Tito Orlandi

The Scholarly Environment of Humanities Computing

A Reaction to Willard McCarty's talk on The computational transformation of the humanities

See the subsequent discussion

1. Personalia

I will not deny it: my «outburst» [It. sfogo] was originated by the encounter of a sort of melancholic state of my mind, already there for some time, and the reading of W.'s essay, which confirmed that my efforts of the last, say, 10 years to bring some fundamentals of humanities computing to the attention of the scholarly community had gone in vain, even if they (the fundamentals) were now being discovered independently.

The outburst was meant to be an isolated cry, and -- as I stated explicitly -- a last one; and so it would have remained, if the friendly and regretful concern of W. had not pushed me to restart the discussion on a higher level. In this sense there is nothing personal at all in what I am writing now, but only the presentation of some aspects of the scholarly society, especially concerning humanities computing, which seem to me of some relevance.

2. Who gets the credit [W., 18 May].

This question is not so untied from that of the «advancement of the field», as W. presumes. Granted, if someone proposes today some new reading in Virgil, and somebody else gets the credit, too bad for him, but the advancement in the Virgilian studies is not at stake. But the state of the ancient literary studies discipline, like that of most humanities disciplines, is well founded; it has -- as Th. Kuhn would say -- a paradigm largely recognized, inside which are produced the individual adjustments so dear to our erudite colleagues.

The situation of humanities computing is quite different; and nobody is aware of this more than W., whose concern for the «fundamentals» is not confined to his last essay, as his many contributions in Humanist testify. Going just to the core, that situation I would assimilate to the birth of the modern science in the XVI-XVII century, when the old Aristotelians, the ubiquitous charlatans, and the new -- how to call them?, struggled hard to persuade their contemporaries that theirs was the right way to pursue.

Each of the three categories, even the third!, mixed truth, error, (and fake), in their treatises; and the credit of a true discovery, if conceded to the wrong person, could e.g. strengthen the Aristotelian position.

3. The English speaking world [W., 18 May].

I shall return later to the charlatans; now let me try and clarify how what I said affects the question of language. In fact, it is not a question of language at all. If it were, then the easy solution, in this world where English is the lingua franca, would be that I publish always in English, as every sensible physicist or chemist does.

But no: being the situation as I described above, when I write I have two targets in mind. One, the colleagues in humanities computing, to whom I try to convey some ideas deemed to «advance our field». Two, the colleagues in the Italian academic system (rotten, as all academic systems are), whom I must try to convice that humanities computing is worth having positions and chairs, that it is (it may be?) a discipline like Medieval history or Latin literature.

Trying to do so in English is self-contradictory. Well, one will say, then write in Italian, and be damned. Things are not so simple, because (see above) of

4. The charlatans.

Computing, and in specie humanities computing, you teach me, is rather fashionable. Money flows to computerized enterprises, and with money, positions etc., especially in underdeveloped countries like Italy. But we know that computers in the humanities may be used in many ways. They may be used as «normal» machines, like television equipments or printing devices; or also as calculating machines, producing statistics etc.; and all this does not advance humanities computing as a discipline, but at most the application disciplines, if ever.

The right way is to use computers in what they are really special for: the computing (not the calculation; always back to the fundamentals!), which is a difficult matter to explain to the colleagues in the humanities. Here is where the charlatans are at their best. A corpus of texts without tags; an archaeological excavation put on the web; an abstruse statistical calculation meant to prove that this or that text belong to this or that author: all this may be beautiful to present, and sometimes may seem miraculous to lay people, but does not advance (humanities) computing per se.

5. The European connection.

These problems are not ignored in the academic community, both in America and in Europe. In America (mainly USA and Canada) they are finding their way, by giving opportunities and assessing the results. Humanities computing laboratories give way to scholarly projects, and eventually to teaching positions.

In Europe the situation is very different, first of all because of the great diversities in the national systems, as my recent research for AcoHum may show. Some countries (mainly Netherlands and UK) are going more or less the American way, and are progressing in the right direction. But most European countries have Ministries and other bureaucratic organisms which retain the right of supervising the institution of new disciplines, what they are, and by whom they should be taught.

Here again, for disciplines already well established, the method may be bearable, although obsolete and rigid. Not so for humanities computing: believe me, for the serious scholar it is enormously difficult, or rather, impossible, to explain to the «authorities» the fundamentals of humanities computing. The Aristotelians (read computer engineers and old fashioned humanities scholars) won't have anything of that. The charlatans have their way triumphantly.

Well, one will say (the same of before, I presume): let each of us do his best to tame his own authorities. I do not think this is the right position, even for the more fortunate. Like it or not, Europe as a source of supranational values will be more and more important; and it is important that we find some common ground in humanities computing, which we can use whenever convenient, to foster «our» discipline in the various occasions.

But remember, we are scholars: ideas go side by side with persons. If we are to succeed in establishing academic respectability for humanities computing, we must identify its specificity (the fundamentals!) and a group of persons really interested and capable to demonstrate and study this specificity. This may be laborious, sometime even boring, because it requires that we keep alert of what happens in all Europe, and select the best examples of humanities computing. But if we do not succeed in this (and so far, ahimé ahimé, I see scarce signs of success) Aristotelians and charlatans will last for a long time.

6. But the fundamentals?

So far I have explained why it is important to study the fundamentals and to mutually help to identify the serious researchers in the field, but I have not made explicit my ideas on fundamentals, and why I spoke in my message of «scarsi fondamenti teorico-filosofici» and «conclusioni discutibili». in W.'s essay. Well, first of all let me declare very loud that W.'s is NOT a «benighted little essay» (W.'s message 18 May), but an important contribution to our discipline [this is why I got angry!] though it raises, in my opinion, some problems worth discussing.

Second, let me say also that such problems require calm and reflection, and although I promise to go back to the essay of W. as soon as my mind is free from other business, for now I only refer to my essays already on the web.