One of the things – in fact, the primary thing – that bothers me about Debates in Digital Humanities is the way in which it spends a major section on “Defining the Digital Humanities.” There is nothing wrong with this (except, perhaps, the intractability of the definition) per se; what I find troublesome is the organization of terms that ensues. If “digital humanities” isn’t ever defined, there are at least debates; the term “theory” is not so lucky. Rather, the treatment of “theory” mostly repeats the tired formulations of the non-digital humanities, which is to say, “theory” is a.) that which is/will be dead (interestingly, the verb choice doesn’t depend that much on when this is said; some of the “theory has run its course and is now dead” arguments go back at least to the 1960s, nearly as far back as people predicting that no one would need home computers as they were a triviality, sure to run their course) b.) is oppositional to creation (that is, it is reflection of things that are already created and as such, generates no new work) and c.) is a unified system.
I’ll admit that the tendency to view theory as a concrete entity is attractive. It also does, in fact, have several unified aspects (as an interpretive lens, for example) that allow it to be talked about as such, and it probably has been responsible for a great deal of wheel spinning. Worse, I think “theory,” presented in this sense, frequently obscures other, potentially useful (hermeneutics, for instance) interpretations. It seems to me, though, that there are some implicit assumptions (for instance, “postmodernism” as a theory, rather than an indicative set of traits developing out of global capitalism) that make a view of theory as a unified entity. Moreover, there are two primary problems, as I read it, that make such an equivalence unfair.
First, “theory,” as practiced in humanities departments, is shorthand for ways of interpreting literature and cultural artifacts. The problem there is that the kind of work that goes on (“I’m going to do a Marxist/Derridean/New Historicist reading of this work!”) often misses the point, the point where the theory originated. Each of those critical apparatuses is derived not from a theory about literature, exactly, but from a way of thinking of how the world works. A Marxian worldview derives not from the desire to read certain books in certain ways but from a belief in something of how the economics influence things: it is an economic and social theory that has something to say about books, in the same way that Lacanian theory is a psychology that has fundamental claims about how the mind works and Derridean deconstruction has certain claims about how the world exists. It is the case in all of them that they can speak to texts; equally, though, I think texts speak to them. Thus while there is a certain truth to the belief that a Marxist will always produce a Marxist critique, any assumed negativity in that statement comes from the point of view that applying theory is somehow intended to teach more about books – not that books can and do inform theory. The application of Sartre’s method from _Critique_ will yield vastly different results than, say, applying the thoughts of Negri and Hardt, but in either case, I don’t think that the point of the authors is to give grad students a way to graduate.
Second, and more fundamentally, “theory” seems to take the role of a fall guy. As people have been usefully pointing out in seminar, the idea of doing things without reflecting on them is a fundamentally scary one. It may be the case that humanities-style work occurs with or without the involvement of humanists (e.g., designing programs that sift through calls in order to label terrorists). I would assert, though, the proper role of a humanist would be in destroying the impetus behind such a program (even refusing to participate in a society that espouses such practices as a basic condition of continuation) rather than involvement. But even more than that: it makes sense to me that many of today’s professors are steeped in the “theory wars,” and may reject “theory” as a blanket, destructive term. But what is then obscured is that any methodology, if that’s the preferred alternative, still depends on a theory, a worldview of some sort. I’m not trying to be glib. What I mean is that, broadly conceived, “theory” can also equate to “worldview,” and in the sense that even the decision to look at a book in the first place represents some action undertaken as part of a set of beliefs. “Humanism” is itself a theory in a broad sense.
By saying that theory is a fallguy, though, I don’t just mean it’s a dirty word. I mean that it is viewed as something apart from (and generally oppositional to) creation: one either creates or theorizes. One produces, or one feeds scavenger-like on the corpses of others’ creations. One either does or one thinks. Laid bare, I think it looks as unfair to those traditionally classed as “creators” – who would protest, I suspect, that they *do* think – as it does to those engaged in critical work. And, again, I think that the reasons for this become most clear in the separation between theory and worldview that are often promoted: one has to demonstrate an understanding of “theory” and its applications to pass lit. crit classes; there’s no comparable test on worldviews available (though, as a thought experiment, I like to envision economics departments – themselves just as much an ideological creation as English departments – who are told that recourse to the theories of Keynes, or Marx, or Friedman is disallowed as “theory is dead”).
But the strongest argument comes, I think, from inside. This week in The New Media Reader (a text for my DH course), we read among other things Harraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and Stall’s “GNU Manifesto.” I’m not prepared, I think, to write about Harraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” as it’s too fundamental to a lot of what I’ve been working with for the past few years and this is the first time I’ve read it. But between it and Stallman’s “The GNU Manifesto,” I think there’s a powerful look at the potential for critique and composition of the type Bianco offers. Harraway’s position comes more obviously from what we would think of as “theory,” in the sense of feminist theory, but both are essentially critiques and calls for action. In a sense, the GNU system of distribution, etc., is the manifesto translated into action: without that kind of promulgation of values (which, I should note, intersects strongly with certain liberal capitalist theories of market systems), the system could not have existed as it does. In the sense of a network, a piece like his (or Harraway’s) forms a point, an object of sorts, that alters the stream of thought around it, allowing for new potentials and influencing new lines of thought. If it’s true that critiquing can replace activity, it’s also the case perhaps that it can motivate change, that the claim that not everything is as it should be can lead to attempts to fix it.