But as I've mentioned before, I cannot agree with the distinction between theory* and practice that this sets up, nor the zero-sum logic that it implies (i.e. in order to do more you must speak less).
I've long found the complete domination of THATCamp Bootcamps by technical skills from the CS side curious to the point of illogical. (It turns out that this post is an elaboration of my THATCamp SF post of about a year ago.)
We seem to have a tendency to think that the "humanities" part of DH is stable, that we sort of already have it squared away, while the tech skills are what we need to gain.
But the whole reason DH is theoretically consequential is that the use of technical methods and tools should be making us rethink the humanities.
In The Big Sea, Langston Hughes retrospectively snarks on those at the center of the Harlem Renaissance who "thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley" (228). In the same way, "when DH was in vogue," there's a temptation to believe that the academia problem has at last been solved through the New Criticism plus TEI.
It's the "plus" that makes Hughes's comment so snarky: he puts his finger on the merely paratactic, additive concatenation that we're tempted to make of what can and should be a much more paradigmatic change. In other words, we do not have the humanities part squared away. Nor, for that matter, can the digital be imported wholesale.
And so I think it's time we insisted a little more strongly on theorizing all that hacking. There are some theoretical keywords for DH that get used in woefully unrigorous ways—keywords like "archive"; "labor"; "biopower"; "embodiment"; "disability" and "access"; "map"; "narrative"; "identity"; "author." You show up at a THATCamp and suddenly folks are talking about separating content and form as if that were, like, a real thing you could do. It makes the head spin.
I don't mean to caricature, much less insult, DH scholarship. We all know of many DH scholars who do theoretically and historically rigorous work, and I think most DH scholars try to be fairly intentional, if not necessarily "theoretical," about their processes. And to be clear, I, too, routinely use Drupal content types with a field labeled "author." Sometimes you have to make a black box in order to build something bigger and more complicated on top of it; in fact, much of web programming now operates on that very principle ("modularity").
But—perhaps largely due to the recency of the field's entry into the mainstream—much of DH is still characterized by that "plus." Although it would be fair to object that there is undertheorized work in all fields, not just DH, I think the "more hack less yack" culture makes this tendency more widespread and more acceptable in DH than elsewhere; indeed, I occasionally get the sense that some see DH as a refuge from theory. The whole notion of "best practices," pervasive in tech and industry, lives uneasily with theoretical critique. And the pedagogical emphasis on quick entry into the field—and the incredible success with which THATCamps, DHSI, and other initiatives have brought huge numbers of humanities scholars meaningfully into the orbit of DH—is admirable, but comes with some costs that would bear mitigating.
I'm writing this post in part because, after a long conversation with my sister (Maria Cecire) about her first THATCamp experience, these issues have been on my mind. (I'll leave it to Maria to add her own comments, if she chooses.) And then, yesterday morning, I read Alexis Lothian's smart post on the LA Queer Theory conference and her upcoming ASA roundtable, which issued some timely challenges to the way we've been allowing DH to develop.
I was particularly struck by part of the ASA roundtable description, which, without accusing anyone of bad faith (and I agree; I don't think there is any), asks why the digital suddenly seems so congenial to the humanities just when ethnic studies departments and on-campus women's centers are getting axed (not to mention philosophy departments). The questions that roundtable poses get at what we stand to lose when we fail to theorize practice, or when we leave our theorizing implicit.
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.**It is not so much that DH is gaining at the expense of these programs (there's no direct correlation) as that something is making it easier to fund DH just as it's getting harder to fund ethnic studies and queer studies. And so far, despite the best of intentions, DH has not done a good job of theorizing either that disciplinary shift or its political implications—let alone "what is an author." That's why I think we should probably get over that aversion to "yack." It doesn't have to replace "hack"; the two are not antithetical.
So now, a few questions.
First, what are the key theoretical ideas that DHers need to think about? I've proposed words like "narrative," "biopower," and "author." "Medium" seems like another obvious one. But I'm sure others would argue that different concepts lie at the heart of DH—or that, in fact, we need to be considering the non-obvious theoretical concepts.
