Marked Bodies, Transformative Scholarship, and the Question of Theory in Digital Humanities
In October 2011, Natalia Cecire’s off-the-cuff suggestion of a THATCamp Theory set off a ferment of planning and arguing in the digital humanities community. It sounded like a great idea to me. Beginning with a session on “diversity in digital humanities” at THATCamp SoCal in January 2011––well attended both in person and remotely––I had been collaborating with an amorphous group of scholars engaged with critical cultural studies, queer studies, and ethnic studies in the context of the digital. We had been thinking about ways to connect the ethic of making that is central to digital humanities with a greater self-consciousness about the way everything is structured and its cultural politics; I was keen to continue and broaden that conversation.
Yet the discussion that emerged from Cecire’s post turned out not, by and large, to be about theorising the work of the digital humanities in this sense. I was unsettled by some of the ways “theory” came to traffic in the conversation: both by the defensive, sometimes even accusatory, tone in which the term was uttered, and by the histories of exclusionary practices it was held to evoke.
Ted Underwood’s post “On transitive and intransitive uses of the verb ‘theorize,’” for example, described how the demand for ‘theory’ can be used as a demand for control:
a tenured or tenure-track faculty member will give a talk or write a blog post about the digital humanities, saying essentially “you’ve got some great tools there, but before they can really matter, their social implications need to be theorized more self-consciously.” Said professor is then surprised when the librarians, or academic professionals, or grad students, who have in many cases designed and built those tools reply with a wry look.
The reason for this, as Miriam Posner recently tweeted, is that “theory has been the province of scholars,” while “the work of DH has been done by staff.” So when you say “those tools need to be theorized,” you are in effect saying “those tools need to be appropriated or regulated by someone like me.”
Underwood places this “vague, intransitive” call for practices “to be theorized” in opposition to the way that digital humanities operates “an insurgent challenge to academic hierarchy, organized and led by people who often hold staff positions.” Jean Bauer similarly insisted, in her provocatively titled post “Who You Calling Untheoretical?” that the architects of digital projects are often fully aware of their theoretical implications. She writes that to make digital scholarly work is to make theory—of a kind that cannot be separated from its material context: the kind that Underwood would call transitive.
Underwood goes on to write that the difference digital methods make to the practice of humanities scholarship will require some intransitive theorizing. But the question of theory in these posts is always a question of academic recognition; even the “insurgents” are firmly located as laborers within the university. And, even within the critique of intransitivity, “theory” seemed to be operating without much specific content. What about the kinds of theory that link up to activist projects, that unpack the politics of academic knowledge production itself and the relationship of its hierarchies to cultural, social, economic difference?
In a summary of the various discussions, Roger Whitson complained that “[b]eing ‘theoretical’ or dealing with ‘theory’ can sometimes be conflated with revolution, sex, and power without actually being any of those things.” But what I saw, even in discussions that aired vital critiques, was the invisibility of how any of those things might be linked to discussions of the less glamorous matters of race, class, and gender––concerns that are emphatically not only the domain of tenured and tenure track professors, nor even only of academic faculty, students, and staff.
Cecire’s post linked to a set of conversations in which the question of theory was intimately involved with these concerns, though in the subsequent conversation it seemed largely to disappear from view. She discussed Micha Cárdenas’s provocative “Digital Humanities: Hot Sellable Commodity or Place of Counter-Hegemonic Critique?,” a response to the Los Angeles Queer Studies conference and to a panel on digital theory and praxis in which Cárdenas and I participated along with Margaret Rhee and Amanda Phillips. The question in Micha’s post was not ‘where is the theory in digital humanities projects?’ As a scholar, artist, and digital practitioner, Cárdenas takes Underwood and Bauer’s insights as a starting point; she wants to know not where the theory is, but what the theory does. She asks about the status of the digital humanities, theory and praxis alike:
Do you think there is often something very conservative, even sellable, that is appealing to corporations or to university regents or investors, that is often present in discussions of the digital humanities? Do you think there is still some radical potential for queer theory or new media or the digital humanities to disturb hegemonic systems of power that facilitate violence against certain groups of people every day and protect the interests of others?
