Critical Humanities 2021-2022: Keywords for the Never-Normal

Image: No Going Back (Amsterdam 2020)

—Image: No Going Back (Amsterdam 2020)—

Radboud University Nijmegen

Semester 1: October 5, November 9, December 7
Semester 2: TBA

Niels Niessen (
Jeroen Boom (


In times of crisis in which life wavers between old and new normalities, it is important to keep a keen eye for what connects the “old” and the “new,” the ideological structures driving all that normalizing. This year’s Critical Humanities program continues the group’s ambition to think through cultural objects and phenomena that at once express and emerge from crisis (ecological, socioeconomic, cultural, identitarian). A crisis is a cut, a rupture of the ordinary. At the same time, every crisis is also a bridge, a window in time between inseparable eras. Crises, after all, do not happen to capitalism, they are inherent to its very modus operandi. Crises are very normal.

So how to think through crisis? With reference to the group’s mission statement, we continue to engage this question with angles at once acute and long-historical, theoretical and experimental. While doing so, the program takes inspiration from Raymond Williams, one of the founders of cultural studies as an interdiscipline that never takes “normal” for an answer. But Williams was also an historian, which makes his perspective a suited point of reference for this group, which also brings together historical and cultural-studies approaches. In his seminal book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society from 1976, Williams explores how the definitions and meanings of words in the English language (“culture,” “family,” “ordinary,” to name a few) have shifted according to their cultural and historical contexts. We ask, what if this text was written in our current affective, political, and ecological climate of covid lockdowns, carbon capitalism, big tech, liquid (post)modernity, and also ongoing pressure on academia in general and the humanities in particular? What would be some of the words—at once familiar and strange—that allow us to de-normalize and queer shifting truths in contemporary discourses? The keywords proposed here (“new normal,” “awkward,” “burn-out,” “parasite,” “breathing,” “regenerative,” “touch,” “orientation”) could of course have been different, but we believe they are some good entries to parse the material spirit of our shared present. We will examine how these words occur in different disciplinary ‘dialects’, how they traverse different realms and fields of knowledge.

Sessions will for now be organized in hybrid on-site-online form with a surveillance-capitalism-proof connection for those who cannot attend on campus.

Are you interested in joining one or more sessions, or to be added to the mailing list, please send an email to Niels Niessen ( or Jeroen Boom (


Semester 1:

Normal (October 5, 15:30, Erasmusgebouw 9.14)

Do we really need a new “normal” in times of climate catastrophe, surveillance capitalism and queer and Black Lives Matter activism?

Facilitators: Niels Niessen and Jeroen Boom


  • Carolyn Pedwell, Revolutionary Routines (2021)
  • Timothy Morton and Dominic Boyer, Hyposubjects: On Becoming Human (2021)
  • Raymond Williams, “Ordinary” (in Keywords)
  • Maria Moran, “Keywords as Methods” (2021)


Awkward (November 9, 15:30, Erasmusgebouw 9.14)

What new social discomforts, offline and online, does the “new normal” bring?

Facilitator: Yosha Wijngaarden

Readings (preliminary):

  • Adam Kotsko, Awkwardness (2010)
  • Melissa Dahl, Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness (2018)

Burn-out (December 7, 15:30, Erasmusgebouw 9.14, in collaboration with the Open University’s ‘Critical Thinking in the Humanities’ group)

When did exhaustion (of the planet, of people, also in academia) become normal?

Facilitator: Sarah de Mul (Open University)

Readings (TBA)

Semester 2

Parasite (January 2022, TBA)

How to embrace the figure of the “parasite” and the “viral” as forms of productive resistance and disorder?


Breathing (February 2022, TBA)

What different and shifting meanings does the term “breathing” bear within discourses of Black Lives Matter, mass extinction, and also mindfulness?


Regenerative (March 2022, TBA)

What critiques of “sustainability” do we find in discourses on regenerative culture (as they circulate for example in Extinction Rebellion)?

Touch (April 2022, TBA)

How has the era of social distancing (understood in a long-historical context) affected our capacity to touch and being touched?

Orientation (May 2022, TBA)

What orients our everyday experience, our “normal” lives?