Encoding IS conceptualizing (non, je ne lâche pas la proie pour l’ombre)

I have been faced lately – in several forms – with the reproach that the intense work on my digital edition prevents me to do what I should actually be doing, e.g. interpreting and conceptualizing. There certainly is some truth in this. I would be the last one to say that I don’t need more time to manage to do the conceptual work. But this is only a question of time (or: this is alas indeed a question of time), since I see clearly where this part of my work is going – and it is heading towards a greater conceptual precision.

It is difficult to explain to someone who has never, ever in their whole life, seen or touched code in any kind of form, how encoding changes the way you read and hence interpret the texts. Concerning editorial work, I consider XML a major simplification when it comes to dealing with more than 20 pages. I am convinced that the kind of mind that is used to editorial work is also the kind of mind that is bound to think in tree as code does. Though at first a bit strange, XML revealed itself as a great relief  as far as editorial work is concerned. The only time I had had to do with really big data (relatively big data – at least so big that you cannot have everything in your head all the time) was my dissertation, and it was encoded too (in TeX). All other big things, books and all, I had had to do in Word, I had the feeling it was slipping through my fingers. Point one: encoding is structuring the editorial work in a way that allows it to grow a whole bit without the editor to be flooded by information. It brings structure.

But that is not really the point. What is criticized is more the fact that the digital edition becomes an autonomous project for the digital sake of it. Now, how can I prove that the encoding is a response to my research question to someone who has no idea of the systematicity of our ontologies? As annoying as this communication situation is, I find it necessary to find a way to answer that question in order to reduce (maybe someday annihilate?) the gap between “technique” and “research” (digital/traditional humanities).

Let me take two of my main research concepts as examples of the contribution of encoding to their development.

1) Communication strategies (“Kommunkationsstrategien”) is an expression I have used and abused of in the past two years. Originally, this covered more an intuition than a real research method or research object. It imposed itself to me when I realized that men and women writers were around 1800 in so radically different writing and publishing situations that it was not even possible to compare how they find their respective ways to the book market. From that point on, the difficulty was not to get locked into case studies, saying that one person did so and so and the other one so and so and having said nothing. The effort to get past the case study is one of the things I find best realized in our digital edition. We don’t edit everything that has ever been written then, but we edit texts that are representative of all the steps a text goes through: idea to write the text evoked in a letter by the author, draft of the text with its corrections, publisher’s copy,  comment in a letter of another person, review in a journal, acquisition for a personal book collection, quotation in a class. In this way of presenting the several steps in the text constitution, we have brought literary and scholarly discourses together: maybe there is some distinction that will need to be made here after all. The “communication strategies” we explore have mainly two aspects: they concern the constitution of the text itself (implementation of inner censorship in the drafts, publisher’s direct interventions) and the communication about the text (especially the ambiguous discourse inherited from the Enlightenment, connected to the expansion of the book market and its consequences on the status of the author, saying on the one hand that fine texts are only for fine people – e.g. an elite -, while on the other hand wishing for a wide public reception). The markup we developed allows to observe systematically not only the authors’ writing habits, but also interventions in the text from hands that are not the author’s. It shows clearly how the communication strategies are anchored in the genetical development of the text and in its reception as two phenonema that interact with one another.

2) Networks: There is a good reason why I have not mentioned networks in my project title. I still have no precise idea what a network is. Still, the project is most of the time referred to as “Berlin intellectual networks”.  Obviously, the digital edition will make it possible, at some point, to draw networks of persons, of works, of places – of persons and works and places and dates,  for that matter, and to trace connections between dots. Right now, I still do not see how this will improve my research results – probably because I am still a novice in this field. What I have come to realize by encoding here is that networks can be used and defined by being brought down to groups. We have begun to work on groups that will allow to observe the developement of cohorts, associating some similar biographical data and see where the dots join in the course of  lives and careers. Such groups are for instance the students from Boeckh’s philological seminar or the professors of the philosophical faculty of the Berlin University. We will soon add affiliations (to the Academy of Sciences, to Associations or scholarly Societies).

This is supported by our work on the concept of generation (see the conference we are organizing in November; conference page here), which offers an occasion to confront the history of the concepts of romanticism and classicism and see how they relate to real or fantasmatical networks. Obviously, these concepts still operate on several levels at the same time, and I tend to think that sorting out those levels might even lead to a constructive revival, at least of the concept of romanticism.

These two aspects I developed are immediately connected to the one concept I can’t hide from my title, the intellectuals. You might have noticed that I have not asked for a “berliner-intellektuelle.de”-URL after all, not being so sure about the validity of the intellectuals in the long run. There is still some work to do there. But we do have two years to do it.


Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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2 Responses

  1. 10/06/2013

    […] Aspekte interagieren. Anne Baillot hat in einem Blogbeitrag mit dem Titel »Encoding IS conceptualizing« einige schöne Beispiele dafür genannt; die Diskussionen auf TEI-L sind eine unerschöpfliche […]

  2. 20/05/2015

    […] Baillot’s 2013 blog post Encoding is conceptualizing lists a number of nice examples; the discussions on TEI-L are a inexhaustible source of further […]

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