Monday, November 14, 2005

Unsworth's "New Methods for Humanities Research"

Matthew Kirschenbaum quotes from and links to John Unsworth's Richard W. Lyman Award lecture “New Methods for Humanities Research.” Since the Lyman Award is for advancing "humanistic scholarship through the innovative use of information technology," Unsworth's lecture focuses on digital technologies while at the same time arguing that we in the humanities do do research rather than just scholarship or criticism. Kirschenbaum pulls out a good quote on that issue, so I won't post it here myself. Instead, I'll point to a few different passages:
Bill Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, would agree, at least in the case of computer science: Bill has argued (in my hearing) that computer science should really be considered one of the humanities, since the humanities deal with artifacts produced by human beings, and computers (and their software) are artifacts produced by human beings. Harold Abelson, a professor of computer science at MIT, tells students in his CS 101 course (Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs) that

"computer science" is not a science and . . . its significance has little to do with computers. The computer revolution is a revolution in the way we think and in the way we express what we think. The essence of this change is the emergence of what might best be called procedural epistemology--the study of the structure of knowledge from an imperative point of view, as opposed to the more declarative point of view taken by classical mathematical subjects. Mathematics provides a framework for dealing precisely with notions of "what is." Computation provides a framework for dealing precisely with notions of "how to."

In other words, computers are all about method, they are epistemological to the core, and they are made by human beings. All of these qualities make them objects as well as instruments of interpretation--a point that I'll return to, after we look at some of the ways these artifacts of procedural epistemology can be used in humanities research.


"The computer revolution is a revolution in the way we think and the way we express what we think." Naturally, I like that line. It's got a good Ongian ring to it, especially when you add to it Unsworth's commentary: "computers are all about method." It also gets at the heart of why English studies should not, can not, ignore digital technologies. If "the way we think and the way we express what we think" are not core concerns of English studies in its myriad forms, I don't know what is.

And, lastly, I thought I'd share the conclusion:
On the subject of "infrastructure" I'd like to encourage you to have a look at the draft report of the Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for Humanities and Social Sciences, sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies: it became available for public comment just a few days ago, and it can be downloaded from the ACLS web site. The Commission is looking for comments on this draft, and your contributions would be most welcome: we hope that when it is complete the report will help to foster the development of the tools and the institutions that we require in order to reintegrate the human record in digital form, and make it not only practically available but also intellectually accessible to all those who might be interested in it.

That goal is, I think, a good place to stop, because it brings us back to the point that Frye made about the purpose of criticism in general, which is that it should be "interested in literature itself and in what it does or can do for people." However "scientific" or statistical or technical these new research methods might seem--however systematizing, totalizing, and gradgrindian--they are driven by the desire to understand the human record, and perhaps even more, to understand our understanding of it. That it should take a machine to do that is only a superficial paradox: the machine itself is simply an instrument of procedural epistemology, and its only function, at least in humanities research, is to offer us methods for imagining what we don't know, as well as what we do.


First, I quote this passage because of the mention of the Commission report, but, more importantly because of the false human-machine dichotomy hinted at here, a dichotomy Unsworth himself doesn't accept. I'd have pushed this farther than he did, however. I'd have suggested that there is no paradox, not even a superficial one, in using computers to engage in humanities research. Computers are no more and no less a tool than a book or a pen or a pair of glasses. Or, to quote Ong, "There is nothing more natural to humans than the artificial." Or, to put it another way: a tool is a tool is a tool. And we are, by definition, users of tools.

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