[Humanist] 30.140 what is theory?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Jul 2 15:32:21 CEST 2016

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 30, No. 140.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Fri, 1 Jul 2016 08:32:09 -0500
        From: James Rovira <jamesrovira at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  30.138 what is theory?
        In-Reply-To: <20160701112049.91EA47970 at digitalhumanities.org>

I agree that it is very useful to observe that what we mean by theory in the empirical sciences and in the humanities are two different things. 

But accusing the use of the word "theory" by humanities people of being cute, and exhorting us not to think about theory, is not a very useful direction, and only sounds like contempt for the humanities, in which case we've abandoned the humanities component of digital humanities. The phrase "digital humanities" only makes sense as a kind of humanities activity, not as a kind of computing activity, as most of the value added by field contributions seem to be to the humanities and not to computer science. There may have been some DH projects that really changed how we think about computing, but it seems to me like most of the work is to change how we think about the humanities, or to help what we have always been doing (such as archival work) be more effective.

We also need to consider the actual nature of the object of our study. Is it a humanities object, so by extension, human beings, or are we studying material objects that exist independently of human agency? Trees grow on their own out in the wild without us: computers, programs, paintings, and poems do not. 

That leads us to another problem on the humanities side of it: there is no truly empirical science of human behavior in general, much less about complex human activity such as creative works. We can add the methods of empirical science to our study of human activity, such as the collection of quantitative data, but that doesn't make it empirical science, because our analysis is usually of something human behind the material objects that we study. 

I remember seeing a great presentation of a DH project at an MLA panel about the locations of different kinds of graffiti around a city. It created a simulated city, put reproductions of the different kinds of graffiti on the different city walls in the simulated city, and then analyzed the visual content of the graffiti relative to geography. The end result, though, is a kind of sociological study of art, or a correlation of different visual rhetorics for different city locations, which could be correlated with income or ethnic demographics. The end result is a study of the people who are living in the city and making graffiti. It's not an analysis of self-generating material processes like tree growth.

So I think this can help us think about the word theory itself. What I think we usually mean by the word "theory" is the unseen or unreproduceable origin of visible phenomena. So physicists observe red shift and then theorize about a big bang. Freud observed a variety of human behaviors and speech patterns and then theorized the existence of id, ego, and superego. I think the word "theory," when used by humanists, fits this description. Using that word is a kind of honesty about the nature of our activity. Without that, we might be kidding ourselves into thinking we are doing a kind of empirical science when we never are. 

I think theory in digital humanities would have to take seriously the fact that computers and computer programs are human objects and talk about the interaction of these objects with the more traditionally understood humanities products that they are managing. I think this could be a way into a kind of posthumanist scholarship, as there is often an element of the unpredictable in our computing results.

Jim R

More information about the Humanist mailing list