Who You Calling Untheoretical?

[A note from the author: This blog post, as a piece of prose, is very much of the moment when it was written. Likewise its reception has been based on its tone as well as its content. So, rather than take this chance to revise the piece, I have decided to annotate the original text in the style of a documentary editor, although I have only annotated my own text, leaving the text of my commentators, Chris Forster and Jeremy Boggs (see below), alone. Aside from a few minor, silent corrections for editorial consistency, all new and supporting material can be found in the footnotes or set off by square brackets.]

[Providence, Rhode Island. 

November 3, 2011 at 3:04pm]

I’m sorry. I need to vent. If you think you will be offended, continue at your own risk. You have been warned.[1]

Several weeks ago,[2] the whole Digital Humanities Theory, or Hack vs. Yack, debate sprang to life once more with a post by Natalia Cecire. I have since read several other posts on this issue, calling for more communication, more give and take, more attention to political realities between Theory and Digital Humanities.[3]

However, I find many of the comments in these pieces insulting to those of us who work on digital humanities projects. I doubt this is intentional,[4] but I feel the need to defend the theoretical work already being done, while looking forward to incorporating even more ideas. Debate is good. In the academy, debate over terminology is inevitable yet often productive. So here is my rant:

I am sick and tired of people saying that my friends, my colleagues, and I do not understand or care about theory.[5]

Every digital humanities project I have ever worked on or heard about is steeped in theoretical implications AND THEIR CREATORS KNOW IT. And we know it whether we are classed as faculty or staff by our organizations. Libraries and other groups involved in digital humanities are full of people with advanced degrees in the humanities who aren’t faculty, as well as plenty of people without those advanced degrees who know their theory anyway. Ever heard of #alt-ac? The hashtag is new; the concept is not.[6]

I have attended physical weeks of meetings to discuss terminology for everything from personal status (Do we label someone a “slave” or “an enslaved person?” If we have an occupations list should we include “wife,” if so should we include “husband?” What about “homemaker?”) to political structures (When do we call something an “empire?” Is “nation” an anachronism in this period?). I’ve seen presenters grilled on the way they display their index — and heard soul searching, intellectually rigorous justifications for chronological, thematic, alphabetic, or randomized results.[7]

Once I was presenting The Early American Foreign Service Database and got the question “So where is the theory in all of this?” Before I could answer with my standard, diplomatic but hopefully thought-provoking, response a longtime digital humanist[8] called out “The database is the theory! This is real theoretical work!” I could have hugged her.[9] When we create these systems we bring our theoretical understandings to bear on our digital projects including (but not limited to) decisions about: controlled vocabulary (or the lack thereof), search algorithms, interface design, color palettes, and data structure. Is every digital humanities project a perfect gem of theoretically rigorous investigation? Of course not. Is every monograph? Don’t make me laugh.

I have spent so much time explaining the theoretical decisions underlying Project Quincy, that I wrote a program to allow database designers to generate color-coded, annotated, interactive database diagrams in the hopes that more Humanist Readable documentation would make all our lives easier. (The program is called DAVILA.)

One of the most exciting things about digital humanities is the chance to create new kinds of texts and arguments from the human experience. Data structures, visualizations, search tools, display tools . . . you name it . . . are all a part of this exploratory/discovery process.

So it’s time for me to stop ranting and, in the best digital humanities tradition, DO SOMETHING.

If we as digital humanists are creating something new, then I believe our vocation includes teaching others how to read our work. If someone looks at The Early American Foreign Service Database and doesn’t see the theory behind it, maybe I need to redesign the site. Maybe those color-coded, annotated diagrams should be more prominently displayed. Maybe I need a glossary for my controlled vocabulary. I wrote DAVILA, but the download only parses one kind of schema. Maybe I should write some more.

I’m going to stop talking (for now.) But, I’ll end with a tweet from Matthew Kirschenbaum, a great practitioner and theorist of digital humanities: “More hack, more yack, and please, cut DH a little slack. We’re just folks doing our work.”

[Keep reading for the excellent comments on the original post.]

[The comment thread begins here.]

Chris Forster says: November 4, 2011 at 12:04 am

Hey Jean, as a (sort of) former colleague and current friend, thanks very much for this post. It has crystallized for me a key sense of where this tension between hacking and yacking is coming from.

I’d start by noting the slippery grammatical place of the word “theory” in this post. To people’s desire for “theory” you answer with comments about matters “theoretical”—”theoretical decisions,” “theoretical understandings,” or “theoretically rigorous investigation.” That is, I take you to you understand “theory” to mean something like “the (deeper) understanding of our material/objects of research” which necessarily undergirds our practice as scholars.

