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Humanist Archives: May 5, 2019, 6:40 a.m. Humanist 32.648 - the rhetoric of digital humanities

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 648.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2019-05-04 21:27:09+00:00
        From: Alan Liu 
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.644: the rhetoric of digital humanities

Dear Willard,

You've set out a needed line of thought that might promote (as you say)
greater "disciplinary self-understanding and maturity" in the digital
humanities. It may be that the next stage in critical rigor for DH--already
underway by many hands--will require both accommodating external criticism
of the field's aims and methods (turning such criticism to good use even if
it is sometimes poorly informed or egregiously hostile) _and_ engaging in
self-critique of aims and methods. Part of that self-critique would be to
reflect on DH's own views (descriptions, explanations, beliefs, and claims)
about what it is doing. The most honest way for DH to do so would be to
distant-read its own language about aims and methods (as well as close-read
the rhetorical moves needed to explain how any kind of machine learning
works and what the results mean).

In this vein, I'd like to submit a preliminary case study (very sketchily
and unpersuasively researched) just to indicate what is needed. And then I
want to offer a friendly amendment to your hypothesis that the rhetoric of
DH is "badly infected by promotionalism" and "salesmanship." I suggest that
hypothesis may be too narrow, and too modern, a framing of the issues.

But before widening the frame, let's do the opposite and look at the
problem in a relatively narrow compass to detect the rhetoric involved in
its most pristine state. For this purpose, I recommend the work of Ted
Underwood, who is one of the digital humanists I most admire. This is not
just because of the sweep, coupled with technical expertise, of his work,
but also because despite the fact that he is pioneering at the frontiers of
DH and has his eyes set on "distant horizons," he is one of the most
understated scholars (let alone digital humanists) I know. There is a
habitual modesty in his claims and tone that I find refreshing. His
characteristic statement (ventriloquizing) is like this: "It may be that.
However, there are these problems. So we know this. But we don't know
that." Ted is a minimalist, whereas (I confess) I have myself often been a

How does Ted Underwood, a minimalist version of the promotional salesman
you interrogate, go about rhetorizing DH? I've done some preliminary word,
collocate, and concordance analysis of Ted's recent book, _Distant
Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change_ (U. Chicago Press, 2019).
It's a book that is important for many reasons, including the effort it
makes to close the gap between computational methods and longstanding,
known problems in literary history and criticism. The distant-reading
word-, collocate-, and concordancing-analysis I've so far done on the book
is extremely preliminary and casual. It would have to be deepened and
corrected with more analyses along the same lines, additional analyses
using other methods, and the normal, iterative "next step" approaches for
any serious research (e.g., _if my initial study seems to show X, then what
Y and Z steps do I need to take to confirm, refute, or enrichen my
understanding of X?_)

In Ted's book, the lemmatized form of words related to "analysis" occurs 42
times; and of "criticism" 108 times. That is the tranche of terms that
clearly overlaps with mainstream modern literary criticism.

Then, there is another tranche at a lower frequency level that may be the
sweet spot for looking into the rhetoric of DH promotionalism: e.g., lemmas
for "discover" (29 occurrences, including sentences like the following at
the very opening of Ted's preface: "This is a book about recent discoveries
in literary history. The word discovery will sound odd, because the things
that matter in literary history are usually arguments, not discoveries),
"explore" (24), and "reveal" (22). A KWIC ("keywords in context")
concordance view of these words in Ted's text confirms that in most cases
they mean what we think. Moreover, sometimes these words appear with
trailing metaphors and other local context staging whole scenes of
discovery, exploration, and revelations. For instance, the second paragraph
of Ted's preface includes this analogy: "Apparently, longer arcs of change
have been hidden from us by their sheer scale--just as you can drive across
a continent, noticing mountains and political boundaries, but never the
curvature of the earth." Especially in light of the beautiful cover of
Ted's book, which literalizes a landscape of "distant horizons," this
analogy stages the vocabulary of exploration on a scene of earth-spanning
geopolitical discovery.

In addition, I note that the "discover explore reveal" promotional tranche
in Ted's book holds within a secret reserve of extra-strength
promotionalism. If we perform a collocate search on the term "discover" (in
a window of 5 words before and 5 words after), then suddenly we see
revealed what might be taken to be promotionalism in naked form. Here are
some of the top collocates of "discover" in Ted's book, many of which we
could imagine appearing in advertisements for the next blockbuster movie:
"unexpected, startling, shocked, pause [as in "it gives us pause"],

Such is a relatively narrow, focused view of the problem of
promotional/marketing in DH, using Ted's book as an example where the
phenomenon is likely more carefully controlled (though I have not verified
this comparatively). A quick sampling of other works of DH indicates that
the "discover explore reveal" vocabulary set, with its collocates, is not
unique to Ted. That set is a signature even of DH tools, as in the case of
Voyant Tools with its operational button labeled "Reveal." Even
meta-discussion of DH draws from the "discover explore reveal" synset. (For
example, I make heavy use of such words in my "The Meaning of the Digital
Humanities," PMLA 128 (2013): 409-423.)

