Digital Humanities in India?

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 first 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


Background

It has only been a couple of years since I began hearing the term Digital Humanities (henceforth, DH) being uttered quite prominently, though mostly in academic circles. For the uninitiated, it almost sounds like an oxymoron. After all, for most practical purposes the digital and humanities have always been seen almost as contradictory terms, existing in distinct silos. A couple of workshops and conferences, one national-level consultation, three new centres, and two academic courses later the term still needs a definition in India, if not also in other parts of the world. But what was by then, and even now, is interesting is the emergence of pockets of work in India either claiming to be DH or even remotely related to it, and the interest in the term, either as one full of a seemingly diverse, innovative, and generative potential for interdisciplinary work in academia and practice, or as something that is just a reinvention of old questions that have been the focus of humanistic enquiry for several decades now.

The enquiry for this mapping began with the term itself, as a 'found' name for which I needed to excavate some meaning, context and location in India at the present moment. A consultation on Digital Humanities for Indian Higher Education organised in Bangalore in July 2013 [1] and a proposed short course in ‘Digital Humanities and Cultural Informatics’ [2] at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, were some of the early prominent instances of the use of the term. I later learnt from one of the people interviewed for this study that DH was already discussed in academic workshops as early as 2010 [3]. The general interest in the term has steadily picked up in the last couple of years however, albeit in specific pockets of the country, and it would be safe to say that it has been approached in markedly different ways by several institutions.

The source of the term itself is the history and body of literature around humanities computing in the UK and US, which essentially explores the use of computational methods in humanities research and practice. Roberto A. Busa (2010) describes it as “… precisely the automation of every possible analysis of human expression (therefore, it is exquisitely a "humanistic" activity), in the widest sense of the word, from music to the theater, from design and painting to phonetics, but whose nucleus remains the discourse of written texts”. However, locating such a history in India seems not only to be a difficult project, but largely a futile one. It seemed irrelevant to import a concept or discourse that in itself was (and still is to some extent) relatively unstable and undefined even in the Anglo-American context, and then try to locate it here. Instead, what I chose to do was to take a few steps back - firstly to outline a couple of questions/conflicts that seemed to be troubling about this concept to begin with:

  1. Are ‘digital’ and ‘humanities’ really two contradictory terms that are being bridged together? Is this a reiteration of the ‘two cultures’ (Snow 1990) debate?

  2. What are the changes in the object(s) of enquiry in humanities disciplines due to the advent of the internet and digital technologies?

  3. What methods are to be used to study and work with digital objects? How are these affecting the traditional methods of the humanities?

  4. Is DH a fringe academic phenomena, and can it be related to academic disciplines only? With several groups of practitioners engaging with questions and methods akin to DH outside universities, how do we define its institutional boundaries?

  5. What are the new skills and tools emerging with, and in turn defining, DH practices in India?

 

Context

An immediate context for the growth of DH has been the steady debate around a ‘crisis’ of the disciplines, the humanities in particular, and how DH in a strange paradox, seemed to be both the phenomenon posing this question and offering an answer to it. Particularly in the Anglo-American context, while there has been a sustained decline in funding for the arts, especially post the global recession in the late 1990s, the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and other disciplines in natural sciences still seem to be on a steady footing. The ‘crisis’ here exists here at several levels - budgetary cuts across universities for liberal arts and humanities programmes, a steep fall in gainful employment for graduates (whose numbers are much more than the jobs available in the market, the adjunct system that has become popular in the US, which has resulted in reduced full-time employment and poor compensation for faculty, and in general a lack of opportunities and resources for research in the arts and humanities. The problem however, of which these are only the symptoms, lies much deeper, at the heart of what is seen as the lack of interest due to the diminishing practical value of the humanities, which further makes them seem most dispensable in a moment of economic crisis. Martha Nussbaum calls this a ‘silent crisis’, spurred by the growth of a profit-driven model of education, which has led to an increased focus on science and technology programmes, and emphasized the fostering of certain specific skills in these domains much to the detriment of arts and humanities programmes at every level of formal education, thus also doing away with “cultivated capacities of critical thinking and reflection, which are crucial in keeping democracies alive and wide awake.”

