Keywords for the Never-Normal: programme 2021-2022

The group Critical Humanities meets around once a month. Participation is also open to non-members. Below you will find an introduction to the programme of this academic year as well as a schedule of the discussion sessions.

Introduction to this year's programme

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 this 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, in other words.

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 programme takes inspiration from Raymond Williams, who was one of the founders of cultural studies, 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.

Amsterdam 2020
'No going back (Amsterdam,2020)'

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 shifting truths in contemporary discourses? The keywords proposed here (awkward, burn-out, parasite, 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.

Ideally, each session embodies a multiplicity of perspectives and is facilitated by two (or more) persons with different departmental or institutional affiliations (or by two people bringing different perspectives on that day’s topic). Sessions will for now be organized in hybrid on-site-online form (hybrid being another keyword!) with a surveillance-capitalism-proof Jitsi connection for those who cannot attend on campus that day. That said, while this group was born in times of social distancing and videoconferencing, its long-run ambition remains to contribute to a thriving community grounded in campus-life. If possible, following each session we will wind down the conversation in the Cultuurcafé.

The sessions are open to everyone, including interested students, and especially research master students (do invite them!). 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 (

Schedule discussion sessions

Tuesday October 5 at 15:30 (Erasmusgebouw 9.14)
New Normal

Facilitators: Jeroen Boom and Niels Niessen

Discussion question: Do we really need a new 'normal' in times of climate catastrophe, surveillance capitalism and queer and Black Lives Matter activism?


  • Timothy Morton and Dominic Boyer, Hyposubjects: On Becoming Human (2021)

  • Carolyn Pedwell – Revolutionary Routines (2021)

  • Raymond Williams, 'Ordinary' (in Keywords)

  • Maria Moran, 'Keywords as Methods' (2021)


November 9 at 15:30

Facilitator: Yosha Wijngaarden

Discussion question: What new social discomforts, offline and online, does the 'new normal' bring?


December 7 at 15:30
(collaboration with the Open University’s “Critical Thinking in the Humanities” group)

Facilitator: Sarah de Mul (Open University)

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


January 2022

Discussion question: How to embrace the figure of the 'parasite' and the 'viral' as forms of productive resistance and disorder?

- more information will follow later -


February 2022

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

- more information will follow later -


March 2022
(with Radboud Centre for Sustainability Challenges)

Discussion question: What critiques of 'sustainability' do we find in discourses on regenerative culture (as they circulate for example in Extinction Rebellion)?

- more information will follow later -


April 2022

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

- more information will follow later -


May 2022

Discussion question: What orients our everyday experience, our 'normal' lives?

- more information will follow later -