Intellectual MP3?

For the last time this term, we had a session of our doctoral seminar  this afternoon. We have had a lot of guests lately but will catch up on our own presentations next term with me presenting my book project and Sabine and Selma talking about their respective dissertations.

But for today, Toni Bernhart came to talk to us about audio-edition. Although it does not have much to do with our preoccupations, the questions he raises put our digital edition in an interesting perspective. His main thesis is that there is such a thing as audio edition, considering you can define edition as a”presentation of artefact” and from there extend the notion of artefact from the traditional text to any kind of medium. The discussion would certainly not have been so lively if we had not had Kristin Schulz as a guest too. She told us about “Mueller MP3“, an audiobook she realized and recently received the German Audiobook Award for. This edition consists in 36 hours of recordings of Heiner Müller, presented in 4 CDs with a commentary in form of a leaflet containing explanatory texts, pictures, facsimiles.

Trying to transfer all the tortures from preparing a paper edition to those of preparing an audio edition, I asked Kristin Schulz about how hard it must have been to select the passages she wanted to edit and to keep the commentary not too long. Strangely enough, she said she mostly suffered from having to take care of publishing rights, to find heirs of people speaking on the recordings, to settle on an arrangement with every one of them, etc. This made me put Memoranda of Understanding with archives into perspective…

In fact, dealing with contemporary materials forces to face problems we people dealing with 18th-19th century can happily ignore. Audio archives are a recent discovery, and tempted by a conservatory totalitarism which will have to admit its own limits at some point. We have to accept that we lost a lot of papers from the 18th-19th century and we will have to admit that not every radio recording is worth keeping – but for that, as Toni Bernhart said, it has to somehow become history. Somehow you have to accept loss as hermeneutical premises. As much as the burning of the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar can have been a shocking event, what does this loss mean compared to the fact that we only have access to, or use, not even 10 % of what is kept in archives? I insisted on the fact that you seldom find nothing in archives: if you have enough background knowledge, almost every piece of information you get adds to the puzzle, makes it less blurry. So, just like Kristin Schulz preparing her Heiner Müller edition, we have to find texts that are representative and present those to the public. Which is why every edition is an interpretation: representativeness is only generated with an epistemologically pre-defined background and with a specific public in mind.

What I find so cool about the definition “presentation of an artefact” is that it does not suppose that the presentation form and the artefact are of the same medial nature. For instance, audio edition (either in the form Kristin Schulz implemented or in other existing ways) does not really do without the text. There is the leaflet, the printed commentary: this mainly for scholars, who expect more than just the material. But if the people you want to make interested in your material needed in fact a completely different kind of guiding? What if, for instance, I could interest people in the letters I edit by having them be read aloud, recorded detached from their now weird spelling, and made lively by the voice interpretation? I had been fantasizing about a historical movie, but the feasibility of the audio version of the letters seems more appealing.

I will have to consider this from the technical side, but would it not be great if we had a “recording of the day” changing regularly on our edition page? (I cannot believe I am getting so enthusiastic about such futilities, but hey, it cannot all be about Silesian war maneuvers…)


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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