From two cultures to digital culture: the rise of the digital demotic


1. The Two Cultures

I take my title from an odd but highly resonant moment in English academic life, one of those explosions of public rancour that occasionally rocks the calm of academe. In 1959, the then well-known novelist and former civil servant Sir Charles Percy Snow gave an invited lecture at Cambridge entitled The two cultures and the scientific revolution in which he put forward the view that English cultural life was unevenly divided between science and the arts, and that he for one was on the side of the former. The lecture was based on an article he had published in the New Statesman a few years earlier, but after its presentation it took on a life of its owen, being reprinted in Encounter, and in book form with seven printings up till 1961, the year in which it apparently ‘came to the notice’ of the great humanist critic F.R. Leavis. In a lecture reprinted as an article called Two cultures: the significance of C.P. Snow in the Spectator (Leavis 1962), and subsequently in a collection called Nor shall my sword (Leavis 1972) Leavis attacked Snow and all his works with a venom and a degree of personal animosity that is hard to comprehend: ‘It is ridiculous to credit him with any capacity for serious thinking about the problems on which he offers to advise the world’ . While Leavis may have had right on his side, the opinion of the Grub Street of the day (on which the subsequent controversy sheds much amusing light) was that he had not expressed himself correctly. No less a personage than Dame Edith Sitwell (surely no friend to the corridors of power) was heard to remark that ‘Dr Leavis only attacked Charles because he is famous and writes good English’

Certainly, Snow's actual argument in 2 cultures doesn't bear much investigation. Its tone veers disconcertingly between cozy anecodote and apocalyptic call to action. It identifies a ‘gulf of mutual incomprehension’ between scientist and ‘literary intellectuals’ (later equated with ‘traditional culture’ ), but falls straight into the gulf of his own ignorance about the relative states of advancement of scientific education in the Soviet Union, the US, and Europe. It demonizes one kind of intellectual tradition as ‘naturally Luddite’ , ‘not only politically silly but politically wicked’ , while uncritically praising another as ‘having the future in its bones’ .

As an example of argument by anecdote: at a literary party, he discovers that no-one but himself can explain the second law of thermodynamics ‘yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read Shakespeare’ . An equivalence which Leavis reasonably disputes: one is a piece of specialised knowledge of use in certain contexts, whereas the other provides a window into the soul of humanity. Interestingly, four years and ten printings later, in Snow's revision of the essay, the touchstone has become ‘molecular biology’ , which must have greatly annoyed any humanist persuaded by Snow's argument into boning up on thermodynamics in the interim, only to find the goal posts moved.

It seems clear that the unforgiveable sin for which Leavis attacked Snow was that Sir Charles epitomized the tendency to trivialize culture by reducing it to a form of entertainment. Not that entertainment is a bad thing, but it is not the same as high culture. Confusing the two necessarily leads to the trivialisation of art, never to the elevation of entertainment. For Leavis, of all critics, such trivialization is unforgiveable.

More profoundly, and more disturbingly, Snow's views are deeply materialistic and anti-individualist. His metric for social success is ‘standard of living’ (what he calls ‘jam tomorrow’ ); literary and artistic culture are merely an extra, providing no moral challenge or insight. For him, the only serious questions are how to keep increasing and then effectively distributing the world's wealth — which are questions far removed from what he perceives to be the cultural agenda. This seems a curiously limited view. As Leavis says ‘The upshot is that if you insist on the need for any other kind of concern, entailing forethought, action and provision about the human future — any other kind of misgiving — than that which talks in terms of productivity material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress, then you are a Luddite’ .

Leavis's argument reminds us that (by this definition at least) science is amoral: its province is the definition of means, its weakness that it cannot help us identify ends. As Blaise Pascal noted several centuries earlier (pensees no 23) ‘Knowledge of physical science will not console me for ignorance of morality in a time of affliction, but knowledge of morality will always console me for ignorance of physical science.’

