Mixed metaphors, marked bodies, and the question of “theory”

A ferment of planning is afoot in what I find it difficult not to think of as digital humanities fandom. After Natalia Cecire’s great blog post a couple of weeks ago, “When DH was in Vogue, or, THATCamp Theory” her joking proposal for a THATCamp (THAT=The Humanities And Technology; Camp=unconference) Theory has been taken up. She blogs about it in American Nerds go to THATCamp and there is now a planning Google Doc.

THATCamp Theory is a fascinating idea, and I am excited to be involved with it. I do have a difficult time imagining how it will look, but I think that connecting the ethic of making that is central to the digital humanities with a self-consciousness about the way everything is structured and its cultural politics can only be good.

However, I am unsettled by some of the ways that the term “theory” is trafficking in the conversations that Natalia’s post sparked. Ted Underwood critiques the idea of an intransitive theory; Jean Bauer asks “who are you calling untheoretical?”; Roger Whitson summarizes some of the conversations in “THATCamp Theory Bunnies”. I feel a little awkward about it, but I’m moved to make this post because of what those ones don’t mention. There are, I think, two sets (at least) of conversations intersecting here, and I’m not sure we’re hearing each other.

Genealogies of conversations don’t always matter much, of course; but Natalia’s inspirational THATCamp Theory post came, indirectly (um, via my blog) out of Micha Cardenas’s provocative “Digital Humanities: Hot Sellable Commodity or Place of Counter-Hegemonic Critique?”, in response to the Los Angeles Queer Studies conference, particularly the panel that Micha and I did there with Margaret Rhee and Amanda Phillips. It continued in person and on twitter around several panels at ASA, where the digital humanities were put into conversation with critical race studies, ethnic studies, queer critique, and feminism in a conversation we dubbed #TransformDH.

We weren’t using theory intransitively; we were talking about queer, trans, butch, femme, critical race, women of color, Asian American, Puerto Rican theory (with a slightly different group of scholars in the room, those adjectives would have changed). We were talking about marked bodies, systemic social hierarchies, and transformations in a very specific and material sense, not some vague revolutionary concept that can be written off with an image of graduate students sitting around talking about Foucault. We were talking about theory as making, about making objects that critique, that *are* critique, that are transformative reimaginings of the world. Micha’s art is a pretty fantastic example of this. Several of us who have been talking #transformDH, including me, are interested in where and how theory of this kind gets made outside the academy: what conversations and artforms and databases and archives do the work of a transformative digital humanities but don’t have the institutional status to be named as such.

When I look at the discussions now about theory and DH, I keep asking myself: where did we go? Where did our politics and our specificity go? Do we need, as Jentery Sayers suggested on Twitter yesterday, a different term? Radical critique, social justice, or––following Alan Liu––cultural criticism? That does make some sense.

But, as the title of this blog makes fairly clear, I’m attached to “theory” and to the possibility that it can be democratized. I want all these forms of critical making and the analysis that accompanies it to be part of the “theory” conversation, if there’s a “theory” conversation to be had. And I don’t want their specificities to be dismissed as irrelevant identity politics either, because they aren’t. They’re the heart of things, the center from which our digital work radiates. And these concerns are not exclusive to the digital. These are, as Natalia Cecire pointed out in the THATCamp Theory google doc yesterday, also questions that scholars of art and performance––even literature and film, I would argue, especially in the zones where scholarship and practice overlap, which are especially common in queer and ethnic studies––constantly confront.

Part of the conversation about how we make theory has to be a conversation about which forms of theory-rich making are recognized and institutionally supported and which are not; about whether there are clear cut lines between digital humanities scholarship, digital media art, and digital media everyday practice, other than the question of where the funding comes from. I think this question is closely connected to the issues of labor Miriam Posner has brought up: there are unstated hierarchies of labor in who does the work of making versus who conceptualizes or “theorizes” a project, just as there are in what counts as a “project” deserving of labor other than basic conceptualization. Marta S. Rivera Monclova’s struggles in making the necessary theory for her planned project on multilingual Puerto Rican poetry visible––how what she’s talking about isn’t ‘just’ translation––may be a case that connects the two.

The comments, made by many different people, about the effect of one’s experience of “theory” or “Theory” and one’s graduate-school training in academic knowledge production and knowledge-sharing, are crucial here. Theory can, as the rather delightful Twitter conversation linked by Roger Whitson demonstrates, be held like a weapon or like a bunny; it can lurk under the surface of everything or be something we constantly look for but never find, like the Loch Ness Monster. My conception of theory, which comes both from a graduate school experience in which theory was rarely weaponized and from a range of nonacademic locations, is probably somewhere in between: an awkwardly handcrafted pet monster, perhaps, but more efficient and dangerous than it looks. Nessie’s got teeth.

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