Theory is dead, long live theory!

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Follow me on a caricature in two movements for mixed company.

First movement (Allegro Appassionato): Excessive Theory can lead to blindness.

For all the wonderful machinery that post-war theorists in the humanities have built to help us speak truth to power, many are particularly blind to their own appetites within the institution that shelters them from the elements. Nowhere is the operative ideology more evident than at the two points-de-capiton that bring us here: Building and Theory.

Fun fact: The discursive class depends on the already-built: Google, libraries, bibliographies, editions, audiences, Zotero, etc. You wouldn’t know this by the patronly anxieties of some of the inmates of the Republic of Intellectua. These anxieties have a long and honorable genealogy that according to one imaginary, the dominant one, harks back to Aristotle.

According to the original peripatetic, Dh’ers, or βάναυσοι as he called them, didn’t get to be citizens of his ideal Republic. Not because we are truly descendants of the Greeks (we are not), but because so many of us have a family member who traces their lineage to the divorce, the desire to banish the βάναυσοι still haunts our family reunions. Case in point: At the Po-Co dinner table, where I frequently break bread, most folks have an ongoing beef with what we call instrumental reason, justly associating some forms of it with a litany of evils. Without meaning to do so, many of us often get caught in the rhetoric and end up joining Aristotle instead of Fanon. When such embarrassments occur, as always, alibis and disavowals ensue.

Me río when I smell denial (from the Greek, ὑπόκρισις). The denial comes in several flavors: Some, like Aristotle, unapologetically place themselves above the clang of the anvil: The labor that sustains theory is visible, but unworthy. Others with more democratic aspirations re-appropriate the word ‘work’ —or as we would say, the work that the word ‘work’ is doing. Focusing on the wrong difference internal to work itself —my critical work vs. your what-is-it-that-you-do-again? work—, these folks inadvertently reaffirm their privilege, ending up back on Aristotle’s hillock where the clang don’t reach. An even more astute bunch builds elaborate and useful discourses on tools and work. They slum it, as the vox populi would have it. In many cases, though, they too abstract the work that enables their own. An endearing new offspring of the former acknowledges the instrumental intellect that makes discursive spaces possible in the first place, but claim their hands are tied to change the reward structures: Je sais bien, mais quand même… 

In all cases, an old class is perennially performed into existence: the service class. It doesn’t help that some folks are eager to accept the title and the role on unfair terms. We have now an opportunity to make a dent on the unbecoming tradition of la Distinction, and I hope we embrace it. It will involve a shift in both constructs: not towards a community of over-extended multi-classers (everyone knows an all-bard party would suck). We can push instead for spaces where both (de)formative activities, building and debating, occur simultaneously on equal footing, that individual tendencies may bloom to the benefit of the party formation.

I bear witness. Despite having won the service trifecta —graduate student, textual scholar and digital humanist—, I have always enjoyed playing the critical rebel; and, because a textual scholar and all-around tinkerer knows how to construct the materials he and others critique, I have always enjoyed what Hegel saw as the bias of service: absolute Wissen.

The oscillation between theory and practice, between solitude and service, discourse (the quintessential form of solitude) and building (the quintessential form of community) is our only hope out of our disavowals. I’m the first to admit knowledge does not belong exclusively to those with their backs bent over a Hinman collator or their eyes glued to a UNIX shell. I claim that detachment from such activities, even when they are your own, often leads to unwarranted arrogance and avoidable error; and, even more confidently, that the self-aware design and implementation of hermeneutic machines (whether editions or apps), can yield unique counter-intuitive insights with the cherished rigor of our most revered by-laws.

Second Movement (Pianissimo): The database is NOT the theory.

At the Scholars’ Lab, we recently wrapped up work on the first year of the Praxis Program. The tool we built, Prism, is a replica of a pen an paper exercise. We designed it for people in and outside the digital humanites. Our goal was to enable an exercise out of which new interpretations could be born. While we built it, we learned an enormous deal about the nature of annotation, fragmentation, constrained categories and hermeneutic difference. And if indeed we learned how to play with CoffeeScript, Cucumber, Sass, and a bagful of gems, we (and I mean everyone playing Praxis) still continued to engage, tacitly and explicitly, with old and new discourses. Without a doubt, many of our decisions about the direction of Prism owed as much to books we read eons ago as they did to the Law of the Rails. (If you are curious, some traces of our sentimental education persist in the blog). Besides the in-process theory, oftentimes internalized before we could make it public, the door is now also open to discourse on the texts under scrutiny, and/or the tool as a model for interpretation in general.

Here is one of those claims I would build on top of Prism:

Interpretation is a social phenomenon whereby we map our differences unto a shared text. 

That is a theory, NOT a database. Disagree with me and we can have a word, not a database.

All that to say, I wish my friends would avoid the infelicitous formula, “the database is the theory,” itself a caricature of the worst paradox-mongering coming out of the High Theory that the phrase tries to undermine in the first place. “They stab it with their steely knives,/But they just can’t kill the beast.” The problem as I see it is that those who feel they stand outside the traditions of humanities computing hear an easily disputable theory, when in truth, it is evident we ALL build and we ALL make claims. If we sometimes feel undermined by the discursive class, we should not retaliate by too readily collapsing the distinction between praxis and theory. Too many farm revolutions have failed because the pigs have moved into the farmer’s house. If we could diligently advertise instead that no one around here is confusing building and discourse as the same activity, I think that would go a long way to undermine our imagined and coagulating borders.

The phrase also distracts our audiences from, because it gets conflated with, a more important argument coming from Bethany Nowviskie, Steve Ramsay and other McGanners. To wit, that building can be an interpretative act. Those wonderful interpretative acts can only be a database, though, via weak metonymy. If we skip the catchy phrase, I think we can all agree: while all theory is interpretative, inasmuch as it can be extra-discursive, not all interpretation is theoretical (c.f. modernist sculpture). If we want spaces, even departments, with builders and theorists sharing professional rewards and the pedagogical load, I vote we continue to refine this promising theory.

In all fairness, the database needs to be a theory as much as a fish needs to cross the Niagara Falls on a bicycle. A more productive exploration of the relationship between the two would attempt to uncover the algorithmic, tabular, mechanical structures behind theory, and/or would attempt to make explicit the theory that walks in line with building a particular database, or a digital archive. Both of these humble approaches, coupled with the above, would surely ingratiate us to the barbarians at the door.

Of course, we must continue to ensure we are not saddled with unnecessary burden from folks who would see us as the help, eternal september and all. I suggest we turn the tables and recognize that discourse provides us with a service.  In order for us to perform such a wonderful legerdemain we must constantly re-acquaint ourselves with the fragile and unique deformities of the humanities and the social-sciences. I’m not kidding when I say that talkers are hackers too —yes, even if most of them just work those legacy systems we call books. If we were to lay bare their own mechanical and material exigencies, find the lingua franca that is always-already there to unite us, and do so without confirming their worst fears of obsolescence in the age of Google, we might just save ourselves from our exilic tendencies.

At the time when that crumbling democracy was transitioning from an oral to a written tradition, Aristotle’s intellectual grandfather, a stonemason by some accounts and a gadfly by all, was found guilty of seducing the young. Before he approached the hemlock, the man forbade the next generation from mourning; instead, he asked them in no uncertain terms to carry on the conversation. We have this in writing: Socrates is dead, long live Socrates!

One comment on “Theory is dead, long live theory!

  1. Hello, Just a Hi from Martinique after our meeting in Guadeloupe CSA Conference, I send you the adresses of my 2 blogs so you will see my paintings! Patricia

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