Gary Gutting on the other hand sees this definition of crisis in terms of numbers itself as misleading, but proposes that this decline also as a result of a cultural and economic system that is inhospitable to the humanities in general, and the ‘cultural middle class’ in particular. He writes:

Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the material rewards it brings. To a lesser but still significant extent, our system provides meaningful work in service professions (like health and social work) for those fulfilled by helping people in great need. But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic system has almost nothing to offer. Or rather, it has a great deal to offer but only for a privileged elite (the cultural parallel to our economic upper class) who have had the ability and luck to reach the highest levels of humanistic achievement. If you have (in Pierre Bourdieu’s useful term) the “cultural capital” to gain a tenured professorship at a university, play regularly in a major symphony orchestra or write mega bestsellers, you can earn an excellent living doing what you love. Short of that, you must pursue your passion on the side. (Gutting 2013)

Paul Jay and Gerald Graff locate the problem within the notion of the humanities as being inherently averse to a market-driven, utilitarian form of education, which emphasises only credentials, thus rendering the field esoteric and lacking when it comes to solving problems in the ‘real world’. Instead they favour the approach of humanities students developing diverse skill sets, in addition to traditional skills of their disciplines, and being open to engage with opportunities in the larger marketplace outside of academy as well. As the essay states:

We believe it is time to stop the ritualized lamentation over the crisis in the humanities and get on with the task of making them relevant in the 21st century. Such lamentation only reveals the inability of many humanists to break free of a 19th-century vision of education that sees the humanities as an escape from the world of business and science. As Cathy Davidson has forcefully argued in her new book, Now You See It, this outmoded way of thinking about the humanities as a realm of high-minded cultivation and pleasure in which students contemplate the meaning of life is a relic of the industrial revolution with its crude dualism of lofty spiritual art vs. mechanized smoking factories, a way of thinking that will serve students poorly in meeting the challenges of the 21st century. (Jay and Duff 2002)

While many of the traditional humanities scholars may still look at this as the result of a certain techno capitalistic impulse - wherein a new research regime based on knowledge creation to fulfil corporate interests emerges – it is prudent to examine how and why fields like the digital humanities have now emerged around the time of such a crisis, as they seemingly fit well within this nebulous space, and what are their implications for the humanities, education and research at large.

In the India, the context is a rather chequered one – with most conversations around the internet and digital technologies located within the domain of the development of Information and Communication technologies for Development (ICT4D), in sectors ranging from education to governance. The introduction to the digital has been in multifarious ways for countries in the global south, largely through rhetoric about its potential to address and even resolve social and economic problems, so much so that, as several of the people interviewed in this study also mentioned, now anything digital automatically translates to ‘good’ and ‘beneficial’. Addressing the digital divide has been a mandate of all stakeholders, whether the state and policy-makers, private organisations, NGOs or academia. With around 300 million internet users and counting, India has the second largest internet user base in the world. However, the conditions and quality of access to the internet and other digital technologies, and who is using these and for what purposes continue to remain a bone of contention. The ambitious Digital India initiative of the current government is the latest in a slew of measures undertaken to address some of these concerns in the last several years, and it proposes to do so by tackling three key areas – digital infrastructure, governance and services on demand, and empowerment of citizens through increased digital literacy [4]. As such it seeks to resolve some of the challenges of last mile connectivity that have forever been an issue with many ICT4D initiatives, particularly with countries in the Global South. The advent of a techno-democracy or a model of governance that successfully integrates technology within a framework of rights and social development seems to be larger vision of these proposed initiatives.

The ICT-fication of education has been a major objective and challenge within this larger vision, specifically with respect to the problem of access, and more importantly quality of access which stands out as pertinent, again a problem attributed to the lack of last mile connectivity. In 2009, the MHRD launched the ambitious National Mission in Education and Information and Communication Technologies (NMEICT) programme [5], which along with the National Commission for Higher Education and Research (NCHER) Bill [6] and the recommendations of the Yashpal Committee report [7], was expected to address some long-standing concerns in making higher education more accessible and hospitable to students, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds. Ashish Rajadhyaksha (2011) argues that the last-mile problem is a more of a conceptual or cultural problem than merely a technological one. This is illustrated in the manner of implementation of several projects under the NMEICT, particularly in the imagination, as Rajadhyaksha says, of technology as neutral and therefore capable of addressing issues of democratisation within higher education.

