Mapping Digital Humanities in India - Concluding Thoughts

This final blog post on the mapping exercise undertaken by CIS-RAW summarises some of the key concepts and terms that have emerged as significant in the discourse around Digital Humanities in India.

The present exercise in mapping Digital Humanities (henceforth DH) in India has brought to the fore several learnings, and challenges 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. Even as we wrap up this study, some of the key questions or problems of definition, ontology and method remain with us, as the 'field' as such is incipient in India, as with other parts of the world and the term itself is yet to find a resonance in many quarters, other than a few institutions and a number of individuals. However, what it does do for us immediately, is throw open several questions about how we understand the idea of the 'digital', and what may be the new areas of enquiry for the humanities at large.

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 name of sorts, which since then has taken on various meanings and undergone some form of creative re-appropriation. The ubiquitous history of the term in 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. 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 even cyber/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, areas of focus or object of enquiry, 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. 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.

The question of methodology then comes in as the next most important aspect here, as the method of DH is yet to be clearly defined. At present it looks like 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 now longer remaining discipline-specific has been a contributory factor to the evolving methodology of DH. The practice itself is still evolving, and while DH in the Anglo-American context can trace a history in humanities computing, with now an active interest in other spaces where the digital is an inherent part of the discourse, in India there has been little work in mainstream academic spaces such as universities or research centres, and some interest from the information and technology sector. 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. This mapping exercise largely relied on interviews as part of its methodology, without any engagement with the actual practice, mainly because of a lack of consensus on what constitutes DH practice. However, 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. 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 the discourse around 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. 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.

While in the Anglo-American context the predominant narrative or raison d'etre of DH seems to be the so-called 'crisis' in the humanities, it may after all be just one of reasons, and not a primary cause, at least in the Indian context. Moreover, in a paradoxical sense the emergence of DH has been seen as endangering the future of the traditional humanities, in terms of a move away from certain conventional methods and forms of research and pedagogy. While this may be relevant to our understanding of the emergence of DH, understanding the emergence of the field as resolving a crisis also renders the discourse into a uni-dimensional, problem-solving approach, thus making invisible other factors, such as the technologised history of the humanities or several other factors that have contributed to these changes. 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 the internet and digital technologies. More importantly, they also point towards the larger changes in what where earlier considered unifying notions for the university, namely that of reason and culture, which have now moved towards an idea of excellence based on a certain techno-bureaucratic impulse, as noted by Bill Readings in his work on the rise of the post-modern university[1].

If one may try to locate within this the debates around 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 or the distance between the practice and the subject, which is also why it has been of much concern for several scholars. As Prof. Amlan Dasgupta, with English Department at the University of Jadavpur 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. As Patrik Svensson (2010) points out "The individual term digital humanist may be problematic because it may seem both too general in not relating to a specific discipline or competence (thus deemphasizing the discipline-specific or professional) and too specific in emphasizing the "digital" part of the scholarly identity (if you are scholar) or giving too much prominence to the humanities part of your professional identity (if you are a digital humanities programmer or a system architect). The more general and non-personal term digital humanities is more inclusive, but somewhat limited because of its lack of specificity and relatively weak disciplinary anchorage. For both variants, there is also a question of whether "the digital" needs to be specified at all, and it is not uncommon [9] to encounter the argument that technology and the digital are part or will be part of any academic area, and hence the denotation "digital" is not required" [2]. Svensson further points out that since the term, like digital humanities, has proliferated so much in academic spaces, through publishing and funding initiatives that it has become a term of self-identification, but it could be a reference to the digital as 'tool' rather that the object of study itself. However, he also speculates that given digital humanists work across several disciplines, their understanding of humanities as a construct is stronger as the identity is linked to it at large. [3]

This debate is importantly, symptomatic of a larger conflict over the authority of knowledge, because of what seems to be a move away from the university to alternate spaces and modes of knowledge production. As Immanuel Wallerstein (1996) suggests, such a conflict of authority has already been documented earlier, in terms of the displacement of theology first and then Newtonian mechanics as dominant sources of knowledge, and the now in the manner in which the separation of disciplines is being challenged. The potential of technology in general and the internet in particular in democratising knowledge has been explored in several cases, with many such online spaces now becoming a suitable 'alternate' to the university mode of teaching and learning. What they have also given rise to are questions about the authenticity of knowledge produced and disseminated and who are the stakeholders in the process. The debates over MOOC's and the Wikipedia, and at some level the criticism that DH and certain methods like distant reading have attracted from traditional humanities scholars are a case in point. However, many of these alternate or liminal spaces have always existed; they are perhaps becoming more visible and acknowledged now. 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.

References

  1. Patrik, Svensson, "The Landscape of Digital Humanities". Digital Humanities Quarterly,4:1 http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html 2010.
  2. Readings, Bill, The University in Ruins Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, pp 1-20.
  3. Wallerstein, Immanuel, "The Structures of Knowledge, or How Many Ways May We Know?" Presentation at "Which Sciences for Tomorrow? Dialogue on the Gulbenkian Report: Open the Social Sciences," Stanford University, June 2-3, 1996 http://www.binghamton.edu/fbc/archive/iwstanfo.htm

The author would like to thank the Higher Education Innovation and Research Applications (HEIRA) programme at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS), Bangalore for support towards the fieldwork conducted as part of this mapping exercise, and colleagues at CIS and CSCS for their feedback and inputs.

