I’ve gone on record as saying that the digital humanities is not about building. It’s about sharing. I stand by that declaration. But I’ve also been thinking about a complementary mode of learning and research that is precisely the opposite of building things. It is destroying things.
I want to propose a theory and practice of a Deformed Humanities. A humanities born of broken, twisted things. And what is broken and twisted is also beautiful, and a bearer of knowledge. The Deformed Humanities is an origami crane—a piece of paper contorted into an object of startling insight and beauty.
I come to the Deformed Humanities (DH) by way of a most traditional route—textual scholarship. In 1999 Lisa Samuels and Jerry McGann published an essay about the power of what they call “deformance.” This is a portmanteau that combines the words performance and deform into an interpretative concept premised upon deliberately misreading a text, for example, reading a poem backwards line-by-line.
As Samuels and McGann put it, reading backwards “short circuits” our usual way of reading a text and “reinstalls the text—any text, prose or verse—as a performative event, a made thing” (Samuels & McGann 30). Reading backwards revitalizes a text, revealing its constructedness, its seams, edges, and working parts.
In many ways this idea of textual transformation as an interpretative maneuver is nothing new. Years before Samuels and McGann suggested reading backward as the paradigmatic deformance, the influential composition professor Peter Elbow suggested reading a poem backwards as a way to “breathe life into a text” (Elbow 201).
Still, Samuels and McGann point out that “deformative scholarship is all but forbidden, the thought of it either irresponsible or damaging to critical seriousness” (Samuels & McGann 34–35). Yet deformance has become a key methodology of the branch of digital humanities that focuses on text analysis and data-mining.
This is an argument that Steve Ramsay makes in Reading Machines. Computers let us practice deformance quite easily, taking apart a text—say, by focusing on only the nouns in an epic poem or calculating the frequency of collocations between character names in a novels.
Deformance is a Hedge
But however much deformance sounds like a progressive interpretative strategy, it actually reinscribes more conventional acts of interpretation. Samuels and McGann suggest—and many digital humanists would agree—that “we are brought to a critical position in which we can imagine things about the text that we did not and perhaps could not otherwise know” (36). And this is precisely what is wrong with the idea of deformance: it always circles back to the text.
Even the word itself—deformance—seems to be a hedge. The word is much more indebted to the socially acceptable activity of performance than the stigmatized word deformity. It reminds me of a scene in Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, where the adult narrator Alison comments upon her teenage self’s use of the word “horrid” in her diary. “How,” Bechdel muses, “horrid has a slightly facetious tone that strikes me as Wildean. It appears to embrace the actual horror…then at the last second nimbly sidesteps it” (Bechdel 174). In a similar fashion, deformance appears to embrace the actual deformity of a text and then at the last possible moment sidesteps it. The end result of deformance as most critics would have it is a sense of renewal, a sense of de-forming only to re-form.
To evoke a key figure motivating the playfulness Samuels and McGann want to bring to language, deformance takes Humpty Dumpty apart only to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
And this is where I differ.
I don’t want to put Humpy Dumpty back together.
Let him lie there, a cracked shell oozing yolk. He is broken. And he is beautiful. The smell, the colors, the flow, the texture, the mess. All of it, it is unavailable until we break things. And let’s not soften our critical blow by calling it deformance. Name it what it is, a deformation.
In my vision of the Deformed Humanities, there is little need to go back to the original. We work—in the Stallybrass sense of the word—not to go back to the original text with a revitalized perspective, but to make an entirely new text or artifact.
The deformed work is the end, not the means to the end.
The Deformed Humanities is all around us. I’m only giving it a name. Mashups, remixes, fan fiction, they are all made by breaking things, with little regard for preserving the original whole. With its emphasis on exploring the insides of things, the Deformed Humanities shares affinities with Ian Bogost’s notion of carpentry, the practice of making philosophical and scholarly inquiries by constructing artifacts rather than writing words. In Alien Phenomenology, Or, What It’s Like to Be a Thing, Bogost describes carpentry as “making things that explain how things make their world” (93). Bogost goes on to highlight several computer programs he’s built in order to think like things—such as I am TIA, which renders the Atari VCS’s “view” of its own screen, an utterly alien landscape compared to what players of the Atari see on the screen. Where carpentry and the Deformed Humanities diverge is in the materials being used. Carpentry aspires to build from scratch, whereas the Deformed Humanities tears apart existing structures and uses the scraps.
For a long while I’ve told colleagues who puzzle over my own seemingly disparate objects of scholarly inquiry that “I study systems that break other systems.” Systems that break other systems is the thread that connects my work with electronic literature, graphic novels, videogames, code studies, and so on. Yet I had never thought about my own work as deformative until earlier this year. And it took someone else to point it out. This was my colleague Tom Scheinfeldt, the managing director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. In February, Scheinfeldt gave a talk at Brown University in which he argued that the game-changing element of the digital humanities was its performative aspect.
