A Question of Digital Humanities

An extended survey of digital initiatives in arts and humanities practices in India was undertaken during the last year. Provocatively called 'mapping digital humanities in India', this enquiry began with the term 'digital humanities' itself, as a 'found' name for which one needs to excavate some meaning, context, and location in India at the present moment. Instead of importing this term to describe practices taking place in this country - especially when the term itself is relatively unstable and undefined even in the Anglo-American context - what I chose to do was to take a few steps back, and outline a few questions/conflicts that the digital practitioners in arts and humanities disciplines are grappling with. The final report of this study will be published serially. This is the second among seven sections.

 

Sections

01. Digital Humanities in India?

02. A Question of Digital Humanities

03. Reading from a Distance – Data as Text

04. The Infrastructure Turn in the Humanities

05. Living in the Archival Moment

06. New Modes and Sites of Humanities Practice

07. Digital Humanities in India – Concluding Thoughts


The 'digital turn' has been one of the significant changes in interdisciplinary research and scholarship in the last couple of decades. The advent of new digital technologies and growth of networked environments have led to a rethinking of the traditional processes of knowledge gathering and production, across an array of fields and disciplinary areas. DH has emerged as yet another manifestation of what in essence is this changing relationship between technologies and the human being or subject. The nature and processes of information, scholarship and learning, now produced or mediated by digital tools, methods or spaces have formed the crux of the DH discourse as it has emerged in different parts of the world so far. It has been variously called a phenomenon, field, discipline and a set of convergent practices – all of which are located at and/or try to understand the interaction between digital technologies and humanities practice and scholarship. DH in the Anglo-American context has seen several changes – from an early phase of vast archival initiatives and digitisation projects, to now exploring the role of big data and cultural analytics in literary criticism. Some of the early scholarship in the field illustrate the problems with defining and locating it within specific disciplinary formations, as the research objects, methods and locations of DH work cut across everything from the archive to the laboratory and social networking platforms. Largely interpreted as a way to explore the intersection of information technology and humanities, DH is grown to become an interdisciplinary field of research and practice today. However, DH is also clearly being posited as a site of contestation – what is perceived as doing away with or reinventing certain norms of traditional humanities research and scholarship. As a result it has largely been framed within the existing narrative of a crisis in the humanities, highlighting the more prominent role of technology which is now expected to resolve in some way questions of relevance and authority that seem to have become central to the continued existence and practice of the humanities in its conventional forms.

 

The Problem of Definition

The question of what is DH has been asked many times, and in different ways. Most scholars have differentiated between two waves or types of DH – the first is that of using computational tools to do traditional humanities research, while the second looks at the 'digital' itself as integral to humanistic enquiry [1]. However as is apparent in the existing discourse, the problem of definition still persists. As a field, method or practice, is it a found term that has now been appropriated in various forms and by various disciplines, or is it helping us reconfigure questions of the humanities by making available, through advancements in technology, a new digital object or a domain of enquiry that previously was unavailable to us? These and others will continue to remain questions for the digital humanities, but it would be important to first examine what would be the question/s of digital humanities. Dave Parry summarises to some extent these different contentions to a definition of the field when he suggests that "what is at stake here is not the object of study or even epistemology, but rather ontology. The digital changes what it means to be human, and by extension what it means to study the humanities." (Parry 2012)

Some speculation on the larger premise of the field, with specific reference to its emergence in India is what I hope to chart out in this report. This is not in itself an attempt at a definition, but sketching out a domain of enquiry by mapping the field with respect to work being done in the Indian context. In doing so these propositions will assume one or the other (if not all three) of these following suggested threads or modes of thought, which will also inform larger concerns of the DH work at CIS:

  1. The first is the inherited separation of technology and the humanities and therefore the existing tenuous relationship between the two fields. As is apparent in the nomenclature itself, there seems to be a bringing together of what seem to have been essentially two separate domains of knowledge. However, the humanities and technology have a rather chequered history together, which one could locate with the beginning of print culture. As Adrian Johns points out in the Nature of the book, "any printed book is, as a matter of fact, both the product of one complex set of social and technological processes and the beginning of another" (Johns 1998:3). The larger imagination of humanities as text-based disciplines can be located in a sense in the rise of printing, literacy and textual scholarship. While the book itself seems to have made a comfortable transition into the digital realm, the process of this transition, the channels of circulation and distribution of information as objects of study have been relegated to certain disciplinary concerns, thus obfuscating and making invisible this 'technologised history' of the humanities. Can DH therefore be an attempt to uncover such a history and bridge these knowledge gaps would be a question here?

