Episode 29 | Stories, Digital Modalities and Attention Economy | Dr. Torsa Ghosal

Episode 29 | Stories, Digital Modalities and Attention Economy | Dr. Torsa Ghosal

[Music] [Music] [Music] [Music] okay hi everybody um welcome back to who’s afraid of the humanities i think after a hiatus is around two months um and uh so we have today with us um uh dr tosa goshaw um she’s an assistant professor at um california state university she’s a humanities researcher and a writer and we’re so proud to have uh her today uh to resume uh the episodes of our podcast hi dr ghoshal uh i welcome you very very warmly uh to today’s um episode how are you thank you vinny thank you for doing this podcast i’m well uh right now we were in the summer break and we are about to resume the fall semester um in a week here we still have online classes for the next semester so just preparing for that right yeah how are you i’m fine um it’s been a hectic couple of months and weeks and here too um and kovid is you know wreaking havoc here in sri lanka so i think it’s kind of like um very very unpredictable as to what is going to happen uh in the next moment yeah so everything is you know uh in chaos if that’s the word to use yeah so um uh when you reached uh when when when your work i mean i i mean i heard of your work i thought it would be very interesting to talk to you um about the research that you do and your your commitment to the humanities um so let’s first talk about um your decision to select um or to be a humanities student at the beginning what what motivated you to be or choose humanities be a humanities researcher as you are right now i think um what happened was you know in school so i was in south asia in india when i was a school student and you know in the curriculum the way the curriculum is shaped in india is that you had to make a decision about whether you would study arts or science or um i think the third is called commerce um at the school level and i chose science at the time because i really enjoyed physics and i was really interested in um sort of uh computer science as well uh problem solving that kind of thing but at the same time i was also very interested in stories um how stories are told what stories do to people’s minds uh that sort of thing um i was also uh this kind of part-time student journalist at the time so uh i was interested in various subcultures in calcutta where i was based and i would go out there and report you know this is how this community lives out here that kind of thing um it was only toward the end of my uh you know school education that i really felt that even in the sciences what i was really interested in was um you know the philosophies or ideas at a deeper level at that time i guess i did not have the language for it so i wouldn’t use the word philosophy for it uh i would be like okay i’m interested in physics at a conceptual level but it’s not as if i want to do physics if that makes sense um or computer science you know the same kind of thing and you know i was writing and so i thought uh okay so what i’m really interested in maybe is stories and storytelling and um and that sort of thing so that’s how i kind of got into humanities i got into english literature and um at the bachelor’s level i studied english and had bengali literature as one of my electives and film studies so all of that kind of confirmed for me the hunch i had that what i’m interested in is observing things learning about things but also learning about the philosophies behind them what they do in our culture how they work and so on so you know stories connected to the sciences our story is connected to um any kind of you know other discipline we think about so that’s how uh i kind of understood my own interests and inclinations and i continued uh studying along those lines so masters and then phd um i did not know at the time that you could for instance combine your interest in the sciences and the humanities uh in the way that i learned when i came for grad school uh in the us um and that is reflected in my book really because my book tries to work with um narratives and cognitive science and philosophy of mind with uh literature so um so that’s kind of my trajectory in the humanities let’s let’s since you mentioned the book i think we will we will um in in later like uh uh with time we can discuss about your book um uh you know in detail um so your transition from sciences to humanities um you know with what we are experiencing in different parts of the world but the crisis in humanity is the funding and all that when when you look back at your decision what do you think about about you know um now being an assistant professor and the the social and economic security that you experience and the kind of um you know the the economic and social rewards that you could have had where if you had followed uh you know physics or or a stem subject so what do you think about that like like we are at a very volatile kind of situation right now i agree with the assessment that we are in a volatile situation in the humanities and you know every time there is talks of a budget crisis it seems as if humanities is the one that um may get kind of a reduced budget line and so on so that’s true but i think um what as i said even in the sciences what i used to be interested in was this philosophy the theoretical sides of it and i have friends who pursued sort of you know doctoral degrees in theoretical aspects of a particular sciences and uh if they have stayed in the i don’t know if pr is the right word like if they have stayed in like that theoretical lane completely um they face a lot of constraints and budgetary restrictions in their own way there’s pressure on them to bring funding to the universities as well so in a way i think um unless a one is pursuing a subject that fits whatever the current narrative is around us about you know this is very useful to us because of x um there is a lot of pressure and constraints on academics just in general uh of course there is a difference