These are also the questions we were asking in our diversity session at THATCamp SoCal. They are the questions that theorists, scholars, and practitioners, including Anna Everett, Lisa Nakamura, and Tara McPherson, have been asking for years. They are questions that stubbornly refuse to appear at the center of the bodies of knowledge and practice, the conversations that shape what we know as digital humanities. And they are the questions around which I, together with Amanda Phillips, Tanner Higgin, Marta S. Rivera Monclova, Melanie E. S. Kohnen, and Anne Cong-Huyen, organized a panel chaired by Anna Everett for the American Studies Association (ASA) conference in October 2011. Cecire quoted the first paragraph of our description:
In an era of widespread budget cuts at universities across the United States, scholars in the digital humanities are gaining recognition in the institution through significant grants, awards, new departments and cluster hires. At the same time, ethnic studies departments are losing ground, facing deep cuts and even disbandment. Though the apparent rise of one and retrenchment of the other may be the result of anti-affirmative action, post-racial, and neoliberal rhetoric of recent decades and not related to any effect of one field on the other, digital humanities discussions do often elide the difficult and complex work of talking about racial, gendered, and economic materialities, which are at the forefront of ethnic and gender studies. Suddenly, the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological seems the only aspect of the humanities that has a viable future.
Our ASA panel insisted that the future of the technological humanities will never be a raceless, sexless, genderless, or apolitical one. It brought together emergent and established scholars working on and with technology in order to do scholarly work that aims to support (if not actually foment) social and cultural transformations that might, in Cárdenas’s words, “disturb hegemonic systems of power that facilitate violence against certain groups of people every day and protect the interests of others.” Our panel was titled “Transformative Mediations” in reference to this; we used #transformDH as a hashtag to document it. In the few short months since ASA, #transformDH has solidified as a collective with several writing projects in the making, a descriptive term for digital humanities projects with a critical cultural studies orientation, and something of a rallying cry. And, to come to the point of this piece and this collection, #transformDH is theory.
At ASA, the #transformDH collective-in-the-making was demanding theory for the digital and for the humanities, but we were not using the term intransitively. We were talking about queer, trans, butch, femme, critical race, women of color, Asian American, Puerto Rican theory. With a slightly different group of scholars in the room, those adjectives would have changed, but their tangibility would remain. We were talking about marked bodies, systemic social hierarchies, and transformations in a very specific and material sense. This was not ‘Theory’ as a vague revolutionary concept all too easily written off by the image of turtlenecked graduate students sitting around talking about Foucault that it conjures. We were talking about theory as making, about making objects that critique, that are critique, that are transformative reimaginings of the world.
For an example, we might look to Cárdenas’s artwork, which includes wearable electronics figured as devices that would enhance the safety of sex workers by giving them access to support networks not mediated by the state. One of the most important parts of this kind of theory, to me and to many members of the #transformDH collective, is that it is not only made in the academy. What conversations, artforms, databases, and archives might do the work of a transformative digital humanities, though they lack the institutional status to be named as such?
When I looked at the discussions about theory and digital humanities that emerged around the birth of THATCamp Theory, I found myself faced with my cohort’s disappearance. Where did we go? Where did our marked bodies––our politics and our specificity––go? I wondered whether we might need a term different from “theory” in order to become visible. A tweet by Jentery Sayers suggested as much, as he drew attention both to his own work in creating the social justice focus of THATCamp Pacific Northwest and to Alan Liu’s important interventions in his MLA 2011 presentation “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?” and the 4Humanities project it launched.
But I remain attached to the term “theory” and to the possibility that it can be democratized. I want all these forms of critical making and the analysis that accompanies them to be part of the “theory” conversation, if there is a “theory” conversation to be had. I fear that their specificities may be dismissed as irrelevant identity politics, and I want to insist that they not be. The markedness of our bodies (even, perhaps especially, those who might experience their bodies as unmarked) is not a marginal or irrelevant concern. This is the heart of things, the center from which our digital work radiates. And these concerns are not exclusive to the digital. Embodied theorizing is especially visible in the zones where scholarship and practice overlap––art, performance––but we never leave our bodies and their cultural mattering behind.
Part of the conversation about how we make theory has to be a conversation about which forms of theory-rich making are recognized and institutionally supported and which are not; about whether there are clear cut lines between digital humanities scholarship, digital media art, and digital media everyday practice, other than the question of where the funding comes from. This brings us back to the questions of theory and power that Underwood, Bauer, and Miriam Posner (as cited by Underwood) have raised. There are unstated hierarchies of labor when we differentiate between who does the work of making versus who conceptualizes or “theorizes” a project.
