Odile Heynders

Odile Heynders on Digital Culture in 2018 & 2019

The Editors

Digitalization and digital culture are reshaping not only the world we live in, but also the social sciences and the humanities in particular. Diggit Magazine was curious about the impact of digital culture on academia. Now, at the end of the year, we at Diggit Magazine thought that we could use the traditional end-of-year question-format as a pretext to seduce researchers from all over the world and from many different sub-disciplines to reflect on this impact, and to look back and forward. 

Instead of the traditional end-of-year questions, we thus asked them about the impact of digital culture on their research practice and their field of research in general. Of course, we also asked them what they expect to happen in 2019. So, we reinvented the traditional end-of-year questions, reframing them within an academic, and more specifically, a digital culture studies perspective. 

In this interview, we ask Odile Heynders, Head of the Department of Culture Studies (Tilburg University), to reflect on the impact of digital culture on her field.


When did you notice that digitalization was substantially reshaping your research field?

The research field I am working in, cultural studies, literary and media studies, has developed in phases of 7-to-10-year periods. It saw the poststructuralist (or linguistic) turn in the 1980s, the affective turn (1990s), the material turn (2000s), and so on. Basically, these phases or turns stimulated a change in paradigmatic perspective: in the 1980s, the focus was on language and the dynamics of meaning, in the 1990s on emotion and bodily aspects of artists and recipients, and in the 2000s on matter and artefacts as such.  

Digitalization kicked in in my research field by affecting the data that was discussed and explored. In regard to literary texts: the first ‘digital' type of data were the hyperlink texts that appeared in the 1990s (see: Wired on hypertext). Hypertexts were basically textual links to other texts or to other parts of one text as a whole, the idea being that the linear reading of a text (from beginning to end) could be challenged. It was not the author but the reader who decided the sequence of the story and thus of the reading process. 

At the same time, it became clear that ‘conventional’ data, such as data on authorship (the performances of authors), started to spread rapidly online, in all sorts of televised material published on YouTube and other websites. In general, new and more data became available and had to be analyzed properly. A subsequent and quite spectacular development was the online archiving of data, for instance in the digital library DBNL that encompasses an extended library of Dutch literature (text sources, reviews, scientific articles), or the magnificent Gutenberg project that makes 57,000 books accessible and searchable.

New data collections led to other forms of conducting research, often combining qualitative and quantitative approaches

Subsequently, new data collections led to other forms of conducting research, often combining qualitative and quantitative approaches. Digital hermeneutics was born, implementing the use of digital tools and technologies to analyze huge databases on language, literature, and history. Franco Moretti’s distant reading project is a fascinating example: drawing on a database (such as the Chadwyck-Healey) of several thousand nineteenth-century novels, Moretti explored units smaller as well as larger than the text: from devices, themes, and tropes to styles, genres and world systems. In a way, digital analysis made the close reading of texts less necessary. The idea was that if you study the building you don’t have to read every individual brick. Moretti, for instance in his magnificent study on the Bourgeois (2013), focused on specific keywords, thereby exploring huge corpora. This development, of course, encourages the quantification of research, due to the enormous datafication that is now possible. Open databases and infrastructures in the humanities and social sciences such as CLARIAH and ODISSEI will certainly instigate new interdisciplinary research projects.


What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?

My own 2018 research project was on experiences of migration. The digital impact on this project is threefold. For one, vast amounts of social data on migration are available in open online databases instigated by policymakers and governments, such as KIS (Kennisplatform Integratie & samenleving) and various European websites. Secondly, we can find several websites and communication platforms constructed by migrants and migrant organizations themselves (cf. wijzijnhier.org). Thirdly, there are interesting online sources (videos, reading blogs) on the performance of migrant authorship and even on that of ‘migrant celebrities’. The aim of this project is to combine social online data and 'small' stories with knowledge drawn from literary sources (a corpus of 25 recently published literary texts on migrant experiences) and documentary sources (a corpus of 10 movies and documentaries). The focus of the project is on migrants' experiences (Erfahrung & Erlebnis), and on the question if and how experiences can be relived ‘aesthetically’ (in an artistic format).


What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?

In 2018, I started thinking about the renewed applicability of ‘old’ aesthetic notions in the digital context. On the one hand, we can observe that concepts such as meaning, creativity, fictionality, and the sublime, still relate to certain artistic (avant-garde) practices that can be found and are discussed online. On the other hand, it becomes clear that the 'autonomy' of Art, and thus its subversiveness and uniqueness, is challenged by various digital practices (from copy/paste and fan re-writing to taking works and textual forms out of a context and composition, and so on). My assumption is that we should revisit poststructuralist philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. I propose to rethink the digital context as a dynamic textual universe, from which we cannot escape (‘il n’y a pas dehors texte’, as Derrida postulated), but in which we can find counter-strategies, new forms of creativity to use and manipulate the algorithms that envelop us.  

My assumption is that we should revisit poststructuralist philosophers such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida to rethink the digital context as a dynamic textual universe

This, of course, is work in progress, but inspiration can be found already in the work of colleagues such as Geert Lovink, Social Media Abyss (2016), Iris van der Tuin, Inaugural address December 2018, and Vincent Miller, The Crisis of Presence in Contemporary Culture (2016).