The Digital Object of Desire

On June 16, 2013 by admin



Amlan Das Gupta and Subrata Sinha


[School of Cultural Texts and Records, Jadavpur University]



“The image that is read – which is to say, the image in the now of its recognizability – bears to the highest degree the imprint of the perilous critical moment on which all reading is founded”. (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades, N 3,1)

The paper comes out of the experience of working at the School of Cultural Texts and Records of this university. As such it reflects opinions and insights of our fellow-workers, past and present. We have worked for nearly a decade in building – along with some others – a digital archive of North Indian classical music. In a more tangential way, we are also involved with other deployments of digital technologies in the humanities: archiving, databasing, metadata creation, electronic editing, textual encoding, and so on. Archiving and editing are fairly innocuous activities in themselves: they might be thought of as useful, or at least harmless drudgery, appropriate to those of the academic persuasion. Yet as we immerse ourselves pleasantly in the minutiae of manuscript and typescript, printed book and ephemera, shellac discs and magnetic tape, photographic prints and moving images, we find that our undoubtedly disparate fields of activity are united in the single respect that we are engaged in translating these cultural entities into computer readable data.

The Humanities in the Age of their Digital Operability

Let us start by alluding to a controversial blogpost made earlier this year in the New York Times by the well-known literary scholar Stanley Fish. Fish is in general taking issue with the claims of the “digital humanities”, but his quarrel appears to be with the new umanista, not those who can just about access articles on JSTOR. Many of us find ourselves silently accepting our place within the expansive empire of DH. We did not arrive nor were we converted: we simply acquiesced. As a label DH appears to have largely supplanted “humanities computing” and taken over much of the “new media”.  But then, are there digital humanists and digital humanists?  Do we recognize ourselves in the Twitter happy  digital “insurgents” that Stanley Fish describes in his “tri(blo)gy” on the digital humanities? Fish takes a half-playful dig at humanities’ digital turn (NY Times, 26.12.2011-01.02.2012),  noting incidentally that English departments are turning out to be the new battle grounds.

[There are]  two visions of the digital humanities project — the perfection of traditional criticism and the inauguration of something entirely new — correspond to the two attitudes digital humanists typically strike: (1) we’re doing what you’ve always been doing, only we have tools that will enable you to do it better; let us in, and (2) we are the heralds and bearers of a new truth and it is the disruptive challenge of that new truth that accounts for your recoiling from us. It is the double claim always made by an insurgent movement. We are a beleaguered minority and we are also the saving remnant.

Fish’s digital humanist, thus, must be the maker rather than the user: almost none of us engaged in the academic practice of the humanities and the social sciences can escape the fact that the disciplines increasingly exist in the condition of digital operability.  But one  guesses from the way that the argument progresses, the digital humanist is more digital than humanist. The argument is about the sophistication of the tools that allow us to process and visualize. Fish’s  conclusion, however, is fairly definite:

But whatever vision of the digital humanities is proclaimed, it will have little place for the likes of me and for the kind of criticism I practice: a criticism that narrows meaning to the significances designed by an author, a criticism that generalizes from a text as small as half a line, a criticism that insists on the distinction between the true and the false, between what is relevant and what is noise, between what is serious and what is mere play. Nothing ludic in what I do or try to do. I have a lot to answer for. (NYTimes, Jan 23)

Fish is pointedly disregarding here the possibility that the deployment of digital tools might result in the perception of new problems for purely human consideration: that the near-limitless powers of aggregation and consolidation that computers provide might in fact locate another – or many – of such singularities that he bases his critical practice on.

