What is German, what is French

The schizophrenic situation of having somehow a French hemisphere and a German one sometimes leads me to awkward contradictions.

On the one hand, my mother tongue and culture, the whole system in which I grew up and that taught me how to think. On the other one, the culture I have been professionally active in for over ten years and which I feel I have been adopted by. Of course, having a foot in each of those cultures means having two feet in none and hence be rootless everywhere. That is the deal. As much as I figured, during my first five years in Berlin, that we would eventually get back to France, it has been a while now since we decided to  stay here for good, at least until the kids are big enough to cope with us moving to a place that has never been their home (that is, probably, not before they are 18, which leaves us some 14 years).

For a long time, I only occasionally accepted to acknowledge the fact that I know French in my scientific activity. When I realized how useful this linguistic competence could be  to study precisely the German texts I was interested in, I gave in and took advantage of it. That never made me a specialist of French literature though. I know the basics. But if I had stayed in France and made a PhD in French literature instead of German studies, I would know immensely more. My only advantage is of linguistic more than of scholarly nature. Does it count in terms of qualifications? I still don’t know.

There is another level on which the conflict between both hemispheres is more complex to handle: the method. The first aspect is the team constellation. Such a work environment as working in a team is still almost unheard of in French literary studies. It is considered at best typical for natural sciences. To be honest, it is weird in the context of German literary studies as well, even if the fundings that lead to that kind of group configuration are more widely spread in Germany.

The second aspect is deeper and harder to formulate. The methods I have grown in still define the questions I ask to the corpora I am interested in. It became clear when I had to define the profile of our edition. Of course, the whole “it is the research question that defines the edition” thing veiled it for a while and I could not see it. But it finally became obvious that the prevalence of genetic over historical-critical edition in my eyes has in many ways to do with the teachings I received in my student years, when historical-critical was considered a nice, pointless commentary that does not deal  in depth with the definition of the text layers. The question I am also trying to deal with on a more theoretical level (which could be as plainly as pompously summed up in four words: What is the text?) is certainly a reflection of the conflict between the two scholarly cultures that live in me, sometimes antagonistically.The text is what culture makes it be. Maybe my mission is to make this cultural discrepancy bear fruits within text interpretation. But should I accept it?

And who wants me to work on that? The French or the Germans? Back to square one…



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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1 Response

  1. Anne, this post really speaks to me, and even if my situation is not the same, it is at least in some ways affected by similar issues. I’m German and work in Germany, but most of my research has been concerned with French Literature. For me, this has always been a dilemma as far as who my target audience was: I decided to write my master’s thesis and later my Ph.D. in French, so that all those interested in French literature could read it. And I was active for a while on Fabula.org, writing reviews for them. At the same time, I have never really tried to get a job in France, and of course much of my academic training and also, for instance, many references in the dissertation come from Germany. Also, I am now, more than ever, involved in activities targeting more a German audience than a French one, for example through romanistik.de, and of course also with DARIAH. One way out for me has been to try and connect the German and French side, for example with the recent “Philologeek” blog to which you also contribute. Another way out, more an escape route than a solution, has been to write my personal blog in English, just as you do. But the dilemma of one foot in each country and therefore two in none remains, sometimes as a delightful tension, sometimes as a slightly painful reminder of my limits. But I like how you look at turning this to an advantage!

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