On St John’s Day

There is writing and there is making readable. The difference between both is about the time that elapsed since my last post, in which I fine-tuned the main part of the habilitation document, added bibliographical references, wrote conclusion and introduction, added illustrations, etc. Last week, at long last, I could hand it over  to the institution where I hope to be able to defend it in December.

The end of this effort left me surprised, ajar, almost taken aback. I spent a week wanting to walk and think and do nothing else (needless to say, there were things to do though). It is like if the time that has been compressed for two crazy months is now distending and trying to find back again to its real shape.

What was certainly the most surprising part of the whole process is how much insight I gained from writing this 200 page long methodological synthesis about my research. This exercise is almost unexplainable and I keep wondering who might have had the idea to introduce something like that in the first place. Everyone who has gone through it says it has helped them move forward in their epistemological vision. Everyone who has not gone through it wonders why in hell they would inspect their scholarly belly button at such extent. As far as I am concerned, it was an occasion to sort out my conceptual toolkit and my disciplinary horizon.

The general idea is to choose a few different angles from which you take a look at your previous work, each of these angles making one part or chapter. The first point where this was weird is that instead of having 3 parts (which I have been conditioned to do ever since I was a little girl – French education, you know), I had 2. They emerged from a series of conversations with the person who guided me through the process. You don’t call these people supervisors, you call them bailers, because they bail for the candidate towards the scientific community. I am hugely in debt towards Denis Thouard, who took this position and had to cope first with me having other business to finish before getting to writing and postponing the whole thing through the spring, and then literally flooding him with prose, each week a new bundle, which you can imagine was a lot per week considering I wrote 200 pages in 7 weeks.

The first part of the document (called synthesis because it is supposed to synthesise earlier work – I am not sure 200 pages can pass for a “synthesis” though) is dedicated to the notion of network, which is obviously a major aspect in my work as you, dear reader of this blog, certainly know. Writing this part was a bit difficult at first because I was unsure about the way to write about my own research. It turned a bit around on itself, I had to strike out long passages when I was done writing part 2 and knew where this was heading. Anyway, part one was the part in which I had an epiphany. In the first chapter, I describe the type of networks (relationships between actors, publications, social structures, political evolutions) I could observe in German intellectual spheres between the last third of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Then, there is a chapter in which I try to figure out what kind of hierarchies are at work and hence why it makes sense to use a network approach, namely due to its plasticity. When I wrote the third chapter, which was supposed to be about network visualisations, I suddenly realised that in my research, it is not the network visualisation that matters, but the way the concept of network operates as a model at the interface of edition and interpretation. I realised that modelling is, for about all humanities scholars I have ever had to deal with, not a recognised scholarly activity, while it is something I  for one absolutely need in order to be able to interpret in some (any) kind of category. So, positive point number one: now I know what I need networks for. In that last chapter, I also tried to identify the blind spots in the work with networks, turning to a more epistemological dimension.

The second part revolves around the concept of archive. It is different from the first part in that it contains a lot of things that I have not published yet, so that it has much less the character of a look back than that of a look back constantly trying to look forward. In that second part, I try to identify the different concepts of archive that are concurrently at work in our scholarly vocabulary, which expectations we connect to them and how we can operationalise the aspects they have in common in the thriving for recording. My inspiration is somewhat eclectic to begin with: a lot of Derrida, a bit of Ricœur, and then a good batch of critique génétique and textology (turns out you can make them come into a kind of discussion with one another). The theoretical part ends with the famous pages Freud wrote in Civilisation and Its Discontent about his discovery of Rome and how the contemporary city is at the same time “occupied” by ancient, premodern and modern Rome. A chapter is then dedicated to how the virtualisation of archives, with its composition revolving around digital surrogates, redefines the respective roles of archivist and scholar in such a way that their interaction can become an actual cooperation. My argument there is that there is no such thing as a fully automatised archive (in the IT sense of it) when it comes to archival material (in the CHI sense of it) and that this is an interface where we, we scholars, we archivists, we infrastructure people, are now defining how we will work in the decades to come: it is our role to say which concept of archive we want to implement for our children and children’s children (and how we can try to do that in the most intelligent, or at least, the less inconsiderate way possible).

The epilogue could have been a third part I had not enough time (and not enough “finished” scholarly thoughts and material) to write. It deals with reading in times of digital text. There, I plead for a more constructive approach of digital literacy in that it involves the several layers of understanding necessary to cope with the concept of encoded text.

So now it’s St John’s day and the summer is opening its arms. A few things come next, but this one surely helped me settle in my own research perspective. Once thing I can tell: I am really glad I can get back to writing blogposts, I really missed it.


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