Making and Using

Perhaps we should say that the true digital humanists are those who are makers as well as users: at any rate, not just users. The tools themselves are also in general made available for others: digital humanists (by and large) are nothing if not generous. but the nature of the tool is that it is suited to particular ends. Knives are knives and hammers, hammers: one rarely suffices to perform the task of the other. and if one finds that one really needs a stapler, then neither is of much use.  Let us give an example from music archiving. As part of our efforts, we have the unexceptionable task of converting analogue sound to a digital signal and  then storing it in a manner which facilitates cognition and access. We use commercial software packages which convert the digital signal into the appropriate storage format as demanded by internationally approved archival standards. Most of the functions of the (highly expensive) software packages (such as Adobe Audition or Sound Forge) are of little use to us as archivists of course: but in case a particularly noisy recording needs to be cleared up for some non-archival purpose, one can use a number of very broad based functions that anticipate most of the needs that one may have. There are also collaborative free-source softwares that we might have used if we were just digitizing an analogue recording for our  personal use. Instead of spending large sums of money buying an Adobe package, we could just download Audacity: here too we would have found a very large number of tools contributed by the community of users – who are also makers. Most of these tools are very specialized and were built by programmers addressing specific sound issues: a typical example might be the Nyquist limiter for live concert recordings offering exceptionally low harmonic distortions. Both the tool and the code are freely accessible. A great many high quality, small, specialized tools instead of the single large aggregative tool: perhaps in time too there will be enough of these tools to serve most practical needs. What is also likely is that we will also teach ourselves minimal tool tweaking so that we can serve our individual needs.

Ropes of Sand

In the digital chain of being, music archivists are fairly low down: they are decidedly users and often accused of a kind of perverse luddism. They are likely to be if anything hardware fetishists, and unwilling to engage with the potential of software tools. Much energy is expended in painstaking documentation, and perhaps something on methods of preservation and access: but it might make be significant to note that none of the major digital music archives in India – we could think of at least  five or six – offer significant online access. One might think that one of the natural ends of digitization is to encourage widespread access, but archivists are in fact decidedly unforthcoming in this matter. Insurgents, we are not: mindful, even subservient to the status quo. But then the more aggressive propaganda for digital humanities departments could even claim that  “because students in the digital humanities are trained to deal with concrete issues related to intellectual property and privacy,” they will be equipped “to enter fields related to everything from writing computer programs to text encoding and text editing, electronic publishing, interface design, and archive construction”  (“The Humanities and the Fear of Being Useful,” in Inside Higher Education, Paul Jay and Gerald Graff, cited Fish, loc. cit. 9 Jan 2012).  Archives – and we speak now of those located in institutional spaces – often have to disavow the pleasures of digital dissemination  purely in order to survive and continue in an oppressive intellectual property regime.

What we call progress is this storm

If archivists resolutely set their faces against two of the most significant advantages of digital data – the opportunity of using powerful tools, and that of easy dissemination, what on earth are we doing here? The answer most often given is that the option of digitization out of analogue states is the best chance of survival of much data. If the idea of having such archives are very much in the air these days, it evidently focuses attention on frightening prospect of inoperability in the analogue domain. Yet paradoxically, it is digital archivists who are often the most driven by the prospect of loss, ineffectual prophets of the need to hold on to analogue records, be they contained in shellac or paper, celluloid or bromide. . While digital technology offers a convenient solution to many problems of recording – in terms of affordability and reproducibility, it would be unwise to think that once music is digitized it is assured of uninterrupted survival. In fact, the pressure of technological obsolescence is experienced in this field at an immensely heightened form. Neither the media nor the equipment is likely to last very long in physical terms too, and the feeling among enthusiasts that it digital media can be quickly and without appreciable loss copied, must be offset by the depressing awareness that every effort needs both human will and monetary support, and these are after all factors that one cannot assume as being easy to come by. What Walter Benjamin’s angel sees is in fact our condition: “This storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.” [Theses on History, thesis IX,]

Archives, in the sense that we understand them, are small dustheaps, recuperated  from the detritus of history.

Collectors and Ragpickers

In his ambitious and unfinished project on the modern city – The Arcades – Benjamin repeatedly returns to the question of accumulation, the need that is pre-eminently the experience of modern living: to salvage “scraps from the wreckage of culture” to hold on to fragments of a past that we know to be irretrievable. Benjamin in fact speaks our predicament clearly in his writings: above all he was a  man whose life’s work is an archive of sorts. Peter Conrad writes in his review of the Verso volume entitled Walter Benjamin’s Archive: Images, Texts, Signs (ed Ursula Marx, 2007):

These fragments I have shored against my ruin,’ says a nameless voice in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. The fragments are a collage of quotations, jumbled mementos of a lost world. For Walter Benjamin, this might have been the motive of cultural history: he, too, salvaged scraps from the wreckage of culture, anthologising quotes in the hope of reconstructing a past that he knew to be irretrievable.