and you know you just have to look at the payroll um of even professors so you know i have colleagues in different departments who came the same year as me different disciplines different salaries and so on so in no way am i saying that it’s all equal but in terms of pressure i feel it boils down to what the current sort of buzz is sometimes and if you can make a case for like your subject is important because of this and yeah you know that sort of thing yeah um what about your your research which like i think you’ve mentioned very briefly but we’ll expand a little bit uh what kind of research do you do and what areas are you interested in i am mainly interested in um the relationship between uh media mind and storytelling um broadly speaking all my research projects can be uh sort of grouped into this you know under these three i guess words um so um to talk about my research i can backtrack to that period when i was making those decisions about study humanities so as i said i was this kind of part-time student journalist and i recall that between the time i was in high school and college a lot of this kind of newspaper supplements that used to come as hard copies when i was in school started migrating to online platforms um or already had an online component but were now no longer going to come out in fringe it was going to be only online so i recall that the moment it became online my editors would say things like you know uh people’s attention spans online is reduced so we cannot have uh stories as long as they used to be or you know that that kind of thing um and to me i had this thing about questioning these kinds of you know wisdom that that is passed around that audience’s attention span as lower online and i was like okay i mean at an intuitive level it does seem right but is there research about it that audience’s attention span is lower or is it just that there are so many things competing for attention i mean people are you know attending to things but it’s like there are more things to attend to like what is the and you know what are those differences so i was intrigued and uh therefore when i was applying for grad school i recall in the statement of purpose uh i had written i was interested in studying um digital aesthetics i think i called it like how digital media influenced the way we tell stories at that time i did not understand or again did not have the language to talk about cognition um which was always in the mix and kind of back up on the back of my mind but um i was like yeah how how digital media influences we tell stories and not just you know um stories in terms of like novels and short stories but also uh movies because at that time i remember uh there were movie directors who were talking a lot about how digital media is uh either good or bad for cinema and that kind of thing so um so that’s where my research trajectory started and for almost like the first three or four years of grad school i was still pursuing that relationship between digital media and storytelling and i was um you know finding particular kinds of narrative uh probes you can say or narrative movements that i felt uh had to do with the influence of digital media and attributes of digital media like for instance you know how hyper links um are a thing in digital media we click on links all the time and there were these kinds of experimental books like mark dan whiskey’s house of leaves which so many scholars before me also have said that it tries to bring hyperlinks to books because it has all these footnotes that distract you and so on so then for a little while i thought that what i was really getting at is how digital media is reshaping the book as a medium um and a book especially in the context of you know again storytelling so not all kinds of books but a specific kind of book and i continued pursuing that and actually my dissertation was called books with bodies because one of the you know i guess arguments of the dissertation really was that um digital media is you know books are trying to kind of remediate some of the habits that we that are commonplace for audiences in digital media books are trying to kind of remediate and enable those but at the same time books are also trying to um sort of stress on their own importance by self-reflexively calling attention to the embodied relationship a reader has with books um this is not to say that our relationship with digital platforms is not embodied i mean you know touch screens we touch and all of that but a particular kind of embodiment that is that is related to the book um when i uh then you know uh joined as assistant professor and kind of continued pursuing research along those lines that’s when really i understood that all of these things that i’m saying i’m interested in and working on there is a kind of third component to it which is uh cognition you know memory attention perception and then you know i sort of backtracked in my mind that okay that is where my interest really came from when people were saying that digital media is doing this to us doing that to us and i was really intrigued like is it doing these things um so that’s where my research got me and uh currently i have worked on you know my own monograph um my single authored book but i’m also working on one co-edited book and another edited book um all three of which again sort of uh you know get at those three ideas mind storytelling and media um yeah so when you’re talking about this very interesting correlation between the digital media books and the mind and the attention economies that we’re talking about um i was i was very interested in kind of like asking you whether uh uh how to kind of like search us to like let’s take for example your students um how do their social or economic background determine um their kind of relationship to um you know these three aspects you know digital media books and that and the attention economy um um because this is this is because like a lot of us probably have not been trained in reading and that probably