Jacques Derrida and the Digital Humanities

Jacques Derrida, Die Struktur, das Zeichen und das Spiel im Diskurs der Wissenschaften vom Menschen, in: Die Schrift und die Differenz, Frankfurt a.M. 1976

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

The structure has a history, of course. The term is as old as the episteme, created simultaneously with science. Up to now, structure always had a center, an origin, Derrida says. This center identified being as a presence and had many names: transcendence, consciousness, god, man and, one might add: author. But now, there is a rupture in the history of the term structure; namely the recognition that this center, in fact, does not exist. So everything is becoming discourse, as it seems, reading Derrida. This fracture takes place in modern times and with authors, that question metaphysics, as Nietzsche did, for instance; that replace concepts of being with concepts of play; that criticize the concept of consciousness, as Freud did; or that deconstruct onto-theology, as Heidegger did.

What does this decentering in the sense of Derrida mean for the Humanites? This is best shown in cultural anthropology. The scientific field of ethnology could only arise with the decentration – namely in that moment, when European culture was located within the critics of ethnocentrism. Its most famous exponent is probably Claude Lévy-Strauss. He showed how obsolete the old (scientific) terms actually were for his empirical research. However, since no other are available (yet), they should be kept and used as old tools, that still can be of service. The result is Strauss’ famous method of bricolage, that he developed in La Pensée sauvage. Transferred from anthropology to philosophy, this means that every discourse would be such a bricolage.

Strauss discusses this nowhere so vividly as in his Mythologiques. There is a moment in which he reflects on his discourse on the myths, very intriguing and very import for the Humanities. Because such a critical gesture ultimately applies to all of their works. It is the abandonment of a center, a subject, a privileged reference. It is the completion of the decentration, which has become apparent since quite a long time in our profession.

This decentration and this bricolage are strongly reminiscent of the concept of Digital History that we know of Wolfgang Schmale: a collection of stories in the form of hypertexts (please see my review to that). This would then no longer be history, but a play and a discourse. The continuous representation of sources and texts on the computer screen would neutralize the factor time. The unity of becoming and the development of knowledge would be a derivation between two presences, and this, at the end, would be the elimination of history – Non-History.

Thus we have arrived at the classic problem of structuralism: the term structure  has always challenged the notion of history. But what does all this mean for the Digital Humanities? We have a decentration in the epistemes (Jacques Derrida, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht), a digital revolution in the technology (Kiran Klaus Patel), an individualization in the society (Wolfgang Schmale), an new hybrid global culture (Yvonne Spielmann) and we have an attempt to adapt the condition for the production of history in science at a new time with the help of networking (Charles Leadbeater, Wolfgang Schmale).

I will try to bring all this together in an analysis on the future of history in a later intervention.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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