Hacking THATCamp Theory

On her blog “Works Cited,” Natalie Cecire makes an interesting point regarding the undertheorized status of the digital humanities, and links that with the “more hack, less yack” philosophy of THATCamp.

I cannot agree with the distinction between theory* and practice that this [“more hack less yack”] sets up, nor the zero-sum logic that it implies (i.e. in order to do more you must speak less). […] We seem to have a tendency to think that the “humanities” part of DH is stable, that we sort of already have it squared away, while the tech skills are what we need to gain.

She suggests that “[i]t’s time for THATCamp Theory” which includes bootcamps based on “narrative, time, and surveillance,” and also “sessions that look at different mapping projects in light of critical theories of space or that consider the interstitiality of iPhone apps and Twitter in light of queer and feminist theorizations of time.”I agree with some of the points she makes in her article. Some THATCampers are anti-theory, looking instead for technological solutions to academic problems. But I truly find that most THATCamps are not like this; in fact I’ve gone to several theoretically informed sessions at THATCamp (including Michael Altman’s Messy DH, George Williams’s Diversity in DH, and Brian Campbell’s Psycho-Spiritual Impacts of Technology).

For me, what’s missing isn’t a theoretically informed meditation on DH and DH-tools. Rather, I feel that a THATCamp Theory could provide a needed forum for hacking theory itself. What do I mean by hacking theory? In Hacking the Academy, Tad Suiter gives a definition of hacking that deconstructs the theory/praxis binary. “From the earliest hackers working at large research universities on the first networks to anyone who deserves the term today,” Suiter argues, “a hacker is a person who looks at systematic knowledge structures and learns about them from making or doing.They teach themselves and one another because they are at the bleeding edge of knowledge about that system.”

Hacking is more an ethos than it is a directive to shut up. Discussions happen all the time in hacking, but those discussions are collaborative and positive, they are geared towards making something, something that, as Suiter describes “does something, and […] is innovative.” By positive, I don’t mean that everyone is happy and giddy. Discussion has a purpose, it is put into the service of creativity.

In fact, I believe the best theorists are – themselves – hackers. Gilles Deleuze, in particular, engages in a theoretical hacking that mirrors the ethos of THATCamp and Hacking the Academy. At the beginning of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze calls for viewing the history of philosophy as a collage or fiction, in which “[o]ne imagines a philosophically bearded Hegel, a philosophically clean-shaven Marx, in the same way as a moustached Mona Lisa” (xxi-xxii). In Negotiations, Deleuze describes his work as a form of “buggery” in which he “tak[es] an author from behind and giv[es] him something monstrous.” Deleuze sees his creations as monstrous because they result “from all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions” (6). Deleuze uses this technique in many of his best philosophical works, in which he refuses to interpret the philosophers of the past with reverence. Instead, he uses them to create new ideas.

Mark Sample’s recent project Hacking the Accident provides yet another model for hacking theory. He bases his technique on one used by Jean Lescure of the Oulipo group. Hacking the Accident “replaces every person, place, or thing in Hacking the Academy with the person, place, or thing—mostly things—that comes seven nouns later in the dictionary.” The result is a monstrous dislocation of the original text. For example, the bolded portion of Tad Suiter’s definition of hacking becomes “a hacker is a perversion who looks at systemic laboratory students and learns about them from malfunction or doing.”

If we apply the Oulipo n+7 technique to the a longer portion of the Deleuze quote from Negotiations (or what would now be titled Nephews, perhaps a book chronicling Deleuze’s technique of philosophical incest), we get:

I saw myself as taking an autobiography from behind and giving him a chimera that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous. It was important for it to be his own chimera, because the autobiography had to actually say all that I had him scallywagging. But the chimera was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted from all soundings of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emplacements that I really enjoyed.

In this longer quote, Deleuze’s word “child” becomes “chimera.” The familial father is morphed into Victor Frankenstein. Author is autobiography, hinting at the fictional nature of authorial identity. Saying is scallywagging: talking is creative theft. The Deleuze of Nephews is even more queer and perverted than the one interviewed in Negotations. Philosophical creativity of the kind he espouses is a theft from a family that is not safe or nuclear, but incestuous and monstrous.

Imagine sessions that focus on building monstrous theoretical children with technology. We could text-mine Derridean deconstruction for certain patterns of speech, then visualize and rewrite his works with dangerously safe charts and graphs. Bootcamps could introduce campers to theoretical figures and concepts by creating surrealist photomontages: where different and contradictory elements are spliced together. I feel that we shouldn’t use THATCamp to create yet another philosophical or theoretical meditation on technology; we get that enough from academic conferences and (especially) books. THATCamp Theory should turn the theoretical texts we know and love into alien sandboxes for technological and collaborative creativity.


  1. I might need some more clarification–your “the theoretical texts we know and love” sounds like Natalia’s “We seem to have a tendency to think that the “humanities” part of DH is stable, that we sort of already have it squared away.”

  2. Tim,

    Thanks for the comment! I probably need to be more clear in articulating that last sentence. For me the meaning of the sentence is in the tension between “the theoretical texts we know and love” and “alien sandboxes.” So, they aren’t “squared away” even if some of us think that they may be. That’s also why Deleuze and Sample are important to the conversation, as are the familial/incestuous/monstrous metaphors.

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