Who you calling untheoretical?

I’m sorry. I need to vent. If you think you will be offended, continue at your own risk. You have been warned.

Several weeks ago, the whole Digital Humanities Theory, or Hack vs. Yack, debate sprung to life once more with a post by @ncecire. I have since read several other posts on this issue, calling for more communication, more give and take, more attention to political realities between Theory and DH.

However, I find many of the comments in these pieces insulting to those of us who work on DH projects. I doubt this is intentional, but I feel the need to defend the theoretical work already being done, while looking forward to incorporating even more ideas. Debate is good. In the academy, debate over terminology is inevitable yet often productive. So here is my rant:

I am sick and tired of people saying that my friends, my colleagues, and I do not understand or care about theory.

Every digital humanities project I have ever worked on or heard about is steeped in theoretical implications AND THEIR CREATORS KNOW IT. And we know it whether we are classed as faculty or staff by our organizations. Libraries and other groups involved in DH are full of people with advanced degrees in the humanities who aren’t faculty, as well as plenty of people without those advanced degrees who know their theory anyway. Ever heard of #alt-ac? The hashtag is new; the concept is not.

I have attended physical weeks of meetings to discuss terminology for everything from personal status (Do we label someone a “slave” or “an enslaved person?” If we have an occupations list should we include “wife,” if so should we include “husband?” What about “homemaker?”) to political structures (When do we call something an “empire?” Is “nation” an anachronism in this period?). I’ve seen presenters grilled on the way they display their index — and heard soul searching, intellectually rigorous justifications for chronological, thematic, alphabetic, or randomized results.

Just this week I was presenting The Early American Foreign Service Database and got the question “So where is the theory in all of this?” Before I could answer with my standard, diplomatic but hopefully though-provoking, response a longtime DHer called out “The database is the theory! This is real theoretical work!” I could have hugged her.

When we create these systems we bring our theoretical understandings to bear on our digital projects including (but not limited to) decisions about: controlled vocabulary (or the lack thereof), search algorithms, interface design, color palettes, and data structure. Is every DH project a perfect gem of theoretically rigorous investigation? Of course not. Is every monograph? Don’t make me laugh.

I have spent so much time explaining the theoretical decisions underlying Project Quincy, that I wrote a program to allow database designers to generate color-coded, annotated, interactive database diagrams in the hopes that more Humanist Readable documentation would make all our lives easier. (The program is called DAVILA.)

One of the most exciting things about DH is the chance to create new kinds of texts and arguments from the human experience. Data structures, visualizations, search tools, display tools . . . you name it . . . are all a part of this exploratory/discovery process.

So it’s time for me to stop ranting and, in the best of DH tradition, DO SOMETHING.

If we as DHers are creating something new, then I believe our vocation includes teaching others how to read our work. If someone looks at The Early American Foreign Service Database and doesn’t see the theory behind it, maybe I need to redesign the site. Maybe those color-coded, annotated diagrams should be more prominently displayed. Maybe I need a glossary for my controlled vocabulary. I wrote DAVILA, but the download only parses one kind of schema. Maybe I should write some more.

I’m going to stop talking (for now.) But, I’ll end with a tweet from Matthew Kirschenbaum, a great practitioner and theorist of DH: “More hack, more yack, and please, cut DH a little slack. We’re just folks doing our work.”

20 thoughts on “Who you calling untheoretical?

  1. Hey Jean, as a (sort of) former colleague and current friend, thanks very much for this post. It has crystallized for me a key sense of where this tension between hacking and yacking is coming from.

    I’d start by noting the slippery grammatical place of the word “theory” in this post.To people’s desire for “theory” you answer with comments about matters “theoretical”—“theoretical decisions,” “theoretical understandings,” or “theoretically rigorous investigation.” That is, I take you to you understand “theory” to mean something like “the (deeper) understanding of our material/objects of research” which necessarily undergirds our practice as scholars.

    To many, however, “theory” means something related but more specific; it’s really just shorthard for a selection of French writers (Derrida!). Certain Germans can be “theory” in a pinch (Adorno, Kittler, Nietzsche, Hegel); even, once in a great while, an American will make the cut (Cavell, Butler)

    I’m being funny (or trying); but I’m not really kidding. Indeed, when people wonder about the hack/yack ratio, I actually think they’re asking a productive and important question about how current research relates to some of best established traditions of humanistic research over the last three decades.

    With that in mind, let me try two points:

    the appeal to theory is often an appeal to connect DH to a recognizable tradition in the humanities: at a number of Scholars’ Lab talks my pet question, often carefully placed in the mouths of “my non-DH colleagues in the English Dept,” would be “Yes, but how does this help me study the history of sexuality?” I would often be assured that, indeed, it could. But at that very moment I think I may have been not expressing myself clearly. The real question I was trying to ask was something like: can you talk a little about the repressive hypothesis and how your method would approach or complicate the account offered by Foucault in the History of Sexuality. You can substitute another proper name and another question, because really, beneath this, I was just asking to be talked to in a vocabulary I recognized. Part of “Theory”‘s importance, despite everyone’s gripes about it (I’ve got your jouissance right here!), has to do with its ability to allow people in different fields to talk to one another. A Victorianist, a modernist, and a medievalist can all talk about gender performance. (Or, at least, that’s the fantasy.)

    this feels especially pressing now because certain (high profile) projects often seem to have a naive theoretical grounding: “naive empiricism” or “mere positivism” are the sorts of objections one hears, particularly around projects which are using digital methods to examine large amounts of data. These projects, and the statistical methods which many of them rely upon, engage the autoimmune reaction of many humanities scholars who have strong reactions to anything smacking of empiricism. The reaction to Google nGrams I think captures this.

