17.484 solstitial greetings

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Mon Dec 22 2003 - 05:51:25 EST

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 484.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                         Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

             Date: Mon, 22 Dec 2003 10:38:06 +0000
             From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
             Subject: times of gatherings and celebrations

    Dear colleagues,

    Tonight is the longest of the year, today the shortest. Perhaps because I
    am still relatively new to this country, at this latitude, and live in a
    part of an old city whose buildings were built from bricks dark with age,
    I'm more than a little apt for appreciation of the gloom that characterizes
    winter here. Every one of these last 7 years in London winter has surprised
    me, who was schooled to expect bitter bright cold days and nights. I am
    speaking of a physical gloom, not a psychological one, though the one could
    become the other very easily, given less happy circumstances. This year is
    very special for me, in that I am spending it entirely by writing, with the
    occasional bout of reading to support gaps in the fortifications. Hence my
    experience of gloom and the absurdly rapid return of night take a writerly
    form. Yesterday, as I was sending off notice to Humanist of two relevant
    Habilitationsschriften, I thought, that's it, I'll call what I am writing
    now my Hibernationsschrift! Qualifications out of a long sleep for the long

    Yes, yes, I really should explain, for the benefit of those among the 1258
    subscribers whose time in Humanist does not include a previous occasion
    like this one. Every year since 1987, with a 5-year hiatus, I've sent out
    an all-inclusive solstitial greeting of good cheer to everyone, in which
    self-indulgently I allow myself to conform mentally to the cultural
    stereotype of jolly generosity with which I was raised, the scholar Santa,
    as it were. Christmas is in 3 days, Kwanza the day after, the solstice
    (a.k.a. Yule) and Tohji-taisai today, Chanukah already in progress, Bodhi
    Day past by a couple of weeks -- and others important to many, which I am
    too ignorant to know of. A dark time in which we celebrate the light. Like
    the boy on the hill above Rio, in the movie Black Orpheus, at sunrise,
    playing the old guitar he has just inherited, to make sure the sun will
    come up? Something of that darkly informs the cooking, wrapping, gathering,
    eating and raising of glasses, perhaps.

    In this run-up to Christmas I have been thinking appropriately about the
    social aspects of what we do, in particular meditating on the phrase "lone
    scholar" (yes, as I sit alone in my study, writing). If my ear for
    linguistic usage is working reliably, then what I hear when people use this
    phrase tends toward something like a denegration -- an implicit assignment
    of the traditional mode of humanistic scholarship to "the dustbin of
    history" (Trotsky to the Menscheviks at the Second All-Russian Congress of
    the Soviets, 25 October 1917). I have no problem whatever with
    collaboration -- a fine thing, in my own experience one of the best. What
    bothers me, rather, is the promotion of a model of practice without
    understanding its relation to the native "epistemic culture" (Karin Knorr
    Cetina's term). As Thomas Kuhn suggested many years ago in a strongly
    autobiographical account of work in physics, history and philosophy, not
    only the way people work but what they recognize as valid work and where
    they think that it happens differ from one epistemic culture to another. In
    the humanities the locus of work is more or less in the writing -- in
    contrast, say, to physics or computer science, where the write-up tends to
    report on the work, not be it. Indeed, unless the work were external to the
    writing, invested in manipulation of objects, it would seem difficult to
    imagine the kind of authorship-by-committee that Peter Galison describes in
    "The Collective Author" (Scientific Authorship, ed. Biagioli and Galison,
    Routledge 2003, pp. 332ff).

    My point here is not merely that in the epistemic culture(s) of the
    humanities, the solitary nature of much of the work we do is integral to
    the kind of work it is. At the same time, this work is intensely social.
    One realizes the social aspect whenever questions of audience arise: how
    important it is to understand whom one is addressing, what they know, how
    they need and expect to be addressed -- how important it is actually *to
    communicate*. (This is an especially challenging matter for an
    intrinsically interdisciplinary field such as ours.) We see the social
    nature of our work in citations to other scholarship, less obviously but no
    less powerfully in the ideas we inherit, chunks of code we borrow or depend
    on and so forth. It is attested profoundly in the acknowledgements given in
    the leading footnotes to papers and in that special section of books where
    authors detail their indebtedness. In my own experience, the question of
    audience has been central, peer-review both demanding and very positive, in
    all but one or two cases leaving me with strong gratitude to my reviewers.
    Recently, for example, I submitted a paper that ventured deep into
    territory not my own. One of the reviewers turned out clearly to be a
    leading authority in the field (the authority was obvious in the writing),
    who responded in a detailed and lengthy critique from which I learned a
    great deal. There was, I suspect, a full day's worth of work or more in
    that review. Where else, how else could one get such devoted and
    intelligent attention?

    Perhaps the most intensely social experience of scholarship, however, comes
    in the writing of a book, which in my case is far closer to the speaking of
    a multitude to itself than to a lone voice addressing a vast crowd. The
    experience is almost orchestral and certainly one of a vast
    socio-intellectual resonance. It is one of participation in a long, slowly
    unfolding conversation.

    Then there's Humanist and its kind, to which in the last 17-18 years
    so-called lone scholars have flocked in droves. Some here will remember
    when we were told that computers would lead to the massive isolation of
    individuals from each other, everyone in front of a screen, no one
    face-to-face. Then people began to wonder why computer labs were so popular
    among those who had their own machines. Now people like Terry Winograd are
    telling us not only that computers are about communicating rather than
    alphanumeric crunching but that the metaphor of the "interface" (that which
    is between a person and his or her machine) is all wrong, that it should be
    replaced by another, the "habitat" ("From Computing Machinery to
    Interaction Design", in Peter Denning and Robert Metcalfe, eds., Beyond
    Calculation: The Next Fifty Years of Computing, Springer-Verlag, 1997,
    149-162, online at http://hci.stanford.edu/winograd/acm97.html). I suppose
    one could argue in the manner of Geoffrey Nunberg that our party-animal
    nature, long constricted by professional modes of communication, is now
    allowed its rampant freedom -- that although we were highly social lone
    scholars before, now we are even more so.

    And perhaps that's a good place to stop so that preparations for the more
    local parties may proceed unfettered by this global chit-chat. The sun is
    now midway in its travels across the rooftops opposite me, and I am still
    writing. Certain foodstuffs need to be procured before the sky is dark
    again, and there are large chunks of someone else's book to read and
    comment on. So I'm off, with heartiest possible greetings and the very best
    wishes to everyone for a fine social time of it.


    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@kcl.ac.uk

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