Digital Humanities in India – Concluding Thoughts

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 final section.

 

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


Concluding Thoughts

This exercise in mapping ‘digital humanities’ in India has brought to the fore several learnings and challenges, especially in trying to locate the domain of enquiry even as our understanding of what constitutes new objects, methods and forms of research and pedagogy constantly undergo change and redefinition. As some of the people interviewed in the course of this study remarked, DH, with its interdisciplinary approach and porous boundaries is like a moving target that becomes increasingly difficult to define as it is constantly evolving into something new, which then adds another dimension to what is already understood about the field. This is not to say that there is a consensus on what is DH, globally or in India, but just to emphasise that the object or domain of enquiry is not fixed, or demarcated clearly.

Even as I wrap up this study, some of the key questions or problems of definition, ontology and method remain with us, as the ‘field’ – if there is such a thing – is incipient in India, as with other parts of the world. What it does for us immediately is throw open several questions about how we understand the idea of the ‘digital’, and what may be new areas of enquiry for the humanities at large, post the advent of the digital. This study therefore is not interested in the question of whether there is a field called DH in India, but rather in what questions are raised by and for DH and DH-like projects by a range of practices and scholarship in the humanities post the digital.

We began with the understanding that DH is a new space of interdisciplinary research, scholarship and practice with several possibilities for thinking about the nature of the intersection of the humanities and technology. The term was a little more than a found term of sorts, in the context of this study, which since then has taken on various meanings and undergone some form of creative re-appropriation. The history of the term in the context of “humanities computing” in the Anglo-American context has helped in locating and defining the field globally within the ambit of certain kinds of practices and scholarship in the contemporary moment. In India, this has been relatively complex endeavour, given that DH, or engagements with humanities-after-digital and/or with digital-through-humanities come out of a different chequered history of humanities and technology. As most of the literature around DH even globally has pointed out, the problem with arriving at a definition is ontological, more than epistemological. The conditions of its emergence and existence are yet to be completely understood, although if one is to take into account the larger history of science and technology studies or the more recent cyber culture and digital culture studies, these ‘epistemic shifts’ have been in the making for some time now. In India particularly, where a clear picture of the ‘field’ as such is still to emerge in the form of a theorisation of its key concerns, it is only through a practice-mapping that one may locate what are at best certain discursive shifts in the way we understand content, structures and methods in the humanities, within the context of the digital. These changes may be visible across only a few domains – particularly in the multi-layered technological landscape in India, and lack a wider consensus in terms of whether they really constitute a larger epistemic shift or new direction of thought. The first couple of chapters in this report tried to lay out ways of understanding the current state of ‘digitality’ that India is in, and the lack of an indigenous framework to theorise or understand it better. The layered technological and media landscape that we inhabit today, where both the analogue and digital co-exist serving various purposes, and access and usage are still contentious points of debate, provides an interesting and dynamic context to understand what are new practices of humanities research and scholarship today.

