P. P. Sneha
The humanities are traditionally text-based disciplines, domains of interpreting and representing human experience in its many forms and facets. The object of humanities inquiry is the cultural artifact, of which text is almost always a primary component. In the last decade or so, however, with the growth of predominantly digital environments in which the humanities now function, these objects and the approaches used to study them have changed significantly. Apart from texts (in the form of written material), images and audiovisual archival objects have added new dimensions to humanities research, creating potential for unique modes of inquiry while also imposing different demands and disciplinary challenges in terms of methods, concepts, and scope.
The “digital object” is a rather slippery notion, as it raises significant questions about the materiality and ontology of technologies present around us. Kallinikos, Aaltonen, and Marton (2010) describe digital objects as:
editable, interactive, open or reprogrammable and distributed. Rather than being simply the contingent outcome of design, these attributes derive from the constitutional texture of digital technologies, most notably the modular and granular make–up of digital objects and their numerical nature. Taken together the attributes of digital objects and the operations by which they are sustained mingle with social practices redefining the scope, the object of work and the modes of conduct underlying them.
Elsewhere, Lev Manovich (1999) describes how numerical representation, modular organization, variability, and automation distinguish new media from old media, particularly in terms of the former’s programmability, which he attributes to the advent of a post-industrial society, where digital objects are customized to suit the choices of individual users.
The rather evasive, variable nature of digital objects also makes the processes of creating them difficult to capture, as such labor is often invisible. What, then, comprises “making” in the context of digital objects, and more broadly in the humanities today? Is making a catchall term that includes everything from digitization and remediation to programming and design, or can we narrow it down to a specific form of engagement? Just as it may be difficult to treat digital objects as finished cultural products of some kind, it is important to think of making as an open, flexible process, which includes within its ambit a constantly evolving, changing interaction — a mode of meaning-making with objects. In the humanities, this flexibility not only complicates how certain disciplines are understood, but also creates new challenges for the study of objects.
Perhaps the most evocative articulation of making in the humanities is Stephen Ramsay’s (2011) call for “moving from reading and critiquing to building and making” as the radical shift achieved by fields such as digital humanities. This idea of a transition or movement from a scholarly, critical process to one that is tacit and embodied should be resisted, as the prevalent understanding is that the processes are mutually exclusive, akin to other binaries such as conceptual and material, or theory and praxis. These binaries have been questioned in areas of work such as critical making, which, according to Matt Ratto (2011), seeks to “use material forms of engagement with technologies to supplement and extend critical reflection, and, in doing so, to reconnect our lived experiences with technologies to social and conceptual critique” (8). This research is increasingly being done through creative and critical work that utilizes digital or multimedia formats, which, as pointed out by several new media scholars, often contest the primacy of traditional humanities scholarship that continues to privilege content over form, intellectual labor over physical labor, and print over digital media, apart from retaining strict binaries such as old and new media (Burgess and Hamming 2011).
Practices of building and making may not be new in the humanities or especially in the arts, where the boundaries of concept, medium, material, and tools are much more fluid, and to which the production of cultural artifacts is so intimately connected. As illustrated by Roger Whitson (2013) with examples from the works of William Blake, William Morris, Charles Babbage, and Ada Lovelace, there are several possible precursors of critical making, cutting across the arts, humanities, design, and technology. “Making” thus emerges as an important trope to understand and question academic tendencies to emphasize critical, scholarly analysis at the expense of tacit, embodied practices. It is a multipronged, nuanced word that brings together apparently divergent processes and strands of meaning, and it functions as a creative and critical category across thought and practice. Making digital objects in the humanities complicates academic binaries and poses new challenges of form, evaluation, and use in academic contexts.
By drawing on recent work in text and film archival initiatives in India, this chapter discusses some of the issues that arise when digital objects are “made” and made available for humanities research and practice. It explores an online film archive, Indiancine.ma, as well as a digital variorum of Rabindranath Tagore’s works called Bichitra, developed at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Through an exploration of these two projects, the chapter extends the above thoughts on making by suggesting that: (a) the processes of making digital objects are creative, analytical, affective, and embodied, and (b) the digital itself, in a perpetual state of change, collapses different processes of making into one, namely that of “framing” information. The chapter draws mainly from interviews with researchers and practitioners working with these and similar initiatives, conducted as part of a study by the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, on mapping the field of digital humanities in India. What do these projects tell us about making and the humanities in India, and what are their implications for research, pedagogy, and practice? While these projects may not claim to fall within the ambit of digital humanities (largely due to a lack of consensus in India about what exactly constitutes the field), the concerns they raise resonate with those of others engaged in similar explorations in other parts of the world.
