Thinking through theory in DH (through JDH 1.1)

This is the first (of several) posts that center around the reading list I am compiling (with Ryan Cordell) for my first comprehensive exam. I’m starting here by trying to frame the central debate around which I will construct the ‘field’ portion of my field and focus paper. I could call this debate hack vs. yack, or theory vs. practice. But (spoiler alert) I think both of those are problematic formulations of a more interesting debate of the role of theory in DH. Is the impetus on the DH scholar to make explicit the sometimes nondiscursive theoretical underpinnings of a project? Is nondiscursivity exclusionary? Or rather, is the onus on the ‘reader’ of said project to develop critical literacies capable of discerning the implicit theory of a project? What does ‘theory’ even mean in this context? What counts as DH and how are projects recognized?

These questions are generative, as I look back on this reading, of new questions for me: what is the legacy of critical editing in DH? Is the historical shift from humanities computing to digital humanities representative of something more that the release of The Blackwell Companion? How does a media framework (like Hayles and Pressman’s Comparative Textual Media) complicate the centrality of making/building/design-as-research in DH? 

But I’ll quit stalling here and get to the meat of the thing. Below is my (initial) thinking through the idea of theory in DH, mainly via the inaugural issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities (with some other stuff peppered in). Here we go.

While the idea of “hack” vs. “yack” is, in many ways, a false dichotomy—originating from an off-hand comment at the first THATCamp (Nowviskie “Origin”)—it has become a centralizing debate in the DH community. Nowviskie does well to dispel the notion that digital humanities practitioners actually subscribe to a zero-sum view of doing vs. saying, while pointing out the problems in the way this debate has been taken up (mostly by those outside the field) (“Origin”). This problematic formulation, however, sparked a useful debate around the role of theory in the digital humanities, taken up in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities. Natalie Cecire opens this special section by claiming, “the debates around the role of ‘theory’ in digital humanities are debates about the relationship between saying and doing” (“Introduction” 44).

As must by now be evident, I am not, for my own part, persuaded that the digital humanities’ epistemology of building is enough of a saving grace to render the hack/yack division a happy fault. My sympathies rest with bell hooks’s insistence that theory can solve problems that urgently need solving, that articulating in words how things work can liberate. I am troubled by the ease with which the epistemology of building occludes and even, through its metaphors, legitimizes digital humanities’ complicity with exploitative postindustrial labor practices, both within the academy and overseas, and I wish to see digital humanities dismantle as well as build things. And yet, as the contributions to this special section attest, the methods and metaphors of digital humanities are far from settled. What is needed is not self-flagellation (much less defensiveness) but attempts to develop the discipline within which we wish to work. (“Introduction” 49)

In her own contribution to the section, Cecire underscores the theoretical burden of established DH practitioners to make explicit the often tacit knowledge of the field (“DH in Vogue”). Here, she responds to the idea of a fundamentally nondiscursive theoretical mode argued for by Ramsay (“On Building”), Rockwell, and Scheinfeldt. As the “eternal September” (Nowviskie, “Eternal September”) of DH means rapid growth, an influx of amateurs, and institutional support, the field cannot afford to be nondiscursive. Cecire argues that it is not that DH isn’t theoretical, it is that real consequences arise when “we fail to theorize practice, or when we insist on the tacitness of our theorizing” (56).

Jean Bauer argues that the theory brought to bear on digital projects can inflect the project as a whole—from vocabulary to color choices (68). Her idea is to create new tools or design to make this theory visible, while commenter Chris Forester spells out ways that more engagement with capital-T Theory can benefit DH projects in some of the same ways it has proved productive in traditional humanities work (71-2). In some ways, Benjamin Schmidt agrees with Forester in his claim that all DH work should begin “with a grounding in a theory from humanistic traditions” (60). Schmidt appears to take issue with Ramsays idea of a hermeneutic of screwing around in his opinion that “we should have prior beliefs about the ways in which the world is structured, and only ever use digital methods to try to create works which let us watch those structures in operation” (60).

One proposed solution comes from Trevor Owens in the form of design-based research, which rests on the idea that “there is some kind of hybrid form of doing, theorizing, building, and iterating that we should turn into a methodology” (83). Owens contends that all designs have “implicit and explicit arguments inside them” (83), and that one solution to the problem of tacit knowledge is to write these arguments down. In some ways we are already doing this—projects already generate writing that spells these arguments out in the form of grant proposals, memos, documentation, etc.—we simply need to value these texts as scholarly production. In a similar move, William G. Thomas asks, “in the broadest terms […] how does scholarly practice change with digital humanities?” (64). His answers call for a reorientation of the digital archive as “intentional and interpretive” (64), which calls into question how we value collaborative scholarship and what scholarly argument actually looks like in digital form.

