Wednesday, October 19, 2011

When DH Was in Vogue; or, THATCamp Theory

"More hack, less yack," they say. I understand the impulse, and to some degree admire the rough-and-tumble attitude of those in digital humanities whose first priority is Gettin' Shit Done. Hell, I like Gettin' Shit Done.

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.
Gladys Bentley

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.


Ryan Shaw said...

I would totally sign up for a Humanities Bootcamp on narrative and time.

But, can we find another word to use?

Alexis Lothian said...

Thank you so much for this post––you're crystallizing and taking further so many of the ideas I've been thinking and talking about with Amanda Phillips, Anne Cong-Huyen, Micha Cardenas, Margaret Rhee and others. I really appreciated the connections to the Harlem Renaissance as well, which underlines exactly what the problems are with the way DH is sometimes construed as marginal or approached through metaphors of minority. I see the same appropriation happen with my related fields of science fiction studies and fan studies, sometimes.

My favourite thing about this post, though, is that you take on these questions with the DH-style methodology of having a concrete response. THATCamp theory bootcamps! I absolutely love that idea, and I think it could make some vital strides in breaking down what seems to be to be an unnecessary barrier between DH and new media studies.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. As a one of the more outspoken proponents of "hack" and "method" and a THATCamp founder to boot, I say go for it:

Anonymous said...

hm...and I always thought "yack" was slang for vomiting.

Jentery Sayers said...

Thanks for this post!

Micki McGee said...

Thanks for this excellent post . You capture concerns that have been on my mind for some time, but which I had not articulated. I'm so there for a politics and theory THATcamp.

Anonymous said...

For me the key assertion here is that DH can and should change the way we think about the humanities. It's not purely additive.

Natalia said...

Thanks for these responses, folks. I've been remiss in not replying sooner.

Ryan, I think I'm missing some context for your link, because I do not get the reference.

Alexis, I was off the grid all weekend -- I hope to hear all about your roundtable. I, too, am curious about the too-easy metaphors of marginality that DH sometimes adopts.

Tom, I'm particularly heartened by your response (I'm a fan of Digital Campus!).

I fear I may have volunteered myself for something, but if I'm careful I think I can foist a lot of the work on my sister. Years of practice, folks. Years of practice.

Elijah Meeks said...

I'm glad you wrote this, Natalia. I've been a bit nonplussed (get it?) about the THATCamp-type issues in DH and I think it's for some of the same reasons. For one thing, the sexless, genderless, raceless and "clean" digital realm seems well-entrenched. My first reaction, eons ago, to DH was that it seemed like a good excuse to wind the clocks back 50 years and write about history and literature without need to reference any of those annoying modern and post-modern problems.

The other aspect you touch on, when collaboration between the humanities and CS becomes colonization of the humanities by CS (or "collaboration" in the more pernicious sense of the word) has also troubled me. I really think this is a sign of a growing creative weakness of CS departments, though, and don't expect it to be a long-term problem in DH, except insofar as it pushes a pragmatic colonial spirit of "best practices" and "efficiency" that may be picked up by humanities scholars as a whole.

As far as theory, I'd attach Interpretation to your Narrative coattails. I think DH scholars are so worried about whether or not they understand their technology that they're only willing to present what they can "scientifically prove" (scare quotes because it's really an orientalized view of science) whereas they were perfectly willing to present their interpretation when that presentation occurred in the form of a linear text narrative rather than a dynamic visualization.

Patrick Murray-John said...

I agree that this post nicely brings up important things that DH and THATCamp needs to consider as we imagine how we develop in the future. Here's a few thoughts about why I'm also strongly in the "more hack" camp. N.B. I spend a lot of time writing code (hacking), and have a Ph.D. in literature (yacking).

I actually think the situation is the reverse of what Elijah describes. I see the hacking and Bootcamps as the humanities colonizing CS. Each of the applications we use has a worldview built into it. That's true right down to the level of the code, even the language, the application is built in. In general, though, the inner workings of applications are treated as a dark and mysterious territory that only CS people can navigate. So, to me, the bootcamps -- and intro to coding sessions that I have done -- are exactly about demystifying the application and the code specifically in order to be able to theorize about them better. To draw an analogy, one doesn't have to be a poet in order to do literary analysis of poetry, but both poet and critic share a common language about how poetry works. Similarly, I want the humanists and the coders to share a common knowledge about how these tools work. Ideally, the coders should learn from the humanists (or be both!) so that the products of theorizing can find their way into the worldview that the code, well, encodes.

And so, I'd love to see a THATCamp Theory that also has bootcamps and intro to coding sessions, that maybe turns into paired sessions -- here's the structure built into WordPress, Drupal, and Omeka Bootcamp -- What modes of narrative are assumed? What assumptions about knowledge and the act of 'knowing' do they challenge? Theory session

Or, an intro to coding session paired with a crit-code session that interrogates the assumptions made by programmers.

Those kinds of things would make me a better humanist-coder, and help make sure that the humanities influences these tools and the coders who build them at a deep level

Doc McGrail said...

Thank you for your post. I am reminded of Jane Gallop's book _Around 1981_ where she argues that just about the time when women began to get tenured in the Academy capital A, "theory" took hold in the Academy capital A--in the form of Derrida et al. Once "theory" took hold, departments needed to do cluster hires of theorists who could "do theory." And then, of course, women like Spivak and Gallop began to "do theory" and so it's really interesting that Tech is stepping in just in time to affect Women's Studies Depts. and Ethnic Studies dept. hiring--