15.418 merry greetings on the Solstice

From: by way of Willard McCarty (willard@lists.village.Virginia.EDU)
Date: Fri Dec 21 2001 - 04:42:08 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 15, No. 418.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

             Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2001 09:35:25 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <w.mccarty@btinternet.com>
             Subject: merry greetings

    Dear colleagues:

    As many here will know, each year on or about the Winter solstice I send
    out what for me are Christmas salutations and seize the occasion to reflect
    on Humanist, humanities computing and related things. At this time of year,
    despite all evidence to the contrary in this gloomy wet-bricked
    working-class Victorian suburb of London, I find myself imagining a snowy
    landscape -- which years in Ontario, Canada, often in fact gave me. I could
    put us all on a horse-drawn wagon, make us merry revelers in heavy coats,
    scarves, hats, mitts and boots headed to some brightly lit, fire-warmed,
    mulled-wine-smelling house. Which I very much hope you will be going to at
    some point during the holidays, or as near to a place of celebratory joy as
    you might want. But my melancholy soul won't leave well enough alone: up
    into these cozy imaginings bobbs a long-submerged bit of Eliot ("So
    Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna / On the field of battle") to remind
    me that a question is begging to be asked - a question often enough asked
    of us wired scholars: just where are we going?

    Bad answers in the popular and, alas, academic presses grow like stubborn
    weeds, thorny with determinisms. Such as: that the future will be
    thus-and-such, positive or negative as suits the visionary. Or more
    deviously: that once upon a time (e.g. when the Web was in its infancy) we
    had the genius to see how things were going and so invested appropriately
    (e.g. in years of work on Web-based projects). Hurrah for us, and too bad
    for those who didn't see what we saw. This, however, is not even a wisdom
    in hindsight but an intellectually damaging hallucination, for the past
    never was like that, and the present can't be either for the sharp-eyed
    among us. Or so, powerfully, says the ethnographer Greg Dening in his
    curiously marvellous book, Readings/Writings (Melbourne, 1998):

    "The webs of significance of any event, place or person are fine-lined and
    faint. It takes a lot of looking to see them. And the answers to any
    question that we have of them are never obvious, because the questions we
    ask of them are not the questions the people of the past were asking of
    themselves.... The most unhistorical thing we can do is to imagine that the
    past is us in funny clothes. Our imagination has to allow us to experience
    what we share with the past and see difference at the same time.... When we
    empower the past by returning it to itself, we empower our imagination to
    see ourselves. Our certainties are our greatest enemy when we approach the
    past. Hindsight is always blinding. We know from our living experience that
    our present moments--this moment--has all the possibilities of the future
    still in it. None of us prescribes the reality we live in. None of us
    controls the consequences of our actions. None of us can predict with
    absolute certainty anybody else's reaction to the simplest gesture, the
    clearest sign, the most definite word. But we have to cope with these
    ambivalences, interpreting these never-ending possibilities. Hindsight, on
    the other hand, reduces all possibilities in the past to one. Hindsight
    leaches out not all our uncertainties, but all the past's uncertainties.
    Hindsight closes down our imagination. In hindsight we do not see the past
    as it actually was, only as it would have been if all of its uncertainties
    were taken away. Hindsight freezes the frame of every picture of the past.
    Hindsight removes all the processes of living. Makes the past our puppet."
    ("Empowering Imaginations", p. 208-11).

    As a number of people have said, the advent (Christmas imagery!) of
    computing has made the technology of the book sharply visible, and it has
    thrown into relief both how good this older technology is for some things,
    how poor in comparison for others. Hence at this historical juncture we are
    getting very busy refurbishing the intellectual forms by which we make and
    represent new knowledge of old things. At issue as we bump along toward
    whatever future, dragging into it what we can from the past, is what the
    past is that we may learn from it. What, for example, were the
    possibilities open to the maker of this or that intellectual form, what was
    he or she intending, how well did he or she succeeed in terms of that
    intention? We don't measure success, Dening points out, by how nearly the
    maker got to asking our questions, rather to asking his or her own, which
    were asked in the context of that which at the time went without saying.
    How, Peter Shillingsburg asked in a talk he gave in London recently, do we
    hear that which goes without saying? "Imagination is hearing the silence",
    Dening suggests, "because we have heard some of the sounds around it.
    Imagination is seeing the absent things because we have seen so much else.
    Imagination is an act of human solidarity, or rather, imagination is an act
    of solidarity in our humanness." (p. 209).

    Quite clearly the imagination of which Dening speaks is not just any sort
    of speculation or fantasizing. There's a particular discipline to it, which
    is to say training, hence the question of curriculum with which we in
    humanities computing are becoming increasingly preoccupied: a curriculum
    for developing the ability to imagine with our tools what we do not yet
    know (Jerry McGann, quoting Lisa Samuels) as well as what we once knew and
    what we have before us now to know. Work in various disciplines lies
    readily to hand to help us build such a curriculum -- and in so doing to
    discover and demonstrate how our practice belongs in and to the company it
    is keeping. The strongest intellectual argument on our side is not based on
    the benefits that applied computing brings e.g. to literary or historical
    studies, although these benefits are now without serious doubt. Rather I
    would think that the gold lies in how particular qualities of literary,
    historical and other disciplinary imaginations help us to articulate a more
    powerful humanities computing, which is in direct consequence better for
    all the disciplines.

    New fields need their independence so as not to be enslaved by others (I
    paraphrase William Blake); the question, I suppose, is how that
    independence is expressed institutionally. Thus the vital contribution of
    administrative imagination in securing intellectual independence while at
    the same time not isolating us from the academic commons. As the
    interrogative tone with which "humanities computing" was once clearly
    pronounced has become more and more difficult to hear, I've noticed a
    curious thing that speaks to the need for this independence: those scholars
    who claim humanities computing for themselves but whose perspective on it
    admits only instrumental effects on their areas of interest. One cause of
    such partiality, I suspect, is that for whatever reasons they are not, as
    Dening puts it, listening "for the global conversations that are the
    background white noise of all disciplinary talk" (p. 9). Is it that they
    hear only the parole of their disciplinary tribe and so cannot properly
    conceptualise the langue of which it is an expression?

    But I do not want to end my solstitial message with intellectual
    weed-control. Let us pursue that with vigour in the new year! Rather in
    this time of imagination, when so many of us live consciously for a brief
    time within old stories, allow me to wish you the best in the deepening
    silence of these silent nights, amidst the bustle to be reminded by Dening
    and others of how computing may be of as well as in the humanities, what
    these humanities are and why we need them. Allow me to wish you the courage
    to make it so.

    All the best, WM

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