Following the NMEICT, several initiatives such as the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) [8] programme, and the use of low-cost devices such as the Aakash tablets [9] were also field tested to get a better understanding of how digital technologies could be integrated seamlessly into classroom instruction. The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) [10] and Information and Library Network (INFLIBNET) [11], and more recently the National Knowledge Network (NKN) [12] are some of the more established efforts in distance education and open courseware. Digitisation initiatives were also launched on a large scale in the last decade, some notable ones being National Mission for Manuscripts [13], Digital Library of India [14], and National Library of India [15], among many others. There is also a growing number of closed/commercial archives, some examples being the South Asia Archive [16] and Asia Art Archive [17]. Digitisation, while being taken up in the interest of preservation and record, also brought with it a number of challenges, particularly with respect to the manner in which the projects were implemented. Whether with regard to preservation of the original material, problems with copyright or defining metadata standards, digitisation has never been an easy process. The Google Books library project is an example of this, where many books were damaged and had to be discarded in the process of digitisation, and the project itself came under criticism for several copyright violations, errors produced due to conversion of scanned texts using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and incorrect or unavailable metadata.

The move towards digitisation also provided the much needed impetus for archival practice to make a transition to the digital space, this has been an inevitable but rather fraught endeavour to begin with, as some of the observations made in the later chapters will illustrate. The emergence of independent, private online archives, often seen as a fallout of the hegemony of state-funded archives is an important development of this time. An influx of funding from government and private donors, has led to a lot of work in media and communication technologies getting concentrated in so-called ‘alternative’ spaces outside the university. The growth of these in between spaces has been an interesting phenomenon, particularly with respect to the possibilities offered for different kinds of research and other creative practices that are often unable to find a space within the confines of a university or other large, established knowledge institutions.

In the last decade or so, DH seems to have become one of the most highly funded areas in humanities research and practice. While this has seemingly helped to either save and/or reinvent some the humanities programmes, a lot of traditional humanists also view the field and the term with scepticism – as a threat to more traditional forms of humanities pedagogy and practice. Whether such a context exists in India and is still a matter of question, and hinges largely on how we understand the digital itself - as an object, concept or space. For that seems to be where the questions about the field, its emergence and its epistemological concerns lie.

This report, therefore, takes a slightly broader look, somewhat like a scoping exercise to see what some present concerns are and what could be the possibilities of DH in India. The areas of focus are few – the notion of crisis, and disciplines, the archive and so forth which form the crux of the debate in India. It also looks at changes that have come about, and are imminent with the ‘digital turn’, from the perspective of selected disciplines, and practices of knowledge-making. More importantly, it tries to extrapolate, from the common issues and conflicts traced across several conversations, larger questions of a conflict of authority that disciplines in the humanities have come to undergo, and whether the digital has amplified of tried to resolve the same. The conflict is tied to questions of ownership/authorship and authenticity that emerge with new collaborative modes of knowledge production, and the politics of circulation. It is reflected in the shift from more traditional spaces of knowledge-making to newer methods, objects, figures and processes in the online world, which seem to at one level replace older ones. This perceived threat of irrelevance or obsolescence is one of the manifestations of this conflict of authority. The Wikipedia is one example of this conflict, wherein the authenticity and authority of its content and recognition as scholarship has been intensely debated owing to, among other things, the fact that it cannot be attributed to any single author. In the ways in which the digital now mediates such activities, what has become the space and understanding of the digital in our lives, in the ways we consume and produce information and knowledge, and increasingly become uneven stakeholders in a dynamic knowledge economy, are some of the questions explored therein.

 

Methodology

With few 'digital humanists' (a term many DH scholars in India have consciously chosen to stay away from) and DH centres around, and the discourse being far from stable in India, the best way to explore this supposedly new phenomenon then seemed to be to understand some of the immediate problems and questions with the notion of the ‘digital’ itself. This approach was not just the result of constraints of the immediate context, but also turned out to be a productive methodological gesture, as it widened the scope of this mapping exercise to include several proto/perhaps-DH initiatives that have come up around the same time, or been in existence for a while and have been trying to work around similar questions. The mapping did not begin with an assumption of a field called DH as being extant in India, and therefore as an examination of its challenges and possibilities, but rather to understand how DH-like practices have evolved and converged at the moment under what appears to be like a place-holder term, and the implications of this for research and learning. Being located in India, it also provided a good vantage point to reflect on some of the literature and discourse around the term being produced in the Anglo-American context. The consultation on Digital Humanities for Indian Higher Education held in July 2013 was helpful in bringing together a number of people and key questions of what was then understood as something of a field. It is largely from the discussions at this consultation that this report approaches the term and what it may offer for humanities and related interdisciplinary research in India; somewhere it also hopes to serve as a point of departure. A major concern then was the lack of a proper definition of the field, and its instability, which continued to be a recurrent topic in my discussions with people as part of this exercise. However, the merits of embarking upon an exercise to ‘define DH in India’ were highly contentious, so the mapping took a more descriptive route, and did a discursive analysis of work in DH and allied fields and what people were saying about it in India. What I found were a range of views, some informed by practice and scholarship, others based on conjecture and some purely non-committal. As one of the people interviewed for this mapping pointed out, there is something provisional about which, if I may add, also inhibits us from saying anything definitive about it, just yet.

