I just returned from a trip to India that was mostly a “working vacation” (I gave a conference paper, delivered several lectures, and did some preliminary fieldwork) but was still fun.
This Chronicle essay aptly captures some of my dilemmas as a scholar interested in India. The author notes: “As a member of the post-Orientalism-smackdown generation, I spent much of my time in India acutely self-conscious of the ways in which I, an enthusiastic academic wielding grand theories, might unwittingly perpetuate the abridgments, abstractions, and ‘positional superiority’ that so frustrated Said.”
Scholarly discourses have the potential to be colonizing, even when well-intended. I found this out when I presented my lecture introducing the digital humanities, and a member of the audience asked whether the “DH” might not more aptly stand for De Humanizing scholarship. He argued that Western technologies take on a colonizing function when used to study non-Western cultures… which I agree with, somewhat. But what to do? I noted that many of the DH tech and tools are available for free online, so all you really need is an internet connection to join the dialogue. Yet some of the universities I visited still lack a wired infrastructure. Electricity goes out during class, disrupting powerpoint presentations. One campus was usually left without electricity after dusk, making it impossible to work unless you had gas lamps and a fully charged laptop. What could I really say that would address the power inequalities and access disparities at work here?
We had a fruitful discussion after my DH presentation, and I’m confident that I at least gave local scholars something to think about. But they also gave me something to think about – which I think is the most important part of scholarly dialogue. It was an exchange, not a monologue. I offered more questions than answers, and they responded in kind. It’s a start, at least.