But much of Eliot’s investment in fragments is a aesthetic stance, for Benjamin it was constitutive of identity.

Eliot’s poem was artificially fragmented by Ezra Pound. Benjamin did not have to pretend to be fabricating a ruin. Hustled by history and menaced by poverty, he scribbled his most brilliant perceptions on scraps of paper, some of which are reproduced in the Archive. Any tattered or expendable sheet would do: an opened envelope, train tickets, request forms from libraries, a prescription pad thrown away by a friendly doctor. Intriguingly, a note on the idea of aura – crucial to Benjamin’s great essay on ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, his elegy for the idiosyncrasy that has been expunged from our mass-produced society – is scrawled on an advertisement for San Pellegrino mineral water.(The Guardian, 27 Oct 2008)

Convolute H of the Arcades is entitled “The Collector”.  Many of the ideas here are familiar from the 1931 essay “Unpacking My Library”, but they reappear thickly encrusted with quotations, comments and interjections, no longer a wise disquisition on love, death and the book: fragmented thoughts now, interspersing that which is recovered from others. The Arcades is fully, in Bakhtin’s sense, translinguistic.

Benjamin reflects on the difference  and similarity between two powerful figural types,  both in some sense engaged in the task of  bringing together the disjecta membra of quotidian life: the collector and the allegorist:

Perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found. It is the same spectacle that so preoccupied the men of the Baroque; in particular, the world image of the allegorist cannot be explained apart from the passionate, distraught concern with this spectacle. The allegorist is, as it were, the polar opposite of the collector. He has given up the attempt to elucidate things through research into their properties and relations. He dislodges things from their context and, from the outset, relies on his profundity to illuminate their meaning. The collector, by contrast, brings together what belongs together; by keeping in mind their affinities and their succession in time, he can eventually furnish information about his objects.  [H4a,1]

Benjamin’s positive valuation of material possession, his celebratory warmth towards the products of mass consumer culture, have caused some concern among the more doctrinaire readers.  Hannah Arendt however notes the revolutionary potential of Benjamin’s obsession with things: “Benjamin could understand the collector’s passion as an attitude akin to that of the revolutionary. Like the revolutionary, the collector “dreams his way not only into a remote or bygone world, but at the same time into a better one in which, to be sure, people are not provided with what they need any more than they are in the everyday world, but in which things are liberated from the drudgery of usefulness” (Illuminations, 42).

But if the allegorist and the collector, are both moved by the “passionate, distraught” spectacle of dispersal and fragmentation, responding by creating material arrays, they are not the only gatherers of unconsidered trifles. As night falls on the city, the streets see two other figures sifting through the refuse of the day: the ragpicker and the poet. In the Baudelaire book, they appear as indissolubly twinned. A quotation from Baudelaire’s “Wine and Hashish” provides the key.

“Here we have a man whose job it is to gather the day’s refuse in the capital. Everything that the big city has thrown away, everything it has lost, everything it has scorned, everything it has crushed underfoot he catalogues and collects. He collates the annals of intemperance, the capharnaum of waste. He sorts things out and selects judiciously: he collects like a miser guarding a treasure, refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry”.

and goes on to add:

This description is one extended metaphor for the poetic method, as Baudelaire practiced it. Ragpicker and poet: both are concerned with refuse”.  (The Writer of Modern Life, Harvard, p.108)

In Convolute H of the Arcades there is a further amplification: “Flaneur  The flaneur optical,  the collector tactile”. [H2,5]

Already Always

The digital surrogate is hardly an object even in the attenuated sense that that those in the foul rag and bone shop of the ragpicker’s inhabitation. Archivists of course are not even ragpickers, for where even the ragpicker chooses what is of value (“objects of quality or of delight”), the archivist is bound to the task of bounded exhaustiveness. Nothing within the collection can be left out: nothing that was not part of it can be included without creating a fresh archive. The archive documents the process of survival. The question of usefulness one might say is finally excised, in the hope that this excision itself becomes the source of value. In practical terms this often accounts for the choice of the digital domain. The inherent sense of instabilility, the terror of obsolescence, the spectrality of being that characterises the digital field is partly at least offset by its promise of virtual limitlessness: it appears to be capacious enough to contain whatever we may choose to commit to it. What we may have gained is the sense the digital archive enables us to undertake the task of archiving the quotidian, the ordinary, the unexceptional.