    People smarter than I will point that DH “building” is itself a theoretical activity; that the theoretical roots of digital humanities start in Plato and pass through Heidegger and continue through folks thinking about textual materiality (e.g. Kittler, McGann, and Kirschenbaum). Yup. And I think this is the very terrain on which discussions between theory and DH might begin or, more properly, continue.

    Another response to what I’m saying is: “So what? Zizek/Derrida/Latour/Levinas is not important to my project. What is important is not ‘Theory,’ but theory—not genuflection before the idols of the past, but rigorous self-interrogation of our method.” And that seems fair enough as far as it goes. But I worry it dismisses too quickly texts which have proved important to many folks calling themselves humanists.

    There is, I think, a real debate about method, value, and purpose in the humanities which is expressed by tension over the hack/yack ratio. I would try to take the request for “more theory” in digital humanities not as an insult or an accusation, but as a serious invitation to a conversation. Just as “non-digital humanists” should resist the criticism that DH is a just a funding-hungry, shiny-tool-obsessed attempt to reduce cultural study to word frequency histograms, “digital humanists” should likewise resist the sense that “theory” is just a code word for “the same old same old,” coming to grind the gears of hackery to a navel-gazing, yack-yack-yackety stop.

    Hope all’s well up North Jean; we miss you on this side of the Mason-Dixon.

  2. Chris: Many thanks for the thoughtful response. This is precisely the conversation I wanted to have. If I were still in C-ville we could be doing this over cupcakes:-) As I hope I made clear before the rant began, I am all for debate. More ideas, more discussion, all to the good.

    Let me start by saying that, as usual, I basically agree with you. Moreover, I really appreciate the clarification you provide. As you said, the “slipperiness” of language is (in part) at fault, but I am not the only one who is having this problem. IMHO people who are using the word “theory” to stand in for a specific set of writers and ideas, which have permeated different disciplines and sub-specialities in the humanities to different degrees, might want to keep that in mind as well. DH is a big tent and that means a lot of time spent defining our terms and possibly creating some new ones (which will in turn need to be defined;-)

    What I was really ranting about, though, are some types of comments that seem to keep popping up in these posts which, regardless of initial intent, I find hard to read as anything other than insulting. I am referring to things like “using the Author field in Drupal uncritically” or discussions of theory as a “power grab” by tenured faculty against staff. Many of us think very critically about the tools we use — often choosing to make our own tools and schemas rather than work in systems we find to be theoretically and/or Theoretically insufficient. And you do not have to be faculty to have read Derrida. Some faculty might believe that, but they are wrong. And depending on your field of study, the faculty may not read Derrida.

    I try not to be insulted. Working in 18th diplomatic history I think I developed a pretty thick skin even before entering Digital Humanities. But I also believe that civil discourse occasionally requires someone standing up and saying “Hey! That was really insulting.” Then we can all sit down, unpack our terms, and go from there.

  3. Thanks, Jean for a great post. And thanks, Chris, for a terrific response to it. If you don’t mind, Chris, I’d like to explore some of my own feelings on all of this, since you touch on a few things that generally bother me about this whole thing.

    To use your Foucault example, it seems perfectly reasonable to me for someone to build some kind of DH project that has nothing to do with the repressive hypothesis, or how it might complicate Foucault’s account in The History of Sexuality. And that same person shouldn’t necessarily know how their work might complicate Foucault’s account. I would dismiss this because I don’t necessarily feel its my job to explain how the DH project I’m building, or the methods and technologies I’m using, will help them do their work better. It’s my job to explain why I took the approaches I did, certainly, which is itself something lacking in DH. But, I feel like it’s their job to critique my project as it is, and then to discuss how it might impact their work, if at all. I do however, feel it’s a great opportunity for you, or whoever, to talk about that in some form, or at least explore it further. If it doesn’t, then we all move on.

    Another response to what I’m saying is: “So what? Zizek/Derrida/Latour/Levinas is not important to my project. What is important is not ‘Theory,’ but theory—not genuflection before the idols of the past, but rigorous self-interrogation of our method.” And that seems fair enough as far as it goes. But I worry it dismisses too quickly texts which have proved important to many folks calling themselves humanists.