Elijah Meeks and Patrick Murray-John both take up the relationship between computer science/programming and the humanities. Meeks, in an attempt to resist the values of comp. sci. from being unreflectively taken up by humanists, calls for humanists to begin to

pick up coding, write weird and not-at-all pragmatic software, and, perhaps, create standards through practice or, more likely, just create lots and lots of weird code that better describes queer black artists in the twenties or a republic of letters or Walt Whitman. (80)

This seems to me to relate to Jerome McGann’s idea of “deformance,” referenced in Mark Sample’s piece on critical making in the classroom. Murray-John, on the other hand, sees a possible convergence of the computer science / humanities dichotomy through a shared value of noticing:

[a humanist] does need some training to be able to start noticing the difference between two data models that at surface appear to describe the same things. And, coders should be ready to learn what useful things theorists can offer that, despite a first appearance of scope creep, might just be valuable things to consider building into the code. (77)

That this noticing is two directional is reminiscent of McPherson’s call for humanistic theory to feed back into the computational models and tools that it uses for DH projects, rather than simply adopting tools and practices which reinscribe problematic worldviews:

In extending our critical methodologies, we must have at least a passing familiarity with code languages, operating systems, algorithmic thinking, and systems design. We need database literacies, algorithmic literacies, computational literacies, interface literacies. We need new hybrid practitioners: artist-theorists, programming humanists, activist-scholars; theoretical archivists, critical race coders. We need new forms of graduate and undergraduate education that hone both critical and digital literacies.

Moya Bailey speaks to a certain kind of noticing through her discussion of recognition. She argues that there has been lots of critical feminist work that incorporates the digital, but is not recognized as DH. It is therefore important to resist an “add and stir” model of diversity in DH by

meeting people where they are, where people of color, women, people with disabilities are already engaged in digital projects, there’s a making of room at an already established table. (Bailey)

More than a facile recognition of this work as DH, this can take the field in new and productive directions that may expose, examine, and resist the implicit structural identities of the field (be they ableist, white, male, capitalist, etc.). It is these problematic worldviews that are central to the role of theory in the digital humanities. The question of “what counts?” is similarly taken up by Fiona M. Barnett in her article “The Brave Side of the Digital Humanities” through a close reading of the #AntiJemimas blogs. As with Bailey, Barnett emphasizes the openness of DH as a field. That this stuff is literally being hashed out in real time—at conferences, in blogs, and via Twitter. As Alexis Lothian outlines in JDH, the impetus behind #transformDH is a response to just this openness. DH can be transformed, and maybe through a loose and messy confederation of scholars over Twitter. As such, Lothian posits #transformDH as one possible answer to the question, “what do we mean when we say ‘theory’ in DH?”



[Sorry for the messy references! The logic here is to cite the entire JDH volume followed by other citations in chronological order]

JDH 1.1

Natalie Cecire, “Introduction: Theory and the Virtues of Digital Humanities

——–, “When Digital Humanities Was in Vogue

Ben Schmidt, “Theory First

William G. Thomas, “What We Think We Will Build and What We Build in the Digital Humanities

Jean Bauer, “Who You Calling Untheoretical?

Patrick Murray-John, “Theory, Digital Humanities, and Noticing

Elijah Meeks, “Digital Humanities as Thunderdome

Tom Scheinfeldt and Ryan Shaw, “Words and Code

Trevor Owens, “Please Write it Down: Design and Research in Digital Humanities

Mark Sample, “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to be Teaching)

Alexis Lothian, “Marked Bodies, Transformative Scholarship, and the Question of Theory in Digital Humanities

Peter Bradley, “Where are the Philosophers? Thoughts from THATCamp Pedagogy

Tim Sherratt, “It’s All About the Stuff: Interfaces, Power, and People

Moya Z. Bailey, “All the Digital Humanists are White, All the Nerds are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave

Other stuff:

Bethany Nowviskie, “On the origin of ‘hack’ and ‘yack’”, blog post

Stephen Ramsay, “On Building”, blog post

Tara McPherson, “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation”, from Debates in the Digital Humanities

Fiona M. Barnett, “The Brave Side of the Digital Humanities”, from differences 25.1 (2014)