But what of the digital surrogate itself? Without form or lineament, existing outside memory and affect, it can be nevertheless be endlessly simulated, visualized, auralized and replicated – and in many cases added to or subtracted from. As a condition of preservation of cultural material,  this may seem unprecedented, a new realm of the marvellous. Lisa Gitelman, in a study of the new media, speculates on the peculiarity of  digital inscription:

Digital media inscribe too, and they do so in what are mysterious new ways. (Mysterious to me, at least, and anyone else without an engineering background.) I see words written on my computer screen, for instance, and I know its operating system and other programs have been written by programmers, but the only related inscriptions of which I can be fully confident are the ones that come rolling out of the attached printer, and possibly the ones that I am told were literally printed onto chips that have been installed somewhere inside. At least inscriptions like printer output and microprocessor circuits share the properties of tangibility, portability, and immutability. The others? Who knows? I execute commands to save my data files—texts, graphics, sounds—but in saving them, I have no absolute sense of digital savability as a quality that is familiarly material.

But then materiality is also, as Gitelman goes on to say,  a matter of getting used to things.

I have tended to chalk this up to the difference between the virtual and the real, without stopping to ponder what virtual inscriptions … could possibly be. Like the mysteries surrounding the inscription of recorded sound onto surfaces of tinfoil and then wax at the end of the nineteenth century, the mysteries surrounding the virtual inscription of digital documents are part of the ongoing definition of these new media in and as they relate to history.

In the historical perspective, then, as Gitelman’s book suggests, the newness of the new media is in the condition of being “already always” new.

sctr-music archive

The Digital Object of Desire

All archives – not merely digital ones – are founded on certain conscious choices, no matter whether such choices are practical and utilitarian, or ludic and rebellious. One might choose to archive collections of great poetry, or cheap chapbooks: in fact the centre at which we work has both. The digital object however is peculiarly founded. Collectors develop, as we all know, a physical tactile relationship with the objects of their love that often exceeds normal cognitive parameters. A music collector is reputed  to have been able to distinguish the smell of individual carriers; a professor at a university in our city – near the end of his life and totally without sight – was known to be able to distinguish editions of early Bengali books by merely touching them. Such anecdotes of affect are common in companies of collectors and archivists, and undoubtedly tell us something about the intensity of desire that cultural objects can produce. Can the digital surrogate be located in the circuit of desire? One might argue in extension of an earlier argument that the experience of the archived material – game, film, music, image or text – remains largely the same: all consumption of cultural data is determined by a specific state of technology.

Desire may seem a dangerous idea to bandy about in the context of the archive. Collections, we know, are built around desire:  archivists are tied in the strong coils of necessity, often not of their own making. The collection recognizes only one user: the collector herself. But archives, even the slightest of them, have constantly to bear in mind the desire of the future users. What we do know is justified only in the image of that shadowy and unimaginable figure of the future. How can we speak of the desire of that user? The archive – and we will speak here of the digital archive – are founded upon an act of faith, that what we collect in the here and now will somehow endure  till the time that it enters into the retrospective desire of a community of users, perhaps today or tomorrow or perhaps a few years hence.  But it takes courage, not to say foolhardiness, to think of the future at all in the digital domain.  If the digital archive is born as a counter to the inhospitability of the present to the past, the future to which it looks may be in fact an illusion.  It can hardly be otherwise: some digital archives will endure and others will not, adding to the frighteningly large pile of digital debris that the storm, that we call progress, drives us towards. The Internet is a veritable graveyard of dead archives, still present in some ghostly abstract form, but beyond access and experience.

