On Theory and Blowing Open the Doors

As far as I can tell, we need to have prior beliefs about the ways the world is structured, and only ever use digital methods to try to create works which let us watch those things in operation. Some, I’m sure, would want to scream ‘confirmation bias!’ at this–but the wonderful thing about the humanities is that they have always allowed scholars to work from problem to evidence, not vice-versa.

The digital humanities is perfectly poised at the moment to optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices; or it might also try to take up what Adorno called the only responsible philosophy: to reveal the cracks and fissures of the world in all its contradictions with otherwordly light. That’s the demand placed on DH by theory, and it needs to come first: all else is mere technique. -Benjamin Schmidt, Theory First.

The beauty of the humanities is that they allow for a reversal of the scientific method, which as Benjamin Schmidt pioints out, can lead to charges of “confirmation bias,” which is only really a concern if “objectivity” was what you were shooting for in the first place. In reality, humanists are in a luxury position of being able to create and analyze texts in the same motion, and work best to examine all of the human underpinnings of them. I think this creates a large problem for humanist librarians, espcially as we try and operate in the field now called “library science.” It’s got an attractive ring to it, that we  are social scientists exploring the reality of libraries. In all honesty, this is a fine way to explore the realities around us, but it does very little good when it comes to the things we do as practitioners, which is make something new. Architects, journalists, artists, musicians, writers, designers, etc., all do this without the compulsion to call themselves scientists. They start with a theory or idea of how things ought to go, and then they make it happen. There’s a vision that is called into being and they create the evidence for it. Anything less than that, while good, is an exhibit of technique. Schmidt callson the eternal snob, Adorno, to make the point.

It is now librarianship’s time to join the humanities again. It is time to look at the cracks. The theory that this is a science is troublesome because we are beginning to ” optimistically and beautifully affirm the world through all of history as it is now, full of progress and decentralized self-organizing networks and rational actors making free choices,” which if you have taken a quick glance at the news, has not been working out as well as we’d like to pretend. If you’re inclined read Chis Lehman’s scathing Rich People Things . Librarians ought to be looking at theories which expose the cracks and faults of the world as it is.

Here’s an example: I believe that students ought to be taught to create openly while they explore their choosen academic fields. There is no reason to cheapen this and call it “play,” which can also be highly structured. I’m basing this on critical theory a la Paulo Friere. You can see examples of it in Critical Library Instruction, where learing starts from the student’s perspective and you go from there. It’s the exact opposite of this:

I could not help but to think of Bloom’s Taxonomy as a model for this transition. In fact, progression through the program is similar to ascending the various levels, steps, or stages. They are learning the language, behaviors, and knowledge base of their discipline. They are expanding their exposure and proficiency which leads to the goal of contributing something new. – Brian Matthews, “What It Takes to Become a Scholar

The theory here is based on a description of what already is: if you play by the rules, you will build up slowly through the accepted levels and will maybe succeed. What is essentially taught are the rules of the game, not an understanding of how to succeed on one’s own terms. Isn’t that what information literacy is supposed to be? A similar problem came up in a blog post that wandered it’s way through twitter:

  It’s about arguing and displaying the value (in both monetary and intrinsic terms) of libraries, librarians and citizen-centred knowledge.  When it comes to keeping, organising and disseminating information and knowledge, the key has always been evolution.  In this field we should always be wary of revolutionary theories – they always lead to loss of information, knowledge and culture. -Hugh Rundle, Evolution, The Death of Libraries and the End of History.

I’d like to emphasize the idea of “citizen-centered,” because it resonates with the idea at the heart of critical literacy, and it goes in with the evolution of thought that started as far back as Jaques Ranciere. There’s not much that is revolutionary with  these theories, they’ve evolved over time, and are part of the history of libraries. We’ve come a long way from chaining books to tables, or from being closed-stack, and began providing people with the means to put things together their own way. We need to build and explore library theory that reflects those interests, and not lock ourselves into the world as it is. That’s merely technique.