Between two cultures

A recent post I placed on Humanist, one of the most essential academic initiatives in the Digital Humanities run by Professor Willard McCarty of the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College London. In this post, I hijacked the subject somewhat, but this needed to be said because, as I see it, the otherwise excellent infrastructure agenda in the Digital Humanities, in this instance, lacks clarity and purposefulness.

From: Willard McCarty <>
Subject: critical thinking

What I think all this has to do with computing is in our understanding
better what computing has to do with the culture in which it has surfaced. The utilitarian argument (“the computer is useful”) is so trite, so dull, so incapable of supporting for long the professional activity we would like to see given a better place in the sun. The reciprocity principle governing human relations says we need to be useful for sure. Still, to attract the students we want and keep ourselves alive intellectually, we need to offer something with a real bite. What has that bite? It’s not a paranoid vision, though the thrill of the threat of it is a start.

Dear Willard and Humanist,

This is an interesting argument; given the institutional arrangements of the Digital Humanities, they will take time to resolve. Where we find ourselves in the Digital Humanities is wedged between a contemporary version of CP Snow’s Two Cultures argument. But rather than wedged between ‘Science’ and ‘Humanities’, we find ourselves between highly skilled technical and academic labour. They are both precious and different cultures with divergent approaches to work, merit, aspiration, and research significance. This division is especially problematic in the UK context given the history of the class system where working-class kids went to technical school and middle-class kids were allowed to become academics. This changed significantly with mass tertiary education and the rise of the Polytechnics.

And in recent years, ‘pragmatism’ (or even utilitarianism) in the UK has taken a decisively hegemonic and political role in the middle classes spurred on by excessive London ‘City’ culture and a somewhat pragmatic anti-intellectual elite. The Banking sector in that country was after all merely there to perform a service function, but somehow managed through ‘service innovation’ to create a bloated self-serving industry that not only rewarded itself for its own mediocrity, but subsumed the more productive and innovative components of the British economy.

I know that I am making a polemical leap here (and it is on purpose), but I am worried that we in our own small way are making the same mistakes in the Digital Humanities. We are for instance, allowing simplistic understandings of concepts such as ‘infrastructure’ to distract us away from perhaps more significant research endeavours. For example one of the recent posts on Humanist announced yet another layer on the Infrastructure spaghetti-portfolio called CHAIN (Collation of Humanities and Arts Infrastructure Networks).

Suppose networks such as this are to attract and sustain academic attention. In that case, they must be only open to literary critique to be embedded within authentic academic research culture and critical concerns (beyond the ‘practical’ debates). Although good infrastructure is not entirely without merit, in this instance, the group is crudely undifferentiated and lacks clear theoretical and technical underpinnings and achievable goals. At least one of the ‘infrastructure’ projects listed is an otherwise pedestrian off-the-shelf installation of Drupal but is placed beside a massive iterative design project that consists of 60 universities worldwide! I am not sure one of the networks exists, and another doesn’t deal with technical standards, as far as I am aware. The vision of this group is far too grandiose and nebulous. Although dialogue is always good, at these times of diminished resources, we also need to concentrate all our academic energies on a more profound and more significant understanding of the human condition so that we may find more achievable ways to advance it.


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