It's a pleasing irony that in 1882 Matthew Arnold also gave a Rede lecture at Cambridge, and also pronounced on the two cultures topic in a lecture called Literature and Science — but expressing a viewpoint almost exactly the opposite of Snow's. Arnold's famous essay was originally conceived as a response to T. H Huxley's claim, quoted by Arnold, that ‘for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education’ . It re-asserts with great rhetorical skill that dominant Victorian ideology of the necessity for literary and classical (especially Greek) art as both an expression of and a satisfaction for innate human characteristics and desires. For Arnold, ‘humane letters’ — ‘the best that has been thought and uttered in the world’ — ‘have a fortifying and elevating and quickening and suggestive power capable of wonderfully helping us to relate the results of modern science to our need for conduct, our need for beauty.’

Snow's presentation of the same opposition now seems at least as deeply rooted in its historical period, the early sixties, as does Arnold's in its. Re-reading Snow and Leavis reminded me of the extent to which their views were already institutionalized, for example in the choice that I had to make at a certain age between the `arts' and the `sciences'. (At my school, where the science 6th formers were routinely referred to by the senior master as ‘beaker boilers’ , the choice wasn't difficult, though I have always regretted being denied the study of chemistry just as I was beginning to grasp its fundamental principles.). Re-reading Arnold however reminded me of the deeply moral concerns of that great Victorian thinker, and how large a influence they continue to have over our fundamental assumptions about society and social welfare. And how difficult it seems to re-assert those values in the face of neglect, indifference, denial, or open hostility. The certainties of Arnold and Leavis have taken quite a pasting over the last thirty years, deservedly so in the reduced form with which we encounter them as presented by arts barons and administrators, but I would like to assert that Arnold's insistence on the existence of cultural value, whether or not we ground that in morality, is one we cannot ignore. And I would also like to argue that it is by making the transition from ‘two cultures’ to ‘digital culture’ that we are empowered to rediscover cultural value of a kind more appropriate to our decentred, fragmented, and indeterminate world.

2. Reclaiming the machine

First, however, my rewriting of history. A compensation for the approach of senility is the licence to rewrite history, and in my 55th year I see no reason not to employ it. The computing environment I first encountered, in the mid 1970s, was of course very different from that of today in its technology. I will not drone on on this occasion about punch cards, teletypes or paper type, nor contrast George III with its 64 Kwords of memory and megabytes of disk shared amongst a dozen interactive sessions with Windows 2000, its gigabyte of RAM and terabytes of data storage, all for me. I won't even say much about the contrast between the competition for resources amongst logged on users of a mainframe, and the distributed anarchy of a network of world wide users, though there is an interesting sociological contrast to be drawn between those two kinds of community. Instead, I would like to focus on the history of humanities computing, with which I find myself roughly contemporaneous. For different presentations of roughly overlapping material, I recommend to you both Mike Fraser's web pages at (, and the database maintained by Geoffrey Rockwell at

One pleasing thing we learn from studying either of these resources is that the founding fathers of Humanities Computing were pragmatists who responded enthusiastically to the new technology, while at the same time regretting its limitations. When in 1949 Father Busa approached IBM Italia for help in his preparation of a scholarly edition of the works of Aquinas, he did not consider that he was betraying traditional academic goals. On the contrary, he saw the potential that new technology offered to enhance the pursuit of those goals. In his case, it was the ability to lemmatise, collate, and organize the lexis of Aquinas as manifest in the surviving written records, more efficiently and on a grander scale than had ever previously been possible. In the same way, and indeed at the same time as Snow and Leavis were bickering, when Henry Kucera and Nelson Francis initiated the creation of the Brown Corpus of Modern English Adapted for the Use of Digital Computers, they were responding to a need for evidence of language usage on a scale that only new technology could supply. In neither case were they attempting to redefine their respective disciplines. In both cases, the technology served to support and enhance such traditional scholarly goals as the widespread sharing and exchange of information; the creation of reusable resources; the enhancement of pedagogic practice; and even the preservation of cultural values.

