A few weeks ago, I noted here about the the ‘Fate of Disciplines‘, organized by the Franke Institute for the Humanities. Spring quarter at the University of Chicago is usually the time for conferences and this was perhaps the biggest and most important event (at least for those of us in Humanities) of the year. Although, we all have had a long year and were all totally conferenced out, we couldn’t stay away because of the critical significance of the theme and of course, the all star cast of invited speakers (Judith Butler, Robert Post, Sheldon Pollock, Marshall Sahlins, Saba Mahmood among others ) made it a ‘must attend’ event.
The innocent among us expected the larger theme of the conference to be the future of Humanities, given Franke Institute was hosting it and the theme was the Fate of Disciplines! What we heard was a lot of Foucault and discourse analysis, which was interesting in its own right but we could have gotten that in any other conference. Here on this occasion though, we expected our star Humanists to offer us in broad and bold strokes, some speculative thinking on how we could re-define the relationship of humanities to the larger world; some reflections on the purpose of our intellectual practice. Not only did we not get that, no one even asked clearly and openly a simple question: what are the responsibilities of humanists in the contemporary world? No one wanted to ask whether the digital age has made any difference to their practice or discipline. There was rarely a moment when someone even considered how the massive digitization of libraries undertaken by Google or the Open Content Initiative (Yahoo-Microsoft) might impact our scholarly practices.
We waited with baited breath to hear someone ask a simple question: how have our reading and writing practices been changing even as we speak? There were some honorable exceptions: Robert Post, Sahlins and my own advisor, Sheldon Pollock. Still it seemed like a beautiful aesthetic event, with little political or ethical charge.
This evening, I was reminded of all this, at a fantastic and inspirational talk by Gregroy Crane on the Perseus project. Crane began by urging us to think about the relationship of humanities to the larger world. While he spoke specifically about the history and future trajectories of Perseus project, his broader concerns compelled him to reflect on where will humanities - and classics in particular - be in twenty years. If it is done crudely, this would be an exercise in predicting where technology would take us but to his credit, Crane consistently avoided thinking about technology in an instrumental fashion. For me and Sepoy, what was refreshing, however, was his formulation of our responsibilities as scholars of humanism. Not only did he speak positively about new forms of intellectual production, such as Wikipedia, he faulted humanists for not contributing to such ventures. Our salaries aren’t being paid just to perform in the class room, he said; we ought to share our knowledge widely and outside the four walls of the university. We agree, wholeheartedly.
The other primary focus of Crane’s talk had to do with the digital infrastructure for humanities, which is now being built by humanities scholars but also by companies such as Google. In that context, he asked very specific questions too. As we build digital archives, what will the world give us (humanists) and what might we need to do, on top of that? ‘World’ is the operative word here. Rarely a moment passes when we are not made aware of the differences between the print and digital cultures. While Google or Yahoo might enthusiastically scan an entire library of texts in English and other major world languages, and perhaps even create searchable texts, the onus of creating digital versions of classical texts will fall on humanities scholars. And so will perhaps even the task of figuring out the necessary tools and frameworks.
In a curious way then philology and digital technologies coalesce. Digital texts offer the flexibility that printed texts didn’t and can accommodate multiple variants and commentaries (visual, audio and written) and embed inside a text all the reading/interpretive conventions that a text historically possessed. Google or yahoo have neither the expertise nor the incentive to undertake digitizing Sanskrit or Persian texts. Here is where Humanists will have to intervene and do both philology and technology extremely well. A striking feature of Crane’s talk were constant references to his students who moved seamlessly between the worlds of University classics departments and Yahoo/Google. While I would want all of us to spend more time in Pune, Benaras and Lucknow to become better philologists, we would also do well to be curious about technology too.
Well, ultimately we return to the same question: has technology actually changed the way we think or ask questions? Should the content and method of our research and teaching change because of technology? Surely Aristotle and Upanisadic sages managed well without technology? Sure, I would write what I write without Google or Regenstien Library. But Digital Humanities too isn’t an illusion that I can wish away. Moreover, to be better philologists and especially to share our scholarship with a wider world, digital technology might help us considerably. Or so I suspect.