  2. The distance between the practice and the subject. How does one identify with DH practice? While many people engage with what seem to be core DH concerns, they are not all 'digital humanists' or do not identify themselves by the term. While at one level the problem is still that of definition and taxonomy – what is or is not DH – at another level it is also about the nature of subjectivity produced in such practice – whether it has one of its own or is still entrenched in other disciplinary formations, as is the case with most DH research today. This is apparent in the emphasis on processes and tools in DH– where the practice or method seems to have emerged before the theoretical or epistemological framework. One may also connect this to the larger discourse on the emergence of the techno-social subject [2] as an identity meditated by digital and new media technologies, wherein technology is central to the practices that engender this subjectivity.

  3. Tying back to the first question is also the notion of a conflict between the humanities and DH. This comes with the perception of DH being a version 2.0 of the traditional humanities, a result of the existing narrative of crisis and the need for the humanities disciplines to reinvent themselves to remain relevant in the present context, and one way to do this is by becoming amenable to the use of computing tools. DH has emerged as one way to mediate between the humanities and the changes that are imminent with digital technologies, but it may not or even need not take up the task of trying to establish a teleological connection between the two. The theoretical pursuits of both may be different but deeply related, and this is one manner of approaching DH as a field or domain of enquiry; the point of intersection or conflict would be where new questions emerge. This narrative is also located within a larger framing of DH in terms of addressing the concerns of the labour market, and the fear of the humanities being displaced or replaced as a result. Parry’s objective of studying DH works with and tries to address this particular formulation of the field.

Locating these concerns in India, where the field of DH is still at an incipient stage comes with a multitude of questions. For one the digital divide still persists to a large extent in India, and is at different levels due to the complexity of linguistic and social conditions of technological advancement. It is difficult locate a field that is so premised on technology in such a varied context. Secondly, the existing discourse on DH still draws upon, to a large extent, the given history of the term which renders it inaccessible to certain groups or classes of people in the global South. Another issue which is not specifically Indian but can be seen more explicitly in this context is the somewhat uncritical way in which technology itself is imagined. In most spaces, technology is still understood as either ‘facilitating’ something, either a specific kind of research enquiry or as a tool - a means to an end, and as being value or culture neutral. However, if we are to imagine the digital as a condition of being as Parry says, then technology too cannot be relegated to being a means to an end. Bruno Latour indicates the same when he says "Technology is everywhere, since the term applies to a regime of enunciation, or, to put it another way, to a mode of existence, a particular form of exploring existence, a particular form of the exploration of being – in the midst of many others." (Latour 2002)

DH then in some sense takes us back to the notion of technology or more specifically the digital realm as being a discursive space, and a technosocial or cultural paradigm that generates new objects and methods of study. This has been the impetus of cyber culture and digital culture studies, but what separates DH from these fields is another way to arrive at some understanding of its ontological status. At a cursory glance, the shift from content to process, from information to data seems to be the key transition here, and the blurring of the boundaries between such absolute categories. More importantly however, does this point towards an epistemic shift; a rupture in the given understanding of certain knowledge formations or systems is also a pertinent question of DH. There are several questions therefore for DH - in terms of what it means and what it could do for our understanding of the humanities and technology. However the questions of DH still need to be made explicit. This mapping exercise will attempt to explore some of the above thoughts a little further. Through discussions with scholars and practitioners across diverse fields, we will attempt to map and generate different meanings of the ‘digital’ and DH. While one can expect this to definitely produce more questions, we also hope the process of thinking though these questions will lead to an understanding of the larger field as well.

 

The Problem of the Discipline

Much has been said and written about DH as an emergent field or domain of enquiry; the plethora of departments being set up all across the world, well mostly the developed world is testimony to the claimed innovative and generative potential of the field. However as outlined in the introduction the problem of definition still persists and poses much difficulty in any attempts to engage with the field. While the predominant narrative seems to be in terms of defining what DH or to take it a step back, what the ‘digital’ allows you to do, with respect to enabling or facilitating certain kinds of research and pedagogy, a pertinent question still is that of what it allows you to ‘be’. DH has been alternatively called a method, practice and field of enquiry, but scholars and practitioners in many instances have stopped short of fully embracing it as a discipline. This is an interesting development given the rapid pace of its institutionalisation - from being located in existing Humanities or Computational Sciences and Media Studies departments it has now claimed functional institutional spaces of its own, with not just interdisciplinary research and teaching but also other creative and innovative knowledge-making practices. The field is slowly gaining credence in India as well, with several institutions pursuing research around core questions within the fold of DH.