we need to just acquire it later in our lives or there can be some students who are who are very kind of versatile in their reading and they they’re engaged and and uh the these modalities of the digital are not a problem for them so what do you do you have anything to say do you what do you think about that that’s a great question um and you know because i have taught and i’m teaching a very um diverse body of students i know divorce is such a cliched word like it’s used for everything today but i think in the cal state system especially the students i teach are um all over the socioeconomic map um i get to teach a lot of first-generation college students um of course a lot of asian latino students black students and many of them from families or backgrounds that have not been exposed to this kind of education so um i think there are many different aspects to this question one is of course when i’m teaching a particular kind of course when there are these modalities or these very highly experimental books how they respond to it um i think to the things that i teach in specific and within the context of the course they are fascinated by it because they did not know something like this existed and that kind of thing um i think a lot of my students in terms of their comfort level with digital modalities um are very comfortable with you know the haptics um um they have been exposed to smartphones even if they did not have very highly technologically advanced laptops maybe they everyone like i think every student in my class has access to smartphones at least and so they through that are exposed to the haptics now this is not to say that just because they’re comfortable with the haptics they’re all equally comfortable or so on but um they think about it also if they’re not on social media for instance they know other people who are on it and so they come with some preconceived ideas about it and so on um but there are lots of inequities for sure um and these iniquities uh are addressed sometimes the kinds of stories uh i teach um because i typically try to choose books or stories that are not oblivious to the socioeconomic realities of the world right so in that sense um students can connect or feel seen by those stories or that is what i at least try to do now um the other aspect to the question uh is that you know the fact that there is a lot of exposure to digital media on university campuses here various like people from all sorts of backgrounds may not have had that exposure within their families or there are international students too and i know that even though i’ve been to uh some prominent colleges in india they would have this one computer lab of sorts at least when i was studying and um i did not have my own laptop until much later and maybe not before i came for grad school so you know my own access to digital media was limited even when i was thinking so much about digital media mind and so on um i guess that gets reflected in one problem i have faced with the corpus i corpus of narratives or stories i use for my research which is that um i was interested in this question of digital media mind storytelling but i would not often find uh books for a very long time books or stories by uh by authors from say india or you know pakistan sri lanka etc uh who are addressing these questions so you know even though i did not quite in initially at least want my uh dissertation to be about um us and uk authors it kind of accidentally became that way because i think authors in europe or north america had access to a lot of digital platforms for their creative projects or you know just when they were going to school college or whatever before a lot of us did in south asia and so uh back then in 2011 or 2012 i started doing uh my grad school in the us the books that were out there um that were doing these kinds of experimental works were inevitably coming out of north america or europe um and and i think that was a sort of setback for me for a little while where i was like okay so if i’m interested in studying say south asian authors i have to have completely different research questions because um they are not doing the work that i’m doing but i was interested in the politics and so on so i kind of stuck to my original ideas which meant uh working on a corpus that was not that that was not something that i chose but had to because of my research questions how how is your own experience as a writer that you you write you write stories as well and you write poetry how is your experience as a writer has been shaped by all these digital modalities and also the kind of probably the constraints imposed by that especially in that case you know attention economy can be a constraint because they would ask you to have this amount of words and this amount of words and these model lines whatever so how has that shaped your trajectory as a writer when it comes to poetry because poetry um at least the kind that i have always written are sort of uh you know were already kind of on the shorter side i guess um any kind of word length related questions i have faced it’s always about either non-fiction essays sometimes about short stories but mostly non-fiction essays that i’m writing for any kind of digital platform that you know explore 15 ideas but within a thousand words kind of on one hand uh you know i wonder uh or actually now having done some research uh about that um i from the existing research i know that uh digital media or our attention and minds work slightly differently when we are um exposed to a screen which also has other tabs on it open something is blinking because somebody is messaging us and so on but it is not as straightforward or simple as the moment we open a computer our attention like miraculously uh decreases um there is also something to be said about having to scroll to read versus having to flip a page to read um and there is that difference too uh so um in terms of my own writing um my first experimental novella i call it novella because it’s really short i think