The "discover explore reveal" verb synset and its primarily adjectival
collocates ("unexpected, startling," etc.) could certainly be extended
through more careful research and a larger sample of DH writings. But even
this limited view of the synset may be enough to suggest why I think we
need to widen and historically deepen the terms of the problem of DH

I can't prove this here, since persuasive demonstration would entail a
large-scale comparison of DH writings not just with other scholarship but
also varied historical corpora. But a hypothesis is that there are at least
two older contexts of "promotion" that words like "discover explore reveal"
carry forward from the past to the present in DH's rhetoric. "Reveal" (and
revelation) reminds us that before it was marketing, or even today's
professing, promotionalism was evangelism. The first "new media" was the
print Bible as it was proselytized around the world by missionaries
carrying the good word (attended by germs and bullets) to what Walter Ong
called "primary oral cultures." (DH's stated "big tent" ideal, it may be
noted, hearkens back metaphorically to the tabernacle and camp-tent
movements of the 19th-century American Second Great Awakening, which was
evangelism just on the threshold of the modern electronic and digital media
now indiscriminately spreading the good word, fake news, and adverts world
wide). And "discover" and "explore" in part hearken back to the
early-modern age of imperial exploration (and later the continental
westward-ho expansion of horizons intimated metaphorically in Ted's book).
That's a trope that was indelibly identified with the internet from the
1990s on when many major Web browser programs, portals, and associated
companies promoted themselves through such names as Netscape Navigator,
Internet Explorer, Spyglass, Magellan, etc. (complete with visual logos
such as Netscape's ship's pilot wheel).

I'm suggesting that promotional rhetoric, in DH or otherwise, are babies at
the knee of much older rhetorics associated with preaching and colonizing.
They are part of the vocabulary of what I have elsewhere called "the new
media encounter" ("Imagining the New Media Encounter." _A Companion to
Digital Literary Studies_. Ed. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. Malden,
MA: Blackwell, 2007. 3-25)

On Thu, May 2, 2019 at 10:30 PM Humanist  wrote:

>                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 644.
>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                    Hosted by King's Digital Lab
>                        www.dhhumanist.org
>                 Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org
>         Date: 2019-05-03 05:12:25+00:00
>         From: Willard McCarty 
>         Subject: the rhetoric of digital humanities
> Forgive my ignorance: if someone has already done a rhetorical
> analysis of the language used in digital humanities please say. If
> it remains undone then I'd like to suggest there's an opportunity for
> encouraging greater disciplinary self-understanding and maturity.
> It's my overall (i.e. fuzzy) impression, you see, that the language
> we use remains rather badly infected by promotionalism in comparison
> with other disciplines (other than our technological cousins),
> such that we overstate rather than simply say whatever it is that is
> that needs saying. The opposite of crying "Wolf! Wolf!", if you will.
> Computing has been bound up with salesmanship since the beginning;
> as Michael Mahoney wrote in "Shaping the history of computing"
> (Histories of Computing, p. 50),
> > from the outset, computing has had to sell itself, whether to the
> > government as big machines for scientific computing essential to
> > national defense, to business and industry as systems vital to
> > management, or to universities as scientific and technological
> > disciplines deserving of academic standing and even departmental
> > autonomy. The computing community very quickly learned the skills of
> > advertising and became adept at marketing what it often could not yet
> > produce. The result is that computing has had an air of wishful
> > thinking about it.
> It's the "deserving of academic standing" that drives much of it for us.
> But even when a major university is biting the bullet and advertising
> for a professorship in the subject, or a professor at such an institution
> moves into digital humanities and proclaims his or her new work, the
> attendant rhetoric often glitters with claims that we are barely
> able to support if at all. If, indeed, digital humanities is "transforming
> the humanities", then how is it doing that, in what sense? Justification
> makes for considerable nervousness, and so the "wishful thinking".
> Revolutions are declared, as Mahoney goes on to say, that are
> "subsequently (and quietly) canceled owing to unforeseen difficulties."
> Would it not be better instead to be asking difficult questions that
> other disciplines are struggling with, offering a new take on them --
> or that these disciplines have not yet thought to ask? And in so
> doing, building bridges to these disciplines across which mutual help
> -- and that longed-for recognition -- can flow?
> If there are gaps in the above, please fill them in.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
> Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
> London;
> Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University; Editor, Interdisciplinary
> Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist
> (www.dhhumanist.org)

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