These heroic pioneers aside, it is probably true to say that the history of HC in the UK begins in the mid seventies, with the decision of the govt to centrally fund provision of computing facilities to all universities, and the consequent suspicion of those universities with a predominantly humanities bias (like my own) that these facilities might be used not just by serious chaps in white overalls. The difficulties, then as now, were infrastructural: so deeply institutionalised was the boundary between arts and sciences that the application of any kind of technology from one domain in another was necessarily marginal and deeply suspect. In such a situation, endless debate about disciplinarity, about methodology, and all manner of other purely contingent issues was bound to dominate. Yet it also seems clear that from the start, the primary usefulness of the computer lay in its apparent ability to digest text. In 1980, the first two introductory books in this field (if field it was) appeared: a glance down the contents pages shows how much the field was dominated by the mechanical quantification of style and by the production of lexical concordances, and by simple technical problems of adequately representing the vagaries of the world's ancient and modern writing systems and languages . There is also a striking desire to avoid too much compromise of the simple humanistic perspective by hard formal sciences such as computational linguistics or formal logic, although quite complex non-parametric statistical techniques are apparently appropriate grist to the mill.

Perhaps because it has defined itself largely by technology rather than by theory, the central concerns of HC (as a social phenomenon) have been subject to the same vagaries of progress as the rest of society. Thus, the appearance of cheap personal computers in the mid 80s was followed by a (mercifully short lived) upsurge of enthusiasm for the idea that computing had something to offer educational theory, just as the sudden take off of computing networks in the mid 90s was followed by an upsurge of enthusiasm for the idea that computing had something to offer communications theory. Which is not to say that the application of computers in those fields is theory-neutral or without effect, but simply that in neither case is such effect specific to the humanities, and therefore not an argument for the existence of specifically humanities computing.

3. What is humanities computing?

I have always enjoyed arguing against Willard McCarty (and others) that there is no such thing as `humanities computing': the fact that I currently run something called a Humanities Computing Unit may seem to slightly weaken the claim, since clearly Humanities Computing does exist as a social phenomenon if nothing else. But if it exists as anything more, it is remarkable to me how often it defines itself negatively, as something distinct from any number of other things it might be presumed to be. Here is a short list of things which I have read articles asserting that Humanities Computing is not:

In which case one might well ask, what is it about the application of digital techniques to the humanities that merits special attention? To put this point less aggressively, I will try to imagine myself answering a question from someone I like but who is unaware that a computer might be used to do something other than (say) provide access to megabytes of soft porn. The question is ‘What use is this technology to my academic concerns?’ and here are some of the answers I would not be ashamed to offer. Perhaps you can think of some others.

Whether or not you agree that digital techniques and methods have something to offer the humanities, it is clear that they are not going to go away. And it is also clear that the interdisciplinary nature of Humanities Computing has very difficult implications for the highly discipline-specific administrative structures which characterize European universities.

There is much concern about the need to equip the next generation of humanities scholars with relevant skills, which will enable them to participate in what Brussells likes to call the emerging Information Society; specifically, there is much (often justifiable) skepticism about the ability of existing bureaucratic structures to adapt in response to that need. This skepticism is often perceived (sometimes justifiably) as administrative luddism driven by populist anti-clericalism, but that does not make it go away. A more creative response might be indeed to tackle the unspoken question behind this debate and propose a reorganization of the traditional humanities disciplines which could take advantage of the opportunities presented by new technologies, providing an articulate response to the challenges implied by the applications of that technology in society at large, while remaining true to the original goals of the humanities. That is a task too large for this paper, or for this seminar, but I would like to make a few gestures towards specifying some of the components of such a reorganization.

We might begin by extrapolating from current discernible trends in the creation, consumption, and distribution of those artefacts which have either already made the transition to digital media or are beginning to do so. We should ask ourselves how well our existing structures can cope with an enormous expansion in the numbers of those able to access, and anxious to understand an equally enormously expanded base of primary cultural artefacts; we should also ask how well they will cope with an enormously increased divergence in kinds of accessors (in terms of language, age, social class, and other factors) and kinds of resource. And we should ask how well we think our existing structures prepare learners for dealing with a fragmented digital world in which everything may be linked, but the sense it all makes has to come from within.

Being incurably optimistic, I believe that traditional humanistic skills are going to be increasingly valuable, not less, in that world, but we cannot take for granted that it will be easy to apply them. As a trivial example, consider the ways we try to encourage students to cite sources, to question over-simplified assertions, to seek independent corroborative evidence, to take little on face value, to sift dispassionately through available documentary evidence. What techniques will students need to learn in order to maintain those intellectual habits in a digital world? It seems to me that they will need a lot more information about how the digital world is constructed, and by whom, than is currently available to anyone but a few. We urgently need to develop new ways of analysing and comprehending the demographics and sociology of digital culture, appropriate to the coming media meltdown.