To many, however, “theory” means something related but more specific; it’s really just shorthand for a selection of French writers (Derrida!). Certain Germans can be “theory” in a pinch (Adorno, Kittler, Nietzsche, Hegel); even, once in a great while, an American will make the cut (Cavell, Butler)

I’m being funny (or trying); but I’m not really kidding. Indeed, when people wonder about the hack/yack ratio, I actually think they’re asking a productive and important question about how current research relates to some of the best established traditions of humanistic research over the last three decades.

With that in mind, let me try two points:
The appeal to theory is often an appeal to connect digital humanities to a recognizable tradition in the humanities: at a number of Scholars’ Lab talks my pet question, often carefully placed in the mouths of “my non-digital humanities colleagues in the English Department,” would be “Yes, but how does this help me study the history of sexuality?” I would often be assured that, indeed, it could. But at that very moment I think I may have been not expressing myself clearly. The real question I was trying to ask was something like: can you talk a little about the repressive hypothesis and how your method would approach or complicate the account offered by Foucault in The History of Sexuality. You can substitute another proper name and another question, because really, beneath this, I was just asking to be talked to in a vocabulary I recognized. Part of “Theory’s” importance, despite everyone’s gripes about it (I’ve got your jouissance right here!), has to do with its ability to allow people in different fields to talk to one another. A Victorianist, a modernist, and a medievalist can all talk about gender performance. (Or, at least, that’s the fantasy.)

This feels especially pressing now because certain (high profile) projects often seem to have a naive theoretical grounding: “naive empiricism” or “mere positivism” are the sorts of objections one hears, particularly around projects which are using digital methods to examine large amounts of data. These projects, and the statistical methods which many of them rely upon, engage the autoimmune reaction of many humanities scholars who have strong reactions to anything smacking of empiricism. The reaction to Google nGrams I think captures this.

People smarter than me will point out that digital humanities “building” is itself a theoretical activity; that the theoretical roots of digital humanities start in Plato and pass through Heidegger and continue through folks thinking about textual materiality (e.g. Kittler, McGann, and Kirschenbaum). Yup. And I think this is the very terrain on which discussions between theory and digital humanities might begin or, more properly, continue.

Another response to what I’m saying is: “So what? Zizek/Derrida/Latour/Levinas is not important to my project. What is important is not ‘Theory,’ but theory—not genuflection before the idols of the past, but rigorous self-interrogation of our method.” And that seems fair enough as far as it goes. But I worry it dismisses too quickly texts which have proved important to many folks calling themselves humanists.

There is, I think, a real debate about method, value, and purpose in the humanities which is expressed by tension over the hack/yack ratio. I would try to take the request for “more theory” in digital humanities not as an insult or an accusation, but as a serious invitation to a conversation. Just as “non-digital humanists” should resist the criticism that digital humanities is a just a funding-hungry, shiny-tool-obsessed attempt to reduce cultural study to word frequency histograms, “digital humanists” should likewise resist the sense that “theory” is just a code word for “the same old same old,” coming to grind the gears of hackery to a navel-gazing, yack-yack-yackety stop.

Hope all’s well up North Jean; we miss you on this side of the Mason-Dixon.

 Jean Bauer says: November 4, 2011 at 11:49 am

Chris: Many thanks for the thoughtful response. This is precisely the conversation I wanted to have. As I hope I made clear before the rant began, I am all for debate. More ideas, more discussion, all to the good.

Let me start by saying that, as usual, I basically agree with you. Moreover, I really appreciate the clarification you provide. As you said, the “slipperiness” of language is (in part) at fault, but I am not the only one who is having this problem. In my humble opinion, people who are using the word “theory” to stand in for a specific set of writers and ideas, which have permeated different disciplines and sub-specialities in the humanities to different degrees, might want to keep that in mind as well. Digital humanities is a big tent and that means a lot of time spent defining our terms and possibly creating some new ones (which will in turn need to be defined;-)

What I was really ranting about, though, are some types of comments that seem to keep popping up in these posts which, regardless of initial intent, I find hard to read as anything other than insulting. I am referring to things like “using the Author field in Drupal uncritically” or discussions of theory as a “power grab” by tenured faculty against staff. Many of us think very critically about the tools we use — often choosing to make our own tools and schemas rather than work in systems we find to be theoretically and/or Theoretically insufficient. And you do not have to be faculty to have read Derrida. Some faculty might believe that, but they are wrong. And depending on your field of study, the faculty may not read Derrida.

I try not to be insulted. But I also believe that civil discourse occasionally requires someone standing up and saying “Hey! That was really insulting.” Then we can all sit down, unpack our terms, and go from there.

