Scholarly Lies and the Deformative Humanities

imageI recently described a new mode of scholarship that I called the deformed humanities. The idea is simple: take apart the world, deform it, and make something new. Or, as Donna Lanclos summarized the deformed humanities in a tweet: “Break things, leave them broken, learn stuff.”

As an example of the deformed humanities I offered up my work Hacking the Accident. But what would the deformed humanities look like in other fields? It’s one thing to imagine a scholar who already studies fiction creatively destroying existing texts. But it’s quite another to imagine a scholar who owes a certain debt to facts working in the deformed humanities.

A course taught by my George Mason colleague Mills Kelly provides an illustrative case of the deformed humanities in the field of history. Mills’ class “Lying about the Past” explores the social role of hoaxes throughout history—the Piltdown man, Hitler’s diary, and so on. For the class’s final project, students design their own hoaxes and then unleash them upon an unsuspecting public. In 2008 students created a hoax about Edward Owens, the so-called last American pirate. Students created a Wikipedia page with false sources, a blog detailing a fictional student’s discovery of the last American pirate—which the class backdated to make it look like the blog had been written over a four-month period, and other faked primary and secondary sources. When Mills revealed the hoax at the end of the semester (and students copped to it on Wikipedia), his IP address was banned from Wikipedia and the page was marked for deletion.

Mills faced a barrage of criticism in 2008 for having his student “lie” about the past. With the most recent version of the class just finishing up, Mills has come under fire once again. As Mills notes, he’s been receiving a flood of hate email. He’s being called everything from irresponsible to “sociopathic pond scum.”

There’s no need for me to defend the ethics of creating a hoax as a class project—Mills himself has persuasively made that case. All I want to say is that this is an example of the deformed humanities. And with a purpose too. Mills has described his pedagogical intent using a riddle1:

[quote style=1]Q: What happens when you teach students how to lie?
A: They learn how to be historians.[/quote]

Call him a cynic, but Mills is dead on. History is comprised of lies. And if not outright falsehoods, then half-truths, exaggerations, and omissions.

The Deformative is Political

When I first began to think of creative and critical work in terms of the deformed humanities I hadn’t focused on the political dimensions of the concept—aside from self-consciously reclaiming a potentially troubled term, deformity. But I’ve quickly come to believe that the deformed humanities is a political humanities, a politicized humanities.

As a number of scholars and public intellectuals have noted, the humanities are under attack. One particularly cogent response to the attacks comes from then-American Historical Association president Anthony Grafton. Writing in the January 2011 issue of Perspectives on History, Grafton argued that perhaps the most vital argument one can make in favor of the humanities is “the argument that scholarship matters.” Historians and other humanists model “honest, first-hand inquiry” and an “austere, principled quest for knowledge.” Such clear-headed and rational scholarship, Grafton believes, is especially needed to combat the misrepresentations of the past and present that pervade our mediated world.

Mills’ example—and the deformed humanities—suggests that while Grafton goal’s is noble, it is the wrong approach. Or at least not the only approach. Why fight lies with the truth when you can fight them with other lies? Lies that reveal the truth. Scholarship ought to be rooted in knowledge, not necessarily facts.

Looking beyond a few undergraduate hoaxes, such a strategy—outlying the liars—is a particularly potent response to attacks on the humanities. It’s one, however, that Progressives are likely to avoid.

One of the unfortunate lasting legacies of the Bush era is that Progressives automatically discount anyone who strays too far from objective perspectives or evidentiary reasoning. In the face of Bush’s dismissal of the “reality-based community,” Progressives have enshrouded themselves in facts and statistics and studies. This is what Grafton argues for as well. And it’s exactly the wrong way to fight narrow-minded, unjust, subjective and self-serving beliefs. Fight truthiness with truthiness, something Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert long ago figured out, but which the humanities have forgotten.

Truth is not relative, but it is overrated.

[“Lies image courtesy of Flickr user Simon Law. Creative Commons Licensed.]

  1. Quoted with permission from Kelly, T. Mills. “True Facts or False Facts—Which Are More Authentic?” Playing with Technology in History. Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada, 2010.

5 thoughts on “Scholarly Lies and the Deformative Humanities

  1. Nice piece – I do think you’re onto something here as a broader category of scholarly deformations. I don’t know if you’re looking to inventory such models, but I’d point you toward my Middlebury colleague Christian Keathley, who makes video essays as film scholarship, but purposely avoids engaging in the “explanatory mode.” Instead he creates explicitly poetic videos that still have “a knowledge effect” – three of his pieces are on Vimeo, with “Pass the Salt” as maybe the best example of a deformation.

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