Digital Culture and the Humanities

In the humanities, a reflexive and often critical use of vocabulary has so far been one of its key features. With the rise of digital media and information systems, new technical forms of processing content have emerged. From the perspective of the humanities, this has given way to divergent interests and methodologies: On the one hand, developing digital tools for humanistic research allows one to look at content differently (e.g. distant reading). On the other hand, looking critically at technology in use allows one to deliver a cultural explanation of our by now ubiquitous digital techniques as demonstrated by software studies. The Critical Keywords for the Digital Humanities seek to complement those new approaches of the digital. For this, it takes up one of the humanities’ traditional approach anew: the use of words.

As the traditional concepts in the humanities find themselves undermined, this project insists on J.L. Austin’s proposition that words do things. This empowers us to initiate a dialogue within new informational contexts. It opens up a space for interventions to reshape inherited meanings and question appearances of authority. Using this space, the collection introduces, discusses and positions keywords located at the intersection of digitalization and the humanities with the aim to challenge our social realities. As a two year project situated at the Centre for Digital Cultures, the Critical Keywords for the Digital Humanities provides a snapshot of a certain time and context by exploring the keywords of our digital cultures.

The Task of a Keyword

The curatorial logic of this keyword collection is significantly different from encyclopaedic entries, dictionary descriptions, or lexical descriptions. Instead, each approach is open to lively discussions. A keyword does not claim to be exhaustive or self-contained, but provides a specific entry point into existing debates. A keyword, moreover, is not simply part of a specialized jargon or a buzzword reflecting some recent trends. One of the logics of this collection is to explore developments through history as well as everyday practice in order to shape the understandings of and engagements with digital cultures. Each contribution brings out inherent tensions, competing meanings and explores future directions. It provides a specific overview with the aim to guide new forms of investment, practice, and production. Keywords need to be contextualised and understood as they carry huge political potential. Under the rubric of “Digital Cultures” these keywords examine and perform three specific functions of rescuing, reusing and rearranging a word.

  1. RESCUE.  Some of the keywords have been over-used and reduced to rhetoric. Others have been overloaded with so much meaning that they collapse under the burden of expectations. As important landmarks in explaining the territories of digital cultures, they should be rescued from their populist usage by showing the contestations, negotiations, and meanings which are embedded in their usage.
  2. REUSE.  Keywords build on existing concepts and ideas, recycling them and rendering them new in their interaction with digital technologies. In this way, they affect some fundamental questions of our common life: being human, being social, and being political. A keywords’ meanings and associations  therefore needs to be examined to make apparent why we should make careful use of a word.
  3. REARRANGE.  We see the keywords as an opportunity through which relationships of labour, production, politics, sociality, culture and knowledge can be rearranged using the meditation of the digital. Keywords are a tool to build a different order than the existing.