And second, what might a THATCamp Theory look like? (Besides the obligatory black turtlenecks, obviously.) I've often thought we needed humanities-based bootcamps on (e.g.) narrative, time, and surveillance. But I could also imagine sessions that look at different mapping projects in light of critical theories of space, or or that consider the interstitiality of iPhone apps and Twitter in light of queer and feminist theorizations of time.
"Cecire," you might be thinking, "that sounds a hell of a lot like media studies, not DH." Fair. But perhaps that division itself is overdue for some repositioning. Perhaps a THATCamp Theory would take some of the theoretical questions posed by Alexis Lothian and her co-panelists, and lead to digital projects (the "building" that we are so fond of placing at the center of DH) shaped by those considerations. And as Maria observed to me backchannel, "this need not be for theory wonks only, but for anyone who can step back and get meta (which *should* be all of us - regardless of training)."
Over the last several months, I've found myself returning to the Harlem Renaissance as a metaphor for DH. In part it's because DH seems to have the same sorts of identity crises that the Harlem Renaissance did. "What is DH?" is the question we still constantly ask ourselves—not in the "I know it when I see it" way that we ask "what is modernism?" but sincerely.
Similar to the Harlem Renaissance, too, is the compulsive self-listing, self-mapping, self-visualizing, and general boosterism of (e.g.) totting up the number of DH panels at this year's MSA, MLA, ASA, AHA, etc., comparing this year's number of DH panels to last year's, comparing the MLA to the AHA, und so weiter. It reminds me of Alain Locke's lists of black writers—look how many we have! Have we not arrived?
And apart from Hughes and a few others, we see in the Harlem Renaissance a good deal of the target of Hughes's satire, Art plus Gladys Bentley—painfully derivative capital-A Art, glued to some of that Harlem vogue.
The comparison breaks down, of course. DH is not historically or substantively similar to the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular lacks the moral and political force of the Harlem Renaissance's sometimes misguided but deeply consequential efforts. But the way that the comparison breaks down is perhaps as important as the ways in which it holds. For one thing, it makes it all the more surprising when "the (raceless, sexless, genderless) technological" is rather unselfconsciously represented as somehow beleaguered in just the same way that women, the working class, and minorities have been.***
To note the internal tensions that the Harlem Renaissance and DH share is to raise the question: why does DH as a disciplinary formation—incongruously—seem to have so many tics in common with the Harlem Renaissance? What is the moral and political force of DH—what are its cultural and institutional consequences? Are we content to suppose that it has no such force, or ought we not inquire?
Langston Hughes is right. Art plus Gladys Bentley is not going to get us where we're going, and the problem isn't Art, and it isn't (the queer black woman artist) Gladys Bentley; it's the plus.
It's time for THATCamp Theory.
UPDATE. There's nothing having a post retweeted to remind you that most conversation on the web does not happen via blog comments. Here are a number of related links:
Via Miriam Posner, Boone Gorges's G+ post "Dude ranchin' at THATCamp"
Matt Gold reminds us that his forthcoming edited collection Debates in the Digital Humanities takes up some of these concerns.
Jentery Sayers observes that THATCamp PNW (Social Justice) also seeks to address these issues. "Regarding DH convo about theory: #THATCamp PNW (Social Justice) will have 4 workshops blending cultural crit & tech practice. Details soon."
@THATCamp also points out the Theorizing the Web conference.
* * *
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. Introd. Arnold Rampersad. 1940; New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Print.
Title: Hughes's "Art plus Gladys Bentley" line comes from a chapter in The Big Sea titled "When the Negro Was in Vogue." David Levering Lewis adapted the title for his 1989 history of the Harlem Renaissance, When Harlem Was in Vogue.
*I'm going to use the word "theory" a lot in this post. I mean it as a catch-all term for thinking through the philosophical and cultural consequences of things, rather than the 1980s theory wars caricature known as capital-T "Theory." I love me some Derrida, but that's not really the point.
**I, too, would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, but I can't help noticing from time to time that I am, in fact, a woman.
***The resonances here with what Tim Yu has called "the ethnicization of the avant-garde" are notable.
Thanks to Maria for a productive conversation on these subjects the other night. Thanks to Aaron for comments on an earlier draft of this post.