it’s a little over like 40 000 words it was called open cutlets which was published by yoda press sorry um which was published by a yoda press in 2017 that uh sort of addresses um that tries to be the kind of fiction that i wish had existed um because it uh i wish it existed because it addresses digital media a particular way so it is uh told in the form of emails along with uh sort of ethnographic work being done by one of the main characters of the story so the storytelling is extremely fragmented there are also sort of chat uh transcripts inserted in the book um and uh even when there are emails it is not as if one character is writing email to another character and throughout we have two characters you know carrying out the conversation but within the span of 40 45 000 words it is um quite a few characters writing emails to one another and uh some of them from the past some of them in the present and the way the chapters are organized is that the protagonist she is typing a particular word in her inbox to sort where those words existed in her previous emails and those emails come up um so that is how that uh novella is built uh it is also experimental and kind of in line with the kinds of fiction i was reading at the time i was um writing my or uh yeah i was writing my dissertation when i was writing that novel as well so in a way that novel reflects a lot of the thinking i was doing around digital media and storytelling uh while writing my dissertation now um the more recent fiction i have written the relationship of digital media with those is much more subtle i would say like um i have written this story called good deity which was uh published earlier this year by necessary fiction in which i think about um rural india rural bengal in specific and um mimification or the culture of kind of circulating memes creation and circulation of memes um and uh you know what’s up for words essentially because um i don’t know how if you face that in your family and friends circles but it is quite amazing to me that um my family and acquaintances in india they are it seems like their life revolves around a flood of whatsapp forwards constantly like it starts off with you know somebody saying good morning with a random a picture of a flower then um you know then you know whether it’s an election um that’s coming up and random stories about the ministers or whoever is standing for that election and of course no verification whatsoever about whether those stories are true or false so i was really intrigued about you know why is it that you know what’s up people use what’s up here in the us as well and you know fake news is a thing here too but why this specific modality of whatsapp and the way it uh the way people use it in india at least you know what i have seen um because i also recall that when i went to india back in uh 2018 2019 and i went to watch a movie in the theater and one of the advertisements you know uh in the interval of the film was what’s up basically saying like the company advertising and saying like please don’t spread fake news on whatsapp so have you ever seen an ad like that yeah um and uh so you know so that is addressed by the story but um why i said it’s subtle it’s because on the surface of it that’s the structure of the story seems like you know social realism but it is social realism where the social includes the technological and the techno-political because there is a political side to it let’s talk about your book which is going to be out very soon uh like in october um i think you you may have repeated a lot that is you know that you’re going to say about your book but i think uh i’m really looking forward to how it’s going to turn out so let’s let’s just uh uh talk to our weavers and guests about their about your book your monograph yeah so uh the book helene is referring to was called out of mind mode mitigation and cognition and 21st century narrative it is going to be out in october from the ohio state university press um i’m really excited about the book because um in a way it feels like the culmination of the work that i have been doing for right from the beginning of grad school um the main question that the book addresses and i think this is maybe the first sentence in the book itself it’s how do we think about thinking um so that is kind of a guiding question about in the book um how do we talk about thought across disciplines and how does this what we think about thinking or the ways we think about thinking um how does media influence that and and particularly why i’m interested in media is because if you look at the discourse around thought not just in the 21st century but you know even if we go back in time um often uh a lot of media or especially new media is used by philosophers and sometimes scientists to talk about thought because you cannot talk about thought without talking about it in a metaphorical language so there is a kind of metaphorical aspect to any kind of discourse around consciousness and media turns out to be one of the oft chosen metaphors for it so for example you know in the 1940s onward i guess like um some alan turing’s some pivotal paper onwards there was a period when thought and thinking was uh talked off in terms of computers and computation you know um there was this very popular understanding that the mind is a digital computer of course cognitive science then you know um sort of questioned that premise and there have been lots of other um interventions and so on but the computer metaphor comes up every now and then um it has entered the contemporary culture and colloquially people will refer to it without always knowing where it comes from um so computer is one of many kind of media technological uh things objects around us that uh is used to talk about part or how the mind works um so my book essentially kind of takes up these uh particular metaphors media metaphors or mediation metaphors that exist around consciousness especially in 21st century through the particular stories that are told and um the