Deformed Humanities: Analysis or Simply Recreation?

Mark Sample describes the “deformed humanities” as the process of drawing new systems of analysis from a work through the act of its deconstruction. Rather than referring back to the original work in its analysis (as Sample claims that “deformative humanities” do), the “deformed humanities” leave the original work behind, relishing in the new interpretations inferred in the destructed work. Sample claims that “the deformed work is the end, not the means to the end.” Using Sample’s own example, rather than striving to piece humpty dumpty together, “deformed humanities” leave the broken egg how he is: oozing, cracked, yellow, white, and probably smelly. This is the new analysis; this is the new work.

There are a few questions I have about his implications about the newly formed “deformed humanities.” While I do think it could be a constructive way to create new art, I question whether it can be a reliable form of analysis.

Firstly, it seems inaccurate to call the practice of creating new work from the deformation of a work of literature or art humanist analysis. In my limited understanding of humanities practices, the humanities as a discipline strive to find patterns of meaning in cultural and artistic productions, thus attempting to explain our human world and the individual cultures that inhabit it. This reconciliation of the arts with significant meaning is the fight of the humanist. Therefore, it seems critical to me that the work of a humanist must lie in analysis, not in artistic production. While the creations formed in the “deformed humanities” may communicate interesting themes, the purpose of the product does not lie in interpretation. Thus, the new practice of “deformed humanities” does not fit in my narrow definition of the humanities discipline.

Secondly, the odds of finding significant meaning in the deconstructed seems unlikely. In Sample’s example of one of his own deconstructed works of analysis, “Hacking the Academy,” he switched out every noun in a group of essays entitled “Hacking the Academy” with the word found seven nouns later in the dictionary. As Sample admits himself, ” the result of n+7 would seem absolutely nonsensical…” and in most cases, due to the random method of deconstruction, the results would be nonsensical. In his example, however, his random algorithm produced interesting phrases and juxtapositions where hidden meaning seems almost perfectly placed. While his practice of “deformed humanities” proved successful, deformation may not always produce such interesting results.

Although I am unsure the deformed humanities classify as a branch of the humanities, and the chance of finding significant meaning in the result of deformed humanist research seems slim, I still understand the value of a deconstructive approach. Perhaps the beauty of the study is that the results are random, the creation is strange and new, and the practice seems to break the boundaries of academic acceptance.


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  1. Susannah Kearon

    I think I agree that this idea of “deformed humanities” is great in the process of creating new works, but not the best for analysis. I suppose if we stick with Stephen Ramsay’s idea that building is what is significant in the digital humanities, then this fits into that definition. However, when we include analysis in the definition of digital humanities, the deformed idea doesn’t work as well.

  2. I really appreciate your definition of what it means to do humanities work, Allison. There’s a tension between the idea of making and the idea of analyzing, and people in the humanities tend to be a bit more comfortable with the latter than with the former. Indeed, you could say that the former is the domain of artists/creators, and the humanists (or at least the people in humanities majors and departments) just want to find interesting things to say about the objects they create.

    At the same time, Sample is clearly riffing on “DH” as either digital or deformed humanities, and he wants to equate the two. What do you think? Is the work that we have done to this point deformative?

  3. I love pushing humpty dumpty off the wall – to speak metaphorically. I find deformation, pulling apart, examining the pieces and so on to fun and engaging, but cleaning up my mess is ingrained in me. I can’t help but examine, because otherwise, it feels like what is the point?
    I appreciate that you value the deconstructive approach, even if you don’t quite understand it. I’m going to follow your lead.

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