Digital Humanities Consultation - IISc Bangalore

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I confronted that old ghost yet again: that ever worrying question ‘What is Digital Humanities?’ Like any spectre, this one too is substance-less yet present. It is like the proverbial trace – the mark that remains when the thing itself is not there.

A spectre is haunting us; the spectre of (the) Digital Humanities. Is it here to replace the Humanities or to take away the primacy of the Sciences? The spectre never ceases to scare.  At IISc Bangalore, scholars from all over the country (well, almost) met for a ‘consultation’ on designing curricula on the Digital Humanities. It is here that the spectre rose again. For those interested in a more objective account,  Sara Morais of CIS has taken detailed notes of the entire proceedings and these should be available on the CIS website. This blog post, however, is about my subjective and often impressionistic engagement with the spectre that I mention.

There was much discussion about the very origin of research on digital media and its use in India.  Ravi Sundaram of SARAI spoke about the Sarai mailing list, that excellent and incessant (later somewhat annoyingly so) resource that filled up my mailboxes with news of cutting-edge research that would have been impossible without Sarai funding. He spoke of Media Nagar, where contributors published and posted online and of his experience, in the early days of digital archiving, with the Labour History archive. Questions were asked about how we can set up collaborative networks and research writing through text culture. Nishant Shah of CIS, on Skype from Germany and after suffering the travails of the digital incompetence of the Indian passport office, expressed skepticism at the growing enthusiasm about DH.  According to him, in a world which considers data the sole reality, the time-honoured close-reading that is part of the Humanities is about to suffer a sad end. This met some stiff opposition from respondents (including yours truly) who saw close-reading as always have gone hand in hand with data analysis. Indeed, think of the concordances and unique tools that have been used since time immemorial by scholars close reading literary texts.

Messing up the order of the presentations somewhat, I think I need to mention one of the most hands-on papers of the day. Tanveer and Asha presented on their four-year project of bringing ICT closer to less privileged children from schools and colleges in different states in India. It was interesting how, according to their research, the children and their teachers were quick to dissociate the digital from the Humanities and how the less privileged children took to the Humanities easier than those who were more affluent. A quick point to note here is that the Humanities experience of these children was digitally mediated anyway (via Facebook, Youtube etc) so the distinction does not really hold. It is perhaps indicative of a mindset that takes to a watertight categorisation more easily because of the comfort that such fixed and finite parameters posit. Ashish of IISc spoke about Digital Ecosystems, using the Indian Government’s UID (Universal Identity ) or aadhar project as his key example. Jim Nye, of Loyola University, Chicago reiterated the need to teach people how to handle analogue material before allowing any digitisation initiatives to be started. He cited the instance of the destruction of invaluable of archival material in Urdu due to the ignorance of the team that attempted to digitise these texts. Nye also expressed the need for DH initiatives in India to link with those elsewhere on the subcontinent.

However, the major ‘find’ for me was Arun Menon – a fellow game studies scholar when I had lost all hope in finding a kindred soul in India (can you believe it!) and someone who, like me, ekes out his living doing other things while secretly remaining committed to the cause of bringing gaming to academia. Arun and I will have many occasions to disagree, especially when it comes to the telos in videogames and suchlike things. However, there is much synergy in our work and it is heartening to see people like Arun braving all odds and correcting Masters papers on videogames written by students from English departments. Arun’s paper was on the potential risks of digital humanities. He sees in DH initiatives an intense need to legitimise the Humanities by inserting or adding-on a statistical rigour and a faux scientism (my phrase). He sees as some kind of last-ditch response of a Humanities that is in crisis. Because of DH, it is possible that the traditional Humanities will be taken to task and the support that could have come to the Humanities as such will shift to DH. Again, a spectre.

I do not agree with such a conclusion but I think I understand where this is coming from. Here is some brave and plain speaking that needs to be respected for what it is. The statistical fetish that DH has shown since its recent birth and the beeline that many Humanities scholars who still cannot tell the difference between Excel and excellence have made towards DH, is indicative of the fact that DH is the ‘in’ thing today. Suddenly my research on gaming has become respectable and even newspapers are writing about me; shouldn’t I be a happy boy now! Educational bodies and research councils have started moving their lumbering girths towards a digital starry-eyed future. Arun is right: the reason behind the sudden focus on DH is a problem. However, as he half apologetically says, DH escapes disciplinarity. So what the heck is going on?
Before I attempt an answer, I will need to bring in another person into this gameplay. Amlan Dasgupta’s contribution to DH in India (together with that of Sukanta Chaudhuri) is of phenomenal import and the recent Bichitra project or the online Tagore variorum, completed at Jadavpur University, is perhaps the single largest such DH project in the world. How they managed to get this done I do not know  … or maybe I do know – my few trips to the School of Cultural Texts and Records revealed how extremely dedicated and smart their team was. But I digress – Bichitra deserves a much more thorough analysis in a separate space of its own.  I was about to mention a few key points that Sir  raised in relation to the future of DH in India.  First, he stressed the importance of teaching Digital Humanists how to handle analogue material (so that no more archives get messed up!); secondly, he insisted on the importance of developing and tweaking tools to suit specific operations in DH and finally, he agreed with me and stated in no uncertain terms that DH is not a discipline but is rather an ‘indiscipline’ or non-discipline. Arguing that DH has entered its third-wave, he wondered aloud about digital surrogacy. So, is the  Bichitra archive a digital surrogate? I would think not but the question intrigues me still. The other major point that Sir made was about the incompleteness of the archive – the archive is always being added to and there is no single heroic authorial character here. It is a community at work. Through and through. And of course, it is not possible to ask whether you are digital or whether you are a humanist.

(Fig) My Presentation

I will not dwell on what I had to say as I have discussed my thoughts many times on ‘Ludus Ex’. Suffice it to say that I made a strong claim that DH is not a discipline and that its fun lies in its being a (non) discipline. It is possible to teach it as a discipline if one is after convincing funding bodies but then that’s like creating a Theory discipline in the same way that we have Film Studies or Cultural Studies. DH, is for me, a research modality and not a discipline. Whatever it is, it certainly does not mean digital archiving alone; if it did, we would have called it so. I stressed the importance of Digital Culture, introduced Game Studies and showed everyone the splendid microfiction that Presidency students have been creating on Facebook. I ended with a Youtube of an Indian bureaucrat vehemently insisting that having data on the Cloud was disastrous as vital datasets could be lost when the cloud started raining! The moral was plain: DH teaching and research needs to take into account digital and web 2.0 processes and technology seriously. An old-guard luddite turned sudden digital humanist will struggle if he or she is not able to engage with technology. I’m not a techie can be an excuse for a few days at most but if we want to do DH, then as the Digital Humanities Manifesto says, ‘Let’s get our hands dirty.’ That is the only way in which I can face the spectre: by engaging with DH and doing so smartly.

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