stories are you know stylized fictions um so i’m not talking about conversational stories always in the book but um yeah so one section of the book is about computers computation what i just mentioned here then there is a section which is about map cartography and uh also particularly you know the changes brought to cartography through digital technology and how uh contemporary stories think about it uh in that chapter i talk a little bit um about a particular section from kamila shamsi’s novel cartography where she actually one of the main characters in the book he as a kid started drawing maps and you know maps are a very important part of the book i mean the book is called cartography toward the end of the book uh kareem um basically dreams up this idea of a digital cartographic project where he is going to create a dynamic map of karachi and um is going to kind of geolocate stories the stories will be in different languages so on and so forth of course in the book he’s just kind of narrating it in dialogue with raheem who is the main narrator in the book but um the fact that a cartography champion’s book came out i think in 2002 the fact that you know she is uh including this as part of her fiction was very intriguing to me you know the kind of possibilities of digital media she is thinking of at that time so uh maps are um another chapter then i think about pictures because they are another kind of off to use metaphors but um i particularly think about selfies uh or you know self representation pictures and how they are used in discourses about the mind and you know the reflection of that in fiction and uh another uh it’s the last chapter in the book is around memory discourses and um how archive as a term features in those discourses um and so on so so that’s kind of the scope of the book that’s very interesting um and you know during your this long trajectory i think i have i think sorry i think you have a lot to offer for for anyone who’s who’s you know who are now humanity students are wishing to do the humanities and future despite um you know um other other uh the crisis situations that we’re facing how would you want to um talk to them uh you know those those students who are doing the doing humanities right now or those who wish to do it what kind of what kind of um advice or what kind of uh thing would you want would you like to tell them um so advice feels like it’s like too difficult but i guess what i want to say is um when we join the humanities um at least if we are joining humanities or doing humanities at um you know um brad studies level one of the things that i did not get exposed to in india as well as in the us is what you can do with humanities beyond you know being a professor and that’s kind of ironic i’m talking about it because i am a professor but um but it’s you know sometimes when you’re in grad school it feels like that’s kind of the only thing the tragedy and if you’re going to talk about crisis at humanities that’s where the crisis really is it’s a job market crisis budgetary crisis um but there are lots of other alternate and i guess even more exciting than professorship careers out there and things that you can do with the humanities um so because i am i live in northern california for instance sometimes i meet a lot of people who are working um on tech but what they’re really interested in is that philosophy um of you know how minds work and their kind of you know what kind of stories need to be told or what kind of stories are being told and even trying to address uh questions of equity and uh you know um trying to bring conscience to uh particular aspects of tech and in those projects i do not always see a lot of humanity scholars uh participating in them because there are these you know uh divides between humanities and sciences and so often the people doing the thinking are not people who have been trained to to do that kind of thinking um so i guess there is a lot of room for humanity scholars to intervene in the cultures around us um beyond the you know the academic setup or beyond becoming a professor and that kind of thing so um i guess this is not just advice for like grad students that think about the other options even as a professor now i try to think about how i may talk to my students about these opportunities um so i i try to in my own way uh talk to my students about this but i feel like there is some responsibility um on you know other professors colleagues i have um and departments at large so it’s not just an individual kind of one-on-one where departments um exposing students to what humanity is what the knowledge um that they are gaining what the kind of thinking they’re doing in the classroom setting what that can do in the world at large that’s wonderful um we congratulate you for your upcoming book and all the projects that you are involved in um and um wishing you all the best for everything that you hope to do in future thank you so much dr torso for being with us today it’s a real pleasure and an honor to have you do you have any final words before we wrap up well thank you for doing this podcast and uh for having me and i think what you were doing and what a lot of other podcasters are doing who uh come from humanities backgrounds is also a good example of how humanities can intervene in more popular and general public discourses around us so that is really important work and i think it is one of the things that should inspire other people doing humanity so thank you for doing this thank you thank you so much dr tosa gurushal um it’s it’s such a wonderful um conversation that we had and i hope we continue to have these conversations and to have you uh on another episode uh perhaps um later when when our podcast grows and you know we have we have um a lot of room for the discussions as well thank you so much thank you
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Episode 29 | Stories, Digital Modalities and Attention Economy | Dr. Torsa Ghosal

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