20.073 excuses for theory, ideas from practice

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Sat, 24 Jun 2006 10:45:27 +0100

                Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 20, No. 73.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2006 12:01:53 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: theory and practice

In her book Copying Machines: taking notes for the automaton
(Minnesota, 2000), Catherine Liu makes the following remark about
literary critical and psychoanalytic theory:

>There is no excuse for theory.... Unlike other
>discourses, it does not purport to do anyone any
>good. It tries to provide material for
>thinking. [T]here seems to be an increasing
>need for those of us in the humanities to have
>an excuse for what we are doing, and those of us
>who "do" theory seem to be most lacking in
>excuses. We are the least likely to to appear as
>if we are doing anyone or anything any good.
>Theory exists, unfortunately, for itself: its
>insights are based on thinking through the
>complexities of both reading and writing. (p. 152)

In humanities computing we encounter the opposite situation: we have
many excuses for what we are doing, because the practice as is it
usually instantiated is precisely for the advancement of projects
elsewhere. One way of reading the situation is that humanities
computing offers rescue to the useless disciplines, provides these
unexcused ones with whatever excuses may be required. In the
short-term this seems a good pitch to make (though, of course, not in
those terms, not out loud), since it secures friends in middle and
high places. But as a long-term strategy it smells of High Moral
Seriousness, and one starts to wonder where our Wilde will come from.
If theory -- or Theory, as I prefer -- needs to engage with
artefacts, not only to obtain its get-out-of-jail-free card but also
to be liberated from solipsism, then humanities computing requires
the opposite engagement with its own sense of theory. It has to be
for itself if it's going to be good for the other humanities when, as
some claim, the woodwork computes.

So, I have a proposal to make: that we call what happens in the
disciplines the "digital humanities" but that we call the
techno-scholarly practice that thus informs these disciplines
"humanities computing". In other words, I think that we're witnessing
not just another evolutionary step (as in the steps from "computers
and the humanities" to "computing in the humanities" to "humanities
computing") but now the separation of this evolving entity into two
distinct though intimately related things.



Dr Willard McCarty | Reader in Humanities
Computing | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Kay House, 7
Arundel Street | London WC2R 3DX | U.K. | +44
(0)20 7848-2784 fax: -2980 ||
willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/wlm/
Received on Sat Jun 24 2006 - 06:05:06 EDT

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