The Theory Behind It All

The first day of the [Speaking in Code][] symposium hosted by the [Scholar’s Lab][] at the University of Virginia and sponsored by the NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities was exhausting and exhilirating all at the same time and for the same reasons: there was no let up in the high level not only of exchange but in its fierce integrity, too. By integrity I mean there was not one thing said that the person didn’t believe wholeheartedly and so people spoke their minds and their hearts at the same time. And, best of all, they spoke openly and generously: there was very little, if any, posing or preening. It was exhilirating for those reasons, too.

It was also humbling that everyone there knew more than I did about most dimensions of the day’s topics. But, as always, there was generosity in the differential, one of the things I have come to appreciate about the digital humanities groups I have encountered — having never been to the big annual meeting, I can only daydream that the same holds there on a larger scale.

What I find most interesting about one of the subtexts emerging from the meeting is where theory is getting located in the digital humanities. Looking back, I think our organizer and leader, Bethany Nowviskie, actually purposefully contrasted the difference between discourse-based and pactice-based domains as a way of nudging us to think abou this. When Nowviskie contrasted the difference between the bookishness of the humanities scholar and the dirty hands of the humanities coder, I balked (internally) at the stereotype of the potter with so much clay under his nails that he doesn’t have time to think. I cocked a mighty folklorist’s eyebrow at her and really wanted to rebut the idea of the craftsman whose ideas are found only in his practice.

But I think Nowviskie played the metaphor exactly right, because as it became clear what she meant by practice, and what this group means by practice is something far richer and more interesting than, as my table mate Rohit Chopra’s sociological ancestor Pierre Bourdieu, meant by practice.

This comes up, in part, because I released my notes for the day to the group in a [], and the last speaker for the day, Mia Ridge picked up on the one personal aside I included in my notes — I was largely too busy keeping up to reflect: “My point about code = theory appears not to have been interesting.” She quite nicely asked:

> @johnlaudun I think ‘code = theory’ is key, but might have missed your explanation in the rush of ideas. Can you expand in your doc?

My earlier point was pretty much, I realized later — but, alas, too late because I forgot to pull the aside out of the notes (I did note note how slow I am on the uptake, right?) — *the point* of this symposium. What I said at the time was that my defense of wanting to learn to code, and of coding (if you can call the mashing of keys that I do that), to my colleagues in folklore studies is that much of the code base with which I sometimes work was built by others for other purposes, and so it has their assumptions about language, and cognition, and their goals built into it. Their assumptions and their goals are not mine, and so I want to intervene, to take an active role in shaping the code that I use so that it fits my goals, my assumptions, my theories.

Which is pretty much what everyone else here was saying. (It only took me one night to realize this, so I’m processing faster than normal.) My notes to prove this aren’t quite as good as I would like, but Micki Kaufman reminded me of something Jean Bauer said:

> [it’s] important to consider the data models we construct as arguments in and of themselves, ripe for interrogation

It was also what Bill Turkel assumed when he noted that:

> Code should be a way for programmers, and scholars, to talk to each other

Or when he foregrounded how learning a programming language, like learning a natural language, is simply a way to force ourselves to think in new ways. (I also liked very much his notion that the humanities need to learn that failure is an important part of any discovery process.)

And we ended the day on a similar note with Mia Ridge challenging us with the “proper” fit between data and tools in a talk she entitled “Messy Understandings.”

It was, I realized later, entirely a day about challenging the distinction between tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge and for getting us all to think about more clearly about the theory behind *any* practice (if I may be allowed a momentary nod toward my folklorist ancestor, Zora Neale Hurston).

(I should note here that Stefan Sinclair’s assignment to get us thinking about the theory behind good design was useful here, and Hugh Cayless was relentless, relentless I tell you, in reminding us that TEI was built to let theory get embedded in its documents.)

Much of this returns, for me, to a series of late night conversations I had with my mentor Henry Glassie, as we poured over a number of ethnographic documents like J. M. Synge’s _The Aran Islands_ or James Agee’s _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_ and we talked about ways to embed our theories, folklore theories, into prose that otherwise looked novelistic to readers. All the theoretical concerns would be displaced, as they are in his masterwork _Passing the Time in Ballymenone_ into notes tucked in the back of the book. I have tried to do much the same in my own book, _The Makers of Things_ (UPM, Spring 2014), and time will tell if I pulled it off, and I am very much looking forward to trying to do much the same thing with my next project in terms of the code I write and use, and share.

And now I know there’s an entire group of people to whom I can turn for help in getting it right, because it is exactly on their minds, too.

P.S. My apologies to everyone’s comments in my notes that got anonymized: the conversation moved so fast, and my typing too slow, to catch anything more than what was said itself.

[Speaking in Code]:
[Scholar’s Lab]:

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