Vol. 6 No. 2 Dec. 2022

Introduction: New Approaches to New Ages? Digital Humanities and Beyond
Author:João Cezar de Castro Rocha    Time:2023-01-03    Click:

Introduction: New Approaches to New Ages? Digital Humanities and Beyond

João Cezar de Castro Rocha

State University of Rio de Janeiro

Digital Humanities

The study of the introduction of powerful new means of communication has been largely confined to the Social and Human Sciences and in the History of Technology. From Elizabeth Eisenstein’s classic book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change,1 to Marshall McLhuan’s extensive work on the global village announced by the emergence of a planetary system of media, understood as an authentic electronic nervous system, which produces fundamental transformations in our ways of perceiving the world and relating to one another,2 there is a myriad of fundamental research undertaken on the topic, the discussion of which naturally is not the scope of this introduction. Rather, we want to highlight a dimension sometimes overlooked, namely, the anthropological changes brought upon by radical shifts in the communicative circuit.

Again, there is a plethora of authors who have made decisive contribution to this field. Let us mention only one: Raymond Williams’ innovative take on television3 – remembering that he was one of the first scholars to engage actively in the production of and participation in TV documentaries and series, especially at the BBC.4 Moreover, he wrote a biweekly column on TV shows, the collection of which gave birth to a sharp book, On Television. Williams raised a key issue, rendered suitably dramatic by the contemporary digital media:

It is often said that television has altered our world. In the same way, people often speak of a new world, a new society, a new phase of history, being created— “brought about” —by this or that new technology: the steam-engine, the automobile, the atomic bomb. Most of us know what is generally implied when such things are said. […]

For behind all such statements lie some of the most difficult and most unresolved historical and philosophical questions.5

This is the perspective we want to emphasize, although it may not be an automatic response; after all, we are living through the process we have nonetheless to understand. In terms put into circulation in social theory by Niklas Lhumann, in dialogue with Humberto Maturana’s and Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoietic systems, we have to become “second-order observers” of our own everyday lives in order to cope with the challenges brought about by the new digital media as well as the growing digitalization of everyday life.6 Let us then bring to our discussion Raymond Williams’ insightful 1975 lecture “Drama in a Dramatised Society,” in which he asked a question that has only become more and more urgent with the contemporary omnipresence of social networks. The author of Keywords was trying to cope with an unprecedented transformation in the production and above all in the reception of drama, that is, in a broader sense, fiction.

It is in our century, in cinema, in radio and in television, that the audience for drama has gone through a qualitative change. […] It means that for the first time a majority of the population has regular and constant access to drama, beyond occasion or season. But what is really quite new […] is that drama, in quite new ways, is built into the rhythms of everyday life. […] This is part of what I mean by a dramatized society.7

What would Williams have thought of the brave new world of digital media and the omnipresence of social networks in everyday life? Nowadays, not only has drama become readily accessible at all times, literally at hand, but it has suffered a much greater qualitative change than the one envisaged by Williams, namely, with an increasing number of apps and social networks every user may (indeed, has) become a producer of one’s own content—seemingly having one’s own room is no longer enough. The anthropological consequences of such constellations are tremendous and are yet to be fully understood. Hans-Georg Moeller, trying to cope with this circumstance, and in dialogue with Walter Benjamin’s famous 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” proposed a thought-provoking idea: we are living in the “age of profilicity;” in other words, a historical moment in which we have become curators of our own profiles, and curating one’s own image is more important than values such as authenticity and sincerity.8

It is within this larger anthropological approach that we acknowledge the importance of giving a pride of place to the discussion of the paradigm of Digital Humanities and above all the need to unfold new approaches to new ages—a challenge beautifully met by the articles and interviews in our special column.

This Issue

The “Digital Humanities Special Column” deals with some aspects of digital media, understood not exclusively as agents of change but certainly as a potent agency capable of shaping mental landscapes and framing social interactions. In this section, we are proud to announce an innovation, which will become part of the next issues of the Journal: “special interviews.” It is our aim to gather world-leading scholars, whose contributions have been highly relevant to shape their own fields of expertise, in a series of interviews, whose outcome would be no less than an archive of the state-of-the-art in the Humanities, in general, and in Literary Studies, in particular. We started this project having the honor to count on the presences of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, from Stanford University, and Jeffrey Schnapp, from Harvard University. Their testimonies allow us, on the one hand, to have a keen glimpse on theoretical paradigms, “Materialities of Communication” and “Production of Presence,” developed by Ulrich Gumbrecht, which can be seen as precursors of some of the concerns dominant in the field of Digital Humanities. On the other hand, Schnapp radically broadened our perception of the field itself, proposing alternative concepts such as “Knowledge Design,” “Experimental Humanities,” besides defining Digital Humanities in a comprehensive and original form.

We are also presenting in this issue another innovation, namely, a permanent column on Latin American Studies. It will be composed by two or three articles in each issue. The creation of this section reveals an ambitious project—nothing less than transforming Hunan Normal University into one of the most important centers in the world for the development of strong and productive ties in order to bring together Chinese and Latin American scholars towards the creation of transnational, transdisciplinary and cross-cultural projects.

Finally, we are equally proud of the 6 articles which compose our open section. The variety of their subjects as well as the quality of their achievements invite our readers to delve further into them, and profit from their contributions.


1. Elizabeth Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Cambridge UP, 1980.

2. Among so many possible references, we should at least highlight The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964).

3. By the way, let us refer to the insightful article published in this issue by Ning Wang, “Remembering Raymond Williams: His Theoretical Heritage to China’s World Literature and Culture Studies.”

4. Notably we should recall the 1977 BBC production The Country and the City, a documentary that “translated” Williams’s 1975 book of the same title. See the documentary here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DV1krEyCgCM.

5. Raymond Williams, On Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Wesleyan UP, 1992, p. 3. The essay was originally published in 1974.

6. Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems. Translated by J. Bednarz Jr with Dirk Baecker, Stanford UP, 1995.

7. Raymond Williams, Drama in a Dramatized Society. Inaugural Lecture. Cambridge UP, 1975, pp. 4-5.

8. Hans-Georg Moeller and Paul J. D’Ambrosio, You and Your Profile. Identity after Authenticity, Columbia UP, 2021.

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