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Thing Theory and Interactivity

It is striking that discussions of theory in DH seem primarily focused on how DH projects themselves provide theory rather than actually theorizing about the nature of DH as an academic discipline. The latter ostensibly belongs more appropriately to a discussion on defining DH (as we have discussed in week 2), but I find it productive and relevant to discuss here. Looking first at what Ramsay and Rockwell refer to as “thing theory” then noting the importance of interactivity in digital scholarship, I will attempt to broadly approach these two issues—i.e., locating theory in DH and literally defining a theory of DH—to substantiate DH as a theoretical undertaking but more importantly to illustrate how DH is unique from traditional humanities.

Regarding the hack vs. yack debate, it seems clear that even the strongest proponents of methodology over theory would agree that there is no strict dichotomy between the two. As Natalia Cecire notes, “the two are not antithetical” (56). In fact, hack and yack share essential qualities, namely the overall goal of humanistic inquiry. The only apparent differences involve the tools and media utilized. But throughout history humans have used a variety of tools and media to externalize thought (from Paleolithic cave paintings to film and new media). Simply put, humanities scholarship has long suffered from the tyranny of oral and written discourse as its primary media. DH utilizes digital tools as its media to externalize thought and humanistic inquiry. The digital product itself possesses (or should possess) the essential qualities of a written piece of scholarship, i.e., theory (notably, theory with a lower case “t”).

Ramsay and Rockwell refer to this as thing theory: “Prototypes are theories, which is to say they already contain or somehow embody that type of discourse that is most valued—namely, the theoretical” (3), and later more poignantly claim, “To ask whether coding is a scholarly act is like asking whether writing is a scholarly act” (8). I would perhaps add that coding itself is a form of writing, just as, for instance, filmmaking or other media creation are forms of writing, insofar as a communicable textual entity is created. As Drucker notes, such forms of scholarship involve “an analysis of ways representational systems produce a spoken subject” (8).

Can a film not act as a form of scholarship? Interestingly, tenure-track faculty in film production departments (though not necessarily a humanities discipline) are assessed purely on their body of film work. And it seems equally valid for a traditional humanist to produce a provocative film in lieu of a formal essay. Additionally, an inherent rule in filmmaking (though often broken) involves concealing the process (the tools). Regarding digital scholarship, Patrick Murray-John notes, “A good user interface is designed specifically so that you don’t have to deal with the inner workings of the application” (76). This is becoming a bit of a digression, but I would at least like to pose the question: is this an important rule for DH?

Equally striking, however, is Gary Hall’s take in “There are No Digital Humanities.” Hall questions the computational turn in humanities as a movement, stressing the notion that it appears to be a reverse of Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition, allowing science and quantitative information to dominate the humanities. This is an important point that deserves deeper investigation, particularly as DH continually evolves.

Ben Schmidt’s thesis is particularly useful here: “The answer, I am convinced, is that we should have prior beliefs about the ways the world is structured, and only ever use digital methods to try to create works which let us watch those structures in operation” (61). The individual subject, the human, is key in interpreting even the most empirical humanistic inquiry. Furthermore, DH fundamentally advocates open-access and, more importantly, interactivity. The ability of the user (scholar or non-scholar) to experience a DH work and interpolate his/her experiences and thoughts seems to allow DH to evade a reversal of postmodernism. Whether via data visualization, topic models, or simply blogs and open-access texts, which allow peer review/critique and interactivity with the text, the foundation of DH as a discipline appears firmly rooted in subjective humanistic inquiry in a manner that is unique and potentially more effective than traditional scholarship.

In this sense, DH can and should innately contain both theory (generally speaking) as well as a theory of itself, i.e., promoting subjective interactivity with relatively objective knowledge.