Theory As A Tool

When it comes to hacking and coding one rolls up their sleeves to build models and prototypes to engage visually, open debate and uncover new meanings.  Theory as applied in methodologies leads us away from the mundane and toward bold ways of assessing existing humanist issues that are embedded in abundance in big data through literature, history and sociology.  The work of the digital humanist asserts that which is regarded as traditional narrative notions might gain new meaning or insight through further research and closer inspection.  The question “How does theory support the digital humanities” is critical because theory compels consideration.

Drucker raises the notion of “creating computational protocols that are grounded in humanistic theory and methods”, and “suggest it is essential if we are to assert the cultural authority of the humanities in a world whose fundamental medium is digital”.(3)  The term “cultural authority” suggests epistemological knowledge that is central to creating new digital approaches to engage critical thinking.  These new digital approaches would assist in revisiting unresolved concerns as well as in observing thought processes to determine outcomes around current day critical issues and to create models using the digital humanist toolbox to reflect these findings.  For instance the digital humanist can explore myriad issues on the political or social worldwide human landscapes and derive appropriate useful outcomes.  Prototypes then aid in accessing which digital tools best assist and inform this work.

Ramsay and Rockwell put forth the idea that “prototypes are theories”(4).  These prototypes aid in the ability to create, to do, and to build, yet the “guidelines for evaluation of digital work”(3) may restrict prototypes as scholarly. The argument can be made that such restriction could ultimately have the effect of working against the investment of skill and time during the course of the digital humanist’s workflow.  As Drucker noted, “more is at stake than just the technical problems of projection”(7).  It is the potential of the prototype to assist workflow and serve to aid thoughtful response around humanist issues.  The efficient use of mechanisms to devise tools in the digital realm assist the user in multitasking, and aid in the completion of data rich and-or quantitative digital tasks.  Theory then is a tool that aids the work of the digital humanist to build and create.

2 thoughts on “Theory As A Tool

  1. Jacky Ievoli

    Your discussion of theory as tool had me thinking about the ending in Fuller’s essay in this week’s readings. “More and more of the tool’s composition becomes devoted to monitoring and fine-tuning the operation of the tool. The problem is, (if we are to take this route) in finding a definition of tool. Are they metaphors, extensions, something that ‘Gives visible form and physical action to a logical operation.'” In class we talked about theory vs methodology and we also talked about big T Theory, the critical theory of the disciplines, the canonical authors we associate with theory. So if methodology is the how, how you went about the task, and the theory is the why, the guiding principles you used, then theory is the framework you used to build the tool. And because that tool is the manifestation of the theory itself, then it is, in fact, theory. It’s interesting how interchangeable the words theory and tool are in Fuller’s above statement. Because in a way, theory (and here I mean too the manifestation of theory in the form of scholarship and research) is about monitoring and fine-tuning and solidifying and perpetuating the theory. And then the question about tools: Are they metaphors, extensions, something that ‘Gives visible form and physical action to a logical operation.’ Well, it seems yes, that tools, tools built with theory, are extensions and do give physical form to a logical operation. Where I’m still puzzling though is what part of the tool is DH? Is it the building of the tool or is it the using of the tool? If the tool is built without humanities theories present at its conception, then is it DH? Or is it only DH when the humanist takes the humanities theory free tool, applies her theory to it and uses it?

    1. Genevieve Johnson Post author

      Hi Jacky:

      It seems to me that theory will always be embedded in composition. Tools are our gateway to create, and once implemented, they are substantive as they allow us to produce the object in physical form. I referenced “Johanna Drucker” in my original statement, so I’d like to point again to her essay “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship” to explain why I believe theory is a critical component of DH:

      “At their base—which is to say, in the encoded protocols of operating systems, machine languages, compilers, and programming—computational environments are fundamentally resistant to qualitative approaches. We can cast an interpretative gaze on these instruments from a humanistic perspective, and we can build humanities content on their base; but we have rarely imagined creating computational protocols grounded in humanistic theory and methods. Is this even possible? Desirable? I suggest that it is essential if we are to assert the cultural authority of the humanities in a world whose fundamental medium is digital that we demonstrate that the methods and theory of the humanities have a critical purchase on the design of platforms that embody humanistic values.”

      I take this to mean the way to best describe humanist ideals using our “toolbox” would be to assert theory through any idea we wish to illustrate. In that way theory is a tool.

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