Equally, from the opposite point of view, because the digital world so greatly increases access to original unmediated source material (or at least a simulation thereof), the esoteric techniques developed over the centuries in order to contextualise and thus comprehend such materials will need to be made accessible to far more people. We urgently need to develop new methods of doing textual editing and textual exposition, appropriate to the coming digital deluge.

4. Towards the uncritical edition

Our traditional humanities masters degrees have always combined training in methodology with training in hermeneutics: generations of Oxford DPhil students have had to learn how books were printed, as well as what was printed in them. And the final outcome of the traditional masters degree has traditionally been yet another book to add to the stacks, for future generations to interpret. At present, if humanities computing fits anywhere, it fits inside the methodological component of such degrees, with the natural consequence that if the implications of digitization are addressed at all, they are done so from a purely pragmatic viewpoint uninformed by theory. But there is a theory that could help us here: as Robinson, McGann, and many others have insisted time and time again, the preparation of a digital edition has more in common with the preparation of a traditional critical edition than with the preparation of a facsimile. Let me express deep gloom at the amount of effort currently being sunk into preparation of digital facsimiles, unbalanced by any more ambitious project of true digital encoding. I would like to propose an alternative agenda, which I will call "Towards the uncritical edition". An uncritical edition is one which does not attempt to settle controversy, but to ignite it. It invites the exercise of the insights of critical editing and edition philology, re-applying them in a new context. It uses the tools and techniques we have developed in thirty years of applying computers to the processing of human language in order to problematize the textuality that a traditional critical edition tends to gloss over. Its creation thus implies a fruitful synergy of insights from semiotics, from textual study, and from hermeneutics.

I am encouraged in the belief that this is a viable project by the pronouncements of those whose business it actually is. Discussion of electronic textuality is increasingly commonplace, not just amongst the pioneers and the specialists (Bolter, McGann, Robinson) but amongst other leading figures within the textual editing profession. So, for example the distinguished 17th c editor Leah Marcus writes ‘To centre an edition on textual differences and instability is to respond to a new set of paradigms by which texts have recently been redefined... the best format for such a display is the online edition’ . [renaissance text vol]

In the introduction to a recent special issue of LLC (Making texts for the next century, LLC 15.1 Apr 2000), Peter Robinson distinguishes three kinds of electronic edition. The first, of which he cites his own ongoing Canterbury Tales project as an example, is the kind of digital archive with which we are increasingly familiar. It delights in the facility never before offered for the reader to have access to all available witnesses of a text, without privileging any one of them. It empowers the reader who must make his or her own judgments about the text, on the basis of the empirical evidence presented by an ostensibly neutral medium. The second, of which he cites the new Dante edition as exemplar, resembles a traditional edition in which a primary authorial text is painstakingly established by complex editorial procedures; here the great contribution of the electronic medium is the sophistication and complexity of the methods by which that text can be established: nevertheless it remains a fundamentally recognizable product of the same philogical traditions as those with which we are all familiar. But it is editions of the third type, for which Robinson cites as exemplar the work of Parker and Wachtel on the Greek New Testament that I would like to close by commending to you. Texts such as the New Testament really are the product of centuries of rewriting, and re-reading, and their editing therefore requires presentation not just of many hundreds of versions of a text, but also explication and guidance as to how given texts and readings have interacted to produce the versions that survive. This kind of edition has a clear editorial intention: to present a reading of the history of a text and in that sense it is a guided tour, with a quasi-moral agenda; at the same time it eschews final statements about what the text really is, other than the history of its reading, and in that sense it is amoral or "scientific".

