The place in the Digital Humanities

Marc Augé, Non-Lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris 1992

Review with respect to the Digital Humanities

We have become strangers in our own world – due to its accelerated change. This calls for the anthropological perspective, for the thinking about the category of the other. It is perfectly exemplified by Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire. What we are looking for in the historical testimonies, in the traces of what once was, is our being different, the appearance of an identity. History is no longer genesis, but the deciphering of what we are, in the mirror of what we have been.

The background for this desire is the fact of the acceleration: History is on our heels, the superabundance of events threaten to catch up with us all time. The most important feature of the super-modernity is the excess of affairs. Due to their density, we are hardly able to give sense to events. For we do it not for our village or our country anymore, but for the whole world. This plethora of events makes it difficult for us to think the time. Our desire to understand the presence draws with it the inability to give the (near) past a meaning.

This acceleration also covers the space. It shows itself in the speed with which people, goods and information are transported. In our homes, we can look almost at the same time to events that take place at the “other end” of the planet. This spatial overabundance is a substitute for the symbolic worlds of recognition. There are non-lieux, non-places being formed such as airports, freeway junctions, shopping centers and transit camps. They stand in contrast to places such as Marcel Mauss has defined them in the term of a culture localized in time and space. We need to think this space new, Augé says. The anthropology with its experience to decentring perspectives can help us here (Please read my separate post to Jacques Derrida and Claude Lévy-Strauss) to this.

The third figure of this excess concerns the individual. In the super-modernity the framework for the collective identification is fluid. The production of meaning is therefore crucial – a situation that is actively being used  by the advertisement, for instance. Conversely, this should be mentioned too, the people bend existing constraints, interpret them, in order to impress them with their own traces. Michel de Certeau calls this stratagem the Art of acting (Please see my separate post to this).

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Every social group organizes the space and constitutes thus its place. It relies on the individuals who belong to it, to think identity and relation, to symbolize it. This is done precisely through work in time and space. So, the social order is visible as an ensemble of relations and symbols, as a culture. Thus, places are identical, relational and historical. Geometrically, they consist of three simple figures (or forms): the line, the cutting of the lines and the cross point. These are the elementary forms of social space: Routes, intersections and squares. These relations are also written in(to) time: In many regions, markets rotate in a week from place to place, ceremonies are based on a religious and social calendar. The places of power, however, are stable: Monuments represent centers of religious or political power. In all these places individual and collective experience are intersected and combined.

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Jean Starobinsky sees the essence of modernity in the attendance of the past in the presence, that limits and claims it for itself. Modernity is not deleting old places, but moves them into the background. Just as a place is characterized by identity, relations and history, a space without this features defines a non-lieux. The super-modernity generates such non-places, spaces that do not integrate the old places (anymore). These become specific locations in memory.

Non-places indicate two distinct and complementary realities: Spaces that serve specific purposes (traffic, transit, recreation) and the relationship that the individual maintains to them. This relationships take place through orders, advertisement, instructions, prohibitions and ideograms. They are addressed to us average persons, to the consumers, passengers etc. Such spaces provide no particular identity, no special relationship, no history.

In these areas of the super-modernity we are “still and never more at home”. The passages lead no longer to entirely different worlds. The super-modernity finds its expression in these non-places. It makes old things into a spectacle. History and exoticism become quotations – a status that is shown very nicely in travel brochures for instance.

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What could be learned from Marc Augé for the Digital Humanities? Science is a social practice that needs its own place to work. If the Digital Humanities should make a place for the human and social sciences, they not only need virtual spaces and platforms, but an identity and relations. Those involved need to organize, to work this space to make it come alive. According to what principles? Charles Leadbeater has proposed to use the model of commons with joint and collaborative participation and benefits, as with Wikipedia. It is not clear whether we can succeed in this, if we follow Marc Augé. He tells us to think space new but he doesn’t tell us how. Can virtual platforms create places that do not simply accelerate the communication, but are equipped with symbols that make actions understandable and provide them with meaning? Can relationships and identity being shaped virtual in a way, that creates its own cultural pattern, in which people meet and exchange?

Yvonne Spielmann would probably say yes, within the emerging hybrid culture. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Giesecke probably would say no. For both creative research and learning need the physical presence, the resistance in the face of others. Kiran Klaus Patel would also be very skeptical – he fears that the right sources for contemporary historical research will no longer be available in the archives. Wolfgang Schmale sees a possible solution in a hybrid model: Research and learning onsite, providing the results online.

Find here the opinion of Frédérique Muscinesi, operator of a virtual scientific platform,  about this post.


Guido Koller

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

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4 thoughts on “The place in the Digital Humanities

  1. Pingback: place dans les Humanités Digitales – Commentaire | We think History

  2. Thinking about “non-places”, one can argue that historical sites, specially those declared as such, have always been heterotopias, i.e. places which contain many different, or even contradictory memories and cultures. In his book Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996), Arjun Appadurai argues that historical places have always been heterotopias. If you think about Rome or Jerusalem, those places are all together paradigmatic historical places, transit places, and the locus of a number of different cultural or religious representations, which sometimes clash together.

    Coming to online platforms, I’m not sure that a shared cultural environment is a pre-condition for collaboration. In Switzerland, where citizens don’t speak the same language, what should this common cultural heritage be ? Patriotism ? History has been too long at the service of nation building. Conversely, the virtual world is a good opportunity to cast a critical look to the cultural and ideological background of the historical sciences, and discuss the possible role of history in our “super-modern” world.

  3. Pingback: The place in the Digital Humanities | We think History | EJournalism Studies at BU | Scoop.it

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