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.