The fundamental premise of the nature of the digital and its relation to the human subject still lacks adequate exploration which would be required to define the contours of the field. The inherited separation of humanities and technology further makes this a complex space to negotiate, when the term may now actually indicate the need to decode the rather tenuous relationship between the two supposedly separate domains. If one may locate the question even earlier, the separation of the natural and social sciences lies above this segregation of disciplines, and needs further exploration. There is a need therefore to understand the growth of a ‘technologised’ history of humanities to examine whether this almost forced coming together of two historically separated domains may in itself be something novel, or create new and qualitatively different kinds of practices for humanities. Even so, the disciplinary contexts of the usage of the term DH in India open up certain questions of ontology and method more broadly for humanities research and practice in the digital space. These include changes in the nature of cultural artifacts brought about by digitisation, in a landscape where the analogue and digital co-exist but also are in a state of transition from the first to the second. One example is the digitisation of objects like film posters, lobby cards and other paraphernalia around a film text, which although analogue objects, can now be layered onto a digital film object in online archivel like Indiancine.ma, thus also changing the object or opening it up for more questions. The digital object or image, is a new object of study that also demands a different kind of analysis. The change in the nature of the archival object and the challenges to archival practice are some of the related questions stemming from this context. As mentioned by Dr. Indira Chowdhury in the chapter on archival practice, oral history archives and the practice of creating and maintaining them is fraught with many challenges because of a change in the archival object itself. A digital audio file has its own protocols of storage, retrieval and use, given the problems of format and technological obsolescence. Further the classification of such files, its copies in different formats, and their preservation also demands changes in archival practice. This points to some of the larger challenges that have emerged for archival practice in India today, which include – storage and preservation of materials, cross-referencing and meta-data standards, conditions and structures of access, roles and forms of curation, re-usage of archival materials in research and pedagogy, and the constraints to digitization of archival materials, particularly in terms of rare materials and those in Indian languages. The challenge of working with materials in Indian languages (see section on Data as Text) are several, and will form one of the significant areas of work in DH.

The question of methodology comes in as the next most important aspect here, as the method of DH is yet to be clearly defined. The proliferation of new disciplines and conflict over methodology is not new, the Gulbenkian Commission report published in 1996 titled ‘Open the Social Sciences’ documents some of these and other concerns with the growth and segregation of disciplines, and the debates it generated both internally, seen in the rise of cultural studies, and in the natural sciences as complexity studies as well (Wallerstein et al 1996). At present DH seems to be a combination and creative appropriation of methodologies drawn from different disciplines and creative practices. The change in the methodology of the humanities and social sciences itself as no longer remaining discipline-specific has been a contributory factor to the evolving methodology of DH as well. This has raised several methodological questions, as outlined by some of the people interviewed in the study. The foremost is the challenge in rethinking the notion of the text as a digitally mediated object, and the blurring of boundaries between film, audio and print and archival materials as they are transformed into digital objects. The existing methods of reading these texts then are inadequate. An example is the Bichitra variorum at Jadavpur University, or online archives like Indiancine.ma or Pad.ma, where you need new tools to navigate the vast corpus of material on these platforms, and to work with them. The notion of text and textual analysis also demands some rethinking in the light of new terms such as ‘distant reading’ that have come up in the DH discourse. Bichitra and Pad.ma or Indiancine.ma would facilitate some form of such ‘distant reading’ as they involve a method of reading the print or film text using a large number of texts, something possible only with a computer, but also with other kinds of ancillary material, like marginalia, errata, posters, pamphlets and lobby cards of a film. This brings up not just new ways of contextualizing the digital object, but also asking questions of it in terms of its material aspects. Working with collaborative online archives, while creating a new analytical and creative space for work using different kinds of film and film-related material, also pose questions of authorship and privacy. The lack of better transcription tools and other methods to work with sound in the digital space, has posed significant methodological challenges in oral history work as well, as outlined in earlier sections of this report.

The use of computational methods for humanities research is one of the important shifts that forms part of the growth of DH in India, although there is very little work being done in this area in academic spaces except for a few institutions. The Tagore variorum and the online film archives Indiacine.ma and Pad.ma are two examples in this study that have done some work with computational tools and a large corpus of material. The collation guide in Bichitra, and the use of different tools and filters in the film archives like Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma have been able to add another dimension to the analysis of humanities texts, but whether they help ask any qualitatively new questions still remains open to debate. The other spaces studied as part of this report, such as work on digitisation and archives at the School of Cultural Texts, Centre for Public History, or SPARROW, or media art work at CAMP, have been more engaged with exploring what the digital turn has meant for certain humanities research. Some of the more recent courses offered in DH, such as the master’s programme at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, and the certificate course at University of Pune, do engage with some form of building or ‘material making’, by offering workshops and some practical sessions, as well as topics like data mining, and textual computing. As such the skills and infrastructure needed to work with large data sets and new technologised processes of interpretation and visualisation still remain outside the ambit of the mainstream humanities. Through an exploration of allied fields such as media, archival practice, design and education technology, the study tries to locate how certain practices in these areas inform what we understand of DH today.

