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Humanist Archives: March 14, 2022, 5:19 a.m. Humanist 35.591 - disciplinary health?

              Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 35, No. 591.
        Department of Digital Humanities, University of Cologne
                      Hosted by DH-Cologne
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        Date: 2022-03-13 12:09:22+00:00
        From: Manfred Thaller <>
        Subject: Re: disciplinary health?

Dear Willard,


> Looking across them,
> what would we say disciplines are for?

This, I think, is a question, which should be at the back of everybody's
mind who is engaged with academia. Though many people might disagree
with that, doubting whether we need disciplines at all.

There have been times, when I, too would have doubted that: My argument
for a dissolution of disciplines used to be, that there are only
problems plus methods and tools to be applied to their study and a - in
my opinion - observable increase in the number of available methods and
tools would imply an increase in the number of recognizable
sub-disciplines which, becoming ever more specialized, made the original
wide disciplines less useful as explanatory categories.

There are recent developments which let me retract that opinion and,
indeed, I believe that dealing with history - with which I identify - as
a broad area has a purpose, which can be discussed epistemically and
abstractly better on the level of the discipline as a whole, than on the
level of urban history, gender history, cultural history, history of
agriculture or whatever.

Much of the following argument will be derived from observing recent
developments in “the Humanities”, particularly the “Digital Humanities”.
I’ll try to explain what I understand the purpose of History to be
followed by an explanation why I consider these observed developments
contrary to that purpose. If someone is closely connected to an
emotional understanding of some concept of academia's manifest destiny,
I would propose you do not read onward. I might be offensive.

What is the purpose of "History" as systematic academic treatment of
history, consisting of the totality of past events?

The so far not widely known amateur historian Wladimir Wladimirowitsch
P. has, as we all have learned, recently published a paper on Russian
and Ukrainian history, which he than used as pretext for the systematic
destruction of the city of Kyiv. Had Batu Khan not seen fit to destroy
1240 all but 200 houses of the same city, it might today easily be the
seat of Wladimir Wladimirowitsch in his bread job.

At the surface, History's mandate might seem to be clear: It would be
nice, if there is a common understanding (a) that the reasoning in
Wladimir Wladimirowitsch's paper is demonstrably wrong, but even more
important (b) to understand why Batu Khan thought it acceptable behavior
to massacre along happily. (b) Is the more important of these two, as I
connect it with the dream that when one day we understand sufficiently
well what lead Batu Khan to his mindset, we might become able to
understand how to prevent Wladimir Khan's successor to acquire the same
mindset for a second repeat performance in 2804.

Less dramatically: The purpose of History is to understand our past
sufficiently well, to be aware of the societal consequences of our
collective actions. (While dreaming: And avoid such as are demonstrably
destructive in the future.)

This is of course a very specific example for a more general purpose to
be able to understand the past. But being less abstract than such a
broader definition, I find it easier to derive a few points of view from
this example which explains why I find some recent developments as
endangering that purpose and therefore the health of the discipline.

I read that in Britain colleges have seen fit to warn students that a
seminar on Oliver Twist might "cause anxiety and stress to readers". I
bow to the wisdom of my colleagues from the literary disciplines, but
any person to whom Oliver Twist causes anxiety and stress is
constitutionally unfit to be a historian. If this means History is not
among the Humanities, well, so be it. This is in no way a devaluation of
or lack of respect for people who experience anxiety and stress reading
Oliver Twist. Acrophobia in no way diminishes the intrinsic value of any
human suffering from it. It disqualifies them as roofers, however.

Which, of course leads further: A person who reads a detailed report
about the Shoa or slavery and does not experience intense revulsion and
loathing is morally decrepit, a social liability and nobody I'd invite
for dinner. Persons who get so carried away by this revulsion and
loathing, that they become unable to analyze detachedly and in cold
blood which cultural structures gave rise to the mentality of the camp
guards and the slavers may be admirable humans, valuable acquaintances
and perfect drinking buddies - still, in my opinion, they are unfit to
be historians. Utterly so. Historians are supposed to face "human's
inhumanity" in all its forms, stay sane and analytic and extraordinarily
distrustful if something in their contemporaneity looks remotely like an
attempt to harness their revulsion and loathing. For the simple reason
that they know, that induced revulsion and loathing was at the root of
all too many of the instances of "human's inhumanity" in the past.

I apologize for the pathos. Fortunately not all of history is revulsive,
far from it. But in the days of Wladimir Khan the handling of the cases
when it is, seem me to be more central and have more explanatory power
than the study of the history of the county fair. (Nothing wrong with
the later: the development of the various types of local fairs can be
very enlightening about the social structure of the communities in which
they occur and the cultural truisms these communities cherish; some of
which may have implications which are less than idyllic.) And of course,
being charmed by an event may be almost as much of a distraction from
detached analysis than being repelled by it.

But before we turn from what analysis means, another observation which
may be considered offensive by some.

If we look at what I have written from one level of abstraction above,
one might say, that the purpose of History is to act as a witness.
Witnesses are, as we know, sworn in to tell "the truth, the whole truth,
and nothing but the truth". You may understand that, giving this
conviction, reading  "The conference recognizes that digital humanities
scholarship is inextricably sociopolitical." in the CfP for DH Unbound
2022, I am sure that

(a) This understanding of the Digital Humanities is incompatible with my
understanding of History.
(b) If this should be extended to mean that the Humanities in general
are a sociopolitical movement, I have no interest in that part of them
which defines itself as such.

Which finally leads me to the question in your subject line: "what makes
for disciplinary well-being?"

Short answer, which at least follows for me from the above: A discipline
is well, when it is able to agree what its primary purpose is,
independent of the question what the results achieved with this purpose
in mind can be used for secondarily. Engaging in the Humanities to
promote a political purpose is epistemically exactly as convincing for
me as engaging in them to raise the profitability of the college.

Are our disciplines healthy?

Well, Clio is a rather old lady in the meantime, and she may have seen
healthier days, but in the end she's a tough old bird. The Humanities,
as in "a sociopolitical movement", well ...

Kind regards,

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