So is the disciplinary lens inadequate to understand this phenomenon, or is it too early for a field still considered in some ways rather incipient. The growth of the academic discipline itself is something of a fraught endeavour; as debates around the scientific revolution and Enlightenment thought have established. To put it in a very simple manner, the story of academic disciplines is that of training in reason [3]. Andrew Cutrofello says "In academia, a discipline is defined by its methodological rigor and the clear boundaries of its field of inquiry. Methods or fields are criticized as being 'fuzzy' when they are suspected of lacking a discipline. In a more straightforwardly Foucauldian sense, the disciplinary power of academic disciplines can be located in their methods for producing docile bodies of different sorts" (Cutrofello 1994). The problem with defining DH may lie in it not conforming to precisely this notion of the academic discipline, and changing ideas of the function of critique when mediated by the digital, which is of primary concern for the humanities. DH has in many spaces also emerged as a manifestation of increasing interdisciplinarity and the blurring of boundaries between traditional disciplinary concerns.

However a prevalent mode of understanding DH has been in terms of the disciplinary concerns it raises for the humanities themselves; this works with the assumption that it is in fact a newer, improved version or extension of the humanities. The present mapping exercise too began with the disciplinary lens, but instead of enquiring about what DH is, it tried to explore what the ‘digital’ has brought to, changed or appropriated in terms of existing disciplinary concerns within the humanities and more broadly spaces and process of knowledge-making and dissemination. This thought stems from the premise that if we have to posit the digital itself as a state of being or existence, then we need to understand this new techno-social paradigm much better. Prof. Amlan Dasgupta, at the School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University in Kolkata sees this as useful way of going about the problem of trying to arrive at a definition of the field – one is to understand the history of the term, from its inherited definition in the Anglo-American context, and distinguish it from what he calls the current state of ‘digitality’ – where all cultural objects are being now being conceived of as ‘digital’ objects. In the Indian context, the question of digitality also becomes important from the perspective of technological obsolescence - where there is a great resistance to discontinuing or phasing out the use of certain kinds of technology; either for lack of access to better ones or simply because one finds other uses for it. Prof. Dasgupta interestingly terms this a ‘culture of reuse’, one example of this being the typewriter which for all practical purposes has been displaced by the computer, but still finds favour with several people in their everyday lives. The question of livelihood is still connected to some of these technologies, so much so that they are very much a part of channels of cultural production and circulation, and even when they cease to become useful they have value as cultural artefacts. We therefore inhabit at the same time, different worlds, that of the analogue and digital, or as he calls it 'a multi-layered technological sphere'. The notion of the 'digital' is also multi-layered, with some objects being 'weakly digital', and others being so in a more pronounced manner. The variedness of this space, and the complexities or ‘degrees of use’ of certain technologies or technological objects is what further determines the nature of this space and makes it all the more difficult to define. DH itself has seen several phases in the West, but has seen no such movement or gradual evolution in India, where these phases exist simultaneously.

This is also true of most technology in underdeveloped world. This further complicates the questions of access to technology or the 'digital divide' which have been and still are some of the primary approaches concerning the pervasiveness of technology, particularly in the Global South. The need of the hour therefore is to be able to distinguish between this current state of digitality that we are in, and what is meant by the ‘Digital Humanities’. It may after all be a set of methodologies rather than a subject or discipline in itself– the question is how it would help us understand the ‘digital’ itself much better, and more critically, and the new kinds of enquiries it may then facilitate about this space we now inhabit. This, Prof. Dasgupta feels would go a long way in arriving at some definition of the field.

One of the important points of departure, from the traditional humanities and later humanities computing as mentioned earlier, has been the blurring of boundaries between content, method and object/s of enquiry. The ‘process’ has become important, as illustrated by the iterative nature of most DH projects and the discourse itself which emphasises the 'making' and 'doing' aspects of the research as much as the content itself. Tool-building as a critical activity rather than as mere facilitation is an important part of the knowledge-making process in the field (Ramsay 2010). In conjunction with this, Dr. Moinak Biswas, at the Department of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, thinks that the biggest changes have been in terms of the collaborative nature of knowledge production, based on voluntarily sharing or creating new content through digital platforms and archives, and crucially the possibility of now imagining creative and analytical work as not separate practices, but located within a single space and time. He cites an example from film, where now with digital platforms and processes ‘image’ making and critical practice can both be combined on one platform, like the online archive Indiancine.ma [4] or the Vectors journal [5] for example, to produce new layers of meaning around existing texts. The aspect of critique is important here, given that the consistent criticism about the field has been the ambiguity of its social undertaking; its critical or political standpoint or challenge to existing theoretical paradigms. Most of the interest around the term has been in very instrumental terms, as a facilitator or enabler of certain kinds of digital practice. While the move away from computational analysis as a technique to facilitate humanities research is apparent, the disciplinary concerns here still seem to be latched onto those of the traditional humanities. Questions about the epistemological concerns of DH itself therefore remain unanswered.