There are even more hierarchies involved when we think about what counts as a “project” deserving of labor other than basic conceptualization. Paying attention to race and to the bodies that do theory cast this into sharp relief. One of #transformDH’s instigators, Marta S. Rivera Monclova, has struggled in making the necessary theory for her planned project on multilingual Puerto Rican poetry visible. Her project is concerned not only with translation but with the transformations that multilingual racialized and gendered subjectivity engage and produce; to develop a digital humanities project that can express this, she is crafting transformative theory.
In the end, for me to insist that it be possible to mean #transformDH when we say “theory” is a strategic intervention, of course. Especially for those of us who have passed through graduate school in the humanities, theory can operate in a multitude of ways, producing exclusions and doing violence as often as it gives voice to the excluded and offers ways of recognizing previously unnoticed histories of oppression. The conversation about THATCamp Theory sprouted some beautiful metaphors for this. In a conversation between Cecire and Posner that Whitson collated, theory figured as something that could be “wielded,” like a weapon, terms brought forth to silence those without the cultural capital to use them. Yet it could also be held “softly, like a bunny,” put in the hands of those who will gain much by its tools. The liveliness of the bunny metaphor grew larger with Cecire’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion that theory might really be the Loch Ness monster: lurking under the surface of everything, ready to bite, yet also something we constantly look for but never find.
The conception of theory I have been arguing for here, which comes both from the academic realms that have nurtured #transformDH and from a range of nonacademic institutions and locations, mixes all these metaphors. I want to think about the digital, the humanities, and the digital humanities with the help of an awkwardly handcrafted pet theory monster, one that I may wield from time to time, but only if I nurture it and encourage it to play well with others. Yet even as I don’t want to eclipse, erase, or eat up other kinds of theories, I hope that our #transformDH theory monster might end up being more efficient and dangerous than she looks. Nessie does, after all, have teeth.
Originally published by Alexis Lothian on November 4, 2011. Revised March 2012.
-  Ted Underwood. “On Transitive and Intransitive Uses of the Verb ‘theorize.’” The Stone and the Shell, October 23, 2011. http://tedunderwood.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/on-transitive-and-intransitive-uses-of-the-verb-to-theorize/. ↩
-  Miriam Posner. “I guess what nags at me abt the critique of DH coming from #2011ASA is that “theory” has long been the province of scholars, while [+]” October 22, 2011. https://twitter.com/#!/miriamkp/status/127765652458053632. ↩
-  Miriam Posner. “the work of DH has been done by staff. And there is a hierarchy. I worry that staff will be edged out of the conversation. [-] #2011ASA” October 22, 2011. https://twitter.com/#!/miriamkp/status/127766100795596802. ↩
-  Roger T Whitson. “THATCamp Theory Bunnies.” Roger T. Whitson, PhD, November 4, 2011. http://www.rogerwhitson.net/?p=1230. ↩
-  Micha Cárdenas. “Is the Digital Humanities a Hot, Sellable Commodity? Or a Place for Counter Hegemonic Critique?” HASTAC, October 18, 2011. http://hastac.org/blogs/michacardenas/2011/10/18/digital-humanities-hot-sellable-commodity-or-place-counter-hegemonic- ↩
-  Alexis Lothian. “Conference Thoughts: Queer Studies and the Digital Humanities.” Queer Geek Theory, October 18, 2011. http://www.queergeektheory.org/2011/10/conference-thoughts-queer-studies-and-the-digital-humanities/. ↩
-  Micha Cárdenas. “Wearable Electronics as Femme Disturbance.” UCLA, 2011. ↩
-  Jentery Sayers. “@alothian Indeed, Which Is Why I’m Inclined to Echo Liu & Say ‘Cultural Criticism.’ Every Field Has Theory? Lots to Unpack, for Sure.”, November 3, 2011. https://twitter.com/#!/jenterysayers/status/132196527862059008.; Alan Liu. “Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities” presented at the Modern Language Association, Los Angeles, CA, January 7, 2011. http://liu.english.ucsb.edu/where-is-cultural-criticism-in-the-digital-humanities/. ↩