Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 648. Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London Hosted by King's Digital Lab www.dhhumanist.org Submit to: email@example.com Date: 2019-05-04 21:27:09+00:00 From: Alan Liu
Subject: Re: [Humanist] 32.644: the rhetoric of digital humanities Dear Willard, You've set out a needed line of thought that might promote (as you say) greater "disciplinary self-understanding and maturity" in the digital humanities. It may be that the next stage in critical rigor for DH--already underway by many hands--will require both accommodating external criticism of the field's aims and methods (turning such criticism to good use even if it is sometimes poorly informed or egregiously hostile) _and_ engaging in self-critique of aims and methods. Part of that self-critique would be to reflect on DH's own views (descriptions, explanations, beliefs, and claims) about what it is doing. The most honest way for DH to do so would be to distant-read its own language about aims and methods (as well as close-read the rhetorical moves needed to explain how any kind of machine learning works and what the results mean). In this vein, I'd like to submit a preliminary case study (very sketchily and unpersuasively researched) just to indicate what is needed. And then I want to offer a friendly amendment to your hypothesis that the rhetoric of DH is "badly infected by promotionalism" and "salesmanship." I suggest that hypothesis may be too narrow, and too modern, a framing of the issues. But before widening the frame, let's do the opposite and look at the problem in a relatively narrow compass to detect the rhetoric involved in its most pristine state. For this purpose, I recommend the work of Ted Underwood, who is one of the digital humanists I most admire. This is not just because of the sweep, coupled with technical expertise, of his work, but also because despite the fact that he is pioneering at the frontiers of DH and has his eyes set on "distant horizons," he is one of the most understated scholars (let alone digital humanists) I know. There is a habitual modesty in his claims and tone that I find refreshing. His characteristic statement (ventriloquizing) is like this: "It may be that. However, there are these problems. So we know this. But we don't know that." Ted is a minimalist, whereas (I confess) I have myself often been a maximalist. How does Ted Underwood, a minimalist version of the promotional salesman you interrogate, go about rhetorizing DH? I've done some preliminary word, collocate, and concordance analysis of Ted's recent book, _Distant Horizons: Digital Evidence and Literary Change_ (U. Chicago Press, 2019). It's a book that is important for many reasons, including the effort it makes to close the gap between computational methods and longstanding, known problems in literary history and criticism. The distant-reading word-, collocate-, and concordancing-analysis I've so far done on the book is extremely preliminary and casual. It would have to be deepened and corrected with more analyses along the same lines, additional analyses using other methods, and the normal, iterative "next step" approaches for any serious research (e.g., _if my initial study seems to show X, then what Y and Z steps do I need to take to confirm, refute, or enrichen my understanding of X?_) In Ted's book, the lemmatized form of words related to "analysis" occurs 42 times; and of "criticism" 108 times. That is the tranche of terms that clearly overlaps with mainstream modern literary criticism. Then, there is another tranche at a lower frequency level that may be the sweet spot for looking into the rhetoric of DH promotionalism: e.g., lemmas for "discover" (29 occurrences, including sentences like the following at the very opening of Ted's preface: "This is a book about recent discoveries in literary history. The word discovery will sound odd, because the things that matter in literary history are usually arguments, not discoveries), "explore" (24), and "reveal" (22). A KWIC ("keywords in context") concordance view of these words in Ted's text confirms that in most cases they mean what we think. Moreover, sometimes these words appear with trailing metaphors and other local context staging whole scenes of discovery, exploration, and revelations. For instance, the second paragraph of Ted's preface includes this analogy: "Apparently, longer arcs of change have been hidden from us by their sheer scale--just as you can drive across a continent, noticing mountains and political boundaries, but never the curvature of the earth." Especially in light of the beautiful cover of Ted's book, which literalizes a landscape of "distant horizons," this analogy stages the vocabulary of exploration on a scene of earth-spanning geopolitical discovery. In addition, I note that the "discover explore reveal" promotional tranche in Ted's book holds within a secret reserve of extra-strength promotionalism. If we perform a collocate search on the term "discover" (in a window of 5 words before and 5 words after), then suddenly we see revealed what might be taken to be promotionalism in naked form. Here are some of the top collocates of "discover" in Ted's book, many of which we could imagine appearing in advertisements for the next blockbuster movie: "unexpected, startling, shocked, pause [as in "it gives us pause"], surprised." Such is a relatively narrow, focused view of the problem of promotional/marketing in DH, using Ted's book as an example where the phenomenon is likely more carefully controlled (though I have not verified this comparatively). A quick sampling of other works of DH indicates that the "discover explore reveal" vocabulary set, with its collocates, is not unique to Ted. That set is a signature even of DH tools, as in the case of Voyant Tools with its operational button labeled "Reveal." Even meta-discussion of DH draws from the "discover explore reveal" synset. (For example, I make heavy use of such