The archive, media and now to a certain extent art and design have become the sites for most of the discussions around DH in India, primarily because of the nature of institutions and people who have engaged with the question so far. Archival practice has seen a vast change with the onset of digitisation, and the growth of more public and collaborative archival spaces will also bring forth new questions and concepts around the nature of the archive and its imagination as a dynamic space of knowledge production. The Centre for Public History at the Srishti School focuses on some of these questions, by trying to build more collaborative, online and public archival spaces, and involving in the process a rather diverse group of practitioners and researchers. The objective is also to make not only archives, but history, and oral histories as a discipline more accessible, and dynamic. he notion of the archive as a metaphor, and the possibility of looking at the archive as a database are some new questions which would inform the growth of DH in India. The growth of an open, distributive and collaborative archive, such as Indiancine.ma and Pad.ma also asks questions about the changes in film as an archival object, in its transition to the digital space. The availability of the film text for study, and the layering of different kinds of ancillary material around the film, such as posters, advertisements, literature and errata, opens up possibilities of reading the film text differently. At a more abstract level, the nature of the text as an unstable object itself, now increasingly being mediated and negotiated in different ways through digital spaces, tools and methods would be one way of locating an object of enquiry in DH and tracing its connection to the humanities, which are essentially still seen as ‘text-based disciplines’.

What has been a definite shift is the emphasis on process which has become an important point of enquiry, and one of the many axes around which DH is constructed. The rethinking of existing processes of knowledge production, including traditional methods of teaching-learning, and the emergence of new tools and methods such as visualisation, data mapping, distant reading and design-thinking at a larger level would be some of the interesting prospects of enquiry in the field. Though there is little conversation in the above areas in DH in India (even among the institutions and people mentioned in this study), and some work in other fields like the natural sciences, media and communication, its seems to not be part of the larger discourse developing around DH yet. The collation tool developed for the Tagore variorum, or the editing and annotation tools used in Indiancine.ma and Pad.ma are some examples of the tools and methods presently used in what could be DH or DH-like work in India. The method of DH is however, necessarily collaborative and distributed at the same time, as evidenced by its practice in these various areas and disciplines. A lot of the work done on both these platforms has been through collaboration among people across diverse domains of expertise, in the arts and humanities and technological fields. As the description of the variorum suggests, it needed the expertise of people from Computer Science, Library and Information Sciences, English and Bengali departments to set up such a platform. The method of using or working with Indiancine.ma and Pad.ma is necessarily collaborative and distributed, because everything from the primary film material to the annotations and editing is in some way user-generated, as the archive itself is open to different groups of people ranging from the film enthusiast to the film studies scholar.

The complex and somewhere problematic history of science and technology in India and the growth of the IT sector also forms part of this context, and will inform the manner in which DH grows as a concept, area of enquiry or even as a discipline. DH is yet another manifestation of changes that we have seen in the existing objects, processes, spaces and figures of learning, particularly the open, collaborative and participatory nature of knowledge production and dissemination that has come about with the advent of internet and digital technologies. More importantly, they also point towards the larger changes in what were earlier considered unifying notions for the university, and the humanities as disciplines founded on the ideas of reason and culture. The idea proposed by Bill Readings that the university is no longer concerned with the production of a radical or liberal subject is also an important one, as it points to a further question of the nature of the subject produced, and who the process of knowledge production is to be aimed at (Readings 1997). If one may extend this argument to DH, the subject of this new discourse around the digital is also now rather unclear.