Jeremy Boggs says:    November 5, 2011 at 11:28 am

Thanks, Jean for a great post. And thanks, Chris, for a terrific response to it. If you don’t mind, Chris, I’d like to explore some of my own feelings on all of this, since you touch on a few things that generally bother me about this whole thing.

To use your Foucault example, it seems perfectly reasonable to me for someone to build some kind of digital humanities project that has nothing to do with the repressive hypothesis, or how it might complicate Foucault’s account in The History of Sexuality. And that same person shouldn’t necessarily know how their work might complicate Foucault’s account. I would dismiss this because I don’t necessarily feel its my job to explain how the digital humanities project I’m building, or the methods and technologies I’m using, will help them do their work better. It’s my job to explain why I took the approaches I did, certainly, which is itself something lacking in digital humanities. But, I feel like it’s their job to critique my project as it is, and then to discuss how it might impact their work, if at all. I do however, feel it’s a great opportunity for you, or whoever, to talk about that in some form, or at least explore it further. If it doesn’t, then we all move on.

Another response to what I’m saying is: “So what? Zizek/Derrida/Latour/Levinas is not important to my project. What is important is not ‘Theory,’ but theory—not genuflection before the idols of the past, but rigorous self-interrogation of our method.” And that seems fair enough as far as it goes. But I worry it dismisses too quickly texts which have proved important to many folks calling themselves humanists.

I feel like this is my usual response to most of these points about theory, and I readily admit that I probably dismiss them too quickly. But my response would be more like “How do you think Zizek/Derrida/Latour/Levinas would complicate my argument or project?” The fact that a digital humanities project doesn’t take into account a particular theory, or theory in general, is not at all a failing on the part of DH. This is like saying that because a scholar doesn’t take an approach I think is valuable, their work is no good. It doesn’t actually engage or critique the author’s own argument or methods. “The project doesn’t do what I want it to do, so it’s lacking in some way.” (I detest this kind of response to any scholarly work.) This is how I feel about most of the recent calls for more theory in digital humanities, and this just feels silly to me. I don’t really feel insulted by any of this; I feel unimpressed.

But, I don’t want to feel unimpressed at all. I love debate, and I love learning new things and exploring new approaches. I’m open to seeing more theory in digital humanities, but I’d like to see some folks actually do that, instead of talking about doing it, or criticizing digital humanities for not already doing it. They should just start doing it, at every THATCamp they attend, or on blogs, or wherever possible.

So am I missing something? Are people already doing this, and I’m just missing it? Is there something wrong with my reaction? Something I’m overlooking or ignoring?

Chris Forster says: November 7, 2011 at 9:30 pm

Jean: I think you’re right that “Theory” has “permeated different disciplines and sub-specialities in the humanities to different degrees,” and that this may be a source of unintentional confusion. As is often the case, part of the difficulty we (collectively; not you and I, of course!) have in communicating has nothing to do with the digital but everything to do with the humanities. The way I describe capital “T” Theory may be more peculiar to literary study, where courses which begin with the nineteenth-century trio of Nietzsche, Freud, & Marx, and trace a path through structuralism, psychoanalysis, and figures like Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault, are in many universities (even for undergrads). These courses are often serve as a lingua franca (or, perhaps, merely a Frenchified argot) across fields within literary studies—a function they may not serve in other disciplines. Such courses, in fact, are often what folks in literature departments consider methodology.

There is a point to be made here (and others, like McGann, have made it) about a tension within literary studies, and the way that interpretation has come to dominate literary studies—as opposed to other modes of scholarship on literature, like textual criticism, scholarly editing, philology, etc. And so part of what my question about Foucault and The History of Sexuality is asking is, how does digital humanities change how I interpret texts; this is a different question, I think, than how do digital technologies change I understand the past (the historian’s question?). Because, to some extent, “interpreting texts” seems like a fundamental part (maybe the fundamental part) of being a literature scholar.

This perhaps lets me say something to Jeremy’s response, which I especially appreciated because I think it points to what I think is a genuine sort of miscommunication or misunderstanding. Jeremy writes, “I don’t necessarily feel its my job to explain how the digital humanities project I’m building, or the methods and technologies I’m using, will help them do their work better.” I think its relevant that who “they” are is not entirely clear from the context. Your point seems absolutely fair and, as you say, seems at least as true of research projects and agendas which aren’t under digital humanities’ (even very capacious) big tent.