Given that the lack of a definition of the field remained one of the main issues, I went into conducting the mapping with a working definition/assumption that DH ‘is an interdisciplinary area of research, practice and pedagogy that looks at the interaction of digital tools, methods and spaces with core concerns of humanistic enquiry’. This definition was developed based on a review of existing literature in the Anglo-American context on DH, and deliberately made expansive enough to include within its fold, the different kinds of practices that had already chosen to adopt the term, and others which seemed to be inclined towards similar theoretical and practical concerns. Another useful definition, from the Digital Humanities Quarterly useful was the following:

Digital humanities is a diverse and still emerging field that encompasses the practice of humanities research in and through information technology, and the exploration of how the humanities may evolve through their engagement with technology, media, and computational methods. (Digital Humanities Quarterly 2010)

Deliberating on the interaction between humanities and technology, Susan Schreibman, in one the earliest books on DH describes the 'field' as follows:

The digital humanities, then, and their interdisciplinary core found in the field of humanities computing, have a long and dynamic history best illustrated by examination of the locations at which specific disciplinary practices intersect with computation. (Schreibman et al 2004)

One of the popular and most quoted definitions, however, is an early one that appeared in the Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0 (Institute for the Future of the Book 2009). This describes DH as an array of convergent practices, and is also reproduced in the book Digital Humanities (Burdick et al 2012):

Digital Humanities refers to new modes of scholarship and institutional units for collaborative, transdisciplinary, and computationally engaged research, teaching, and publication. Digital Humanities is less a unified field than an array of convergent practices that explore a universe in which print is no longer the primary medium in which knowledge is produced and disseminated. (Ibid., 122)

The notion that DH is a “less a unified field than an array of convergent practices” seems to be the most useful way to describe the observations and more so the conditions that led to this mapping exercise, which also seeks to outline some kind of a trajectory of practices that converge at this contemporary moment to engender new meanings of and around the digital, rather than produce a conceptual history of the term in the Indian context or even imagine an extant field of some sort. This notion of a convergence, as stated in the last definition, although not apparent or expressed by anyone in India, seems to be the best possible way to describe the manner in which certain practices and a discourse has grown around the intersection of humanities and digital technologies in India. This rather organic growth of DH projects, practices and coursework in the absence of a meta-theory that would drive its epistemological concerns is an important conceptual question for the field itself, and a challenge for the study. Thus while the broader conversation around DH spans everything from instructional technology, new media and art practices, integrated science education to cultural analytics, the core concerns often remain the same, that of the intersection of previously separate domains of knowledge that are now coming together, and the crucial role played by the internet and digital technologies in bringing them together.

Further, three immediate experiences in engaging with digital technologies and questions of knowledge production in India shaped the intellectual concerns of this study. The first of these is the series of monographs produced as part of the ‘Histories of Internets in India’ project at the Researchers at Work (RAW) programme in CIS, during 2008-2011. A key point foregrounded in these monographs was the critical need to approach the internet, as a plural technology, available in and actualised through different forms, practices, and experiences. The second one was the collaborative project on the quality of access to higher education in undergraduate educational institutions at the Higher Education Innovation and Research Applications programme at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore.The project was conducted in nine undergraduate institutions across three states in India, and included interaction with students and teachers through workshops and campus projects.The experience of working with students – who ranged from those who could barely use a computer to students proficient with the latest software, multimedia tools and internet applications – led to many insightful learnings about the teaching-learning environment, and prevalence of digital technologies and the internet in these spaces. The third one, of course, is the consultation on DH held in Bangalore, which provided an immediate set of questions and a network of people to begin the mapping with.

In this study, the fieldwork consisted of in-depth and semi-structured interviews with key people involved in the DH-like initiatives in India, and allied areas such as media, archives, art, and higher education. The sample size being small, the conversations were by no means exhaustive, but they were insightful in terms of the present nature of practice and the questions that they further pointed towards. The interviews were largely open-ended conversations focussing on, where possible, questions about DH: its emergence, theory, practice and pedagogy, but emphasising the notion of the ‘digital’ and is diverse perception and formulations. With respondents who were not from an academic space or not involved with DH directly, the questions were more related to the nature of changes that the digital has brought about in their practice, specifically the shifts in content and method. The crisis of disciplines and the move away from more traditional concerns of humanistic enquiry were also discussed. Issues of access, exclusivity and the move towards collaborative spaces of knowledge production and the democratic potential of the internet and digital technologies also came up quite prominently as points of discussion.