Making Textual Objects
In literary studies, a variorum is perhaps the best example of encapsulating the ways in which a literary work evolves through various forms over a period of time to become the classic that is read and circulated for years. Bichitra is an online variorum of the works of the Indian writer, Rabindranath Tagore. Developed by the School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, it contains most versions of Tagore’s works — poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction — but excludes letters, speeches, textbooks, and translations, except those done by Tagore himself. Sukanta Chaudhuri notes that apparently simple matters of digitization are in fact rather long-drawn processes of sourcing material, photographing/scanning, rendering copies searchable with optical character recognition (OCR), and uploading. As Chaudhuri observes, the innovative aspects of Bichitra are ultimately functions of cross-referencing and integration. In fact, he calls it an “integrated knowledge site.”
The bibliography is a hyperlinked structure, which connects to all the different digital versions of a particular text (the most being 20 versions of a single poem). The search engine integrates these resources: searching for a word or phrase leads to all its occurrences in the entire corpus of Tagore’s works. The team also developed a unique collation software, titled “Prabhed” (meaning “difference” in Bengali), that helps to assemble text at three levels — chapter, paragraph, and words — and compare occurrences across editions and versions of the work to note matches and differences. As Chaudhuri further outlines, working with Indic scripts is a key challenge for digital initiatives in India. In Bengali, some work has been done in the form of scientifically designed keyboard software called Avro, which stores all the conjunct letters and preserves their separate characteristics. However, developing OCR for scanned material in Indian languages has been a persistent problem for most digitization and archival initiatives in India. Apart from this challenge, there are issues like vowel markers appearing before consonants as well as spellings that change over the years.
Backroom file management, whether of actual paper files or digital files, remains a big but largely invisible task on such a platform. The total number of files generated from Bichitra is tens of millions or even hundreds of millions, and many of these are offline files not even published on the website. The process of making text available as hypertext is invisible labor, rarely or never available to the end user. The text in the digital variorum is therefore the result of several interrelated tasks, and it facilitates new modes of reading and engaging with it. This kind of reading, which is simultaneously close and distant, can track changes and migrations across the corpus of the writer’s works over a period of time, facilitating new approaches to textual analysis. The object of the inquiry itself goes through numerous changes to become available for study on a digital platform, where it is amenable to intense searching and querying of a different kind altogether. It is now possible to search across a large corpus of Tagore’s texts for minute changes in words or sentences and then ask questions about their usage, instances, and contexts of occurrence.
The digital object is made through all of these processes: digitization, encoding, cross-referencing, querying, collation, reading, and narrating — all of which involve conceptual and material aspects of thinking and doing. The variorum, unlike an archive, is supposed to be a finished cultural product, a comprehensive collection of textual material. But the digital text, by virtue of its medium being an extended network of meanings, is never complete. It is being “made” constantly through a multitude of processes. By extension, electronic text helps scholars better theorize the notion of a fluid text — the fact that a text is never complete, only bound between the covers of a book at a given point involving several processes that are technological as well as social (Johns 3; Bryant 17). Electronic text also raises important questions of how humanists understand technology in a certain fashion, with the move toward language and representation as an important way to articulate these concepts. Is technology a tool for textual analysis, or is it inherent to our understanding of text? Is the development of digital or computational methods shaped by certain disciplinary requirements, and does it create new conflicts for traditional methods? The growth in the study of different media objects, such as video and cinema, and the advent of areas such as oral history and media archaeology have prompted further concerns about digital objects in these disciplines.
Making Video Objects
Indiancine.ma is an expansive online archive of Indian films that are presently out of copyright. Like its predecessor, Pad.ma, it is built using Pan.do/ra, a desktop-class web application for organizing, managing, annotating, analyzing, and remixing large archives of video materials. The software includes an editing tool that enables a user to pause, cut, and annotate a particular sequence in the film according to a time code. Content can be searched for and organized through different filters, such as color and object recognition. These features open up fresh possibilities for interpreting films as well as methods that could not be applied until recently.
