history rather than policy (224)

Sat, 25 Mar 89 00:31:00 EST

Humanist Mailing List, Vol. 2, No. 764. Saturday, 25 Mar 1989.

Date: 25 March 1989
From: Willard McCarty <MCCARTY@vm.epas.utoronto.ca>
Subject: history rather than policy

Dear Colleagues:

Rather than try to articulate a more comprehensive statement of
editorial policy than is already in your Guide to Humanist, I
prefer first to tell the story of how Humanist has evolved since
its inception in May 1987, then to make some general
observations. A very few of you will know this story already, but
most will not. My apologies to the few for the rehashing.

I should make clear from the outset that my experience with
electronic `newsgroups' has been confined to Humanist. Though
increasingly well known internationally, Humanist is neither the
largest nor possibly the most important of such services. So I
hope those of you with greater insight into the medium will
forgive the limitations of my outlook and be kind enough to
correct them.

In a recent note, Vicky Walsh recalled how Humanist came about as
a result of a spontaneous meeting at the 9th ICCH conference in
Columbia, South Carolina. The meeting was attended by
approximately two dozen people who supported humanities computing
either professionally or informally. They discovered many common
concerns -- in particular, the lack of proper academic
recognition -- and feeling a strong sense of unanimity, decided
to form the Special Interest Group for Humanities Computing
Resources. Humanist was created shortly afterwards in order to
keep this interest group intact. The original Humanists hoped
that others like them -- non-academic staff, Ph.D.s without
academic employment, and untenured faculty -- would join and that
together they could change the world. Thus were our original
intentions, naive to be sure but honest for all that.

Soon, however, tenured faculty, directors of computing centres,
and other well established academics asked to join Humanist. For
me, though it may be silly to say so, this was a crisis of
identity for the new group, which was planned to be a voice
representing a minority to those in power. With good advice from
friends, and a very strong intuition that I have never regretted,
I decided not to constrain Humanist to its original purpose but
to let it find its own identity. Had I kept it "on track" it
would, I think, have died of exhaustion.

At the same time, I had strong convictions that an electronic
seminar would gain respect and attract thoughtful humanists only
if it were to embody traditional humanistic values. I was very
dissatisfied with some existing sources of information and
debate, which seemed to have no notion of quality or mindfulness,
and in which the language of discussion was frequently careless
of spelling, grammar, style, and accuracy of expression. (No
criticism here is intended of those whose native tongue is not
English; on the contrary, non-native speakers, even if they do
not always succeed in being idiomatic, frequently use the
language with such intelligence as to put native speakers to
shame.) So, I took every opportunity to suggest by example what
level of discourse was to be assumed, without (I hope) in any way
stifling truly creative expression. Not that I really had much to
do in this department, our membership being for the most part
uncommonly able.

Eventually problems with electronic junk mail -- automatically
produced by software reacting to network errors -- and with the
volume of contributions, forced Humanist to become a moderated
group. Thus I found myself as editor, interposed between incoming
messages and outgoing mail. (To this day the junk mail continues
and would doubtless drive many members away were it automatically
distributed as before.) With the help of Michael Sperberg-
McQueen, il miglior fabbro where software is concerned, I have
been able since last August to group messages together
conveniently and so to keep the number of pieces of daily mail to
a reasonable and easily digestible minimum. Other improvements
and services have been added gradually.

All this time I have continued to take delight and interest in
discovering what sort of thing Humanist is. As best I can
determine, it lies somewhere between an oral conversation on the
one hand and a printed journal or newsletter on the other. The
exchange of information as such has proven important, but
Humanist has been especially good at argumentation over basic and
often unresolvable issues. I do not think that this kind of
discourse, combining rapid dissemination of news with thoughtful
discussion of fundamental ideas, would take place otherwise. One
of its most salient features is the way that valuable insights
arise out of informal but intelligent conversation -- the babble
of the tribal educators, if you will. The medium itself dictates
license but simultaneously allows for scholarly care. It is a
medium with almost no history, so what we do with its potential
may be particularly influential.

The crucially positive consequences of having let Humanist find
itself have guided me in a policy of non-intervention whenever
that has been possible. To some members, this apparent lack of
presence has been a defect; to others my occasional intrusions
have seemed violations of a state of innocence. The former have
questioned why I ever publish the comments of certain other
members; the latter have sharply criticized, for example, my
imposition of prejudicial categories by grouping contributions
according to subject. As Michael Sperberg-McQueen and Joe Raben
have recently pointed out, editors make choices, whether they act
or not. I cannot claim unbroken mindfulness -- sometimes I too am
distracted by more urgent matters -- but mostly I have acted, or
not, out of conviction and after some thought.