Concepts/Glossary of terms

  1. Ontology - A lot of the work being done to define DH is in fact to understand its ontological status, the nature of its being and existence. As pointed out in the part of this section, the difficulty in arriving at a consensus on a definition is largely due to a lack of clarity over the ontological basis of such a field, rather than its epistemological stake, which one may already be able to discern in a few years. There is a slippage due to a lack of connection between the history of the term and its practice, particularly in India, where DH is still a 'found term' of sorts. See http://cis-india.org/raw/digital-humanities/a-question-of-digital-humanities
  2. Humanities - The predominant discourse in the Anglo-American context on DH seems to have set it up in a conflict with or as a threat to the traditional humanities disciplines, the causal link here being the 'crisis' of the disciplines. While there is such a narrative of crisis in the Indian con text as well, anything 'digital' is understood in terms of a problem-solving approach, and at another level seeks to further existing concerns of the humanities themselves, such as around the text. The important shift that DH may open up here is in terms of thinking about the inherited separation of technology and the humanities, and if it indeed possible now to think of a technologised history of the humanities.See http://cis-india.org/raw/digital-humanities/a-question-of-digital-humanities
  3. Digital - the debate around and interest in DH has reinforced the need for a larger and more elaborate exploration of the 'digital' itself, and as mentioned in an earlier post, deciphering the nuances of the current state of digitality we inhabit will be key to understanding the field of DH much better. This is challenging because India is a mutli-layered technological landscape, which is also quite dynamic, ever-changing and in a period of transition to the digital. Taking this back to more fundamental questions of technology and its relation to the subject would also provide more insights into DH.See http://cis-india.org/raw/digital-humanities/digital-humanities-problem-of-definition
  4. Subject - DH is a manifestation of the relationship between technology and the human subject, and provides different ways to negotiate the same. The 'digital humanist' as the likely subject of this discourse has remained largely undefined in this series of explorations, partly because of the lack of resonance with the term among humanities scholars and the fact that everybody at some level is already a digital subject, and therefore a digital humanist. An exploration of how the digital constitutes or constructs a subject position is likely to reveal better the nuances of this term and the reason for its relation to or distance from the practice.
  5. Method - the methodology of a discipline is the connection between theory and field of practice, and the method of DH is still being developed. Whether it is data mining, distant reading, cultural informatics, sentiment analysis or creative visualisations of data sets drawing from aspects of media, art and design, the methodology and interests of DH are necessarily diverse and interdisciplinary. In many a case the distinction among methods, content and forms do blur as newer modes or approaches to DH come into being. This becomes a particular problem in understanding DH in the context of pedagogy and curricular resources, and would therefore require a rethinking of the understanding of a singular methodology itself.
  6. Archive - A large part of the DH work in India seems to be focussed around the archive - both as a concept and practice. With the digital becoming in a sense the default mode of documentation across the humanities disciplines, and the opening up of the archive due to more public and digital archival efforts, the concept of the archive and archival practice have undergone several changes in terms of becoming now more networked and accessible. As mentioned earlier, we are living in an archival moment where there is a transition from analogue to digital, and it is in this moment of transition that a lot of new questions around data and knowledge will emerge. See http://cis-india.org/raw/digital-humanities/living-in-the-archival-moment.
  7. Text - the text has been one of significant aspects of the DH debate, given that the academic discourse on DH in the West and now in India is primarily located in English departments. The understanding of the text as object, method and practice as mediated through digital spaces and tools is an important part of the discourse around DH, and has implications for how we understand changes in the nature of the text, and reading and writing as technologised processes in the digital context. See http://cis-india.org/raw/digital-humanities/reading-from-a-distance.
  8. Process: An important point of emphasis in DH has been that of process, perhaps even more than content or outcomes. Given that the method of DH is collaborative and peer-to-peer, the processes of doing, making or teaching-learning etc become increasingly visible and important to understanding the nature of the field and knowledge production itself. More importantly, it also seeks to bring in the practitioner's experience into the realm of research and pedagogy.
  9. Liminal : DH is a good example of a liminal space; which is a space that is on both sides of a threshold or boundary, and is therefore at some level undefined and transitional. The liminal space is often located at the margin of a body of knowledge or discipline, and it is at the margins of disciplines that new knowledge is produced. The discourse and even criticism around DH highlights the difficulties with defining the present nebulous nature of these liminal spaces and what they could transform into in the future. See http://cis-india.org/raw/digital-humanities/digital-humanities-and-alt-academy.
  10. Interdisciplinarity - Closely tied to the notion of liminal spaces is the notion of interdisciplinarity. DH by nature is interdisciplinary, given that it draws upon methods and concerns from the other disciplines, but instead of limiting the definition to just this, it also provides a space to understand the challenges of negotiating and using an interdisciplinary approach to the humanities and other disciplines and develop these questions further. See http://cis-india.org/raw/digital-humanities/digital-humanities-and-alt-academy.

[1] See Bill Readings, The University in Ruins Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997, pp 1-20.

[2] See Patrik Svensson. "The Landscape of Digital Humanities". Digital Humanities Quarterly,4:1 http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/4/1/000080/000080.html

[3] Ibid.

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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.