Thursday, November 3, 2011

American nerds go to THATCamp

[TL;DR: Ed Finn is smart; nerdiness warrants contamination by the real; here's a Google Doc for THATCamp Theory.]

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending (Arcade blogger!) Ed Finn's very smart talk, "American Networks, American Nerds" at the new Emory Library Digital Scholarship Commons (DiSC). In the talk, Ed described the networks among different books in Amazon's recommendation algorithm and reader reviews, as well as in professional reviews.
Emory DiSC gives these out at talks. Yes, they really do.
Image shamelessly stolen from Miriam Posner's Twitter feed.

(It's worth noting that here "books" mainly meant novels, but really were, in the end, books, in the sense of physical widgets that Amazon ships to you, or teleports or whatever to your Kindle. The analysis that Ed did on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Junot Díaz's Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao could not have been done with, say, Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art.")

Ed argued (in part) that these networks substantiated each author's claims to a form of "nerdiness" that manifests as specialized knowledge, and in particular a specialized lexicon and set of cultural references. In Wallace's case, nerdiness manifested in a "difficult" style that led readers and Amazon to continually refer readers of Wallace to more Wallace, who supplied a stylistic "crack that readers couldn't get anywhere else." (I'm paraphrasing, but I'm pretty sure the word "crack" came up.) For Díaz, nerdiness manifested in the persistence of network associations with names like "Tolkien" and "The Fantastic Four."

Ed also noted, however, the prominence of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in Díaz's networks, in what Díaz calls a "contamination" of the nerdy by the real (and vice versa). Ed quoted Díaz as remarking that (I paraphrase), as much as the real resists nerdiness, nerdiness also strenuously resists contamination by the real. In Oscar Wao, however, Díaz disallows any boundary between nerd and "real" worlds. Even nerds have to live in reality, and reality likewise contains Tolkien fans.

Provocatively, Ed suggested that the "nerdiness" of Wallace and Díaz might have something to teach us about the nerdiness of digital humanities. Indeed, through his "middle ground" approach (as opposed to "close" or "distant" reading),Ed seemed in retrospect to have effected a rapprochement between the nerdy (network visualizations) and the real (the social practices of reading and writing).

The term "nerdy," of course, was ripe for questioning. As Ed had remarked in passing (and doubtless explores more deeply elsewhere), Wallace's and Díaz's respective nerdy networks were overwhelmingly male. And there's a way in which DH's identification with "nerdiness" taps very much into the version of nerd identity—seen also, if differently, in both Wallace and Díaz's nerdinesses—that manifests as wounded (and defensive) masculinity. I argued in a previous post that the defensive posture at times characterizes discussions of DH, which occasionally even seems to borrow the language of struggle and resistance traditionally used by queer activists, activists of color, disability rights activists, feminists, etc., even while, in many institutional settings, magically turning out to be disproportionately white and male.

In thinking about Wallace and Díaz's literary networks in the frame of "nerdiness," I couldn't help thinking about Kathleen Fitzpatrick's argument in The Anxiety of Obsolescence* that moral panic over the alleged decline of the novel in the face of television is in effect a "melodrama of beset (white) manhood," fueled by a sense of embattlement on the part of a "nerdy" class of white male authors whose cultural capital is diminishing, less due to television specifically than to the increased status of mass culture, as figured by women and people of color.

Ed's comparison between the nerdinesses of Wallace and Díaz and that of DH, then, raises the specter of (as Roger Whitson bluntly but accurately tweeted my phrasing of it during the Q & A) nerdiness as a place for white men to feel embattled. One of the key points that Bethany Nowviskie brings up in "What do Girls Dig?" is that the tropes and memes by which we describe DH bring connotations with them that can be unintentionally exclusionary or otherwise problematic. And it's not that we need to jettison them, necessarily; lots of people can get on board with the term "nerd."*** We just need to know that "nerd" also names a history. If we're going to be nerdy, let's make it a nerdy that's contaminated by the real.

* * *

I'm long overdue in responding to some smart and provocative posts that responded or linked to my THATCamp Theory post: Roger Whitson's "Hacking THATCamp Theory," Amanda Phillips's "#transformDH - A Call to Action Following ASA 2011", Ted Underwood's On transitive and intransitive uses of the word 'theorize,' and Ben Schmidt's "Theory First."

All of these posts warrant careful reading on their own, and in truth it would not be possible for me to engage all the issues they bring up this afternoon. But one concern continues to resurface in all of these posts, as well as in the Twitter conversation around my initial post, namely that theory, too, can be a site of power, one that has played all too well with the academic star system in the past, leaving people who now greatly benefit from DH (junior academics, people at teaching-oriented institutions, geographically peripheral institutions) in the cold. (As Ted put it, with that excellent Twitter bluntness, "capital-T Theory = power.") Now, the time when big-T Theory actually had power was my juice box days, so my appreciation of this fear of theory's power is purely conceptual. I started graduate school in the post-Theory, pre-DH era,**** when you couldn't swing a cat without hitting some senior scholar exhorting The Young to save the humanities with The Next Big Thing (and assume all the risks, of course).

