>,
is instructive for the highly pragmatic view Hilbert took of his field,
asking what it needed to continue to be vital. He pointed out that a vital
field is one which has problems of its own to work on, and that these
problems must be at the right level of difficulty so as to be challenging
but not overwhelming. Mathematicians have different sorts of problems than
we do, of course, but mutatis mutandis we can learn from his approach. It's
about time we did some work on what the research agenda of humanities
computing might be, to get past the silly stage of "yes it has!" / "no it
hasn't!". In fact my first inclination for a more than phatic happy
birthday to Humanist is to suggest that in the year ahead we put on
Hilbert's mantle and give ourselves, through discussion here, real work to do.

My second inclination is simply to celebrate with unreckonable gratitude
the existence of this electronic seminar through its 12th birthday. Forgive
me, if you will, for becoming personal, but, hey, I do this just once a
year (ok, twice, counting Christmas :-), and the delete key is not far off.
Just in case the love in this labour of love is not obvious, I here declare
it, and for an excuse I point out that I am far gone in my cups at this
birthday party. "A liquor never brewed [drunk] from tankards scooped in
pearl" is to blame, but I have more than one reason for drinking it.
Another wonderfully simultaneous cause for celebration possesses me... but
there are limits even to the license I give myself, and besides, this other
event (to quote Northrop Frye in the acknowledgements to The Great Code)
goes beyond the orbit of words altogether, and requires nothing short of a
Million Dollar Bash -- which it will get.

I have had many occasions in this past year to think about long hauls and
what it might be that over them keeps very different people together,
talking productively as so often happens here, and makes a community out of
the aggregate. Endurance and an open channel of communication are necessary
but not sufficient. The channel has to be frequently used, especially when
it is entirely virtual, as with Humanist, and so is quickly forgotten if
not exercised. Chit-chat may indirectly communicate matters of considerable
importance, and I suppose to a degree everything we say is chit-chat with
respect to the unsayable on which we triangulate. Nevertheless clear
thinking and care in getting it right, especially against the incrustations
of habit and dumbing down from received thought, seem to me absolutely
essential to the marriage of true minds in a seminar worth holding, as in a
life worth living. Effort, despite best intentions and skill, is of course
not enough. Something else is required -- a court and spark of identity?
something genuine, something more discovered than created, around which to

Like everyone else I am still working on the larger human problem, but for
Humanist the explanation for our survival, it seems to me, is quite clear.
We talk because we have things to say; we talk together because these
things constitute a coherent perspective, whose pursuit is a scholarly
activity. We may not quite have the choreography of what we do just yet,
but we will.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Humanist! Now begins our adolescence, and
with Blake's "Glad Day" in mind I promise you that

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door --
When Butterflies renounce their "drams"
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats
And Saints to windows run
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the Sun.


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