Digital Humanities & Witchcraft: A Comparison

The following is a – not 100% serious – mini-speech I prepared for the Walpurgis-Night-Special (30th of March) of the Digital Humanities regulars’ table in Halle (#DHAL). It draws conclusions by looking on the many commonalities between Digital Humanities researchers in the present and people accused of witchcraft in the Early Modern period.

Digital Humanities and witchcraft, on first sight these two concepts do not have much in common. Yet oddly enough, the closer one looks, the more similar they become. Being myself a master in the study of witchcraft and an apprentice in the field of DH, we will take a closer look in comparing those two phenomena from the 17th and 21st century on a structural level.

Digital Humanists and witches; What kind of people are they? First of all, they are a group of people (there enemies prefer to call them a “sect”) who gather on specific days throughout the year to practice with others the use of non-human powers. They enter into an alliance with superhuman forces that allow them to gain seemingly spectacular abilities. These abilities exceed everything within the predefined limits of human nature. However, they use these powers not to support current systems of believe but rather to infiltrate and question them in many cases, where current teachings have been for long taken for face value.

Their opponents persistently argue that the spectacular wonders achieved by them – when being closely interrogated by a true believer – will always crumble. Whatever is achieved or gained with the help of these powers will in the end turn out to be invalid, not-sustainable and illusionary in its core. Therefore, the alliance with these non-human powers does not foster the progress of humanity as a whole, but leads instead to its inevitable decay by spreading false believes and corrupting orthodox practice. The spread of this heresy is a persistent treat to the established world views and demands resistance and a call for renunciation wherever it is met.

A witches’ Sabbat (or a DH-conference?) seen through the eyes of a true-believer. (Jan Ziarnko, Sabbat, 1613)

We see from the commonalities of these ideas that humans often do not explain seemingly supernatural powers and skills rationally and in consequence avoid to use them to their advantage. Humans reject right away what they do not understand and mark achievements that were gained in an unconventional way as a threat to their world-view. Whatever does not fit into orthodox believe and practice is often condemned (if not even persecuted) as illusions or heresy.

The striking difference between the two phenomena is, of course, that witches never existed but Digital Humanists do very well. The first are the product of a strange conspiracy theory of the past, the latter are a real movement that indeed gained quite spectacular powers in the present. However, being “the real witches of the 21st century” we have to use these powers with proficient understanding and great caution. For this purpose, conferences, workshops and regulars’ tables are the “witches Sabbath” of today, for the innovative research of tomorrow.

 


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