words in my "The Meaning of the Digital Humanities," PMLA 128 (2013): 409-423.) The "discover explore reveal" verb synset and its primarily adjectival collocates ("unexpected, startling," etc.) could certainly be extended through more careful research and a larger sample of DH writings. But even this limited view of the synset may be enough to suggest why I think we need to widen and historically deepen the terms of the problem of DH promotionalism. I can't prove this here, since persuasive demonstration would entail a large-scale comparison of DH writings not just with other scholarship but also varied historical corpora. But a hypothesis is that there are at least two older contexts of "promotion" that words like "discover explore reveal" carry forward from the past to the present in DH's rhetoric. "Reveal" (and revelation) reminds us that before it was marketing, or even today's professing, promotionalism was evangelism. The first "new media" was the print Bible as it was proselytized around the world by missionaries carrying the good word (attended by germs and bullets) to what Walter Ong called "primary oral cultures." (DH's stated "big tent" ideal, it may be noted, hearkens back metaphorically to the tabernacle and camp-tent movements of the 19th-century American Second Great Awakening, which was evangelism just on the threshold of the modern electronic and digital media now indiscriminately spreading the good word, fake news, and adverts world wide). And "discover" and "explore" in part hearken back to the early-modern age of imperial exploration (and later the continental westward-ho expansion of horizons intimated metaphorically in Ted's book). That's a trope that was indelibly identified with the internet from the 1990s on when many major Web browser programs, portals, and associated companies promoted themselves through such names as Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, Spyglass, Magellan, etc. (complete with visual logos such as Netscape's ship's pilot wheel). I'm suggesting that promotional rhetoric, in DH or otherwise, are babies at the knee of much older rhetorics associated with preaching and colonizing. They are part of the vocabulary of what I have elsewhere called "the new media encounter" ("Imagining the New Media Encounter." _A Companion to Digital Literary Studies_. Ed. Ray Siemens and Susan Schreibman. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. 3-25) On Thu, May 2, 2019 at 10:30 PM Humanist wrote: > Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 32, No. 644. > Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London > Hosted by King's Digital Lab > www.dhhumanist.org > Submit to: firstname.lastname@example.org > > > > > Date: 2019-05-03 05:12:25+00:00 > From: Willard McCarty > Subject: the rhetoric of digital humanities > > Forgive my ignorance: if someone has already done a rhetorical > analysis of the language used in digital humanities please say. If > it remains undone then I'd like to suggest there's an opportunity for > encouraging greater disciplinary self-understanding and maturity. > It's my overall (i.e. fuzzy) impression, you see, that the language > we use remains rather badly infected by promotionalism in comparison > with other disciplines (other than our technological cousins), > such that we overstate rather than simply say whatever it is that is > that needs saying. The opposite of crying "Wolf! Wolf!", if you will. > > Computing has been bound up with salesmanship since the beginning; > as Michael Mahoney wrote in "Shaping the history of computing" > (Histories of Computing, p. 50), > > > from the outset, computing has had to sell itself, whether to the > > government as big machines for scientific computing essential to > > national defense, to business and industry as systems vital to > > management, or to universities as scientific and technological > > disciplines deserving of academic standing and even departmental > > autonomy. The computing community very quickly learned the skills of > > advertising and became adept at marketing what it often could not yet > > produce. The result is that computing has had an air of wishful > > thinking about it. > > It's the "deserving of academic standing" that drives much of it for us. > But even when a major university is biting the bullet and advertising > for a professorship in the subject, or a professor at such an institution > moves into digital humanities and proclaims his or her new work, the > attendant rhetoric often glitters with claims that we are barely > able to support if at all. If, indeed, digital humanities is "transforming > the humanities", then how is it doing that, in what sense? Justification > makes for considerable nervousness, and so the "wishful thinking". > Revolutions are declared, as Mahoney goes on to say, that are > "subsequently (and quietly) canceled owing to unforeseen difficulties." > Would it not be better instead to be asking difficult questions that > other disciplines are struggling with, offering a new take on them -- > or that these disciplines have not yet thought to ask? And in so > doing, building bridges to these disciplines across which mutual help > -- and that longed-for recognition -- can flow? > > If there are gaps in the above, please fill them in. > > Comments? > > Yours, > WM > > -- > Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), > Professor emeritus, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College > London; > Adjunct Professor, Western Sydney University; Editor, Interdisciplinary > Science Reviews (www.tandfonline.com/loi/yisr20) and Humanist > (www.dhhumanist.org) _______________________________________________ Unsubscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted List posts to: email@example.com List info and archives at at: http://dhhumanist.org Listmember interface at: http://dhhumanist.org/Restricted/ Subscribe at: http://dhhumanist.org/membership_form.php
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