A Question of Digital Humanities

The emergence of digital humanities as a new field of interdisciplinary research enquiry has also seen growth in literature around the problem of its definition. This blog-post lays out some of the conceptual frameworks for the mapping exercise taken up by CIS to look at digital humanities in India.

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. The digital humanities have emerged as yet another manifestation of what in essence is this changing relationship between technology and the human 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 digital humanities discourse as it has emerged in different parts of the world so far. However, digital humanities 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 question of what is digital humanities has been asked many times, and in different ways. Most scholars have differentiated between two waves or types of digital humanities – 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. 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. David 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.’[1]

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 a series of posts over the next couple of weeks. 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 frameworks, which we hope will inform also larger concerns of the digital humanities programme 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”[2]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 the digital humanities therefore be an attempt to bridge these knowledge gaps would be a question here.
  2. The distance between the practice and the subject. How does one identify with digital humanities practice? While many people engage with what seem to be core digital humanities 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 digital humanities – 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 digital humanities research today. This is apparent in the emphasis on processes and tools in digital humanities – 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[3] 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 digital humanities. This comes with the perception of digital humanities being a version 2.0 of the traditional humanities, a result of the existing narrative of crisis and the need for the humanities to reinvent themselves by becoming amenable to the use of computing tools. Digital humanities has emerged as one way to mediate between the humanities and the changes that are imminent with digital technologies, but it may 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 digital humanities 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 digital humanities 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 the digital humanities works with or tries to address this particular formulation of the digital humanities.

Locating these concerns in India, where the field of digital humanities 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 digital humanities 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.”[4]

The digital humanities 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 digital humanities 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 digital humanities.

This mapping exercise will attempt to explore some of these thoughts a little further and with a focus on the Indian context. Through discussions with scholars and practitioners across diverse fields, we will attempt to map and generate different meanings of the ‘digital’ and digital humanities. 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.

[1]. Dave Parry “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

[2]. Adrian Johns,  The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998)  pp.3

[3]. 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, Web, March 7, 2014.

[4]. Latour, Bruno . "Morality and Technology: The End of the Means." Trans. Couze Venn Theory Culture Society . (2002): 247-260. Sage. Web, March  4, 2014 URL> http://www.brunolatour.fr/sites/default/files/downloads/80-MORAL-TECHNOLOGY-GB.pdf


Sneha PP

P. P. Sneha is Programme Officer with the Researchers at Work (RAW) programme at CIS. She can be reached at <[email protected]>.