The fieldwork tried to cover not just a range of people from different disciplines and areas of practice, but also institutions: Prof. Amlan Dasgupta, Prof. Sukanta Chaudhuri and Purbasha Auddy, (School of Cultural Texts and Records and Dept. of English), Dr. Moinak Biswas and Dr. Madhuja Mukherjee (Media lab and Dept. of Film Studies); Dr. Abhijit Roy (School of Communication and Culture) at Jadavpur University, Kolkata; Dr. Souvik Mukherjee (Dept. of English) and Dr. Milinda Banerjee (Dept. of History) at Presidency University, Kolkata; Abhijit Bhattacharya (Media Archives) at Centre for the Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata; Dr. Ravi Sundaram (the Sarai Programme) at Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi; Dr. Indira Chowdhury and Dr. Padmini Ray-Murray (Centre for Public History) at Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore; Dr. C. S Lakshmi at the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, Mumbai; Shaina Anand, Namita Malhotra, Lawrence Liang, Jan Gerber, Sebastian Lutgert and Ashish Rajadhyaksha, who have all worked with CAMP, Mumbai and are part of the team behind Indiancine.ma and Pad.ma; Vikram Vincent at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai and S.V. Srinivas, Azim Premji University, who was previously associated with the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society. The individuals and institutions mentioned here have been engaged with these concerns within their respective fields of research and practice. Three institutions - Jadavpur University, Presidency University and the Centre for Public History – have actively adopted the term DH for some of the work they have been doing, whereas the remaining have been working with digital technologies as part of research, pedagogy, and practice. The report presents some part of these conversations and in doing so provides a snapshot of the operational context of the term ‘DH’ in India as well. The attempt was to understand the nature of existing and possible institutional investment in the term, as well as digital technologies (beyond tools, platforms and processes) and their stake in taking these questions further.

 

Notes

[1] This one-day event was organized by the Higher Education Innovation and Research Applications (HEIRA) programme at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, in collaboration with the Access to Knowledge (A2K) Programme at the Centre for Internet and Society, and other institutions. See: http://cis-india.org/digital-natives/digital-humanities-for-indian-higher-education.

[2] See: https://sctrdhci.wordpress.com/

[3] See: http://www.tezu.ernet.in/notices/ResearchMethodology.pdf.

[4] See: http://www.digitalindia.gov.in/.

[5] See: http://www.nmeict.ac.in/.

[6] See http://www.prsindia.org/uploads/media/Higher%20education/Legislative%20Brief%20-%20Higher%20Education%20and%20Research%20Bill.pdf.

[7] See: http://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/document-reports/YPC-Report.pdf

[8] See: http://nptel.ac.in/

[9] See: http://gadgets.ndtv.com/tablets/news/government-for-providing-aakash-tablet-at-rs-1500-329578.

[10] See: http://www.ignou.ac.in/.

[11] See: http://www.inflibnet.ac.in/.

[12] See: http://nkn.in/.

[13] See: http://www.namami.org/.

[14] See: http://www.dli.ernet.in/.

[15] See: http://www.nationallibrary.gov.in/.

[16] See: http://www.southasiaarchive.com/.

[17] See: http://www.aaa.org.hk/.

 

References

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunefeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2012, https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/digitalhumanities.

Digital Humanities Quarterly, "About DHQ," 2010, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/about/about.html

Gutting, Gary. "The Real Humanities Crisis," The New York Times, November 30, 2013, accessed July 14, 2015. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/.

Institute for the Future of the Book, "The Digital Humanities Manifesto 2.0," 2009, http://manifesto.humanities.ucla.edu/2009/05/29/the-digital-humanities-manifesto-20/

Jay, Paul, and Gerald Duff, "The Fear of Being Useful," Inside Higher Ed. January 5. 2012. Accessed September 22, 2015. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/01/05/essay-new-approach-defend-value-humanities.

Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, "The Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing: An Introduction," A Companion to Digital Humanities, Oxford: Blackwell, 2004, http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.

Snow, C.P. "The Two Cultures," Leonardo, Vol. 23, No. 2/3, New Foundations: Classroom Lessons in Art/Science/Technology for the 1990s. 1990. Pp. 169-173.

 

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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.