Ashish Rajadhyaksha, a film and cultural studies scholar who has worked with the team behind Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma, says the most unique aspect of this archive is that it creates a new kind of research object, which is structured through different layers of meaning: time, date, maps, annotations, images, and so on. A film becomes a placeholder around which various kinds of data are mobilized, affording a unique intensity. Rajadhyaksha gives an interesting example: the Hindi film, Dharti Ke Lal (1946), which has a few street scenes shot surreptitiously in Calcutta when the city was under military occupation. The director, K. A. Abbas, writes of this experience later in his autobiography, where he mentions how the scenes are noticeable due to the presence of American GIs and British Tommies. These scenes can now be searched for and found, and the director’s narrative, along with excerpts from other writing on the film and events from that period (notably the Bengal Famine), have been layered onto Dharti Ke Lal through the annotation tool. This kind of contextualization and layering is possible precisely because of digital objects. An archive such as Indiancine.ma also illustrates how humanities methods and scholarship are shaped by technological possibilities. Now both textual and film studies are being urged to rethink their methods due to the challenges and potential offered by technologies when organizing source material.
Moinak Biswas, faculty member at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, speaks of the changes that digital technologies have brought to video in general and films in particular. According to him, the creative practice of “image-making” comes together with analytical and scholarly practices in the digital, especially on a platform such as Indiancine.ma. This combination, which is both distributed and collaborative, changes how scholars create and engage with texts. In the study of digital film objects, acts of creation are visible, tangible, and made possible through a digital environment that thrives on shared methods of learning. Madhuja Mukherjee, faculty member at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, talks of how the film object itself changed greatly with the shift from celluloid to digital as well as the ubiquitous presence of the Internet in everyday life, where people can shoot, upload, and circulate video much more easily than in the past. Indiancine.ma, Pad.ma, and Bichitra illustrate these changes in terms of how cultural materials enter networks of circulation and meaning once they are in digital form.
Jan Gerber and Sebastian Lutgert, the artists and software programmers who developed Pan.do/ra (on which both Indiancine.ma and Pad.ma are based) talk about the different ways in which people have imagined the projects — as online archives, software projects, and pedagogical tools and resources. The opacity of video as a digital object, due to its mathematical “compositing” (Rodowick 165–66) through different elements that cannot be captured finitely or seamlessly, further complicates any attempt to define the projects and their materiality. The Pan.do/ra platform has developed many ways or entry points into the material, through color, shape, and so forth, to allow more varied and evocative access to films. The annotations let the user enter the archive at different points and explore films through inscriptions left there by other users. This capability renders film objects even more fluid than they already are. Additional variability is created through context, interpretation, and further use, leaving both the films and the archive always incomplete — always “in the making.”
Digitization therefore changes the artifact significantly, often demanding a new method to approach the object of study. For example, Padmini Ray Murray, faculty member at Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology, Bangalore, suggests that the digital is one way to mediate material objects, particularly those that are not textual, since certain kinds of experiential access can only be provided by digital means. The Internet as a space is also useful because it helps to find and create niches for the audience who uses and adds to online archives, contributing further to knowledge about the object. However, a significant divide exists between the people who conceptualize these projects and those who design and build the infrastructure for them. It is difficult to find people who can do both, a reflection of the rigid separation of skills as well as methods into categories of thinking and doing. The lack of a common language to speak across disciplinary barriers is quite problematic, and more collaborative methods for project development need to be encouraged. This lack also points to the difficulty of working with digital objects and describing their material aspects. The transformation of cultural artifacts — including both textual and audiovisual archival materials — into digital form is an interesting entry point to understanding digitality itself and the role that making plays in engendering, maintaining, and furthering the state of digital objects.
In his work on “technesis,” Mark Hansen (2000) describes this conundrum effectively when he talks about the difficulty of adequately capturing the materiality of technology in discourse. Hansen describes technesis as “the putting-into-discourse of technology” (4), a reductive strategy of assimilating technology into thought. He extends this argument further by drawing from Bergson’s theory of perception, which places a crucial emphasis on the body as “a center of indetermination within an acentered universe” (in New Philosophy for New Media 98). The body itself becomes an image among others and acts as a filter, selecting from other images around it, depending on its capacities and relevance. Hansen also draws from Gilles Deleuze’s work on cinema, particularly Deleuze’s notion of “framing.” In particular, Hansen renders Deleuze’s “movement-image” and “time-image” analogous to the framing a body undertakes when making sense of information. Critiquing Deleuze’s more formal understanding of cinematic framing, Hansen argues for an embodied form of enframing where affect and memory are important in sensorimotor perception. He says this turn is specific to the digital, where there is a convergence of all media forms (xiv–xxvii).
