'Filosofía pirata, edición libre', discussion with Perro Tuerto y Pucho (El Rancho Electrónico) y Gabriela Méndez Cota (Universidad Iberoamericana) for the Mexico city radio station Ibero, September 12, 2019.

Open Humanities Press – The Inhumanist Manifesto

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Masked Media (limited edition paper-only publication for The House That Heals The Soul exhibition, Tetley, Leeds, 2018) 

 The Inhumanist Manifesto: Extended Play (Techne Lab, 2017)

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« The open scholarship full disclosure initiative: a subversive proposal | Main | On the limits of openness V: there are no digital humanities »

On the limits of openness VI: has critical theory run out of time for data-driven scholarship?

Something that is particularly noticeable about many instances of this turn to data-driven scholarship - especially after decades when the humanities have been heavily marked by a variety of critical theories: Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, post-colonialism, post-Marxism - is just how difficult they find it to understand computing and the digital as anything more than tools and techniques, and thus how naive and lacking in meaningful critique they often are (Higgen).  Of course, this (at times explicit) repudiation of criticality could be viewed as part of what makes certain aspects of the digital humanities so intriguing at the moment. Exponents of the computational turn are precisely not making what I have elsewhere characterised as the anti-political gesture of conforming to accepted (and frequently moralistic) conceptions of politics that have been decided in advance, including those which see it only in terms of power, ideology, race, gender, class, sexuality, ecology, affect and so forth. They are responding to what is perceived as a fundamentally new cultural situation, and the challenge it represents to our traditional methods of studying culture, by avoiding such conventional gestures, and experimenting with the development of fresh methods and approaches for the humanities instead.

In a series of posts on his Found History blog, Tom Scheinfeldt, Managing Director at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, positions such scholarship very much in terms of a shift from a concern with theory and ideology to a concern with methodology:

I believe... we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work... as a digital historian, I traffic much less in new theories than in new methods. The new technology of the Internet has shifted the work of a rapidly growing number of scholars away from thinking big thoughts to forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work which will enable us to harness the still unwieldy, but obviously game-changing, information technologies now sitting on our desktops and in our pockets.

In this respect there may well be a degree of ‘relief in having escaped the culture wars of the 1980s’ - for those in the US especially - as a result of this move ‘into the space of methodological work’ (Croxall) and what Scheinfeldt reportedly dubs ‘the post-theoretical age’.  The problem is, without such reflexive critical thinking and theories many of those whose work forms part of this computational turn find it difficult to articulate exactly what the point of what they are doing is, as Scheinfeldt readily acknowledges.

Witness one of the projects I mentioned earlier: the attempt by Dan Cohen and Fred Gibb to text-mine all the books published in English in the Victorian age (or at least those digitized by Google).   Among other things, this allows Cohen and Gibb to show that use of the word ‘revolution’ in book titles of the period spiked around ‘the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848’. But what argument is it that they are trying to make with this? What is it we are able to learn as a result of this use of computational power on their part that we didn’t know already and couldn’t have discovered without it? 

Elsewhere, in a response to Cohen and Gibb’s project, Scheinfeldt suggests that the problem of theory, or the lack of it, may actually be a matter of scale and timing:

It expects something of the scale of humanities scholarship which I’m not sure is true anymore: that a single scholar—nay, every scholar—working alone will, over the course of his or her lifetime ... make a fundamental theoretical advance to the field.

Increasingly, this expectation is something peculiar to the humanities. required the work of a generation of mathematicians and observational astronomers, gainfully employed, to enable the eventual “discovery” of Neptune… Since the scientific revolution, most theoretical advances play out over generations, not single careers. We don’t expect all of our physics graduate students to make fundamental theoretical breakthroughs or claims about the nature of quantum mechanics, for example. There is just too much lab work to be done and data to analyzed for each person to be pointed at the end point. That work is valued for the incremental contribution to the generational research agenda that it is.

Yet notice how theory is again being marginalized in favour of an emphasis on  STM subjects, and the adoption of expectations and approaches associated with mathematicians and astronomers in particular.

