THATCamp Theory Bunnies

The discussions surrounding THATCamp Theory have been widespread and intriguing. Ted Underwood, for example, makes a very convincing case that the category of “theory” without a direct object is often used by academics to dominate and co-opt already existing conversations. I find this argument, and the one by Jean Bauer, extremely compelling. Bauer argues that DHers are already engaging with theory:

Just this week I was presenting The Early American Foreign Service Database and got the question “So where is the theory in all of this?” Before I could answer with my standard, diplomatic but hopefully though-provoking, response a longtime DHer called out “The database is the theory! This is real theoretical work!” I could have hugged her.

This understanding of theory, theory as embodied in the act of creation, is often overlooked by some of the critics of THATCamp and DH. But there were further interesting observations on Twitter.

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I can understand that there is some skepticism. On one level, the collaborative spirit of THATCamp seems designed specifically for thinkers (like me) who became increasingly disgruntled with the obsfucatory, meaningless, and endless “talking heads” conversations happening on University campuses. It’s a sensibility that is (to my mind) effectively satirized in Jeffrey Eugenedes’s novel The Marriage Plot.

Almost overnight it became laughable to read writers like Cheever or Updike, who wrote about the suburbia Madeline and most of her friends had grown up in, in favor of reading the Marquis de Sade, who wrote about anally deflowering virgins in eighteenth-century France. The reason de Sade was preferable was that his shocking sex scenes weren’t about sex but politics. They were therefore anti-imperialist, anti-bourgeois, anti-patriarchal, and anti-anything a smart young feminist should be against. Right up through her third year at college, Madeline kept wholesomely taking courses like Victorian Fantasy: from Phantasies to Waterbabies, but by senior year she could no longer ignore the contrast between the hard-up, blinky people in her Beowulf seminar and the hipsters down the hall reading Maurice Blanchot. Going to college in the moneymaking eighties lacked a certain radicalism. Semiotics was the first thing that smacked of revolution. It drew a line; it created an elect; it was sophisticated and Continental; it dealt with provocative subjects, with torture, sadism, hermaphrodism–with sex and power. (24)

Being “theoretical” or dealing with “theory” can sometimes be conflated with revolution, sex, and power without actually being any of those things. In fact, I’d say that an aggressive and political tone (in the revolutionary sense) can easily be read behind some of the recent posts calling for a transformation of the digital humanities.

The conversation between Miriam Posner and Natalia Cecire over the issue of exclusion left me with a positive feeling about both the benefit and the urgency of THATCamp Theory. And I apologize in advance for cutting out portions of the conversation for brevity’s sake.

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I think this back and forth about theory as a weapon versus theory as a bunny is precisely the conversation that needs to be happening. Is it possible to create an environment where theory is embraced in a collaborative and creative manner? Can library staff and developers not traditionally “trained” in theory but who nevertheless engage in political and cultural critique in their projects everyday teach devotees of Derrida and Foucault a thing or two about differance or disciplinary regimes? Could THATCamp Theory turn theoretical weapons into cute, fuzzy, hugging bunnies?

I sincerely hope so. THATCamp Theory could be a dismal failure. It could devolve into talking head conversations about theoretical blah blahs. But I think it would be best to consider THATCamp Theory an experiment and let the chips fall where they may. THATCamp is, itself, a continuing experiment. And if we stay true to the spirit that animates THATCamp: collaboration, egalitarian participation, and yes “hack before yack (meaning let’s do something together rather than trying to score theoretical points), then something truly unique and interesting might evolve out of all of this yacking.



  1. Maybe theory is a bunny, but a bunny so foul, so cruel that no man yet has fought with it and lived. Bones of full fifty men lie strewn about its lair. It awaits you all with nasty, big, pointy teeth and a vicious streak a mile wide! It’s got huge, sharp… er… He can leap about. Look at the bones!

    1. Schmidt’s post is good. I like his argument that anything that isn’t “theorized” is mere technique, but I wonder if digital tools shouldn’t also allow us to rethink what we do. It was a point nicely summarized by one of the Twitter responses that said that most of the discussion surrounding THATCamp Theory focused only on existing theories – rather than potential theories created by the use of digital tools.

  2. My theoretical training makes me deeply suspicious of the notion that we should be “doing” something rather than just “talking about it.” We need to talk about what we are doing. Theory–any theory–gives us a frame beyond our current practice for thinking through implications etc. But this is obvious.

    1. Anne,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I think the problem is that we’re used to yacking, but not so much hacking. Theory can, in itself, become an extremely insular discourse. Further, I think it’s important to identify who this “we” is. Are “we” talking about graduate students? adjuncts? alt-ac professionals? scholars? developers? I think it’s highly problematic if people think that dh is a faculty/scholar centered discourse, rather than understanding the complex academic (and non-academic) infrastructure that allows dh to exist.

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