On the Digital Humanities in India or What You Will
Two weeks ago, I was standing in front of the Las Meninas at the Prado after having played truant at a videogames conference. Mesmerised by the little girls looking at me from within the incredibly lifelike canvas and by that man in the staircase, I felt as if I were in a videogame. Was it art or was it a videogame then? Almost immediately, I remembered the session that I run away from: 'are videogames art?' Eleven years ago, it seems such a long time now, I had asked the questions 'are videogames stories?' and 'can stories be played like videogames?' to a bemused audience of postgrads and academics in an Indian university, my alma mater. These questions haunt me even today, after writing a doctoral dissertation on the subject and many more academic debates and discussions, some of them articles and book chapters. Are videogames art? A rather irate blogger wishes to go back in time and tie Roger Ebert's hands so that he never could type his dictum on videogames not being art. I wish I could too. Tying Ebert's hands is, however, not going to solve my Las Meninas problem. Is my experience of videogames affecting my experience of the Velazquez masterpiece? Digital technology has changed how we experience the world - undoubtedly so. That includes art, literature, culture and you-name-it. So what happens to the pre-digital categories that we comfortably brought to our universities and taught our students? Problems, I say. Problems.
Part of these problems is something called Digital Humanities. For some, it is the answer to the problems that the digital technologies have caused to all those academics who were snug in their Dickens Chairs, their Aristotelian sofas and the like. Naturally, everywhere in Europe and the US, universities have started Digital Humanities courses. They all seem to know what it is and they have some great definitions. This is the good part of the story.
Now, for the not-so-good part: I am back in India again after a good seven years and when I mention Digital Humanities, I see the same bemused faces that I saw after my presentation on videogames those eleven years ago. It’s different, however. Videogames and this whole digital business is not uncool anymore. The whole world is doing Digital Humanities and India is not to be left behind. There’s a small problem though and let’s again bring in Ebert and his tied hands to illustrate this: Indian academics haven’t heard of Roger Ebert and most haven’t the foggiest idea of what videogames are. A large percentage aren’t on Facebook and although many bewail the loss of gigapedia’s free library, the common mainstays of European or American education such as VLEs and e-assessment haven’t reached their office computers. Of course, they don’t tweet; don’t know about Prezi (as opposed to Powerpoint) and would rather create their bibliographies manually rather use Zotero. I met one who did know Zotero but thought it was a note-taking software and she has covered her Kindle (one of the few that you can see around here) in cellophane totally oblivious of the magic sun-proof screen that Amazon prides itself on. Maybe, she just reads it in places where there is no cellophane reflection. Perhaps this is me being mean – so let’s go beyond my little world of web 2.0 for education and research towards the big developments that are purportedly happening in Indian academia. There is the Centre for Internet and Society that does some very important work in the area of digital cultures; there are other places that have a scattered presence in the mainstream academia. However, bigger institutions such as central and state universities have recently started showing interest in Digital Humanities. Here is the second problem: many of these institutions have got their definitions of the area from the zillion different ones in universities the world over. Instead of capitalising on the latecomer's advantage of researching the concept more thoroughly, some of these places have sought (and found) easy ready-to-hand versions more to their liking.The result is that some end up thinking that this is all about digitizing books, some think about law and the digital world, some think fancy and some confused. Kind of like the story of the blind men and the elephant they miss the forest for the trees. The main uniting factor, however, is that they all consider this an area of promise.
