I 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 riddle[note]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.[/note]:
Q: What happens when you teach students how to lie? A: They learn how to be historians.
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.]
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.