Thursday, November 3, 2011

Theory First

Natalie Cecire recently started an important debate about the role of theory in the digital humanities. She's rightly concerned that the THATcamp motto--"more hack, less yack"--promotes precisely the wrong understanding of what digital methods offer:
the whole reason DH is theoretically consequential is that the use of technical methods and tools should be making us rethink the humanities.
Cecire wants a THATcamp theory, so that the teeming DHers can better describe the implications of all the work that's going on. Ted Underwood worries that claims for the primacy of theory can be nothing more than a power play, serving to reify existing class distinctions inside the academy; but he's willing to go along with a reciprocal relation between theory and practice going forward.
In short, we could say that smart people are converging on the entirely reasonable conclusion that DH and theory need to have a mutually beneficial relationship. Each should inform the other: the theorists who put big Theory before any empirical data need to explore all the new forms of evidence without prior conclusions, and the DHers who ignore theory entirely jeopardize not only their careers but the soundness of their conclusions. In practice, this probably means digital humanists can keep calm and carry on, with greater tolerance for the occasional French name tossed into the discussion; meanwhile the theory inclined should know they have a seat at the new table, but not necessarily at the head. Even more hack, better yack.

I've been flirting for a while with a much less reasonable point of view. As I try to figure out how to responsibly use the big trove of data I've been building up for an already-existing dissertation project, this issue of theory keeps cropping up. The view based around two fairly tendentious convictions that seem reasonable enough to me that I want to try spelling them them out:

1) Work in digital humanities should always begin with a grounding in a theory from the humanistic traditions--if it doesn't, it is probably doomed from the start;

2) The only satisfactory way to apply social/critical theory in humanities research today is to use massive stores of data digitally.

That is to say, Theory and DH aren't two separate enterprises that can help each other along; these are fundamental the same thing. Digital humanities that doesn't put theory first ends up not really being humanities; social theory that doesn't engage with the explanatory power and the potential for outreach of vast digital data fails to take seriously its own conviction that deeper structures are readable in the historical record.

I've argued the second point elsewhere a bit, so let me focus on the first. (I should say that by theory, I mostly mean what we'd call social or critical theory, which is some set of independent and occasionally warring states in Europe. Just which ones is less important for now, though one does have to choose.)

Let's say that at their core, the digital humanities are the practice of using technology to create new objects for humanistic interrogation. That's how I think of it, at least. A lot of DH's focus is on public humanities for this reason; there is justifiably enormous excitement about the creation of visualizations, exhibits, and tools that let us get non-humanists to think humanistically. (I've talked about this before).

But there is just as much reason to be excited about the prospects of creating new texts for humanists to read, texts that bear little relation to the sort of books that we are used to reading. Visualizations, search techniques, etc, aren't interpretations, they are texts in themselves. And they demand new sorts of mental gymnastics the same way that a newly discovered archive or poem does. The work of the Stanford Literature Lab seems the farthest down this road in a lot of ways.

The trick is that we have to decide what new objects we want to read. Social networks, ngram trajectories, interactive maps; stuff that used to be prohibitively difficult is now quite easy. The technical fact of creating these new texts is not as important as figuring out what they should be. How do we decide what to make?

As far as I can tell, we need to have prior beliefs about the ways the world is structured, and only ever use digital methods to try to create works which let us watch those things in operation. Some, I'm sure, would want to scream 'confirmation bias!' at this--but the wonderful thing about the humanities is that they have always allowed scholars to work from problem to evidence, not vice-versa. I don't think it's a good check on research to have to work with organizations created by large bureaucracies; one of the things that I find the most exciting about textual data is that for once we have a massive statistical store that wasn't collected by a state, with all the Foucauldian intimations contemporary historians are right to fret about.

Archives, libraries, censuses, atlases: all of these force us to read juxtapositions far more aligned with historical ways of thinking than the reconfigurations possible with digital texts. Most historians, at least, are trained to think that this is fundamentally a good thing, because it gets us out of the cognitive ruts of the contemporary world. The past is a foreign... something, and travel broadens the mind. I agree to a point that's good; nothing's more important for the historian than realizing that categories that are now sundered apart were once the same.

The promise and danger of the digital is that it lets us displace these texts, even though though by only a hair's breadth, out of the systems of the past. Where we want to put it: that's the question. Digital humanities would be a disaster if it simply rewrote our cultural heritage to fit neatly into present categories. That's why we need theory, which is all about reconfiguring the way we look at the world in terms of difficult to see structures that mask the truth: systems and lifeworld, doxa and habitus. There's a powerful significance there, and we need it.

The reason that the digital humanities need to put theory first is not to pacify the powers-that-be, but to harness their own creativity towards productive ends.

If it doesn't, skeptics of the digital humanities are right to worry that all's not on the straight and level. Something's fishy when a purportedly non-ideological movement shows up on the scene promising revolutionary change, particularly when so much about it looks suspiciously like the status quo. Why should the 'next big thing' in the humanities come from the whitest, malest subfield this side of diplomatic history? Why does it get more coverage in the New York Times than other scholarship? Why has it attracted the enthusiasm of state funders across agencies and states in a way that the humanities maybe haven't seen since the cold war? I often think: one of the things DH is potentially very, very good at is naturalizing the world as it is. And our reflexive ways of thinking about the world as it are just what theory has always sought to get us away from; the nightmare from which it tries to jolt us awake.

Ted Underwood says that "Theory" is "not a determinate object belonging to a particular team." I'm not sure that's quite right. Theory belongs to all sorts of teams, but they do have something fundamental in common: they're the losers. The winners don't need new perspectives to shift their perspective from the world's; the losers do. What good the humanities have ever done largely lies in helping the losers along.

The digital humanities is perfectly poised at the moment to optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices; or it might also try to take up what Adorno called the only responsible philosophy: to reveal the cracks and fissures of the world in all its contradictions with otherwordly light. That's the demand placed on DH by theory, and it needs to come first: all else is mere technique.

1 comment:

  1. As usual, I agree. I mean, I guess I wouldn't endorse the letter of propositions (1) and (2) in the deliberately provocative way you've phrased them here.

    But I endorse the spirit behind them -- which is the point, because I assume you *are* after all being deliberately provocative. I imagine there are still valid ways of doing digital work without theory or vice-versa. But in practice, I really strongly agree with you that the interesting innovations of the next ten years are going to come out of the place where they overlap -- where new methods make us rethink our goals, and vice-versa.

    And I also, of course, strongly agree with your invocation of a larger "team" at the end of the post.