Of course, the magic word ‘digital’ ticks the boxes of interdisciplinarity and opens up possibilities of shaking hands with our richer colleagues in the IT faculties. ‘Digital’ also has a cool factor about it – like a male academic’s ponytail or even a metaphorical Lamborghini. Anyway, perhaps in search of this ‘coolness’, in Indian universities there is a rush helter-skelter to grab some expert on the digital humanities (or the so-called New Media), to analyse Facebook, get some surveys on gaming culture and especially on the game (sic!) called Second Life. However, this hasn’t solved any problems for the Humanities departments. Their focus remains limited and the course plans are confused. This is mainly because of the lack of engagement with previous research in the area and a haste that has perhaps stemmed from their earlier attitude to treat the area lightly. As they say, old habits die hard. I only know a couple of people who have expressed an active interest to read up on the area and of them, one is already quite well aware of international discussions and debates on many subjects. The rest seem to be content with their euphoric ‘yay digital’ mantra. It seems to me that some people are trying to do too many things too fast. Call me a purist, but at least as far as Game Studies is concerned, I strongly insist that my students read up their Espen Aarseth, their Ian Bogost and the many other rich discussions on videogames. I also insist that people who talk to me about videogames be willing to experience these games for themselves. If I were to write about Shakespeare, as I once did, I would be expected to have read up everything under the Shakespearean sun from A.C. Bradley to my girlfriend’s latest article on the bard and not to know the plays would be criminal, of course. Even Film Studies professors at least deign to watch the films they talk about. It is not surprising, therefore, that one might expect people who wish to analyse videogames, to at least have a feel of the medium itself.
However, I must not digress. Okay, so what else do I have to offer besides a massive whinge? My own understanding of the term ‘Digital Humanities’, perhaps. Make no mistake, I am and have always been concerned with researching videogames as a storytelling medium. Over the last decade, after having been pushed around under the banner of New Media (which tag I have always protested against) and now being walked into the DigiHum club, I have had to come up with a notion of my own to guarantee my academic sanity. For me, the rapid digitisation of social interaction, entertainment and cultural affects leaves its trace (in the Derridean sense and therefore also a rupture) on traditional understandings of Humanities. It exposes at the same time what was always there in the Humanities but nevertheless unknown; it also points to the close connection that the so-called new media has to the traditional notions. Let us say this in simple words. Digital media do not cause traditional concepts to be replaced by the new and the never-known-before; instead, they point out facets that problematise prior conceptions and renew the process of enquiry.
For example, we know videogames tell stories. Anybody who says that digital games are about to replace storybooks is, however, an idiot. The videogame narrative is multiple and with its saves and reloads presents an uber-complex temporality. However, to say that because videogames do not present the traditional plot structures that we often take as givens, does not mean that they cannot tell stories. Remember Borges’s forking paths, Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Calvino’s castle? Similarly, when people argue about the relationship of the ludic and the narrative, any scholar of narratives or even any random reader will remember how stories often play games with us. We just haven’t been able to study this aspect. At least, not until now. Enter Digital Humanities, Game Studies or call them what you will. Suddenly there is another shake-up of whatever we had taken for granted.
Studying that and facing that challenge in our research is what this discipline (or indeed, indiscipline) is about. Not scanning the obscure letters of a Mr Oldham and keeping them under a password-protected login. Which brings me to another vital thing about the digital world: sharing. Sharing increases the reach of an idea; so what would you say about sharing with millions of computers at unimaginable speeds? Academic culture is changing all over the world. People want to talk to each other across the globe and to listen. The dumb academic gets left far behind - by millions of tweets and facebook posts. If you are an academic going into Digital Humanities research, stay miles away from cliques and do not start by thinking of about competition. Write a blog, share your research with others, take their ideas on board and although I know you must publish your monographs and articles, but leave some free stuff on Scribd or somewhere. Share your thoughts with people not just those peer-reviewed journals.
Digital Humanities, or whatever you call it, is not a new discipline. It is a major cultural shift and it is here to stay and to problematise the stereotypes and the conventions. As game-designer and scholar Richard Bartle has said about coming to terms with videogame culture, the message here is : ‘drown or learn to swim.’ In a world, which can brook challenges and which can share solutions, I do not think we need to keep anyone’s hands tied. I would then untie Roger Ebert’s by now famous hands and take him in front of Las Meninas. Maybe he will revise his comment; maybe he will leave us with more problems. Either way, that’s the fun. Here’s to a great beginning to Digital Humanities in India and many more years, my masters.
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino