Living in the Archival Moment

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 fifth 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


In a rather delightful essay titled ‘Unpacking my Library’, Walter Benjamin (1968: 59-67) dwells upon the many nuances of the art of collecting (books in this particular case), on everything from the sometimes impulsive acquisition to the processes of careful selection and classification which go into creating a library. "Ownership is the most intimate relationship one can have with objects" (67) he says, and this becomes important given the many ways in which we can acquire books today, as well as the problems of copyright, authorship and authority over meaning and knowledge that become a bone of contention in the digital age. The collector defines the nature of the object here, because he lives in and through them. While describing the personal process that is collecting, Benjamin is also aware that it may not be a process that will last as it is - a foreboding of the age when the impulse to collect, hoard and categorise has only grown tremendously due to increased access to books owing to the internet, but also where the figure of the collector seems to have been slowly effaced, thus presenting a ‘chaos of memories’ (60) in unarranged collections spread over several hard disks instead of book shelves. The figure of the collector, and the idea of ‘ownership’ emerge as an important trope in understanding the notion of order, or rather disorder of the art of collecting in the digital space.

This figure of the collector and practice of collecting are important to our understanding of a central concept in DH - the archive - particularly as it occupies a predominant space in the imagination of the field in India, and processes of knowledge production and the history of disciplines in general. The influx of digital technologies into the archival space in the last decade has been an impetus for the large scale digitisation of material, but it has also thrown up several challenges for traditional archival practice, including the preservation of analogue material, the problems of categorising and interpreting large volumes of data, and the gradual disappearance or re-definition of the traditional figure of the collector – a concern echoed across several spaces extending from private online archival efforts to large collaborative knowledge repositories like the Wikipedia. With the questions that DH seems to have posed to traditional notions of authorship or subject expertise, the 'digital humanist', when we imagine such a person, can be seen as a reinvention of this figure of the collector - a curator of materials and traces, here of course, digital traces.

The concept of the archive has been important to knowledge production and particularly the development of academic disciplines; whether driven by concerns of the state or the impulses of the market, there have been different ways of defining and understanding the archive, not only as a documentary record of history, but as a metaphor for collective memory and remembrance which includes technology in its very imagination. One of the most elaborate formulations of the archive has been in the work of Jacques Derrida, where apart from proposing the death and preservation drives as primary to the archival impulse, he also highlights the process of archivisation, or the technical process of archive-building that shapes history and memory (1995). Michel Foucault in his concept of the archive looks at it as "a system of discursivity which establishes the possibility of what can be said," [1] thus pointing to the archive as a space not just of preservation but also production, with an impact on the process of knowledge creation. There is today a consensus, at least in its academic understanding that archives cannot be relegated to being self-contained linear spaces of objective historical record, but that archival practice itself has political implications in terms of how collective memory and history, or as indicated by Foucault, histories are preserved and retold through a process of careful selection. Disciplines themselves may therefore be seen as archives of knowledge, and one may stretch this analogy to say that they may also appear as self-contained spaces with restrictions on entry for different ways of remembering and reading. More importantly, the question of what constitutes the archive and what objects or materials may be archived reflects a larger debate about problems with the definition of disciplines and shifting disciplinary boundaries [2]. With the shift to the digital archive, new questions about access, sharing and collaboration have emerged, as illustrated by the number of new archival spaces that have emerged, and growth of expansive archives such at the Walt Whitman, Rossetti and Blake archives in the West (Drucker 2011). However, as is apparent, the conditions of access to such archives and their interpretation have not been problematised enough, if at all, particularly with respect to how they contribute to generating new kinds of knowledge or scholarship.

While DH debates in the West have focussed quite significantly on archives and the possibilities that digital collections have now opened up research and creative practice involving archival material, in the Indian context it is the 'incompleteness of the archive' that still seems to be a bone of contention. Some of the scholars and practitioners interviewed as part of this study see archive creation as one of the key questions of DH as it has emerged in India, and the possibilities and challenges that this brings to the fore, (particularly in terms of access to rare materials and extending these debates to regional languages) as something that the field will need to contend with at some point. The role of digital technologies in fostering this activity of archive-building is stressed in these debates. In an earlier monograph titled Archives and Access produced as part of CIS-RAW, Aparna Balachandran and Rochelle Pinto trace a material history of archival practice in India, specifically looking at conflicts and debates surrounding state and colonial archives, and the politics of access, preservation and digitisation (2011). The monograph also points towards in some way the move of the archive from being solely the prerogative of the state to the now within the reach of the individual, engendered by increased access to technology, and the ‘publicness’ that the visual nature of the internet fosters. However they also talk of the possibility of continuing forms of state or market control over the archive precisely through the internet and digital technologies, with the nature of individual access and use again being mediated through digitisation. Abhijeet Bhattacharya, Documentation Officer with the archives at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata who was also part of the Archives and Access project, and has been part of some early conversations on DH in India, speaks about this change [3]. Even twenty years ago, it was difficult to define the archive, as it was considered the prerogative of the state, and this defined the nature of archival practice and management as well. From there it has slowly transformed into a practice that encompasses various methods of digitisation and has become increasingly personal. While digitisation may have resolved some issues of preserving content and the problems of physically accessing archives to a large extent, it may not always be the best option, as the archival or analogue material needs to be in good condition so as to make for good digitised copies, thus emphasising the need for more effective methods and better training in preservation practices. Also, as he point out, digitisation may be able to capture and preserve the content of an artifact, but not its form, which is equally important. He therefore rues the fact that even with technological advancements, there is still a lack of interest in archival practice, and often institutional mandates determine the archival agenda which may not be in the interest of generating more research and scholarship around material, as this is the only way to keep the archive alive.

The growth of private collections, which create new kinds of intellectual and nostalgic spaces, has been an important shift here, with their focus on archiving the personal and the everyday, he says, though in many instances such material may not be available for public use or consumption. While on the subject of private collections and personal narratives, Dr. C S Lakshmi, writer and academic who is director of the Mumbai-based Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) [4], has particular concerns about digitalisation making large amounts of information available for consumption online, particularly with respect to women. While digitisation is an effective tool for preservation and offers several possibilities for documentation, unmediated access is problematic and often a breach of privacy. There is so much information out there that the digital sphere makes available, sometimes this excessive communication also contributes to certain silences and obscures or makes invisible people and their stories. So very often its not a question of just making information available to people. What are you making available, how much are you making available and to whom, for what purpose - these are all important questions that contour the notion of access and need to be addressed according to Dr. Lakshmi. Curation therefore emerges as an important process. The publicness or hyper-visibility that the visual nature of the internet and digital technologies accords to the archive is seen tied to a narrative of loss here, and against the rhetoric of preservation which is still in many spaces deemed to be the primary function and imagination of the archive. What this sets up is also a conflict between the possibilities of open access and sharing of material, and concerns of privacy, and the need to find a space where both these seemingly contradictory ends meet.

The increased availability of space for data accumulation due to digital technologies contributes to a 'problem of excess', and that is where curation and building new kinds of tools come in as a critical and creative exercise. Dr. Amlan Dasgupta reiterates this opinion. He talks about the internet as fostering an 'age of altruism', where the proliferation of technological gadgets has brought about a culture of voluntarily sharing materials online. This of course challenges notions of authority and brings forth the problems of the unarranged library which Benjamin’s essay also points towards, but the archive can be used as a metaphor to understand how notions of authorship and authority are being challenged as is apparent in the DH discourse. The theory-practice divide is also something that ails this particular domain like many others; not only is there an inadequate understanding of how to access and use the archive on the part of students and researchers alike, but there is a lack of standardisation of the practice of archive management and the science itself, in terms of metadata, problems of ownership and copyright, and most importantly inadequate infrastructure, training and expertise on preservation of analogue materials. While it may not be within the ambit of DH to address all of these questions, the renewed interest in archival practice and the diversification of its modes is something is that would continue to be an integral aspect of its practice. In fact what digitisation has also led to is diversity in the modes of documentation itself, and the larger process of archiving, which has important implications for the kinds of questions one may ask within certain disciplinary formations, history being an important example. The nature of material in the archive is never quite the same, so is the manner of working with and interpreting them. Dr. Indira Chowdhury, who has been engaged with archival practice herself, and is now working on setting up oral history archives through the Centre for Public History, speaks of the changes that digital technologies have produced in studying oral history, specifically in terms of recording and interpretation of interviews. The mode of documentation, particularly the digital, adds a new layer to the manner in which the voice, sounds or even silence is recorded or interpreted. She refers to Alessandro Portelli’s work on oral history, which talks about the nuances of the sound, such as tone, volume and speed of speaking which are all bearers of meaning and can tell you so much about what the person is trying to say, but can never be fully translated into the written word.(2006, 32-42) Although there are still some basic but crucial obstacles such as with transcription, the digital space may allow for tools that help with more nuanced interpretation of recorded material, and large volumes of it; a possibility that CPH is looking into at the moment. There are several institutions in India who want to set up their archives, most of their materials include many hours of interviews, with many people at a time and transcription is a problem, because it takes time, and there is still no software to aid or completely automate this process effectively. One of the approaches of DH may be to address these knowledge gaps through critical tool-building, in terms of how one may work with different ways of reading and interpreting material using digital tools.

The digital archive is one space where many of these questions about the process of archive-creation and the separation between preservation and production that is often made in the existing discourse come into conflict, thus inflating the definition of the term much more. New technologies of publishing, the proliferation of electronic databases and growth of networks that in turn encourage production and the increasing amount of born-digital materials then present new questions for the concept of the archive and scholarship.

The role of technology has been significant in the development of the concept of the archive; in fact the archive, in its very nature would be a technological object, or a space where one can trace a history of the disciplines in relation to technology. The introduction of the digital has added yet another dimension to this question. Dr. Ravi Sundaram, Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and one of the co-initiators of the Sarai programme at the Centre for Developing Societies (CSDS) [5], speaks of how the advent of the digital has brought about several shifts in the imagination of the archive, which he sees as two distinct phases. Sarai was one of the early models of a concept driven, networked archive, based on a culture of 'mailing lists' that built conversations around topics which in themselves constituted the archive. The shifts came with Web 2.0 with which archiving the everyday became a possibility, given the access to inexpensive gadgets and the pervasiveness of social media. While the model of the networked, curated and public archive still has valence today, a significant next step would be to see how one can extend these questions to thinking differently about the archive, by developing new protocols for entering, sharing and circulation of material, and producing new knowledge or concepts around these ideas. This would be crucial in terms of generating research and scholarship around the archive itself as a concept, and realising the full potential of network-generated information. Another pertinent question is that of information and technology infrastructure, which is a political question as well. The investment on infrastructure for the archive is determined by different kinds of interests and will play an important role in how archival efforts will ultimately develop. As Dr. Sundaram reiterates, the point to note is that new archival efforts are not only general repositories, but critical interventions in themselves. They foster new kinds of visibilities. The Pad.ma archive [6], for example, works with existing footage and reinvents or adds new layers of meaning to it through annotations and citations. This also opens up possibilities for new kinds of questions to be asked about existing material. Private archival efforts, many initiated by individuals are also becoming more niche and specific, driven by a specific research agenda, public interest in conservation or as critical and creative interventions in a particular area. Some examples of this are the Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW), Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma [7], the Indian Memory Project [8], and Osianama [9]. In some of these examples, the archive may be used as more of a metaphor rather than a description or classificatory term, because of the layers of meaning that they generate around an existing object or 'trace'.

They are also reflective of a different milieu that came about with the digital turn in India. Shaina Anand, artist and filmmaker who set up the artist’s studio and collective CAMP in Mumbai [10], and is also part of the team behind the Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma platforms, speaks of the various factors that contributed to the setting up these two online archival spaces. As artists for them the larger concern was the ever-changing electronic media or technological landscape, as seen in some of their earlier projects such as Russel TV, which involved creating content around media ecologies and intellectual property in a sort of pro-piracy, and access to knowledge framework. The focus for them was the ecology or the landscape, and within that the sharp point was where there were irregularities and inequalities and there was a need to redistribute things in a certain way. Pad.ma grew out of a larger idea of understanding this changing milieu around the early 2000s, where the digital had already become pervasive – filmmakers were editing on a laptop or desktop computer, they had access to the internet and DIY tools, resources were cheaper and more accessible as the internet was opening up a world of possibilities. Therefore, as the team realised, if there was to be an archive of the contemporary, it had to be digital or visual, or video specifically, and located online. This was also the time when the independent filmmaker had become a prominent figure and the challenges and advantages of sharing unused and raw footage became quite possible and apparent with a platform like Pad.ma. The archive was created as something contemporary, non-state and non-canonical, with a wide range of stakeholders and contributors ranging across NGOs, activists, independent filmmakers to individuals with an interest in film and video. There were however several difficulties as well, chiefly in getting people to share material, issues of privacy, and a resistance to the use of this platform as a pedagogic and academic resource, which over the years have come down with the people becoming more open to using material on the platform as primary texts, and the development of more tools for editing and annotations. Indiancine.ma that way is more of a traditional form of film studies, but with more possibilities now for working with the film text.

However, while entering the digital space may have enabled more sharing and dissemination of material, how much of these efforts also make their way into larger civil society and policy debates, scholarship and pedagogy is still a crucial question. Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma have been used by students, in media and film in particular but the efforts remain niche and restricted to certain disciplines only. Some part of this comes from a resistance to the film or a certain kind of text as academic, and therefore scholarly or relevant to a larger cross-section of research. This also stems from a predominant imagination of the archive as a static, linear repository. As Ashish Rajadhyaksha, film and cultural studies scholar, who was part of the team that created Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma, points out, the distinction between the archive as a repository space and an interpretive space is one that needs to be made clearly, and archives are clearly a form of the later. In fact the idea of the digital as a permanent medium is false, and it should not be the solution to problems of storage and preservation. Further, in a lot of expansive archives, whether digital or physical, it is seen that only up to five percent of the material is used, and more often than not it is the same five percent! This is because most people do know about the existence of certain kinds of material which is buried deep within the archive, and therefore do not access it. The emphasis of archival practice, and particularly in the time of the digital archive where space is not seen as a constraint, yet, should be to enliven the archive to ensure that material from the 'dead space of the archive' is made more searchable and accessible for use.

Curation then comes back again as an important aspect of the archive, even in the time of the digital. Indira Chowdhury sees this as one of the main shifts from the traditional archive, where the curator or the archivist performed the role of a custodian or gatekeeper who grants restricted access to the archive only to researchers or scholars. Now with the advent of the internet and shift to the digital, it’s more about collaboration, and adding to the archive, and this has encouraged a diversity of users, and uses of the archive. This comes with its own problems however, such as with metadata standards for instance, and particularly questions of format which become important from the perspective of technological obsolescence (as discussed in the earlier chapter). The digital archive has made practitioners think about what they are archiving, for whom and what purpose, and in what formats, but these questions also go back to the traditional archive, and in fact are dependent on how we think about and defined the archive itself, then and now how we imagine the virtual archive. These are as she says, questions that may be routed through technology, but not necessarily about technology. Also, even with the traditional archive, making material accessible and usable was a concern, and this is where the archivist or custodian played an important role. She speaks about using pre-digital archives, where there are handwritten descriptions of material, all meticulously preserved, indexed and cross-referenced, and you know what material to look for because the archivist knew what was in the archive and how to find it. She speaks of her own experience of setting up the archives at TIFR, which was not digital then, but has been digitised now, and even though she has not been associated with them for a while now she still gets the occasional email requesting help to find something in the archive, because she knows the material. A lot of the new digital archives therefore, despite their huge collection which are also searchable, need archivists and assistants who oversee the organisation of material, because those cross-references and connections have just not been made (often it is not humanly possible because of the sheer volume of data), which is really what the historians will look for, and that is the challenge here.

Padmini Ray Murray, another faculty member at the Centre for Public History, also sees this as a problem of not imagining the archive as a database, but as this legacy where content is being held together under this one overarching frame. She finds that there is a metanarrative that is created at the level of the database, because of the context in which the archive becomes a database – the historical / institutional questions, and what is being used to create the archive. A point of divergence however could be that it’s easier to lie with the archive, because with the database there is the empirical identifier, so the truth claim is better. This is something that Dr. Chowdhury agrees upon as well, as she finds that because archives have the potential of being multilayered, and are therefore complex, verification is difficult; it’s only another scholar who will check the materials referenced or used by one – and the interpretation would change, and this had implications for the way the archive generates scholarship. Another difference is pulling data from the archive in a way that it allows the making of computational hypotheses about other possibilities, which is the heart of DH – such as topic modelling and algorithmic shortcuts to crunch through data to posit some hypothetical claims. She feels that in India at the moment we are not doing in enough with the archive as database, which also restricts its many possibilities. Even in terms of access to the archive, which the digital archive is supposed to make easier, it comes with certain conditions, such as copyrights, privacy and even different kinds of Creative Commons licenses for open source content. It also depends on what Dr. Ray Murray describes as the ‘flavour of the archive’, something particularly relevant to a lot of new private archival spaces like the Indian Memory Project, or Indiancine.ma or Pad.ma, which focussed on 'building the archive', as opposed to working with an existing archive of material. As such these are somewhat ephemeral archives, always in the making, and where the digital intersects clearly with the archival space is in terms of finding an audience for it; the internet creates these niche spaces of interest, so you find that people want to access such spaces, and do it differently from the traditional archive, as the varied nature and functionalities of these two examples demonstrate.

What the long discussion seems to illustrate then is the gradual shift of the archive to become something of a metaphor, as the way the archive has been previously imagined, and its functions have changed with the advent of the internet. As Wolfgang Ernst asks:

Does the archive become metaphorical in multimedia space? This is a plea for archiving the term archive itself for the description of multimedia storage processes. Digital archaeology, though, is not a case for future generations but has to be performed in the present already. In the age of digitalizability, that is, when we have the option of storing all kinds of information, a paradoxical phenomenon appears: cyberspace has no memory. (Ernst 2013: 138)

What Ernst suggests is that the Internet forms a different kind of multimedia archive, or anarchive, or is a phantasm, which differs from the printed of state archives because “the archive is a given, well-defined lot; the Internet, on the contrary, is a collection not just of unforeseen texts but of sound and images as well, an anarchive of sensory data for which no genuine archival culture has been developed so far in the occident” (139). The internet, in documenting the discontinuities and ‘disorder’ of the history of multimedia forms thus gives rise to a new memory culture, and this is important to the process of understanding how new archival spaces are being created, and theorised.

Archive-building has an impact on how knowledge is produced, organised and disseminated is a crucial aspect of meaning-making practices. Related to this is another issue in terms of the amount of data that is available in the archives by the sheer amount of material that it can now hold, which demands new protocols of access and collaboration, and the role of curation in making such data relevant and comprehensible. The problem of excess mentioned by many of the scholars and practitioners would be relevant to the question of big data; accessing or interpreting such large volumes of information would require critical tools and new kinds of architecture. These shifts also relocate the figure of the collector from traditional practices to new ways of visualising collections and the art of collecting itself, which are now beyond the scope of the human subject. As illustrated by practices such as distant reading, it is now humanly difficult to read, and process such large volumes of data that the digital archive now makes available to us. What this then throws up as questions for archival practice, and DH of course, is the new modes by which knowledge is produced through access to such corpora – for instance the impact such changes have on history, its reading and writing, the growth of public history and the role of the internet archive in fostering its growth. On a much broader level, it also points towards the implications of this shift for pedagogy and scholarship in the humanities, in the digital age, questions which will be discussed in the next chapter.

 

Notes

 

[1] Michel Foucault quoted in Manoff (2004: 18).

[2] Ibid.

[3] A session on 'Digital Humanities and the State of the Archives in South Asia' was conducted by Prof. Abhijit Bhattacharya and his team as part of a workshop on research methodology in Women's Studies, held at Tezpur University between April 6-7, 2010.See http://www.tezu.ernet.in/notices/ResearchMethodology.pdf

[4] See: http://www.sparrowonline.org/.

[5] See: http://sarai.net/.

[6] See: http://pad.ma/.

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

[8] See: http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/.

[9] See: http://osianama.com/.

[10] See: http://studio.camp/.

 

References

 

Balachandran, Aparna, and Rochelle Pinto.Archives and Access. Bangalore: The Centre for Internet and Society, 2011

Benjamin, Walter. "Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting" In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt.Translated by Harry Zohn, 59-67.New York: Schoken Books, 1968

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.Translated by Eric Prenowitz.Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1996

Drucker, Johanna. "Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship" In Debates in the Digital Humanities, edited by M.K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.Accessed December 11, 2015.http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/34

Ernst, Wolfgang. "Discontinuities:Does the Archive become Metaphorical in Multimedia Space?" In Digital Memory and the Archive, edited by Jussi Parikka, 113 - 140.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013

Manoff, M. “Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines.”  Portal: Libraries and the Academy, Vol.4, No.1 (2005): 9-25.Accessed December 10, 2015. http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/35687

Portelli, Alessandro "What makes oral history different?”. In The Oral History Reader, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, 32-42. London: Routledge, 2006.

 

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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.