18.439 solstitial greetings

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Tue, 21 Dec 2004 08:09:45 +0000

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 18, No. 439.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 21 Dec 2004 07:56:02 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: Christmas greetings

Dear colleagues,

Today, where I live, is the winter solstice, the darkest day. A chilly one,
by the feel of it now, though no snow, at least not in this part of the
country. The Christmas tree is up and decorated, hung with lights. A
magical sight, with resonances in memory back to earliest childhood. If
memories in some sense go further back than that (as Paul Shepard's work
powerfully suggests), then perhaps along with many others I reenact the
fearful, hopeful recreation of the world. Yes, yes.... But one should at
least question the deep inadequacy of more economical explanations.
(For a survey of the whole lot, see http://www.candlegrove.com/solstice.html.)

Those not new to Humanist will recognize this as preamble to my annual,
solstitial indulgence in musings about humanities computing, scholarship,
life and all that. The practice began with Humanist 3.879, dated 22
December 1989, after an unplanned visit on the previous evening to
Kensington Market, in Toronto, crunching through the crowded streets in the
snow. With Geoffrey Rockwell, as I recall -- and at his instigation. But I
digress. If a "tradition" is something one hands down as a matter of
course, almost without thought, without choice, then this is not one. Too
much of desire fulfilled and choice exercised, in every keystroke. But then
what matters traditionally is that the handing down happens. It's a matter
of deed rather than intention. So here, once again, it is. A
thought-action, in words, to survey, remember -- turn the dark end of
things into the next go-round in the advancing spiral.

Yes, indeed, advancing. For the practice that we share, much has changed
since the romp through Kensington Market, in days that were in some
respects much darker than these. To my mind, nothing denotes where we are
now better than the publication of A Companion to Digital Humanities
(Blackwell, 2004), for which we have Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens and John
Unsworth to thank. It marks and helps initiate a new phase in the
development of humanities computing -- by bringing together many accounts
of our subject in one place, in a harmonious discord of strongly individual
voices and perspectives. Thus it reminds me of what Ludwik Fleck said about
how a discipline creates reality through a complex of interactions among
many lines of thought, like "the natural course of an excited conversation
among several persons all speaking simultaneously among themselves and each
clamoring to make himself heard" (Genesis and Development of a Scientific
Fact, p. 14.) What matters is the conversation -- that it continue noisily
on its way, whatever that turns out to be. There will, one hopes, be future
collections that improve on this Companion. But in doing so their principal
value will be to renew the snapshot it gives us so well, of our
socio-intellectual "network in continuous fluctuation". What is humanities
computing? I think we might now be able to answer as Fleck did: not the
products of the interactions within this network but the changing network
itself (78f).

I am just now tidying up the last details of my own book, as it happens.
Now in a position to survey the writing and consider what went into it, I
am struck more forcefully by its profound indebtedness to the work of
others than by anything else. "Denken ist danken", to think is to thank.
Nothing has shown me more vividly how communal the most solitary and
individual of our scholarly acts are, and how important it is to our
communal future to recognize that fact. I would, if I could, drive that
silly denotation, "lone scholar", from our vocabulary into the wilderness
where it belongs, and I would make "collaboration" own up to its intimate
kinship with what happens, and has always happened, between scholars and
their sources. In a job interview recently a good friend of mine was asked
if she was a "lone scholar" -- which was, of course, a prompting to swear
allegiance to the newspeak of the day. She gave the right answer, of
course, then promptly went back to her work communing with anonymous
10th-century scholars, attempting not simply to understand what they were
saying to their communities of practice but also to collaborate with them
in making sure that the crucial genius of a late 5th-century colleague was
not lost to the world's great conversation.

But enough of that driving into the wilderness! Let us rather celebrate the
health of our own community of practice. It's still rather fragile, still
depending too much on too few hearts continuing to beat. But it's never
been in better shape, thanks to that excited conversation now given a big

What's next to be done? Many things, no doubt. Big on my horizon is an
objective we share with a number of other people studying how knowledge is
expressed in equipment, as well as made by means of it. This objective is
eloquently suggested by the title of Hans-Joerg Rheinberger's recent study
of molecular biology, Toward a History of Epistemic Things (Stanford,
1997). That's what we're doing, yes? Surely when we write software and/or
plug bits of it together we are crafting epistemic things. But how do we
read out the knowledge we have written into these things? How do we write
their history? And how, then, do we teach the art of reading the machines
we have made -- so that, inter alia, our colleagues can properly appreciate
the intellectual qualities of our work? I am reminded, for example, of
Agostino Ramelli's 16C treatise on engineering, Le diverse et artificiose
machine (1588) -- published by Dover and by Scholar Press as The Various
and Ingenious Machines of Agostino Ramelli (1976) -- filled with engravings
of engineering solutions, so that the ideas they manifest may be
communicated. The modern edition comes with technical annotations and a
technical glossary by Eugene Ferguson, who along with Walter Vincenti and
some others has done much to explicate engineering as an epistemic practice
of its own. I am also reminded of historian Michael Mahoney's work in
raising the historiographical question, and in raising the level at which
it is asked. But we need to take a look for ourselves, at what we do.

Enough of work for now, however. Time for the re-creational celebrations of
the season, in whatever cultural dialect you celebrate them. Almost dawn
here. Time to rouse the sleeping beauty and get on with it.

All the best.


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Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk
Received on Tue Dec 21 2004 - 03:14:25 EST

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