Today's Editorial

28 November 2017

Digital imperative


Source: By Samantak Das: The Telegraph


"All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignoranceAll our ignorance brings us nearer to death, Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" - T.S. Eliot, "Choruses from The Rock" (1934)

It is estimated that Google Books alone has digitized over 25 million titles since its inception in 2004. Other estimates reckon that over five per cent of all material preserved in print since the invention of printing (c. 200 CE in China; c. 1400 CE in Europe) has been digitized. This is an almost unbelievably vast corpus, one which calls into question many of our assumptions regarding texts, literature (and the literary), textual variants, archiving and storage, access, reading, interpretation and pedagogy, to name the most obvious.

This 'digital imperative', so to speak, influences every aspect of human activity, and is not confined to the verbal, literary or textual. But, as someone who has spent 65 per cent of his existence as a student of literature, let me try to understand this phenomenon in terms of the literary. Take, for example, that simplest and most obviously 'literary' of objects, a poem. Now, the digital imperative has ensured that not just the words that make up the text of the poem, or its spoken or sung avatar, but also its links to other forms of art (such as the moving or still image of an actual palm tree for Rabindranath's " taal gaach ek paye danriye..." or the representation of a real Grecian urn for Keats's ode on the same artefact) are now members of the poem's digital universe (or would it be better to call it a multiverse?).

Moreover, different versions of the poem - its first handwritten manuscript incarnation, subsequent reincarnations on the manuscript, the first print version, subsequent revised versions, if any, imitations and parodies, other texts inspired or repelled by it, its reception, transformation, translation, transmutation in other times and spaces, and so forth and so on - are all members or potential members of the poem's digital afterlife.

We are at an age when no text is an island, entire of itself; each is a piece of the rapidly expanding universal digital continent.

This dizzying, ever-multiplying, inter- and intra-textuality is no matter of airy theorization; it has invaded not just our laptops but also taken over the very classrooms and lecture halls where academics like your humble scrivener are accustomed to hold forth. The teacher today is confronted by smartphone-wielding students who have several versions of the text and many works of criticism, not to speak of other multi-media responses, reactions, analyses and so forth, for every text he/she chooses to discuss in class. So, how does he/she deal with this ever-multiplying (digital) universe?

To begin with, this new multitudinous (textual) universe gives immediate rise to a set of linked questions, which include the following (in no particular order of significance): - Is literature, or the literary, concerned primarily with the written or the spoken word? It is possible to argue that this notion of the literary (as a written or, at any rate, spoken object of consumption and analysis) can no longer hold with the advent of the digital, where not just printed works, but non-verbal artefacts (one thinks of Brecht's "gestus", the masks of Kathakali, or the stylized human body in Kabuki or Noh, among many others) are recorded, stored and made (relatively easily) accessible to the interested scholar/student.

Is it still possible to speak of 'a' text, or a 'definitive' text? Perhaps the time has come to designate digital texts with some kind of identifying mark, to speak of a Hamlet or a HamletD to distinguish it from the printed Hamlet, which may be written without the superscript '+' or 'D' symbol. Hamlet with the '+' or the 'D' will then indicate a text of Hamlet along with all its digital avatars and accessories, as it were, and indicate its potential infinitude and un-enumerable (hyper)links to other texts (where texts are emphatically not made up of just words).

How does one establish the 'authenticity' of any particular text? And, linked to this, is it even necessary to speak of an 'authentic' text, at all? Where does a text end and analysis begin? The ubiquity of hyperlinks means that we no longer read a single, linear text, but jump from one signifying set (of texts) to another as our fancy takes us. The text is now, willy-nilly, a palimpsest, a hyper-text, with no definite, or even necessary, boundary. And where then does that leave the textual scholar/interpreter and/or the teacher in the classroom?

Perhaps one path to seeking answers to these and related questions may be to try and think of literature as a process, rather than as a product. In her essay, "Rethinking Comparativism", Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote of the need to "acknowledge ... any attempt that the text makes to go outside of its space-time enclosure, the history and geography by which the text is determined. Thus disciplinary convention expands toward what would otherwise escape it, and the field expands greatly, in many ways." ("Rethinking Comparativism" in New Literary History, 2009, 40: 615.) With the coming of the digital imperative, how to deal with the rapidity with which a text (but what is a text anyway?) leaps and bounds outside its space-time enclosure and apparently instantaneously establishes links with other texts becomes a fundamental question that literary (but not only literary) studies will have to grapple with, sooner rather than later.

Some may say, it is all very well to talk of the digital imperative, but what about the 'digital divide' that is still so much a part of our systems and institutions of education? Everything that has been discussed here so far depends on the availability of certain infrastructural facilities - electricity, broadband/WiFi connection, availability of laptops or tablets or smartphones, and so on - which are still not universally available, or not available with any degree of dependability in large tracts of India. Yet, as we have learnt from the astonishing spread of mobile telephony, the digital divide will not remain with us forever. Seventy-five per cent of Indians access the internet not through broadband but on mobile devices. With the fall in smartphone prices, being 'online' is no longer the prerogative of the privileged few.

The great seduction of the ease-of-access provided by the virtual universe/multiverse created by the digital imperative is to sacrifice depth for breadth. There is always a temptation to look at, say, thirty different versions of Ghare Baire (including its receptions, translations, parodies, transcreations, transmutations into other media and genres and what have you) in the finite amount of time available for 'studying' any text in a course/class, instead of going in for a close, analytical, textual reading of one (the definitive?) version of Rabindranath's novel. Yet, who is to say that such an 'in-breadth' reading of a text is less or more valid than an 'in-depth' reading? And can it not be the case that sometimes such an expansive breadth-taking view is the equivalent of a more in-depth study?

The questions multiply, and there seems to be no way of attempting to answer them without giving birth to a fresh set of questions. When we were undergraduate students of literature, the more radical and far-seeing of our teachers would tell us that departments of literature were fated to head down one of two roads. Either they would turn inwards, into the basic building blocks of all literary texts, and become a sub-discipline of linguistics, focusing on the word; or they would look outwards and become a branch of cultural studies. Now, it would seem, the advent and ubiquity of the digital has introduced a third ingredient into the mix. Whether we embrace the brave new worlds of digital literary studies or the digital humanities or shy away from all such new-fangled stuff, one thing seems to be certain. With the coming of what has been characterized here as the digital imperative, neither literature nor literary studies will ever be the same again. And nor will notions such as 'information', 'knowledge', 'wisdom', 'ignorance', or, indeed, 'life' itself.




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