But the scholar I imagine asking about The History of Sexuality is not asking for someone else to do his/her work. He or she is asking: what can we talk to each other about? They are asking even, “Are you talking to me?” (ideally not like this). Admittedly, in the culture of academia this question often has an edge and we may sound more like Travis Bickle than we should. I too find something frustrating about this sort of question when it degenerates (as it often does at, say, academic conferences) into: “yes, but why didn’t you talk more about my topic?” This is, I think, a tolerable evil of trying to talk to one another. This perspective is, I’ll readily admit, naive about the politics of how universities are organized. But in the conversation about “theory” and digital humanities, I do hear a genuine question not simply a power play.

Let me end by being specific and mentioning two instances of people doing theory-infused digital humanities or perhaps digital humanities-infused theory. I don’t know that either would appreciate this designation and so I offer merely my perspective on my limited sense of these people’s work: I’ve only seen Jo Guldi speak once (at, of course, the Scholars’ Lab; hear it here); but what impressed me most was how seamlessly she embedded new digital methods in an existing critical discourse (by Jove, Foucault’s in there!). Here “Theory” establishes something pretty basic—an existing scholarly discourse. Digital humanities projects are always humanities projects; but here Jo does a remarkable job of making that link clear.

The other is perhaps more apropos to our discussion; this essay by Johanna Drucker (recently discussed by some folks at the University of Virginia as part of the EELS group (eletronically enabled literary studies). It represents a critique of sorts of what Drucker claims are the danger of visualization in the humanities. While it doesn’t mentioned Foucault (it does mention Latour!), the general critical thrust here, its skepticism of positivism, and general debts to post-structuralism are, I think, pretty clear.

This comment is too long, so I’ll stop and hope this conversation can continue at some point in the future.


Originally posted by Jean Bauer on November 3, 2011. Revised March 2012.


Sincere thanks are due to Elli Mylonas, who edited the original text and encouraged me to post it despite my misgivings, Joan Troyano for guiding me through the process, and Natalia Cecire for her thoughtful comments and helpful suggestions as guest editor.

  1. [1]This piece is unusual for me, both in style and tone. While writing it, I felt a strong need to apologize to my readers who had come to expect calmer, less combative prose. Whether this post has changed those expectations, only time will tell.
  2. [2]October 19, 2011.
  3. [3]These two posts were chosen as representing a particular strain of commentary. However, there were other posts written between October 19 and November 4, several of which are included in this conversation. “Who you calling untheoretical?” is also a response to the more sparsely archived Twitter stream that arose around these posts. Since the community did not use a consistent hashtag to mark their conversation, I have been unable to retrieve the relevant comments.
  4. [4]The conversation following my blog post has shown that no offense was intended.
  5. [5]I never define ‘theory‘ in this post, a crucial failing in my rhetoric. The best definition I have since found for what I was attempting to discuss comes from a footnote in the original version of Cecire’s “When DH Was in Vogue; or THATCamp Theory,” where she defines theory as “a catch-all term for thinking through the philosophical and cultural consequences of things.” Nevertheless, my failure to define my terms turned out to be a fruitful mistake, as Chris Forster used my vagueness to crystallize his own thoughts on the debate (see his insightful comments below).
  6. [6]This point cannot be stressed enough. As an emergent strain of scholarship, digital humanities exposes the labor relations of universities while upending traditional hierarchies of knowledge production. One of the great challenges for digital humanities is learning to share credit for scholarship with a much wider range of colleagues and collaborators, regardless of official title or degrees conferred.
  7. [7]The theoretical implications of data modeling have been discussed to great effect at the Knowledge Organization and Data Modeling Conference held at Brown University, March 14-16, 2012.
  8. [8]Susan Smulyan, Professor, American Studies Department, Brown University.
  9. [9]I created unnecessary confusion by truncating Dr. Smulyan’s comment here for maximum rhetorical effect. This quote was never intended to suggest that databases are self-explanatory. On the contrary, I firmly believe that thoughtful, careful documentation is a fundamental requirement for digital humanities projects, because if we do not explain the theoretical implications of our work they can easily be misinterpreted, or go unnoticed.  Following her exclamation, we began a conversation on how creating and using models of reality shapes our analysis. I have written elsewhere on the theoretical implications of database design, including my essay “Fielding History: Relational Databases and Prose”.

About Jean Bauer

Jean Bauer is the Digital Humanities Librarian at Brown University, where she works with faculty, students, and fellow librarians to design and implement digital systems that showcase and facilitate scholarship in the humanities. Through a combination of formal training and curiosity she is an early American historian, database designer, and photographer. She is finishing her dissertation, "Revolution-Mongers: Launching the U.S. Foreign Service, 1775-1825," in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and has developed The Early American Foreign Service Database. For more information, see her website www.jeanbauer.com