Modern languages and the digital: towards ‘Digital Cultural Histories’

[This post was originally published in the Language Acts and Worldmaking blog]

Last June I had the pleasure to give a talk at the workshop Mapping Multilingualism and Digital Culture organised by Paul Spence and Renata Brandao at King’s College, London. It was a great opportunity to discuss how the discipline of Modern Languages has been affected by the digital revolution in terms of research and teaching methods and how, as ML-ers, we can enhance our understanding of digital culture. The variety of methodological and critical approaches used to address these questions during the workshop proved that ‘Modern Languages and the Digital’ is a constantly developing and ill-defined field. In its early days, it was mainly interpreted as the application of digital tools to non-digital texts – what we tend to identify as the first wave of ‘digital humanities’. However, it has become increasingly important to expand this interpretation and, especially for those who work in contemporary culture, to understand the ‘digital’ as an object of study (see Digital Culture and Re-thinking Modern Languages). This includes how digital technologies have impacted on the arts and on what we used to call the ‘cultural industry’. In other words, how have digital technologies revolutionised our notion of ‘culture’ in Modern Languages? Can we talk of national ‘digital cultures’ in our transnational, multicultural ‘global village’?

These are some of the questions I am addressing in the AHRC-funded project Interdisciplinary Italy 1900-2020: interart/intermedia, run by Prof Giuliana Pieri (RHUL), Dr Clodagh Brook (Trinity College, Dublin), Dr Florian Mussgnug (UCL). In the arts, the impact of digital technologies can be identified in at least four areas: 1) Creation: art forms, practices and genres developed at the intersection between the arts and digital technologies; 2) Distribution: digital forms of consumption and dissemination of artistic products (digital and non-digital); 3) Criticism: digital forms of critical interaction on blogs and social networks; 4) Digital Humanities: application of digital methods to research and teaching. These phenomena do not only regard literary texts,  which underpin the philological tradition in Modern Languages, but the entire artistic spectrum, including cinema, theatre, music, visual arts and hybrid genres such as video art, multimedia performances, hypertexts. While digital distribution, digital criticism and digital humanities have become more popular in the post-Internet society connected through computer networks, mobile technologies and other wireless Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), early artistic forms of experimentation with computers date back to the avant-garde practices of the 1960s.

Implicit in the questions above is thus the need to define what we mean by ‘digital’ in our discipline. The term has in fact been retrospectively used to look at how certain ‘new’ genres, such as digital poetry, have evolved from the first generation of computers to our days (for example, in Chris Funkhouser’s Prehistoric Digital Poetry. An Archeology of Forms, 1959-1995, 2007). When we explore the impact of digital technologies on the arts, should we thus consider the full period that spans from the cybernetic era of the first mechanical or electromechanical devices (‘first generation’ of computer technologies) to new media? Or should we focus on the so-called ‘digital revolution’, including the ‘whole panoply of virtual simulacra, instantaneous communication, ubiquitous media and global connectivity’ (Gere 2009: 15), and looking at the Internet history in terms of Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Web 3.0 and beyond?

If we look at the evolution of the relationship between computer technologies, society and the arts from its early days what emerges is a variety of ‘digital cultural histories’ that are very much influenced by the specific cultural and political contexts of each country, as well as been somehow defined by the language-specificity. As Gilles Deleuze argued, ‘the machine is always social before it is technical. There is always a social machine which selects or assigns the technical elements used’ (Deleuze and Parnet 1977: 126-7). Avant-garde practices, in particular, are an excellent example of the interplay between national and international influences that inform ‘digital cultures’. In spite of its global dimension, the relationship between digital technologies and the arts is informed by the local background in which it has developed, going well beyond the Anglophone world that is commonly associated with the World Wide Web culture.

 [Feature image: Gianni Toti, Incatenata alla pellicola, 1983]

Further reading:

*   Charlie Gere, Digital Culture, London: Reaktion Books, 2009

*   Gilles Deleuze, Claire Parnet, Dialogues, Paris: Flammarion, 1977

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