The computer, I suggest, facilitates what we might call an archaeological perspective in our investigations of textuality. The archaeologist is concerned with data, not as an object in itself but because of the explications that may be inferred from it, in service of the business of archaeology which is the explication of the cultural development of some people. In the same way, the digital philologist is concerned with texts not as a sequence of graphemes, but as a system composed of many other systems (graphetic, semiotic, social etc), from which new explications and new cultural values may be derived. In Eco's words ‘a text... is a machine conceived in order to elicit interpretations’ . [Interpretation and over interpretation, p85]. In the eighties there were those who believed that computer technology could facilitate the production of such interpretations unmediated by human agency, despite the demolition of such ideas by Stanley Fish amongst others (see his "What is stylistics and why are they saying such terrible things about it" 1980 for a locus classicus). Nowadays we are more likely to observe that while computer technology undoubtedly facilitates the production of greater quantities of evidence, more data requiring hermeneutic explanation, it seems likely that its greatest strength is in the recording of such explanation. Which is, perhaps, the same thing, since explanation generates more explication in the continuing hermeneutic circle.

In conclusion, I return to the question of value judgments in literature with which we began. What place can there be for the kind of cultural value that Arnold asserts in a world of endless re-evaluation? Northrop Frye (Anatomy of Criticism, 1957, p17) famously discredited the view of a literary work as being a kind of "pie" into which the author ‘has diligently stuffed a specific number of beauties or effects’ for the critic to pull out like Little Jack Horner. Frye characterizes this as ‘one of the many slovenly illiteracies that the absence of systematic criticism has allowed to grow up’ . By systematic we assume Frye meant a poetics that attempts to "describe the conventions and strategies underlying the effect of a literary work". But from where is such a poetics to come if not a close understanding of the mechanics by which (for example) literary effects are obtained, an understanding that can only be obtained by a close reading of texts, and the re-readings of texts that constitute cultural history?

Wayne Booth (Literary Understanding: the powers and limits of pluralism, 1979, p243, cited in Culler p115) makes a helpful distinction here, between "understanding" and "overstanding". In the case of ‘Once upon a time there were three little pigs’ , understanding is asking the questions that the text expects and "insists" (Culler) on asking — eg what happened next? how did the third little pig triumph? — whereas "overstanding" involves asking questions the text does not explicitly address, such as "why three" or "why pigs". Such questions can be very productive. Indeed many of the most interesting forms of modern criticism ask not what the work foregrounds but what it glosses over, not what it says, but what it takes for granted. Discussing this distinction, Jonathan Culler remarks ‘just as linguistics does not seek to interpret the sentences of a language, but to reconstruct the system of rules that constitutes it and enables it to function, so... overstanding is an attempt to relate a text to the general mechanisms of narrative of figuration, of ideology, and so on.’

The obvious danger with such "overstanding" is, in bald terms, knowing when to stop. As Morris Zapp, in David Lodge's novel Small World (1984, p25) famously remarks ‘To understand a message is to decode it. Language is a code. But every decoding is another encoding’ . Lodge's intention is satirical, but it expresses a very real anxiety about the limits of explication which deserves an answer. Here is Eco's response: ‘In spite of the obvious differences in degrees of certainty and uncertainty, every picture of the world (be it a scientific law or a novel) is a book in its own right, open to further interpretation. But certain interpretations can be recognised as unsuccessful because they are like a mule, that is, they are unable to produce new interpretations or cannot be confronted with the traditions of the previous interpretation. [Eco p150]’

In this response, taken from a symposium on Interpretation and over interpretation also held in Cambridge, Eco I think gives us a useful hint as to the method by which we could reintroduce a kind of Arnoldian certainty into the world. If some interpretations are more `successful' than others, do we not have good grounds for preferring them? And in what does that success consist?

Eco continues ‘The force of the Copernican revolution is not only due to the fact that it explains some astronomical phenomena better than the Ptolemaic tradition, but also to the fact that it — instead of representing Ptolemy as a crazy liar — explains why and on which grounds he was justified in outlining his own interpretation. ’ Or, if I may paraphrase the master, an interpretation which makes sense not only of previously inexplicable phenomena, but also of their previously less satisfactory explications, is surely preferable to one which does not. I suggest that it is with this assertion of the greater value of greater explicatory power we seem to be able at last to re-insert a sense of value into our hermeneutic wanderings, to rediscover "our need for conduct, our need for beauty".

1 Dec 2000 (revised Dec 19 2000)   Lou Burnard.
Copyright Lou Burnard 2000