Pragmatic Tinkering, or Against Truthiness
On October 17, 2005, the world was reintroduced to Stephen Colbert, who had previously been a correspondent on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” via his own show, “The Colbert Report.” But, that evening the world was also introduced to a word that would go on to be named “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society and Merriam-Webster, “truthiness.” Colbert used the term to highlight a distinction between “those who think with their heads and those who know with their hearts.”
As an example of truthiness, Colbert pointed to President George W. Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court as a result of, according to Bush, knowing Miers’ heart. By way of further explanation, Colbert considered the war in Iraq, “If you think about it, maybe there are a few missing pieces to the rational for war, but doesn’t taking Saddam out feel like the right thing, right here in the gut?” He continued, “Because that’s where the truth comes from…the gut.”
Colbert’s use of the word truthiness seems to me a perfect delineation of the perceived conflict between theory and practice. Theory is the kind of thing that one finds in books, which Colbert doesn’t trust; books are elitist, he says.
But, of course, even this idea of making decisions based on “the gut” operates on a kind of theory. And I don’t know that there’s a better name for this theory than truthiness. The fact that even those who imagine they act apart from theory are in fact utilizing a kind of theory was the topic of a previous blog post in which I considered the imagined conflict between theory and practice through the lens of two distinct, yet related, fields of scholarship, ecocriticism and digital humanities. There, I concluded that setting theory and practice at odds with each other is essentially setting up a false dichotomy. There is no practice without theory. In short, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are always already theorizing.
But as I thought further about this post, it occurred to me that I might be privileging practice over theory by reducing theory to something that is always just present. Of course, theory is more than present. Theory is (or should be) the catalyst for practice. In this essay I’ll move beyond the notion that we can’t escape theory to see why we shouldn’t ever want to.
N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, in their introduction to the book they co-edited, Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era, provide an excellent frame for this discussion. They write, “Without theorizing, practice can be reduced to technical skills and seamless interpolation into capitalist regimes; without practice, theorizing is deprived of the hands-on experience to guide it and develop robust intuitions about the implications of digital technologies.”
Of course many writers have advocated for the close relationship of theory and practice, but in light of a discussion of the digital humanities—my primary focus here—Hayles and Pressman deftly illustrate in just one sentence why DH has the potential to model this reciprocal relationship.
I want to begin by unpacking the above quote before describing a model for what the integration of theory and practice could look like, something I’m calling “pragmatic tinkering.”
“Without theorizing,” Hayles and Pressman write, “practice can be reduced to technical skills and seamless interpolation into capitalist regimes.” Obviously, in DH technical skills are highly valued, if not fundamental to the work at hand. This semester, I’ve been learning to work with the various tools employed by practitioners of DH—among them, encoding, topic modeling, mapping, creating information visualizations, and networking. Though I consider myself fairly adept at learning and using new technologies, each of these new tools has required a great deal of patience and practice. In a blog post in which I reflected on my experience with TEI encoding, for example, I note how, though I’ve been coding HTML and CSS for over a decade, there was still a sharp learning curve when it came to becoming conversant in TEI.
I have no doubt that Hayles and Pressman do not mean to downplay the importance of technical skills, but rather to insist that they are not an end in themselves. This, too, has become evident as I’ve been attempting to learn common DH tools. Each lab exercise that I’ve engaged in presents the same problem in getting started: I have to figure out what I want to encode, map, or visualize. Without a sense of what I’m trying to represent, or a hypothesis that I’m employing the tools to prove, the tools are useless.
Perhaps this point is obvious, but what is less so is the way that practice is reduced to “seamless interpolation into capitalist regimes.” Here, I understand Hayles and Pressman as arguing against what we might call “making for making’s sake,” playing, if it’s not extremely obvious, off the phrase “art for art’s sake.” I’ve never been a fan of artists who claim to create art for art’s sake, or, at the very least, I’ve always been skeptical. Here, however, Hayles and Pressman take it a step further in suggesting that making for making’s sake is “seamless interpolation into capitalist regimes.” That is, capitalism wants makers to make ever more things and to pour them into the market to increase competition, etc.
It seems to me that perhaps the mobile phone market is a good example of this kind of making, and it is a market that I’m very much invested in and thus I feel comfortable critiquing. Many people have noticed that smartphone manufacturers—and perhaps my preference, Apple, is among the most blatant offenders here—release small incremental updates to their hardware and software in an effort to insure that users feel the need to upgrade. A new iPhone, for example, is released every year with at least one innovative feature that users just have to have. Again, I can speak to this because I’ve bought five new iPhones in as many years.