One could explore the notion of the 'digital humanist,' or in a more abstract manner the digital subject as one example of this lack of clarity, which is also why it has been of much concern for several scholars, DH and otherwise. As Prof. Amlan Dasgupta says, it is difficult to identify such a category of scholars, although a person who is able to situate his work in the digital space with the same kind of ease and confidence that people of a different generation could do in manuscripts and books would perhaps fit this description, and he is sure that such a person may be found. For example someone who knows Shakespeare well and can write a programme, and he is sure a day will come when this is a possibility. It is a familiarity in which the inherent distance between these two pursuits becomes lesser – DH is at that moment - a composite of these two approaches rather than the difference. While many scholars concur with this explanation, others find the term misleading – humanities scholars do not call themselves ‘humanists’. Also, by virtue of being a digital subject, anybody engaged with some form of digital practice is already a digital humanist of some sort. The problem also is in the rather unclear nature of the practice, all of which is not unanimously identified as DH, as a result of which not many scholars would want to identify with the term. This poses another question about the skills required of a humanities scholar in the near future, will she have to learn how to code etc. Additionally there is also a concern, as pointed out by some scholars, about the loss of criticality as a result of a relying on algorithms to work with a corpus of texts, among other things.

However, many of these alternate or liminal spaces have always existed; they are perhaps becoming more visible and acknowledged now. This is also indicative of the larger changes in the landscape of work in the humanities, whether creative, academic or pedagogic. With the advent of the internet and new digital technologies, the nature of cultural artifacts has also been altered significantly, thus demanding a new mode of enquiry and analysis, which often goes beyond interpretation and representation. How these digital objects are constituted, are they ever complete or finished, such as the text in the variorum or the film in the archive which continue to take on layer upon layer of annotation to generate a plethora of meanings, are related questions. They pose a challenge to the existing methods of the humanities, and along with the distributed, collaborative, and networked structures of practice and research that the internet has engendered, they have opened up several possibilities for the humanities. DH, with its emphasis on interdisciplinarity and different kinds of knowledge drawn from a diverse set of practices definitely opens up space for a new mode of questioning; whether all of these different modes of questioning can coalesce as a new discipline or interdisciplinary field in itself will remain to be seen.

More importantly, it also indicates the changes taking place in the university system in India, which is trying to address multiple anxieties at a larger political and the every-day administrative levels, reflected in problems with quality, equity and access to education (Misra and Singh 2015; Academics for Creative Reforms 2015). The digital turn has been one of the sources of concern, as it has pushed for the need to rethink the role of technology, particularly internet, in teaching and learning practices, both within and outside the classroom. The internet, and the different challenges posed by it in terms of methods, objects and contexts of learning, has contributed greatly to the emergence of some of the digital practices discussed in this study, which also take some of the questions they pose about knowledge production, pedagogy or scholarship, outside the ambit of the classroom or university space. The emergence of DH can be seen as a coming together of these anxieties in some manner, and perhaps indicative of a distinct ontological basis for such a discipline or area of study in India. This is not to conflate the discourse with the narrative of a ‘crisis’ in the university (something that exists in the Anglo-American context of DH) but rather to highlight the changes that it is undergoing, where the internet and digital technologies continue to play a crucial role. In the absence of a history or established traditions for the growth of disciplines like media studies, software/internet studies or digital cultural studies in India, apart from the work done by research programmes like the Sarai programme at CSDS, it is imperative to ask if the emergence of DH is then a push to trace such a history, to understand better its ontological and political stake, and more importantly to explore what the ‘digital’ means not just for the humanities, but for a larger processes of knowledge production today.

 

References

Academics for Creative Reforms ‘What Is To Be Done About Indian Universities? In Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 50, Issue No. 24, 13 Jun, 2015.

Misra, Rajesh and Supriya Singh ‘Continuum of Ignorance in Indian Universities’ in Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 50, Issue No. 48, 28 Nov, 2015

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997

Wallerstein, Immanuel et al. Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. California: Stanford University Press, 1996, http://www.binghamton.edu/fbc/archive/iwstanfo.htm.

 

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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.