This characterization of the digital image can be extrapolated to other kinds of digital objects as well, in that they are essentially dynamic, manipulable, and modifiable, whether they are texts in a variorum or films in an online archive. By this very nature, they are also unfinished, as they are constantly being remade and unmade. Making, here, becomes a process that is creative, analytical, and affective, always inscribed by traces of technology, memory, and perception. It thus serves the purpose of trying to capture this unfinished aspect of materiality, as it facilitates an embodied enframing of information, which is also constantly changing. For the humanities, then, making poses several interesting questions and challenges for the study of digital objects.
Making Humanities in the Digital
As is apparent in their functionality, digital objects are constituted by the processes of their making — through edits, annotation, compression, transcription, and so forth. As Hansen suggests in New Philosophy for New Media (2004) “The digital image is processual” (5), and the processes of its making help uncover the manner of its constitution by incorporating affect within studies of materiality. The focus on process in most contemporary accounts of making, such as critical making, is a focus on this dynamic nature of the digital. Such a focus urges the humanities to move from a mode of inquiry dealing largely with representation to engage with objects in a manner that is more embodied. This suggestion is contentious, for it proposes an inquiry that is perhaps quite physical and clinical, even if it is also intellectual, rather than one invested primarily in discourse and context, which are historically central to the humanities. Does the study of digital objects then blur the lines between methods in the humanities and sciences? As opposed to studying finished cultural texts, would the humanities contribute to their making?
The practice and discourse around critical making in a way reiterates the classic two cultures debate. What C. P. Snow saw as a widening schism between the sciences and humanities, and an emphasis on humanities at the expense of scientific advancement, has implications for both disciplines today. In a neat division of labor, relegating the humanities to a discipline of abstract relevance, while endowing the sciences with the empiricism necessary to understand and improve the human condition, the two cultures divide gives the sciences the task of effecting change in a real, material way. One manifestation of this divide suggests that certain skills in building, coding, or making are the province of a particular section of people, further deepening the chasm between disciplines and domains. Critical making questions this boundary, specifically between material and conceptual practices, in our engagement with the world. It is an attempt to better understand the material aspects of technologies around us, through the “processes of their making” and their lived experience, rather than treating them as finished products. The objective is therefore to bring together two approaches or modes of engagement with technology.
As the projects above illustrate, a combination of diverse skills helps create digital platforms, but some aspects of labor become more visible, or are made more visible, as a result of which existing categories or silos — making/writing, theory/praxis — are reinforced. As Gerber and Lutgert recount their experience of not only creating Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma but also working with a diverse set of people in India and Germany, there is a need to translate ideas across domains of expertise. While such translation is difficult, this gap between “tech and non-tech” people is something they find very problematic; their own areas of training range from philosophy to software programming. Although they have developed the platforms for Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma, they feel their contributions have been more conceptual. Perhaps, then, there is also a need to foster more spaces where making encourages conversations across different domains of practice, research, and learning.
Pushing this notion further, we may also ask whether writing and making are necessarily divided and mutually exclusive processes as such. Perhaps they are different expressions of the same framing. The notion of framing, as Hansen describes it, is drawn from cinema and carries within it a critique of ocularcentrism. Here, a frame is not an external or literal frame but rather the process by which formless information is made apprehensible to the body through consciousness. Hansen argues that this act of enframing information must be seen as the source of all technical, external frames (even if they appear to be primary) to the extent that they are designed to make information perceivable by the body — that is, “to transform it into the form of the image” (New Philosophy for New Media 10). Framing is a process by which consciousness creates information by allowing meaning to inhere in the images it produces (162–64). It thus becomes a crucial process of embodied perception, and separating it from the visual register to trace its connection to consciousness also makes it an effective way to understand making itself as an embodied, affective, and critical process.