    I feel like this is my usual response to most of these points about theory, and I readily admit that I probably dismiss them too quickly. But my response would be more like “How do you think Zizek/Derrida/Latour/Levinas would complicate my argument or project?” The fact that a DH project doesn’t take into account a particular theory, or theory in general, is not at all a failing on the part of DH. This is like saying that because a scholar doesn’t take an approach I think is valuable, their work is no good. It doesn’t actually engage or critique the author’s own argument or methods. “The project doesn’t do what I want it to do, so it’s lacking in some way.” (I detest this kind of response to any scholarly work.) This is how I feel about most of the recent calls for more theory in DH, and this just feels silly to me. I don’t really feel insulted by any of this; I feel unimpressed.

    But, I don’t want to feel unimpressed at all. I love debate, and I love learning new things and exploring new approaches. I’m open to seeing more theory in digital humanities, but I’d like to see some folks actually do that, instead of talking about doing it, or criticizing DH for not already doing it. They should just start doing it, at every THATCamp they attend, or on blogs, or wherever possible.

    So am I missing something? Are people already doing this, and I’m just missing it? Is there something wrong with my reaction? Something I’m overlooking or ignoring?

  4. Jean: I think you’re right that "Theory" has "permeated different disciplines and sub-specialities in the humanities to different degrees," and that this may be a source of unintentional confusion. As is often the case, part of the difficulty we (collectively; not you and I, of course!) have in communicating has nothing to do with the digital but everything to do with the humanities. The way I describe capital "T" Theory may be more peculiar to literary study, where courses which begin with the nineteenth-century trio of Nietzsche, Freud, & Marx, and trace a path through structuralism, psychoanalysis, and figures like Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault, are in many universities (even for undergrads). These courses are often serve as a "lingua franca" (or, perhaps, merely a frenchified argot) across fields within literary studies—a function they may not serve in other disciplines. Such courses, in fact, are often what folks in literature departments consider methodology.

    There is a point to be made here (and others, like McGann, have made it) about a tension within literary studies, and the way that interpretation has come to dominate literary studies—as opposed to other modes of scholarship on literature, like textual criticism, scholarly editing, philology, etc. And so part of what my question about Foucault and the History of Sexuality is asking is, how does DH change how I interpret texts; this is a different question, I think, than how do digital technologies change I understand the past (the historian’s question?). Because, to some extent, "interpreting texts" seems like a fundamental part (maybe the fundamental part) of being a litearture scholar.

    This perhaps lets me say something to Jeremy’s response, which I especially appreciated because I think it points to what I think is a genuine sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding. Jeremy writes, "I don’t necessarily feel its my job to explain how the DH project I’m building, or the methods and technologies I’m using, will help them do their work better." I think its relevant that who "they" are is not entirely clear from the context. Your point seems absolutely fair and, as you say, seems at least as true of research projects and agendas which aren’t under DH’s (even very capacious) big tent.

    But the scholar I imagine asking about The History of Sexuality is not asking for someone else to do his/her work. He or she is asking: what can we talk to each other about? They are asking even, "Are you talking to me?" (ideally not like this). Admittedly, in the culture of academia this question often has an edge and we may sound more like Travis Bickle than we should. I too find something frustrating about this sort of question when it degenerates (as it often does at, say, academic conferences) into: "yes, but why didn’t you talk more about my topic?" This is, I think, a tolerable evil of trying to talk to one another. This perspective is, I’ll readily admit, naive about the politics of how universities are organized. But in the conversation about "theory" and DH, I do hear a genuine question not simply a power play.

    Let me end by being specific and mentioning two instances of people doing theory-infused DH or perhaps DH-infused theory. I don’t know that either would appreciate this designation and so I offer merely my perspective on my limited sense of these people’s work: I’ve only seen Jo Guldi speak once (at, of course, the Scholars’ Lab; hear it here); but what impressed me most was how seamlessly she embedded new digital methods in an existing critical discourse (by Jove, Foucault’s in there!). Here "Theory" establishes someething pretty basic—an existing scholarly discourse. DH projects are always humanities projects; but here Jo does a remarkable job of making that link clear.
    The other is perhaps more apropos to our discussion; this essay by Johanna Drucker (recently discussed by some folks at UVa as part of the EELS group—eletronically enabled literary studies I believe; boy do we love our acronyms here). It represents a critique of sorts of what Drucker claims are the danger of visualization in the humanities. While it doesn’t mentioned Foucault (it does mention Latour!), the general critical thrust here, its skepticism of positivism, and general debts to post-structuralism are, I think, pretty clear.

    This comment is too long, so I’ll stop and hope this conversation can continue at some point in the future.

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  6. The changes afoot in the humanities are about expanding the compass, the quality, and the reach of scholarship, Schnapp maintains. “Which means, first of all, not a monolithic model of knowledge production. There is no such thing as ‘The Digital Humanities’; there are multiple emerging domains of experimental practice that fall under this capacious umbrella. Second,” he continues, “some of these domains of practice imply novel sorts of research questions and results; but others involve reviving forms of scholarship—like critical editions and commentaries—that were killed off by market constraints within university publishing. A lot of spaces that have been closed down are being reopened, thanks to the digital turn. And third, research tools and methodologies necessarily evolve and the humanities are no exception.

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