The first moral crisis on Humanist occurred over the issue of
going to Israel for the ALLC conference last June. I will not
rehearse what happened on Humanist then, since almost everything
was recorded in the logbooks. Suffice it to say that I resisted
limiting the largely political discussion until forced to realize
the inflammable -- and anti-intellectual -- potential of
political discussions. Perhaps I was slow to learn the lesson
that in a large group self-control sometimes breaks down, and
someone in authority must call a halt. Milton and others have
schooled me to think that self-control is the only kind worthy of
human beings, but history teaches (does it not?) that humanity is
something we aim at, not something that comes naturally.

I think we have to be very clear about the state of things and of
people as they actually are, and about what state we want to make
for ourselves. We are apt both to underestimate our own
inhumanity (so much so that the word "evil" is now difficult to
use) and to dismiss as an impossible and foolish dream any vision
of a better world. We are bedeviled by bottom lines.

Let me again quote from the end of the Areopagitica, where Milton
concludes that "if all cannot be of one mind -- as who looks they
should be? -- this doubtless is more wholesome, more prudent, and
more Christian, that many be tolerated, rather than all
compelled." Nevertheless, he excepts what he regards as dangerous
superstition, declaring that "as it extirpates all religions and
civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first
that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and
regain the weak and misled; that also which is impious or evil
absolutely, either against faith or manners, no law can possibly
permit, that intends not to unlaw itself." Yet above all, though
differences be many, they "need not interrupt `the unity of
spirit', if we could but find among us the `bond of peace'."

The issues and the rhetoric were sharper for Milton than they
have been on Humanist -- I recommend that you read his exchange
with Salmasius -- but our community is in some ways considerably
more diverse. Creative harmony has not and will not happen by
itself. Maintaining it will mean striving simultaneously to
increase understanding and toleration, and to eliminate
irrelevant or offensive topics whenever self-control fails.

The Guide to Humanist for the last year or so has stated
explicitly that Humanist is "an international electronic
discussion group for computing humanists and for those who
support the application of computers to scholarship in the
humanities.... Its scope is broadly defined to include all
matters of professional concern to its members." It was never
intended as a unregulated forum where any issue at all could be
raised, rather as a electronic seminar for topics of professional
concern to its members in their role as computing humanists. As
such, we are very much involved with broad issues, like the
nature of the humanities and their place in technological
society. Our central purpose, however, defines a periphery and
must continue to exert a centripetal force on the discussions.

The Guide to Humanist also says that "when in [the editor's]
judgment a contribution is incompetent, offensive, or clearly
outside the scope of Humanist, he reserves the right not to
publish it." Doubtless I will sometimes make mistakes in deciding
what is beyond the pale. So far, on the rare occasion when it has
been necessary, I have made my decision in private, informing or
consulting with the author. In almost every case, the author has
graciously withdrawn the contribution. I have never silently
deleted something I did not approve of.

I think, however, that a change may be necessary in order to
reflect the much greater diversity of our membership and to
attempt to draw on its collective wisdom. Therefore, following
the practice of colleagues who edit printed journals, I am now
forming a small editorial board of Humanists whom I can consult
when need be. I expect that they will rarely be called upon, but
they will certainly be encouraged to give me unsolicited advice.

In addition, I think that the popularity of electronic
communication among humanists may indicate the need for
additional discussion groups. Humanist itself, though not the
only forum, has again grown to the point at which the volume of
mail is becoming oppressive for some. I see only two ways of
alleviating this difficulty: first, to make sure our topics are
relevant to Humanist; second, to form additional groups. These
should, I hasten to add, be moderated by someone other than

I very much hope that discussion about what Humanist should be
will never cease, though its going into abeyance periodically is
perhaps not a bad thing. Anyone who has paid close attention will
have noticed that I occasionally try to provoke such talk. More
so than printed forums, we need to "renew ourselves daily",
according to the motto Confucius supposedly had engraved on his
bathtub. Despite all attempts to keep our electronic
conversations archived, the essence of Humanist is in the moment
-- and for that very reason requires periodic exercises in
recollection, like this one. Michel Foucault somewhere noted that
all conversation is a form of affection; only countries near or
at war cease to maintain diplomatic ties. So let the friendly
conversations continue in

mazes intricate,
Eccentric, intervolved, yet regular
Then most, when most irregular they seem:
And in their motions harmony Divine
So smoothes her charming tones, that God's own ear
Listens delighted...." (Milton, PL 5.622-7)

Willard McCarty