Early thoughts on building as performative theory

The debates about process and product that, in the previous ten or fifteen years, focused many conversations within the composition/rhetoric (comp/rhet) community seem also at play in DH.  Comp/rhet, especially writing across the curriculum (WAC) and even within he disciplines (WID), debated the value of the writing process, a process that focuses not so much on product: drafts, outlines, invention, final drafts of essays, term papers, and research projects, as it does on knowledge production/learning.  Building in DH, a process, is at the center of discussions about theory and DH.

Johanna Drucker, in “Humanistic Theory and Scholarship,” explains that in DH “Humanist methods are necessarily probabilistic rather than deterministic, performative rather than Declarative.”  In other words, action as method has a value in the humanities.  Inherent in the present discussion about theory within the digital humanities is the notion of use value.  Whether building in DH is a form of theory seems to hinge on the notion that theory is useful for doing something: “Digital artifacts like tools could be considered as ‘telescopes for the mind’ that show us something in a new light.” (John Dewy, qtd. “Developing Things: Notes toward an Epistemology of Building in the Digital Humanities” (Stephen Ramsey and Geoffrey Rockwell).

 If in some way it all comes down to work and use value, that theory is work—the building—then we need to ask important questions about DH work.  What is “work” in DH?  This question is perhaps best contextualized within discussions about theory and DH.  Lev Manovich recently Tweeted “Are you unhappy that there is no theory in#digitalhumanities Humanities in general did not have new theories after appr. 1990.” (Nov. 17, 2012).  His tweet prompted a short but interesting (and very fruitful for me) discussion that connected to a larger project of mine on use, but I digress.

I enjoyed reading Samantha’s post.  She did a very effective job of capturing Drucker’s views on DH theory.  About theory, Drucker also notes that “The challenge is to shift humanistic study from attention to the effects of technology . . . to the humanistically informed theory of making technology.”

I find it telling that Ramsey, Rockwell, and Drucker use the idea of “purchase” because “purchase”  conveys process.  Consider some of the OED Online definitions after the lemma: “exerting, “applying,” (“exerting or applying power”) and “accomplishing.”  These words convey process, as do “hack and yack.”  Perhaps we can move beyond the binaries, as several of the authors we read this week suggested, of “less yack, more hack,” and recognize that both approaches are processes, both are tools used to build, including the messy construction of theory.


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