The digital surrogate, exists then, in what we might feel a radical state of alienation, its lack of tactility, its dissociation from material presence. It is probably true that a similar sense of estrangement is experienced at other critical moments of technological change: the printed word, for instance, or recorded sound. But at every stage the problem of cognition is posed anew. If by a process of habit the physical book becomes more and more indistinguishable from what it contains, the affect for the song is sited in the shellac disc, it is as yet difficult to think how we may conceive of digital content outside of the moment of experiencing it. To be able to use it, we must first be able to know recognize it: cognition as always determines access. This brings us at the end of this brief reflection to the question of metadata. Whatever metadata  we provide today is on the basis of what we are able to articulate about the digital surrogate, which again must be part of our strategy of committing it to the future. Whatever we say about it now is the state of the archivist’s knowledge, here and now: we can only strive to push towards that horizon of uncertainty where it will collide with the interrogation of the future. What questions will the future user put to the archive? What form will her interest take? The problems faced by archives of non-verbal material are considerably more complex here. In the current state of knowledge the image or sound file can be defined only with verbal tags: one cannot as yet define a sound as Ali Akbar Khan and use it to define a search. But it is not an illegitimate question for any committed listener to Indian classical music would take only a few seconds to recognize the sound of the master’s instrument, from any time in the artist’s career, and irrespective of the state of the recording.  Perhaps content defined searches are one of the tools we may hope to have in the not too distant future. But until such time, all searches are dependent on how we as archivists wrap the naked digital entity in a envelope of tags and markers, and thus make it cognizable.

The experience of digital archiving teaches us that collections tend to grow very fast. The pressure of accumulating content leads one fears to a kind of minimalism in metadata creation, especially in those for front-end use. More energy expended in metadata creation would mean less data processed: for those of us who have worked almost entirely on time-bound project funding, the trick is to figure out a reasonable compromise. A collector friend – who carries his catalogue entirely in his head – asked us recently how many nawab-pasand gats our archive had. When we confessed that we really had no idea, he asked us what the use of having such an archive could possibly be! It is here that one might think of the possibility of devising a more interactive – or dialogic – database, not just one in which there is scope for correcting existing errors or supplies missing information: but one in which both the questions and answers of  future users might find a place.

Anybody associated with the archiving of performing arts would know that a large pool of data about a collection – ranging from the collection itself to the history of a particular piece of recording within the collection –is actually stored in the folklore that is held within the archival community . They do not find their way into the database primarily because much of it cannot really be accommodated within the rigid categories of the catalogue structure.  One might well say that the recognition  and recording of these anarchic pieces of anecdotal information, the metadata of the metadata,  have no place at all in the archivist’s world. But when considers the fact that the primary concern of the actual content in an audio-visual archive is not informative, but aesthetic, we might wish to pause and think. Can we think of the task of the archivist directly at odds with the object of cataloguing – in procedure, even if not in intention?. The multitude of the formative aspects of the aesthetic product remains outside the scope of the catalogue. The catalogue‘s overwhelming preoccupation with the taxonomical location of the product ignores the process of its making.

Performed music in India – we are thinking here of the collections of concert performances of Hindustani classical music from the 1950s to the 1970s that form the speciality of our archive – has an important collective identity. Whatever the status in law of ownership of music, it appears to be well accepted that the music that was performed recognized the existence of web of relationships. Not just the accompanists, but patrons, organizers, other musicians present, the lay audience, technicians and recordists, had a stake in the music that was made. Then also the musical content was traditional and reflected to the knowledge of  other musical communities. Collectors – those with access to recording technology – were often the custodians of the music, and by and large seem to have played their role scrupulously and with efficiency. It is to their mediation, often attended with considerably personal sacrifice, that we owe the survival of a large corpus of musical sound. Thus the recordings themselves often call for a supplement: of community knowledge, folklore, gossip, scandal, anecdote: listening to these recordings in informed company elicits unexpected – and often invaluable – results.

Sound archivists in particular habitually profit from the queries and responses of users. In our cases, we often have mislabelled artists, misrecognized ragas, wrongly transcribed bandishes: we have also sought to correct earlier errors of attribution and description.  We have looked to the experience of use for both correction and validation. But what would be perhaps even more valuable is to think of the catalogue as incorporating a space not only for information but an excavation of those layers of experience from which the recorded song in the act of archiving: the nature of digital space might make us want to think of the possibility not only about cataloguing of a digital content, but also about digital cataloguing of archival contents. The digital domain, as we can note from the experience of textual scholarship,  is good at juxtaposing verbal variations, if not at making sense of those differences. Can we, in that case, think of a prospect of polyphony in the catalogued space?



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