Ad fontes!

I had intended to blog over the week, but it turned out that changing places every other day was too exhausting – the fact that the events I attended, although lasting only one day each, included a lot of presentations on very different topics, certainly did contribute to that as well. 

On Wednesday, I was in Cologne for the conference “Virtuosen der Öffentlichkeit”. The different papers – some more theoretical, some case studies, some project presentations – aimed at moving towards a definition of “the intellectual” around 1800. This lead to the identification of a series of criteria for such a definition (mainly political, social and dealing with critical spirit and the understanding of knowledge) as well as to the questioning of categories that we at first mostly took for granted (mainly historical and geographical ones). This is certainly the result of having two original focuses consisting in, on the one hand, the person of Gentz, who, being a conservative intellectual, contradicts, as Gudrun Gersmann pointed out during the afternoon, the common representation that the intellectual is, by nature, liberal and left-winged. The presentation of the newly published online portal “Gentz digital” as well as the papers delivered by the team of “Gentz digital” showed that there is plenty of new insight to gain on conservative intellectualism through the material now available to research through that resource. It also gave way to interesting discussions on what is and what is not a (digital) edition, since the portal publishes high quality, but still solely transcriptions, not an edition proper, of some of the material available. It is the first time ever I heard of “raw” transcriptions being made available in the German-speaking area – a situation made possible by the death of the person who did the transcription, thus transforming this huge transcription work in a collection in the archival understanding of it. The discussion revolved also on the role and conception of letters. But the other main focus was on the comparison between western/European intellectualism and the forms it could take elsewhere. One presentation dealt with Thomas Jefferson, two others with the Ottoman Empire, and showed the necessity, when a comparison is intended, to reconsider the relevance of the chronological parallel.

In my paper, I argued that Berlin around 1800, even more so 1810, offers the political and social conditions for the flourishing of diverse and connected forms of intellectual positions. Being able to present what my team and I have been working on for four years on a fairly general level allowed me to realize all the way that we have gone since the publication of the first volume of the collection “Berlin intellectuals” in 2011. I intend to develop at more length these aspects for the publication, which will provide an excellent occasion to draw a balance of the time spent trying to get a grip on these Berlin intellectuals…

In Toulouse, I did not speak at all of “my” intellectuals. As an invited speaker to the conference “Entre sources, données et réseaux”, I was asked to talk about sources, e.g. historical sources and what digital methods can allow to do with them. As I was left free to do so either in a theoretical or in a more example-based perspective, I seized the occasion to develop an epistemological argumentation. My paper was based on readings I had done over the summer 2013, with the help of which I aimed at theorizing a bit the concept of archive in such a way as to make it operational for digital processes on a meta-level. Since I have never published anything related to that work phase before, it was a good occasion to test whether my argumentation was convincing or not. Granted: it was awfully theoretical, especially the first part (you can read the paper here – it is in French). But even if the audience remained mute for a few minutes when I was through my paper (why does this keep happening to me?), all in all, it still gave me a sense that this is working, so that I hope to proceed in that direction this summer.
My paper was the only theoretical one, the others mostly dealing with concrete work with network analysis and visualization based on historical data. Although I was a bit shocked at first about how hideous most of the presented visualizations were (working with actual, design-oriented visualizers makes one very demanding in that regard), I was on the other hand happily surprised when it came to answer research questions and gain new insight through them. That part was extremely convincing, and so was the precision of the argumentation with betweenness or centrality. In that sense, it was an experience quite contrary to the one I had made in Gent in September (I published a commentary of a selection of the best contributions on this blog here), where often raw, hardly structured visualizations were often neither mathematically thorough nor able to contribute decisively to the analysis. This and the magnificent work presented by Ruth Ahnert and Sebastian Ahnert in Oxford convinced me that network analysis has a more radiant future ahead than I thought a few weeks or months ago. Also, in a combination of both Oxford and Toulouse, I am starting to get how prosopography actually works and what is the point of it, which is definitely a good thing.

A paper worth mentioning is that of Pascal Cristofoli, who (among many interesting aspects) talked about connecting genealogical information. I consider biographical data to be a crucial aspect when it comes to being able to work with digital historical data. Pascal presented a database called Kinsources in which genealogical data can be informed and cross-checked with that coming from other sources present in the database. Although he was not sure that the structure would be able to work with intellectual genealogies as it does with family ties, it may be an interesting option for what I would like to work on as one analytical output of my digital edition. In my Hannover paper of last October, I had toyed with the idea that genealogical input, although not of scholarly provenience, could be implemented as a useful step on the ladder leading up to structured, standardized, rich and connected historical data (and, yes, of course, open!). Pascal’s paper had me unroll the whole idea over again…

Ideas, for sure, I did not lack this week, impulses to go in this and that direction, ever deeper. I can hardly believe that I will now, for 18 months, keep my 18th-19th-century closet as closed as possible, but I will be all the more happy to re-open it then. When April comes, I am off to the 20th century!


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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