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Humanist Archives: Dec. 15, 2019, 3:22 p.m. Humanist 33.493 - John F. Burrows (1928-2019)

                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 33, No. 493.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                   Hosted by King's Digital Lab
                Submit to: humanist@dhhumanist.org

        Date: 2019-12-15 15:05:24+00:00
        From: Willard McCarty 
        Subject: John F. Burrows (1928-2019)

The great scholar of computational stylistics John F. Burrows died
peacefully in Sydney this morning, following by a few days the death of
his wife Pam. 

There are many better qualified than I to take the measure of his work 
-- I invite their responses here -- but I know enough to see in that 
work implications yet to be appreciated across the disciplines,
including those sciences we seldom associate with the humanities.
Burrows' scholarship is not the stuff of bandwagon fanfare. It is what
we might call the quiet, slowly acting stuff that awakens the reader to
new, disturbing, exciting questions, bestowing, in Blake's words,
"expanding eyes". And we wonder, reading it, how by statistical methods,
complex and black-boxed, a most elusive of human characteristics, style,
becomes mathematically visible from a large number of weak markers? 
What does this tell us about us? And what does that tell us about 
directions in which the machine could go?

There have been many pursuits of style by means of computing, but few
who have pursued it have, as John did, so masterfully and patiently kept
always to the fore the subtle balance between literature read with a 
lover's eyes and precisely countable, computable data. His balancing of 
them began more or less with Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane
Austen's Novels and an Experiment in Method (1987, the year Humanist
started) and ended, as far as I know, with "Rho-grams and rho-sets:
Significant links in the web of words", DSH 2018. That article typically
announces a new venture:

> ... an initial account of a promising new procedure for
> assessing some major forms of stylistic difference among written
> texts... It can be seen, perhaps, as a valedictory gesture as I enter
> my 90th year and come, so I must suppose, towards the end of a long
> scholarly career.... Few readers of this journal will need my
> rationale to persuade them that our work is worthwhile. It is
> intended, rather, as a contribution to the continuing struggle to
> persuade our traditionalist colleagues that we have much to offer.

Always, modestly, "our work", always socially minded, worrying its place 
among colleagues. But how much further in his articulation it goes. In 
doing so, it serves as a reminder that digital humanities comes to life 
and will stay alive not as some 'next new [rapidly ageing] thing' but in 
the interdisciplinary meeting ground of relation to the older fields of 
enquiry, which have so much to teach us.

Farewell, my old friend!

Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/),
Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
London; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
(www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist (www.dhhumanist.org)

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