undigitized humanities

On transitive and intransitive uses of the verb “theorize.”

I’m a relative newcomer to digital humanities; I’ve been doing this for about a year now. The content of the field has been interesting, but in some ways even more interesting is the way it has transformed my perception of the academy as a social structure. There are clearly going to be debates over the next few years between more and less digitized humanists, and debate is probably a good thing for everyone. But the debate can be much more illuminating if we acknowledge up front that it’s also a tension between two different forms of social organization.

Here’s what happens when that dimension of the issue goes unacknowledged: a tenured or tenure-track faculty member will give a talk or write a blog post about the digital humanities, saying essentially “you’ve got some great tools there, but before they can really matter, their social implications need to be theorized more self-consciously.” Said professor is then surprised when the librarians, or academic professionals, or grad students, who have in many cases designed and built those tools reply with a wry look.

The reason for this, as Miriam Posner recently tweeted, is that “theory has been the province of scholars,” while “the work of DH has been done by staff.” So when you say “those tools need to be theorized,” you are in effect saying “those tools need to be appropriated or regulated by someone like me.” That’s, so to speak, the social implication.

I hasten to add that I’ve got nothing against theories. I wouldn’t mind constructing a few myself. Literary theory, social theory, statistical theory — they’re all fun. But when the word “Theory” is used without adjective or explication, it does in my view deserve a wry look. When you take away all the adjectives, what’s left is essentially a status marker.

So let’s not play that game. Nothing “needs to be theorized” in a vague transitive way; academics who use phrases like that need to realize what they’re saying. DH is an intensely interdisciplinary field that already juggles several different kinds of theory, and actively reflects on the social significance of its endeavors (e.g. in transforming scholarly communication). It is also, among other things, an insurgent challenge to academic hierarchy, organized and led by people who often hold staff positions — which means that the nature of the boundary between practice and theory is precisely one of the questions it seeks to contest.

But as long as everyone understands that “theory” is not a determinate object belonging to a particular team, then I say, the more critique, debate, and intellectual exchange the better. For instance, I quite enjoyed Natalia Cecire’s recent blog post on ways DH could frame its engagement with literary theory more ambitiously. I don’t know whether it’s a good idea to have a “theory THATcamp”; I haven’t been to THATcamp, and don’t know whether its strengths (which seem to lie in collaboration) are compatible with that much yacking. But I think Cecire is absolutely right to insist that DH can and should change the way the humanities are practiced. Because digital approaches make it possible to ask and answer different kinds of questions, there’s going to be a reciprocal interaction between humanistic goals and digital methods, not, as Cecire puts it, a “merely paratactic, additive concatenation.” We’re going to need to theorize about methods and goals at the same time. Together. Intransitively.

[Sun, Oct 23, 2011 — This post is slightly revised from the original version, mostly for clarity.]

By tedunderwood

Ted Underwood is Professor of Information Sciences and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. On Twitter he is @Ted_Underwood.

6 replies on “On transitive and intransitive uses of the verb “theorize.””

I totally agree with what you (and Miriam) are arguing here, Ted. I wonder what kind of “theorizing together” you would advocate, or what would bring together academics who have so-called theoretical commitments and DH staffers who are interested in practicality, hacking, and creating. I wrote a post responding to Cecire and calling for “Hacking THATCamp Theory” (, but I’m not sure it solves the problem you are talking about here. I’d love to get together a group of people and organize THATCamp Theory as a way to deal w/ precisely these issues.

I love the notion of “hacking theory” in your post; I think it’s a great idea to consider works of linguistic and literary scholarship as objects of study. I also think Ben Schmidt has has smart things to say about the intersection of text-mining and literary theory (

But as far as what I meant to advocate with the phrase “theorizing together,” I think we’re already doing it. I actually think that the theoretical contributions of DH are probably going to grow out of the hacking. True, it has to be reflective hacking, guided by a sense of what matters from a humanistic perspective rather than just, you know, doing cool visualizations because we can. But my sense is that we’re more likely to make a difference by generating theory from within DH than we are by trying to import it. E.g., to take text-mining (merely because that’s the part of DH I understand) I’m finding some patterns in the printed record that literary historians don’t yet have great terms for. They’re not genres or subjects; maybe they come a little closer to the Foucauldian concept of a “discourse,” but I’m not sure about that yet … To figure this out, I’m going to have to keep hacking (poking around in the collections with an algorithm) while yacking (talking to other scholars about the patterns they’re finding, and how they’re interpreting them). And probably I also need to re-read Foucault. But it seems to me these different tasks are really closely connected.

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