Well, The Young (not me, but people like Ben and Amanda and Aditi Muralidharan) went and did it; they made the Next Big Thing, and a lot of the senior scholars who were already working in pre-mainstream DH frequently even had their backs while they did it, which is more than can be said of an earlier era, perhaps.

But the same critique that was once leveled at Theory (which should not be conflated with lower-case theory, and which has not always been entirely congenial to some of the very productive fields that built on it, e.g. critical race theory, queer theory, postcolonial theory, feminist theory, disability theory) has been, and is frequently, leveled at DH. Quantitative methods have long claimed a special epistemological priority—one of big-T Theory's great virtues was and remains its ability to interrogate the grounds of that priority—and they seem, now more than ever, to dominate a public sense of the real, as much on the moderate (i.e. liberal) left as on the corporate right.***** Only a radical faith in the reality of the quantitative could allow entirely fictive financial structures (their mathematical validity is the only real thing about them) to determine so much policy. Micha Cárdenas's observation of the parallels between the Last Big Thing and the Next Big Thing is right on point in this regard. The question is not who is more oppressed (a false question) but rather how, as all of the above-cited suggest, hack and yack can, like Captain Planet, combine powers for awesome. As Ben writes,
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.

We've created quite a lot of yack on this topic, and I think that's a good thing. But it's increasingly obvious to me and many others that it's well past time to bring the hack. Today I registered the THATCamp Theory name on the central THATCamp site and set up thatcamptheory at gmail dot com and @THATCampTheory. I also made a Google Doc for those who want in on the planning (o please). Obviously I'm not "in charge" here (contra Ben I didn't "start" anything!—see the post by Alexis Lothian that started me starting). I'm just another ridiculous postdoc with a blog, so I hope to see THATCamp Theory build substantively on all the rich discussions that have been happening lately (and special shout-out to Patrick Murray-John's useful suggestions).

So come on in, nerds. Let's do it.

*Yes, the whole damn book is online. That's some classic KFitz awesomeness right there. (And you can also buy it.) Also? KFitz: writing about DH, even when she isn't.

**There are actually several registers of nerdiness at work here. There are the grammar fanatics and comic book enthusiasts on which Wallace and Díaz respectively draw—a lived and then represented nerdiness. There's the nerdiness represented by the genre of postmodern fiction to which Wallace and Díaz both belong, the register that Kathleen addresses in Anxiety. There's the nerdiness of the literary networks within which Infinite Jest and Brief Wondrous Life respectively live. And finally, there's the nerdiness of visualizing and analyzing those networks, the nerdiness of the digital humanist.

***Ed observed in his response to me that there's been a recent mainstreaming of nerdiness, especially of the "obsessive fan" variety (I know for sure I read an article by a nerd bemoaning the way the internet and Peter Jackson had lowered the bar for entering nerddom—William Gibson tweeted the link—but of course I can't for the life of me remember who wrote it now). This is indisputably true. But as far as I can tell, such mainstreaming has not appreciably led to the defusion of melodramas of beset manhood. Everyone remembers this, right? Also this?

****Apologies to Charles W. Chesnutt.

*****See, e.g.: Nate Silver; Freakonomics; the Harper's Index; the so-called "bikini graph." If I ever write Puerility (good Lord willin', creek don't rise, etc.) I will ideally have something more complete to say about this.


Ed said...

Great post! Thanks for your kind words and excellent question at the talk. I think this question of DH's nerdiness deserves some deep discussion. For now I want throw a little more fuel on the fire: the overlap between the nerdy and the "serious" as in "serious literature." I did some work on this question during the Franzenfreude debate after the publication of Freedom--you might enjoy checking this out.

Miriam Posner said...

So my question is, who wields theory? Someone responded that we all theorize. Sure, that's nice, but capital-T Theory is a carefully cordoned and patrolled domain, with its own language, etiquette, and conventions. By separating theory into its own camp, I fear we're precluding the possibility that the same people who build -- the librarians, the programmers, the other staff people who haven't been allowed in academic conversations -- could be the ones to theorize.

DH has a lot of flaws, but one thing it does well is draw attention to inequities in the distribution of academic power. I'm afraid this is getting lost. When I hear this call to "transform DH," what I hear is the claim that High Theorists -- i.e., Ph.D.s -- are the ones whose job it is to issue correctives to the people who've spent careers building DH.

roisinobrien said...

Great post and also enjoyed reading "When Digital Humanities Was in Vogue" at the Journal of Digital Humanities. Prior to reading the latter, I wasn't familiar with the phrase "More hack, less yack"!

I only recently discovered the existence of THATcamp. I'm a novice digital humanist here in Ireland, where we would definitely benefit from having an event like that.

roisinobrien said...

Great post and also enjoyed reading "When Digital Humanities Was in Vogue" at the Journal of Digital Humanities. Prior to reading that, I wasn't familiar with the phrase "More hack, less yack"!

I only recently discovered the existence of THATcamp. I'm a novice digital humanist here in Ireland, where we would definitely benefit from having an event like that.