While reiterating some of these core questions within DH, Dr. Souvik Mukherjee at the Department of English, Presidency University and Dr. Padmini Ray Murray, at the Centre for Public History, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, speak of the problem of locating the field in India, where work is presently only being done in a few small pockets. The lack of a precise definition, or location within an established disciplinary context are some reasons why a lot of work that could come within the ambit of DH is not being acknowledged as such; conversely it also leads to the problem of projects on digitisation or studies of digital cultures/cyber cultures being easily conflated with DH . Related to this is the absence of self-claimed ‘digital humanists’, which makes it all the more difficult to identify the boundaries of their research and practice. More importantly, the lack of an indigenous framework to theorise around questions of the digital is also an obstacle to understanding what the field entails and the many possibilities it may offer in the Indian context. This they feel is a problem not just of DH, but in general for modes of knowledge production in the social sciences and humanities that have adopted Western theoretical constructs. One could also locate in some sense the present crisis in disciplines within this problem. Sundar Sarukkai and Gopal Guru explicate this issue when they talk about the absence of 'experience as an important category of the act of theorising' because of the privileging of ideas in Western constructs of experience (Guru and Sarukkai 2012). This is also reflective of the bifurcation between theory and praxis in traditional social sciences or humanities epistemological frameworks which borrow heavily from the West. DH while still to arrive at a core disciplinary concern seems to point towards the problem of this very demarcation by addressing the aspect of practice as a very focal point of its discourse.

Dr. Indira Chowdhury, oral historian and director of the Centre for Public History, who is also a faculty member at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore sees this as a favourable way of understanding how the field as such has emerged and what its various possibilities could be in terms of different disciplinary perspectives. She is uncertain that of its emergence as a response to a ‘crisis’ in the humanities as such. She recalls an instance of one of her students who went on to work on hypertext in Canada, several years ago, which for her seemed to be the first instance of something close to DH. The IT revolution in the early 2000s was a significant change, and there were several things that it enabled people to do, in terms of concordance, cross-referencing and getting around texts in certain ways. However, whether key questions in the humanities really changed, whether they were taken any further, is something yet to be explored because it is still such a new field, and one can only be speculative about it, she feels. It perhaps pushes for a new level of interdisciplinarity, and a different kind of collaborative space that the digital enables. What is significant and exciting for her as a historian, however, is that if history has to survive as a discipline, in schools but in terms of public spaces and discourse, it should actively engage with the digital. This not only presents significant challenges, in terms how to represent the past in the digital space, (in short problems with method) but also opens up new possibilities, for example with oral history and the advent of digital sound. The definition of the field will also evolve, as people define it from different spaces of practice and research, which Dr. Chowdhury feels is crucial to keeping it open and accessible by all.

Even from diverse disciplinary perspectives, at present the understanding of DH is that it facilitates new modes of humanistic enquiry, or enables one to ask questions that could not be asked earlier. As Prof. Dasgupta reiterates, it is no longer possible to imagine humanities scholarship outside of the ‘digital’ as such, as that is the world we inhabit. However, while some of the key conceptual questions for the humanities may remain the same, it is the mode of questioning that has undergone a change – we need to re-learn questioning or question-making within this new digital sphere, which is in some sense also a critical and disciplinary challenge. While this does not resolve the problem of definition, it does provide a useful route into thinking of what would be questions of DH, particularly in the Indian context.

 

Notes

[1] For a more detailed overview of the different phases of DH, see Patrik Svensson in 'Landscape of Digital Humanities,' Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 4 Number 1, 2010, http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html.

[2] For more on the nature of the technosocial subject, see Nishant Shah, The Technosocial Subject: Cities, Cyborgs and Cyberspace, Manipal University, 2013. Indian ETD Repository @ INFLIBNET, http://hdl.handle.net/10603/8558.

[3] This is rather simple abstraction of ideas about discipline and reason as they have stemmed from Enlightenment thought. For a more elaborate understanding see Conflict of the Faculties (1798) by Immanuel Kant and Discipline and Punish (1975) by Michel Foucault.

[4] See: http://indiancine.ma/.

[5] See: http://vectors.usc.edu/journal/index.php.

 

References

Cutrofello, Andrew, Discipline and Critique: Kant, Poststructuralism and the Problem of Resistance, State University of New York Press, 1994.

Guru, Gopal, and Sundar Sarukkai, The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory, New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2012.

Johns, Adrian, The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Latour, Bruno, 'Morality and Technology: The End of the Means,' Trans. Couze Venn, Theory Culture Society, 247-260, 2002.

Parry, Dave, 'The Digital Humanities or a Digital Humanism', Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Mathew K. Gold, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/24.

Ramsay, Stephen, 'On Building,' 2010, http://lenz.unl.edu/papers/2011/01/11/on-building.html.

 

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Author

Puthiya Purayil Sneha

Sneha is a Programme Manager at CIS, and co-leads the [email protected] programme. She is engaged in a mapping of the emergent field of Digital Humanities in India, and is also interested in questions on the nature of textuality, reading, and writing practices in the digital sphere. She can be reached at sneha[at]cis-india[dot]org.