Jean-François Lyotard, Delegitimization and Digital Humanities

Jean-François Lyotard, „Die Delegitimierung“, in : Geschichte schreiben in der Postmoderne, Stuttgart 1994

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

In the post-industrial society, in postmodern culture, knowledge becomes legitimized in a new way. Great, speculative and emancipating narratives have lost their credibility. These stories of the 19th century carry in themselves the seed of this loss in the 20thcentury. To give an example: the speculative story, as we know it from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, is in itself sceptical about the possibility of positive findings. Positive science is not knowledge, its legitimacy is denied because the discourse, which should legitimize it, is based on pre-scientific notions. The crisis of scientific knowledge results from the erosion of legitimacy.

Thus, various scientific areas are called into question. Disciplines disappear, new fields form themselves. The result is a flat network of research, whose boundaries are constantly moving. The (old) faculties disintegrate into institutes, foundations and academic enterprises. And the universities tend to reproduce the teaching rather than research.

The emancipatory narrative has an inner core of erosion, too. The legitimacy of truth is based in the autonomy of acting subjects. But this legitimacy immediately manifests a problem, because science is not called upon to regulate fields of practices: Science is playing its own game, Lyotard says, a game of research to enhance knowledge. This seems quite idealistic a position. Science in reality is a field of practice in which the rules are not very transparent and one has to be very cunning in competition, for instance. But this is not the point here.

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So far and extremely short, two important aspects of Lyotard’s analysis of the speculative and emancipatory narratives that he elaborated in his famous book La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir, published in 1979. How do they help us in delineating the areas of science Digital History / Digital Humanitites?

First: New diversions came along since Lyotard’s reasoning of the postmoderne: digital techniques, languages, logic, algorithms, which all help to gain new scientific resources and fields. Then: “Subjects” today are moving – perforce – constantly between science and various different other fields of practice.

This means: In this decentralized world, as it has been discussed by Jacques Derrida, we mostly have lost the desire for big stories – neither we want to read nor to write them. What remains is the concrete work, the longing for exchange, for participation and recognition, as Charles Leadbeater has shown. We want history to be useful. It is the practical value that recently legitimates history. There are many objects for investigation and many open questions to work on. Digital technologies provide new ways of processing this questions and of communication the results of the scientific labor. Particularly, this technology provides new instruments to deal with large quantities and statistics (see, for instance the Google Ngram Viewer). This opens new possibilities to the quantitative humanities, used up to now mainly by the linguistics. Historiography is still very cautious here. But anyway: Reading Lyotard it could well be that a new field of scientific practice is created between or upon the digital technology and the humanities. Wolfgang Schmale and Kiran Klaus Patel have shown how this field might look like. And even before, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht has tried it out in a traditional way in his book “In 1926”. And we mustn’t forget the US Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and the French pioneer OpenEdition that are working hard on institutionalizing this new field of scientific practice.


Guido Koller

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

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