This not to deny the importance of experimenting with the new kinds of knowledge, tools, methods, materials and modes of work and thinking digital media technologies create and make possible, in order to bring new forms of Foucauldian dispositifs, what Bernard Steigler calls hypomnémata (i.e. mnemonics, what Plato referred to as pharmaka, both poisons and cures), or what I am trying to think here in terms of media gifts, into play.  And I would potentially include in this process of experimentation techniques and methodologies drawn from computer science and other related fields such as information visualisation, data mining and so forth. Yes, of course, it is quite possible that in the future ‘people will use this data in ways we can’t even imagine yet’, both singularly and collaboratively (Stowell).  Still, there is something intriguing about the way in which many defenders of the turn toward computational tools and methods in the humanities evoke a sense of time in relation to theory.

Take the argument that critical and self-reflexive theoretical questions about the use of digital tools and data-led methodologies should be deferred for the time being, lest they have the effect of strangling at birth what could turn out to be a very different form of humanities research before it has had a chance to properly develop and take shape. Viewed in isolation, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to decide whether this particular form of ‘limitless' postponement is serving as an alibi for a naive and rather superficial  form of scholarship; or whether it is indeed acting as a responsible, political or ethical opening to the (difference, heterogeneity and incalculability of the) future, including the future of the humanities. After all, the suggestion is that now is ‘not the right time’ to be making any such decision or judgement, since we cannot ‘yet’ know how humanists will ‘eventually’ come to use these tools and data, and thus what data-driven scholarship may or may not turn out to be capable of, critically, politically, theoretically.

This argument would be more convincing as a responsible, political or ethical call to leave the question of the use of digital tools and data-led methodologies in the humanities open if it were the only sense in which time was evoked in relation to theory in this context. Significantly, however, it is not. Advocates for the computational turn do so in a number of other and often competing senses too. These include:

a) that the time of theory is over, in the sense a particular historical period or moment has now ended (e.g. that of the culture wars of the 1980s);

b) that the time for theory is over, in the sense it is now the time for methodology;

c) and that the time to return to theory or for theory to (re-)emerge in some new, unpredictable form which represents a fundamental breakthrough or advance, although possibly on its way, has not arrived yet, and cannot necessarily be expected to do so for some time, given that ‘most theoretical advances play out over generations, not single careers’.

All of which puts a very different inflection on the view of theoretical critique as being at best inappropriate, and at worst harmful to data-driven scholarship. Even a brief glance at the history of theory’s reception in the English-speaking world reveals that those who announce that its time has not yet come, or is already over, that theory is in decline or even dead, and that we now live in a post-theoretical era, are merely endeavouring to keep it at a (temporal) distance. Rather than having to ask rigorous, critical and self-reflexive questions about their own practices and their justifications for them, those who position their work as being either pre- or post-theory are almost invariably doing so because it allows them to continue with their own preferred techniques and methodologies for study culture relatively uncontested. Placed in this wider context, far from helping to keep the question concerning the use of digital tools and data-led methodologies in the humanities open (or having anything particularly interesting to say about theory), the rejection of critical-intellectual ideas as untimely can be seen as moralizing and conservative.

In saying this I am reiterating an argument made by Wendy Brown in the sphere of political theory. Yet can a similar case not be made with regard to the computational turn in the humanities, to the effect that the ‘rebuff of critical theory as untimely provides the core matter for the affirmative case for it’? Theory is vital from this point of view, not for conforming to accepted conceptions of political critique which see it primarily in terms of power, ideology, race, gender, class, sexuality, ecology, affect and so forth, or for sustaining conventional methods of studying culture that may no longer be appropriate to the networked nature of 21st century post-industrial society. Theory is vital ‘to contest the very sense of time invoked to declare critique untimely’:

If the charge of untimeliness inevitably also fixes time, then disrupting this fixity is crucial to keeping the times from closing in on us. It is a way of reclaiming the present from the conservative hold on it that is borne by the charge of untimeliness.