As such, making, writing, playing, and building can be understood as ways to frame information. To “make” in the humanities may well mean to “read” or “write” and therefore no longer appears to be a contentious proposition. Brushing against neat divisions of labor, perhaps making is also creative, physical, clinical, and intellectual. With the digital turn, the advent of new modes of making helps us not only better understand existing forms of humanities practice but also comprehend the conflicts inherent in the roles technology plays in these processes. This turn contests and in many ways transforms traditional humanities scholarship (including print-based work). It also opens up various avenues to think of multimedia and digital scholarship, research, and practice today. As illustrated in the examples above, the digital text in the variorum or the film in the online archive is an amalgamation of practices that are simultaneously creative and analytical, physical and intellectual. In many cases, the intersections are seamless. For example, as mentioned by film studies scholars interviewed here, annotations in the form of marginalia, errata, and paraphernalia (e.g., notes, pamphlets, tickets, and lobby cards) for films are actually new objects, and textual or discourse analysis may be inadequate methods to interpret a film clip that has been layered with these objects. Approaching them through only one mode of engagement may no longer be a persuasive way to fully understand them, or it may not reveal the scope and limitations of its own methods. While digital objects make demands on the skills and competences of researchers, they also push the boundaries and framing of research, practice, and scholarship in interesting directions.
To reiterate Hansen’s argument about framing, affect is a modality of the body, produced through the processes of embodiment, and in turn functions as a medium that helps us understand the relationship between bodies and information. In mediating between the two, it also allows the body to “collaborate with information” in the production of new experiences and perspectives. More important, it raises questions about the ontology and materiality of digital objects — whether the text in the variorum or the film in the archive — thereby opening the digital itself to a space where objects are constantly being made, remade, and unmade. An exploration of digital objects reveals perennial binaries such as digital/physical, material/conceptual, and creative/critical, also unraveling in the process new conflicts and definitions of what it means to inhabit the digital. In the Indian context, this work is also a varied, multilayered space, which is in transition from analog to digital. With an entry into the processual, making in the humanities thus offers a new perspective and approach to understanding the condition and very idea of the digital as something more than a binary, formal, or static representation. Through an exploration of the material and conceptual processes of digital objects — a form of close reading, in a way — making affords a nuanced understanding of the humanities’ many possibilities.
The author would like to thank all the people interviewed for their generosity in sharing their views and the details of their work, and Sumandro Chattapadhyay, Lawrence Liang, and Nishant Shah for their valuable input in writing this chapter.
2. Professor Emeritus in the Department of English and School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Interview on Skype with author, July 30, 2015.
3. John Bryant describes the fluid text as “any written work that exists in multiple material versions due to revisions (authorial, editorial, cultural) upon which we may construct an interpretation” (17). He argues for the need to make the “process of revisions” and evolution of textual versions more visible and central to the process of interpretation.
5. Interview with author, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, February 19, 2015.
7. Professor in the Department of Film Studies and founder of the Media Lab at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. See http://www.medialabju.org. Interview with author, Jadavpur University, December 17, 2013.
8. Associate Professor in the Department of Film Studies and Joint Director of the Media Lab at Jadavpur University, Calcutta. Interview with author, Jadavpur University, December 18, 2013.
9. Interview with author, Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, February 24, 2015.
10. Interview with author, Centre for Public History, February 18, 2015.
11. See Bergson, Creative Evolution.
12. See Deleuze, Cinema 1 and Cinema 2.
13. See Hansen, “Affect as Medium or the ‘Digital-Facial-Image.’” Drawing from Henri Bergson’s and Gilbert Simondon’s work on affect, Hansen explores the digitized facial image, or what he terms the digital-facial-image (DFI), as a “new paradigm to understand the human interface with digital data” (207). The DFI helps “catalyze the production of affect as an interface between the domain of information (the digital) and embodied human experience” (209). He therefore describes “affectivity” as this crucial relation between body and image: “Insofar as the confrontation with the DFI functions by triggering affectivity as, precisely, a faculty of embodied heterogenesis, it operates a transfer of affective power from the image to the body. Instead of a static dimension or element intrinsic to the image, affectivity thereby becomes the very medium of interface with the image” (208). Affect and affective are used here in this specific register.
14. See Snow, “The Two Cultures.”
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———. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.
———. Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing. Ann Arbor, Mich: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
———. New Philosophy for New Media, ed. Timothy Lenoir. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.
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