If practitioners of DH simply make things to make them, free of any theoretical underpinning or stated purpose, we are playing right into the hands of capitalist regimes that require more things, and care little if those things are theorized or not—or, to put it more plainly, if those things are necessary and useful or not.
But the inverse of practice without theory, Hayles and Pressman tell us, is that without practice, “theorizing is deprived of the hands-on experience to guide it and develop robust intuitions about the implications of digital technologies.” If under-theorized making is typically the domain of the market, theorizing without practice, theorizing for theorizing’s sake, is often seen as a mark of academia. Reading academic articles can sometimes feel like an exercise in wordplay or mind games. We’ve all finished a dense essay in a scholarly journal and thought, so what?
In recent years, and in part as a response to this kind of empty theorizing, literary criticism in particular has taken an activist turn. This is seen clearly in much of the work of digital humanists—and is perhaps indicative of the huge emphasis on making in DH—but other fields, including ecocriticism, which I mentioned above, share this activist bent. We want our theorizing to mean something.
For some scholars in the twentieth-century, this activism could be accomplished through theorizing. Much postmodern literary theory, including deconstruction and the hermeneutics of suspicion, which sought to plumb hidden meaning from deep within a text, operated on the assumption that “If everything were transparent, then no ideology would be possible, and no domination either,” as Fredric Jameson wrote in The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, published in 1981.
But, it turns out, it is precisely these techniques that have been most criticized for being overly theoretical without any practical implications. To this end, recent theoretical frameworks have sought to integrate practice into the work of theorizing; so-called “Surface Reading” or its cousin “Distant Reading” are among these.
In their landmark 2009 essay “Surface Reading: An Introduction,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus identify the need for a new kind of theorizing, “Where it had become common for literary scholars to equate their work with political activism, the disasters and triumphs of the last decade have shown that literary criticism alone is not sufficient to effect change.” Best and Marcus propose surface reading, which embraces new media with an aim to “create new forms of knowledge” and “bypass the selectivity and evaluative energy that have been considered the hallmarks of good criticism,” all in an effort to “attain what has almost become taboo in literary studies: objectivity, validity, truth.”
Best and Marcus, and indeed a great number of literary critics, are not attempting to throw out theory because “literary criticism alone is not sufficient to effect change,” but rather to imagine a kind of theorizing that necessarily includes practice. And, it is no surprise that in their effort to do so they must consider the significant role that computers—or, DH—will play in this theory/practice hybrid.
But what might this look like? There is a great deal of talk within DH circles about the value of trial and error—what Jentery Sayers calls “tinkering” and Stephen Ramsay calls “screwing around.” While I’m sure that both Sayers and Ramsay value theory—in fact they are both theorizing in their calls for tinkering/screwing around—the emphasis on practice may have the effect of obscuring the role that theory plays in this endeavor. With that in mind, I’m suggesting we add a descriptive modifier to tinkering: pragmatic. That is, pragmatic tinkering necessarily calls to mind the theorizing that must go into tinkering. (I might have suggested pragmatic screwing around, but I worry that may be misconstrued.)
While the word pragmatic may be read as anti-theory, as in Merriam-Webster’s definition: “dealing with the problems that exist in a specific situation in a reasonable and logical way instead of depending on ideas and theories,” my use is meant to recall pragmatism in philosophy, as in “An approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.” In this definition, pragmatic tinkering positions tinkering as corresponding to theorizing—proving or disproving theories, rather than negating them.
Of course, I’m under no illusion that this is necessarily original thought, and indeed, as I stated above, those like Sayers and Ramsay who advocate for tinkering are sure to have in mind theoretical underpinnings, but in an environment wherein a perceived discord between “hacking” and “yacking” exists, it seems never inappropriate to remind those of us starting out in DH that we can’t have one without the other, nor should we desire to. In fact, pragmatic tinkering needn't describe only our practice, but as we young scholars begin to the lay the foundation for the rest our careers, we can tinker too with theories—testing them here, applying them there, in an effort to see which best serve our work.
Unless we aspire to be purveyors of Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” doing our work based simply on a feeling in our guts, we should strive to always integrate theory into our practice. Working this way is not particularly cavalier, but at least we can be sure we won’t lead anyone into war based simply on a feeling in our guts.
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