This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about the usefulness (or not?) of theory in two seemingly disparate fields, ecocriticism and the digital humanities. Though these fields are different in many ways, what they have in common is that they’re both fairly new (as far as academic disciplines go) and they are both embroiled in a debate over the role of theory versus practice. What is the role of theory? Do we need it? Or can we somehow skip past all the theorizing and get to work?
You’ll forgive, I hope, my high-school-essay-style invocation of Dictionary.com here, but it’s probably important at the outset to define theory as “a particular conception or view of something to be done or of the method of doing it; a system of rules or principles.” Now that that’s out of the way, it seems clear to me that there is no work without theory. That is, even if we imagine that we can forego theorizing and move right into practice, we are still, in a way, theorizing.
Let’s look first to how the question of theory versus practice is manifest in ecocriticism. This debate was prompted, in large part, by a couple of essays published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (ISLE, I’m not linking to the individual essays as they require a subscription). The first was "Theorizing in a Space of Ambivalent Openness: Ecocriticism and Ecophobia," published in the spring of 2009, by S. C. Estok, who argues that the field of ecocriticism is undertheorized. Estok proposes, as a solution, the idea of “ecophopia.” That is, ecocritism should develop a theory in response to “an irrational and groundless hatred of the natural world.” This ecophobia is motivated, in part, by “the constitutional moment in history that gives us the biblical imperative to control everything that lives.” A theory that works against this, then, is what that leads us to “nuanced discussions of the cultural, intellectual, and environmental history surrounding a given text.”
The counterpoint was offered by S. K. Robisch, who, in a brazen essay titled “The Woodshed,” published in the fall of 2009, argues that a pursuit of theory is “masturbatory” and “relinquishes thorough analysis in a quest for the limelight.” Robisch wants an ecocriticism rooted in activism, one that writes “for clarity,” and calls would-be ecocritics out of theory “and into the real of the world of nature that you deny with all your hearts in your blind quest for the transcendent.” Robisch’s essay is remarkable for being full of violent imagery, including in the essay’s titular “woodshed” where, presumably, beatings occur. Robisch concludes with an inflammatory call to action, against theory; he suggests that he and those that agree with him might attend an academic conference “carrying water balloons filled with red paint, bottles of Karo syrup or bags of sand, maybe some big picket signs with the word ‘Bullshit’ printed on them.” He insists, “Let’s go PETA on these nature fakers, these seated hikers.”
This heated debate prompted a response in ISLE from Louisa Mackenzie and Stephanie Posthumus, who act as mediators, encouraging readers to generously consider both sides. They wisely insist that even the rejection of theory is a theory in itself. And this is my jumping off point into the similar debate that is occurring, though, at least so far, in a far more civil manner, in the digital humanities. There, the debate is framed in the conflict between “hacking and yacking,” that is, theorizing or doing the work. Stephan Ramsay is in part responsible for this demarcation in his assertion at the 2011 MLA conference that “If you are not making anything, you are not...a digital humanist.” He further clarified this point in a blog post titled “On Building,” in which he notes that the “exciting and enabling” commonality of people in dh involves “moving from reading and critiquing to building and making.” This is like Robisch’s call for critics to get into the “real world,” as opposed to a “blind quest for the transcendent.” Except, you know, way less inflammatory.
So what is the role of theory in the digital humanities? Can we forego it altogether in the name of making things? Less yacking and more hacking? Here, I think, Tara McPherson’s essay in Debates in Digital Humanities, titled “Why Are the Digital Humanities So White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” is useful. McPherson’s chief concern is the question of why issues such as race are not more often considered in the digital humanities, and in answer she offers the history of the UNIX operating system (stay with me, it ends up making sense). UNIX was developed in the 1960s, and, McPherson suggests, its architecture models the “common sense” of the time, which preferred “A lenticular logic,” which is “a logic of the fragment or the chunk, a way of seeing the world as discrete modules or nodes, a mode that suppresses relation and context.” That is, segregation was built into the computer systems in which we continue to operate. She writes of the 1960s, “this moment is overdetermined by the ways in which the United States is widely coming to process race and other forms of difference in more covert registers.” Some digital humanists are under the impression that we can fragment theory from work because the systems we depend on for our work are based on fragmentation.
McPherson is drawing on the definition of “common sense” put forth by Antonio Gramsci, who defined it as, “the way in which a particular group responds to ‘certain problems posed by reality which are quite specific’ at a particular time.” (Paraphrased by McPherson) Clearly this is theory, corresponding to the notion put forth by Mackenzie and Posthumus that “all ways of reading are theoretical inasmuch as, quite simply, they are based on positions.”
So there is no escaping theory. Even in using the systems at hand, we are participating in theory. The way forward, I think, involves recognizing this, and in recognizing as Moya Bailey writes in her essay “All the Digital Humanists Are White, All the Nerds Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave” in the Journal of Digital Humanities, “identities inform both theory and practice in digital humanities.” Not only are we operating on theory when we begin our work in a particular field, but our very identifies shape the theory, as well as the practice, that we are involved in. Adeline Koh pushes this even further when she writes, “all forms of shared, cultural understandings, whether they come under the umbrella terms ‘common sense,’ ‘tradition’ or ‘ritual,’ are founded upon an important obscuring of their own particular socio-political specificity…to ignore this specificity is troubling.”
We are always theorizing — theory is built into the work we do and the tools we use to do it, and is further shaped by our very identities. And that’s okay. It’s important. Let’s understand that, and go from debating the role of theory to actually articulating the theories from which we are operating, and then, finally, we can get to work.