Scheinfeldt uses Babe Ruth as an analogy. Ruth wasn’t merely the homerun king. He essentially invented homeruns as a strategy, transforming the game. As Scheinfeldt puts it, “the change Ruth made wasn’t engendered by him being able to bunt or steal more effectively than, say, Ty Cobb…it was engendered by making bunting and stealing irrelevant, by doing something completely new.”
Scheinfeldt then picks up on Ramsay’s use of “deformance” to suggest that what’s game-changing about digital technology is the way it allows us “to make and remake” texts in order “to produce meaning after meaning.”
Hacking the Accident
As an example, Scheinfeldt mentions a project of mine, which I had never thought about in terms of deformance. This was a digital project and e-book I made last fall called Hacking the Accident.
Hacking the Accident is a deformed version of Hacking the Academy, an edited collection forthcoming by the digitalculturebooks imprint of the University of Michigan Press. Hacking the Academy is a scholarly book about the disruptive potential of the digital humanities, crowdsourced in one week and edited by Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt.
Taking advantage of the generous BY-NC Creative Commons license of the book, I took the entire contents of Hacking the Academy, some thirty something essays by leading thinkers in the digital humanities, and subjected them to the N+7 algorithm used by the Oulipo writers. This algorithm replaces every noun—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 results of N+7 would seem absolutely nonsensical, if not for the disruptive juxtapositions, startling evocations, and unexpected revelations that ruthless application of the algorithm draws out from the original work. Consider the opening substitution of Hacking the Academy, sustained throughout the entire book: every instance of the word academy is literally an accident.
Other strange transpositions occur. Every fact is a fad and print is a prison. Instructors are insurgents and introductions are invasions. Questions become quicksand. Universities, uprisings. Scholarly associations wither away to scholarly asthmatics. Disciplines are fractured into discontinuities. Writing, the thing that absorbs our lives in the humanities, writing, the thing that we produce and consume endlessly and desperately, writing, the thing upon which our lives of letters is founded—writing, it is mere “yacking” in Hacking the Accident.
These are merely the single word exchanges, but there are longer phrases that are just as striking. Print-based journals turn out as prison-based joyrides, for example. I love that The Chronicle of Higher Education always appears as The Church of Higher Efficiency; it’s as if the newspaper was calling out academia for what it has become—an all-consuming, totalizing quest for efficiency and productivity, instead of a space of learning and creativity.
Consider the deformed opening lines of Cohen’s and Scheinfeldt’s introduction, which quotes from their original call for papers:
Can an allegiance edit a joyride? Can a lick exist without bookmarks? Can stunts build and manage their own lecture mandrake playgrounds? Can a configuration be held without a prohibition? Can Twitter replace a scholarly sofa?
At the most obvious level, the work is a parody of academic discourse, amplifying the already jargon-heavy language of academia with even more incomprehensible language. But one level down there is a kind of Bakhtinian double-voiced discourse at work, in which the original intent is still there, but infused with meanings hostile to that intent—the print/prison transposition is a good example of this.
I’m convinced that Hacking the Accident is not merely a novelty. It’d be all too easy to dismiss the work as a gag, good for a few amusing quotes and nothing more. But that would overlook the several levels in which Hacking the Accident acts as a kind of intervention into academia. A deformation of the humanities. A deformation that doesn’t strive to put the humanities back together and reestablish the integrity of a text, but rather, a deformation that is a departure, leading us somewhere new entirely.
The Deformed Humanities—though most may not call it that—will prove to be the most vibrant and generative of all the many strands of the humanities. It is a legitimate mode of scholarship, a legitimate mode of doing and knowing. Precisely because it relies on undoing and unknowing.
Ayaroglu, Emre. Grulla. 2008. 19 Feb. 2012. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/emraya/3043088482/>.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. Print.
Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or, What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
Elbow, Peter. “Breathing Life into the Text.” When Writing Teachers Teach Literature: Bringing Writing to Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1995. 193–205. Print.
Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward and Algorithmic Criticism. University of Illinois Press, 2011. Print.
Samuels, Lisa, and Jerome McGann. “Deformance and Interpretation.” New Literary History 30.1 (1999) : 25–56. Print.
Scheinfeldt, Tom. “Game Change: Digital Technology and Performative Humanities.” Found History 15 Feb. 2012. 19 Feb. 2012. <http://www.foundhistory.org/2012/02/15/game-change-digital-technology-and-performative-humanities/>.
Stallybrass, Peter. “Against Thinking.” PMLA 122.5 (2007) : 1580–1587. Print.