Catching Up II: Letting Go of the Reins

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.

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4 Responses to Catching Up II: Letting Go of the Reins

  1. Gabriel Hankins says:

    Professor Burke, I’m sympathetic to this argument if you’re arguing for giving up on “theory” as the domain of highest insight, epistemological privilege, mastery over the discourse of others, etc; but I’m not sure that’s what Cecire et al. were arguing for. Part of what they’re arguing (and this is uncontestably true) is that DH needs to engage with the disciplinary conversations in a series of target fields, some of which will imagine the idea of “archive” differently from others (for example). Shouldn’t we always be theorizing, if by that we mean rigorously conceptualizing and embedding our work within a critical discourse? Aren’t we more or less unconscious flaneurs on the jetsam of digital culture, otherwise?
    Interesting post on this. What are the plans for DH at Swat, by the way? Any institutional committment to it yet? As many an ex-Swattie could attest, there’s a real need for serious interdisciplinary initiatives there: the intellectual firepower was far in excess of serious conversations between departments. Someone should be making the case to Rebecca Chop for a DH Institute on grounds with you as head, if that’s not already in the works– I’d be happy to contribute.

  2. Ryan Shaw says:

    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.

    I agree entirely, and suspect Elijah and Natalia would too. But here’s the problem: THATCamps aren’t really talking about ways to visualize biopower using a digital tool, or how the meaning of narrative changes in hypertext. They’re still kind of stuck on “Ruby on Rails is awesome” or “Hey, use Zotero!” or maybe “Let me tell you why XML/Linked Data/Open Access is the Answer.” At least the ones I’ve been to were. Which is not necessarily a bad thing: learning about technology can and should be fun and doesn’t necessarily need Big Ideas to make it worthwhile. On the other hand, I can get that experience at a local techie Meetup (although it might not be as welcoming an environment, especially for women, which is another reason THATCamps as currently constituted are a Good Thing). So, when I say I want more yack in my hack, I envision precisely the discussion about how the meaning of narrative changes in hypertext, ideally going on while we’re hacking together a tool for reading multiple conflicting narratives against one another. That’s not an experience I can get anywhere right now, AFAICT.

  3. ReadyWriting says:

    I think one of the biggest things about THATCamps is that it is supposed to be an introduction to the digital tools that are available as well as how to use them, and for a newbie like me, living in the middle of nowhere, this type of information (and the connections you can make) are invaluable. To me, it’s like trying to teach literary theory during an introduction to literature class; there’s no context to think about the theories being espoused.

    I think one of the questions for me is, can someone who doesn’t “do” digital humanities (hacking) actually theorize about it in any meaningful way (yacking)? But then, how much hacking needs to be done before the yacking can start?

    If we are in the midst of an evolution of how we do scholarship, then obviously we need to be taking a hard look at the how’s and why’s (or, theory). But one thing that has attracted me to explore DH is the idea of being able to “play” again. I found that much theory had become less playful and more oppressive. I would hate for DH theory to become as oppressive as (some) literary theory had become. Perhaps we can finally re-claim the playfulness of post-modernism. Or even moved past it into something new and different, and (I’ve used this word before), fun. Why must it all be so freaking serious?

  4. Ryan:

    I guess I read Elijah and Natalie as saying that the theory needed is a very particular body of humanistic theory (Foucauldian, critical race theory, or otherwise) rather than, say, a theory of why we should use Zotero. So maybe there is a third player in the room that’s needed: a yacking about hacking. I think for me this is where the argument often gets quite sharp, because the way I see it, the best theoretical arguments for something like Zotero are somewhat old-fashioned ones about the importance of dissemination, intertextuality, reference, the ‘research act’, the public sphere, the diffusion of intellectual property monopolies–more Enlightenment liberalism/romantic print culture and less Foucauldian. Maybe that’s really the subtext of this discussion about the need (or lack of need) for theory. Or maybe it’s not so sharp: certainly we can ask why the academy in general and the humanities in specific not only haven’t really lived up to their rhetorical commitments to disseminate, collaborate, connect but in many cases resist those commitments even in the face of new technological affordances which invite a new realization of them. Maybe critical theory in various forms asks that quite well. I just think that to point to a THATCamp and say, “Can we please talk about biopower and race and narrativity more” runs the risk of adhering to a familiar script that sets up unnecessary antagonisms, and doesn’t really give the sensibility of ‘practical’ digital humanities its fair respect as a genuine theoretical position.

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