To insist on the value of untimely political critique is not, then, to refuse the problem of time and timing in politics but rather to contest settled accounts of what time is, what the times are, and what political tempo and temporality we should hew to in political life. 

(Wendy Brown, Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005) p.4)

Reader Comments (5)

Hi, everybody there! You are absolutely right, we definitely need new methods of studying culture, because the modern world develops fast and new technologies appear. I think that new approach will help us to receive more thorough understanding of what is going on in the modern scientific world.

May 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterpdf viewer

Hi Gary,

I enjoyed your musings on Digital Humanities, which were linked to from the Humanist listserv.

Let me make a semi-response that relates to new media publishing projects such as Mapping Gothic France ( or the Virtual Paul's Cross Project (, both collaborations between scholars and many sophisticated technologists.

Delivering content in new and relevant ways is not solely the purview of scholars, and they are only one part of the developer process. Is offering new interpretations, new research, always necessary or even desirable?

What about using (relatively) new media platforms to convert and consolidate already established research and deliver it to interested parties in a different way then ever possible before?

Through the simple act of allowing people to view scholarship in a new way (often layered in a manner previously impossible or unwieldy), new ways of scholarly thinking about the humanities will organically develop.

"The problem is, without such reflexive critical thinking and theories many of those whose work forms part of this computational turn find it difficult to articulate exactly what the point of what they are doing is, as Scheinfeldt readily acknowledges. "

Of course he acknowledges it, he too is a PhD scholar/writer (I'm sure this is a poor description of Scheinfeldt, but you get the idea). Through implementation comes familiarity and understanding, and the scholar is likely to be less technically sophisticated then the implementers working for him. Do they not have an intellectual contribution?

The "deliverables" side of digital humanities is all about simultaneous delivery of the materials discussed and the individual scholar's discussion, thus rendering the scholar's work mere commentary and opinion on the thing itself.

Just asking loaded questions, obviously from a technologist/librarian perspective rather than that of a humanities-focused scholar/writer.

Andrew Taylor, MLS
Houston, TX

February 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Taylor

My apologies for writing again, Gary, but I shouldn't have written "thus rendering the scholar's work mere commentary and opinion on the thing itself." Catchy rhetoric, just wrong.

The Humanities scholar is and should be to person making most of the decisions on what is worth publishing/producing in the Digital Humanities project, even though the production itself requires input from non-scholarly professionals.

The scholar's perspective is what directs a Digital Humanities project, and the scholar's written content clarifies that perspective for readers.

the scholar's audience is the wider community, while the technologist's client is the scholar/writer. The technologist most likely does not have the scholarly experience necessary to decide what is relevant idea-wise, nor does he/she need to (not their job).
Sorry for my long-windedness - Andrew

February 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Taylor

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for your comments. I think I understand where you're coming from... although I do find it hard to discuss these things in the abstract, so my apologies if I've got anything wrong or have ended up talking past you, as it were.

To be honest with you, I really wouldn't feel comfortable about putting non-scholarly professionals in a subordinate position, or about adopting the language of client/service provider. To offer an example, although he does publish from time to time in academic books and journals, one of the people I direct Open Humanities Press with is not an academic by profession. And his contribution, in deciding what we should be doing/producing/publishing/communicating to a wider audience, is at least as important as that of any of us who are currently employed as scholars, if not more so.

As for the scholar's written content clarifying the direction a Digital Humanities project takes, one of the reasons Culture Machine has started its sister project, Photomediations Machine (, is to interrogate this idea. For example, at the moment it is difficult to think of a major continental philosopher who does much more than write paper-centric books, book chapters and journal articles. So with Photomediations Machine we want to explore what forms the kind of theory and philosophy we are interested in can take if they are thought and performed *with* digital media, including cameras and smartphones. Can we have a 'journal' that is as rigorous as one produced by scholars using writing, yet that takes the photographic image (both moving and still) as its dominant medium?

February 12, 2014 | Registered CommenterGary Hall

Off to, sounds totally cool, and thanks for your generous response.
Best wishes, Andrew

February 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Taylor

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