Claire’s response to question 3: Modern Languages and the Digital as Object of Study

In recent decades, digital technologies have caused us to re-think existing literary and cultural formats, and new platforms have transformed our understanding of what a ‘text’ is. As Modern Linguists, most of us were trained in the analysis and research of conventional literary, filmic, or cultural genres: despite the varied languages in which we research, we all have, broadly speaking a common consensus of what, for instance, ‘a novel’ or ‘a film’ consists of. We have all been brought up to recognize key genres, understand the rules of those genres, and apply the tools of analysis specific to those genres.

But what happens when texts – understood in the broadest sense of ‘cultural’ product’ – cease to exist within their neat generic boundaries? When, for instance, a hypermedia ‘novel’, involving text, audio, still and moving images, and user interaction, may require skills of analysis coming from visual culture, film studies or computer game studies, as much as literary theory about ‘the novel’? It is these new cultural forms that, for many of us, have made us start to think across disciplinary boundaries, and learn to negotiate new tools.

But it’s not just a case of the new tools that we as Modern Linguists need to learn when dealing with digital cultural products: it’s also about what we as Modern Linguists can contribute to digital culture studies from our perspective. A significant number of scholarly works have already been written on digital culture. Yet, those of us who are Modern Linguists are bound to notice that these works frequently take as their model Anglophone paradigms, and ignore – or, at best, mention in a footnote or in passing – an existing rich cultural, literary and artistic heritage going well beyond the Anglophone that informs contemporary digital cultural practice.

Whilst the multiple precursors of contemporary digital practice found in the non-Anglophone world are too varied to mention, as examples we could highlight the Brazilian poetic movement of concretismo in the 1950s and its influence on contemporary digital literary play. We could mention caligramas/caligrammes, developed both by Huidobro in a Chilean context and Apollinaire in a French context, as precursors to the kinetic poetry we see today – and indeed, Argentinian Ana María Uribe’s anipoemas are a good example of how caligrammesque poems can be animated across the screen. Surrealist games developed in a French context in the 1920s, particularly the cadavre exquis involving experimenting with word combinations to spontaneously form sentences, are a precursor informing contemporary collectively-generated fiction. Techniques developed through OuLiPo, such as that undertaken by Raymond Queneau in his Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961) involving multiple poetic variations based on the recombination of phrases, inform contemporary combinatory fiction. And the contemporary genre of Twitter poetry – called by some the twaiku – has its roots in the Japanese tradition of the haiku, on which it draws in its understanding of the formal restriction to 140 characters as a productive, creative one, leading to the possibility of capturing moments or images with a particular intensity.

In these and many other myriad examples, what we as Modern Linguists can offer is an enhanced understanding of ‘new’ digital genres. We can bring to the table a consideration of digital ‘innovation’ within a much broader context of literary, artistic and cultural innovation in various countries and languages. And we can provide a much-needed reminder that to be digital is not synonymous with being Anglophone.


One thought on “Claire’s response to question 3: Modern Languages and the Digital as Object of Study

  1. Thea’s response to Claire’s response to Question 3: ML and the Digital as Object of Study

    I’m primarily interested here in answering the last question: How might new media cultural forms force us to re-think the (implicit) nation-state assumptions that conventionally underpin Modern Languages research? And I would like to respond to this question as a Latin Americanist interested primarily in online cultural production.
    The most obvious limitations for the circulation of materials online are those of language, not nation-state. For anyone circulating a Spanish-language hypermedia novel or collection of e-poetry online, the potential readership will be anyone else who has adequate internet access and who can read Spanish. And that person who uploads their Spanish-language creative work to the internet may be Peruvian born, resident in Spain, and writing a narrative about Venezuela… While much of this was also true before the advent of the internet, it is clear that this tendency has increased massively when it comes to online cultural production and this poses a substantial challenge for our traditional tendency to attempt to study materials in discrete ‘collections’, sorted in the first instance by their generation and circulation within the confines of particular nation-state. Should our hypermedia author or his work be classified as Peruvian, Spanish, or Venezuelan, and does it matter? And scaling up to regional paradigms, why would we want to attempt to study just those materials that are Spanish/Latin American as opposed to those that stem from Spain/the Iberian Peninsula?
    The study of new media cultural production thus encourages academics to move out of their tried and tested institutional silos as Mexicanists or Latin Americanists and this is good. However, there are also good reasons why we might still want to study materials with respect to nation-state, regional or other geopolitical paradigms. Although some cultural production that circulates online deals with universal themes with no obvious reference to offline place, much of this ‘new’ cultural production is inevitably still dependent on the old geopolitical paradigms for its frame of reference even if those paradigms are being deliberately put under strain in such works. It thus does still make sense to attempt to study things such as ‘the Cuban blogosphere’, as long as think through what we actually mean by that.
    In terms of a rationale for not entirely ditching a regionalist approach, there is also evidence that Latin American new media cultural producers and critics are frequently concerned with the fact that new media as developed in Europe and Anglo-America has been written in a ‘language’ that would script them out. Critics have long deplored the fact that the ‘architecture’ of the internet inevitably encodes (tacit) Anglo-American perspectives and interests (cf. Trejo Delabre, 1999 or Martín Barbero, 2000). And even if changing wholesale the architecture of the internet is not a realistic possibility, cultural producers still attempt, in Quixotic fashion, to write anti-hypertexts or ‘to “brownify” virtual space; to “spanglishize” the net, and “infect” the linguas francas’ (Gómez-Peña, 2000:258-59) as a Latin(o) American postcolonialist responses to this situation.


    Gómez-Peña, Guillermo (2000), ‘The Virtual Barrio @ the Other Frontier; or, the Chicano Interneta’, in Dangerous Border Crossers: The Artist Talks Back (London:Routledge), pp. 247-60.
    Trejo Delabre, Raúl (1999), ‘La Internet en América Latina’, in Las industrias culturales en la integración latinoamericana, eds. Néstor García Canclini and Carlos Juan Moneta (Mexico City: Grijalbo), pp. 311-56.
    Martín Barbero, Jesús (2000), ‘Art/Communication/Technicity at Century’s End’, trans. Hugh O’Donnell, in Cultural Politics in Latin America, ed. Anny Brooksbank Jones and Ronaldo Munck (Basinstoke: Macmillan), pp. 56-73.


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