theory, invention, and the digital humanities #dhdebates

Today my grad class will be discussing the "Theorizing the Digital Humanities" section of Debates in the Digital Humanities featuring essays by Stephen Ramsay and Geoffrey Rockwell, Johanna Drucker, Jamie "Skye" Bianco, and Willard McCarty, as well as some republished blog posts from Tom Scheinfeldt and Gary Hall. The concerns here I think would be familiar to rhetoricians in a different register as they deal largely with issues of theory and practice (or methodology as it is more commonly termed here). Theory is one of those words in the humanities which almost demands air quotes, not unlike literature, in the sense that it is not easy to define but we all know what we mean…. sort of. That is, we know theory means critique and one or more of a series of -isms. In composition, the resistance to theory has to do with the development of writing pedagogy as a practice (based on lore as Steve North famously pointed out) and the concern that theory would serve a prescriptive role. Oddly, despite the poststructural celebration of indeterminacy and any number of -isms opposition to patriarchy, hegemony, etc., etc., there is plenty of prescription to go around in critique. Critique, after all, is judgment. 

One thing one comes to recognize as a humanities teacher is that despite one's susceptibility to critique (and in the end, theory's critique is interminable), one still has to show up to class and do something. As such, I am more than sympathetic to the DH position, represented in some of these pieces, that all theory can do is stop practice. Yes, one might restart differently but not in a way that would not immediately be open to another critical stop. In this respect, it is understandable why theory is so appealing to the humanities and its fundamental cultural conservatism. I realize this seems counterintuitive as the openly stated goal of critique is to enact change in the name of justice, equality and so on. And yet, rhetorically and methodologically, critique doesn't operate that way. Why? Because it primarily serves a hermeneutic, interpretive, judgmental function. In short, critique is the decider, while opposing all other deciders, even when it decides that deciding is not possible.

Bianco handles this issue the best among those in this section, though ultimately she has more faith in critique than I. Like her, I would (and do) point to Latour's compositionism. However, (far) before that, I would recall Gregory Ulmer's Heuretics which undertakes the task of shifting theory from hermeneutics to heuristics. Put differently, how do we turn theory from critique to invention? This is how I read Drucker when she asks "Can we create graphical interfaces and digital platforms from humanistic methods?" or (going in the other direction) when McCarthy considers if computing can ultimately reshape humanities practices. Perhaps we are not always aware of these things, even when they are before us. For example, the developers of SIMULA and SmallTalk (e.g. Alan Kay) discuss the role that philosophy played in their articulation of object relations in object-oriented programming. Hayles' How We Become Posthuman does a good job, I think, of exploring the role of humanists and literature in cybernetics. In short, these things can and have been done. Humanists do play a role and maybe can play a greater role, but only if they are willing to allow themselves to become the objects of critique rather than sitting on the sidelines passing judgment and insisting that things not change.

I actually think theory and critique face far deeper challenges than those posed by digital humanities and that the various attacks on DH and technology more broadly are more like efforts at distraction. Latour's arguments are just one example. In my own case, I welcome conversation and would openly acknolwedge that my work can be critiqued. However, since critique is interminable, the fact that one's work can be critiqued cannot be a concern. It is never an indication that one should stop or do something different. The only psychic retreat from critique is to bow down to one -ism, obey its prescriptions, and denounce/critique all others, but even that doesn't make one immune to critique from the outside. It just perhaps allows one to believe those critiques are invalid. Shifting one's scholarship in an effort to satisfy all critique is akin to moving around the planet in search of a place where one is not subject to gravity. 

For this reason I understand entirely why DH might just shrug its shoulders at theory.