Is There A Time And Place For Theory?

Today in the humanities there is a profound emphasis (reliance?) on false dichotomies, one of which I would like to contextualize with a degree of specificity as it pertains to how I think about my voice as a student. This binary plays multiple roles within its corresponding fields and it is the focal point of copious amounts of heated debate– because, really, it is “the big one” as far as large field-scale binaries go.

Keep Right

This is the making/interpreting binary– which for all intents and purposes, can be taken as all but synonymous with the practice/theory binary.

In a blog post from 2010, Tom Scheinfeldt [Director of Digital Humanities, UConn.] notes that one thing people seem to continually notice after working in the digital humanities for an extended period of time, is that people for the most part tend to get along well. With little paraphrase, he writes, ‘working in DH is “nice”.’ Scheinfeldt attributes this to a privileging of methodology over theoretical interpretation and critique within the present iteration of the field. This emphasis on method (on doing things instead of thinking through them), in other words, makes it so that people can stop bickering over concepts and their interpretations and get back to whatever it was they were doing in the first place. And, as it is important to note, the subtext behind this is: whatever it was they were doing in the first place is inherently political and in-line with the presumed common causes of the humanities writ large. (Note that the inclinations of the humanities writ large are also implicated in his argument.)

I want to follow this line of thought, because it illustrates something I think is important to the humanities, and especially, to academic politics in the humanities.

Earlier, in 2008, Scheinfeldt wrote another post where he briefly traces what he views as a dialectical process of 1.) eras knowledge organization and 2.) eras of conceptual thought-work. Scheinfeldt recounts the history of the history of science as a field ( his field of interest) during the late 19th and early 20th century. During this time period historical scholarship was focused on amassing bibliographically focused works of impressive scale. After this, the students of the people who composed these works started writing their own interesting arguments by making use of the texts created by the previous generation of historians. Scheinfeldt’s resultant hypothesis is that scholastic discourse in the humanities moves through periods of organization–>theory–>organization–>theory…. and so forth. He argues that with the present explosion of interests in the digital humanities and a corresponding explosion of raw technological computing power, that we are about to witness another period of knowledge organization. In other words theory isn’t important. Not right now. It can wait. First we need to commit all of this stuff to memory.

Let me be clear. I am, monumentally, opposed to this argument.

First, as Jamie Bianco [Ass.Prof. Media Studies, NYU] has questioned (and with direct citation to Scheinfeldt’s post), why should an emphasis on methods make us nicer to each other? It does not follow that given how debates over methodology are more easily resolved than debates over theory that we are nicer to each other in the humanities. As Bianco notes, resolved debates over method do not change the fact that such debates and their resolutions could in fact be pointing to uneven power relations within the field (or more likely not pointing to those same power relations.) In other words, disagreement and conflict in the field are moments where the field actually moves– they are not intrinsically bad, and in point of fact, they serve to make things visible so that change can happen.


There is a lot of talk in the digital humanities about “openness”, “collaboration”, and “inclusiveness”– but without a critical elaboration of what those things are and what they look like, they sound a lot like buzzwords to me. To cite from Bianco again:”It’s been a long time since I’ve quoted a feminist like a sledgehammer, but something about the new, posttheoretical humanities, the digital humanities, smells a bit like its self- (and other-) enlightened, progress-driven, classifying, rationalizing, and disciplining (grand)father….. This is not a rant against the machine or the tool. This is a rant against the resurgence of an old humanist theme, ‘Man and His Tool(s).’

In other words, to Bianco, and to me, this progressivist humanities rhetoric sounds a lot like classical white neoliberalism patting itself on the back for how forward thinking it thinks it is.

Furthermore, the argument that theory can wait (from Scheinfeldt’s 2008 post) is but one among several– what have since become so commong that they have crystallized into, three classical arguments against theory (as Gary Hall [Prof. Media Performing Arts, Coventry UK] notes in one of his own blog posts 2011.) All three of which posit a relationship between theory and time for the purposes of discounting theory.

These are:

1.) The time for theory is over; we live in a post-theoretical moment.

2.) The time for theory is over (again); now is the time for methodology (the Scheinfeldt argument)

3.) It is not the time to return to theory yet. The field (digital humanities, medical sciences, physics, geography, whatever….) needs time to develop into what it can become. This needs to happen before critical theory can change or interrupt potentially important work. (Also, Scheinfeldt’s argument to a degree.)

The effect of all of these arguments on theory (especially critical theory) is essentially: “Keep your politics to yourself. This is not the time or place for them.” <– And this? This is truly a dangerous argument, especially given that it is grounded in a field that is supposed to be preeminently concerned with people’s well being.



4 thoughts on “Is There A Time And Place For Theory?

  1. It’s fascinating to think of this kind of appeal to methodology as just a cheap way of trying to distance one’s work from the necessary messiness of politics. You’re right, the idea that we’re just SO invested in methodology that we’d need to avoid reflexivity and ideological clarity is terrifying. I’m intrigued that you say the field is “supposed to be preeminently concerned with people’s well-being.” I don’t disagree, but I wonder how common that core principle really is?


  2. You get right to the point with the false dichotomies (interpreting/making). From where do these arise? It’s rather impossible, isn’t it, not to “make” without some element of interpreting.


  3. I wonder about your conclusion: The effect of all of these arguments on theory (especially critical theory) is essentially: “Keep your politics to yourself.” in that one of the splits between theory/practice is often that “theory” is apolitical, in that it is not doing change in the real world…


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