I bookmarked a blog entry earlier this month by Elijiah Meeks that was endorsing a longer essay by Natalia Cecire about the relationship between theory and tools in digital humanities work, and also the relationship between humanists and technologists. Meeks and Cecire both argue for humanists to reassert theory, to not be driven by the promise of tools which elide or erase the need for difficult conceptual work, to not accept the primacy of code and coders. Meeks observes that this is almost a Thunderdome struggle: two paradigms enter, one paradigm leaves.
If so, I guess I find myself a spectator who has money down on both combatants but who is really just waiting for Master Blaster to show up and put both together–or maybe I’m looking to be at another venue altogether.
I think Cecire in particular approaches theory in a fashion that I’ve grown more and more unsympathetic to in my own thinking and writing, as something which is recognizably achieved in positive relation to its difficulty and its refusal to reach closure. She notes that theory in this post is not 80s-style Theory, but “a catch-all term for thinking through the philosophical and cultural consequences of things”. I’m good with that, but I think we should be wary of the idea that thinking through is always a present-tense gerund, that theory ends if we’ve thought through to arrive at a commitment to a practice. This is what the “less yacking, more hacking” sentiment is partly about even from some humanists, not just coders. Cecire walks up to the edge of a pretty old trope, I think, that making and theory are opposed kinds of work, that to make something without a perpetual accompaniment of theoretical unmaking is to leave theory behind. Theory in this sense seems to involve a notion of a principled commitment to being on the perpetual verge: to consider, to problematize, that theory is a predicate and prelude whose horizon stretches infinitely out. She suggests that for some digital humanists, their practice is a refuge from theory, an evasion. I guess I think this is another kind of evasion, an unwillingness to see this division as something more like a disagreement between theories rather than theory and untheory. If some digital humanists think that a THATCamp on narrative or biopower is only a THATCamp kind-of-session if it’s about new ways to visualize biopower using a digital tool or ways that the meaning of narrative changes in hypertext rather than an abstracted reflection on narrative as a theoretical category, that is not untheorized. That is an argument that theory emerges out of certain kinds of commitment to practice or experience, or that it can’t be disaggregated out of creative or interpretative action, or that theory should be predictive, instructive, testable, experimental. One can, to use a favorite rhetorical construction of critical theory, contest or problematize that view, but don’t confuse it for absence or flight from theory.
I should be clear: I’m completely with Meeks and Cecire that simply waiting around for the tools to be created and then adapting or living with them as the coders see fit is absolutely the wrong way for digital humanists to operate, whether we’re looking to produce knowledge or create artistic works. This is precisely one of my major frustrations in game studies: I don’t accept the arguments of many people involved in the production of virtual worlds (both massively-multiplayer online games and open-world solo games) that procedural content and sandbox designs are technically impossible or of no interest to most possible audiences. I don’t have the coding ability or resources to prove them wrong, but the sociology and mindset of the gaming industry is a tightly wound, recursive loop that regularly regards all sorts of creative, successful work as impossible until someone manages to do it. Part of the work of humanists is to look at how expressive media have or could produce novelty and invention from within their own potentialities in defiance of what their standard practicioners believe to be possible or desirable.
In our own work as scholars and artists, digital humanists need to imagine not just tools to do work that we already know we want to carry out, but theories of representation, aesthetics, interpretation that will think beyond, against or around “tools”, around technologies. But I think Cecire and Meeks pine for sovereignty over tools and medium which not only doesn’t exist in the digital humanities, it has never existed in any non-digital medium. Writerly forms of expression and representation, including scholarship, were as dependent on tools that scholars and writers did not create and did not control. There have always been “coders” in that sense: font designers, layout specialists, copy editors, printing-press designers, booksellers. The bizarre publishing regimes which still have immense power in academia exist in part because of an older political economy of printing: it was once too expensive and too technically difficult for scholarly authors to operate the physical plant of publication in collaboration with one another, so we gave our work away to companies who then sold it back to us at high price. Almost no humanistic scholars in 1960 knew much of anything about the technical constraints or economic structures that gave highly particular shape to their work (or forbade other kinds of work). There are some interesting exceptions in artistic practice: many visual artists (and scholars of visual art) were and are trained in the technical infrastructure of their expressive work rather than just letting someone else provide their paints and inks and canvases and quarried marble. And many humanists for a very long time have had at least a passing ability to describe the technical infrastructure governing their work, if not an ability to “get under the hood” and do it for themselves.
Whether or not I can code, I’m comfortable continuing to theorize about what we could do, what we should do, what the point of humanist knowledge is, digital and otherwise, and where possible, letting that become a instruction to coders, a complaint against coders, a refusal to deploy or accept technologies or a user-level hacking of their capabilities to some unforeseen end. But at the same time, both the scholarly humanities and expressive culture have always had some complicated dependencies upon technologies of representation that they do not master, control or own. That’s sort of what we study at many junctures: the emergence of culture and thought from technologies whose designers neither desired or anticipated what their technologies would produce. I’m no longer content to peg my dissatisfactions and worries on the uncomplete, partial sovereignty of myself and my peers over some domain that we imagine we are entitled to possess, as if the completion of sovereignty would open the doors of a better kingdom. Digital media are good at reminding us of how much of the cultural and intellectual future is an unpredictable eruption from material, social and imaginative starting places. Rather than try to smooth it out, I’d rather fasten my seatbelt and enjoy the bumpy ride.