Totality and fragmentation (2): digital (and english)

My last post contained the conference report written (in German) by the M.A. student Janine Katins on the conference “Ganzheit und Fragmentierung”. It discussed several literary or philosophical works, mainly from the 19th century (but not only), dealing with the question of collecting. The conference was the first of a series of three conceived to accompany a project on a very famous manuscript collection, the Varnhagen collection.

The Varnhagen Collection Is In Krakow, as Deborah Hertz’s paper states. Which deserves indeed some explanation, so let me begin with a quick overview of the collection’s history.

Karl August  von Varnhagen was a German diplomat, but he was also the person who dared marry Rahel Levin and who knew her work should be published, be it only letters. In 1841, he began to collect manuscripts, many of them. One of his focuses – and this is what makes him primarily interesting for my project – was on intellectual life in Prussia in his and his wife’s lifetime, e.g. the first half of the 19th century. We are talking about thousands of handwritten letters, to and from over 9000 correspondents (plus books, paintings, etc.). During world war II, it was displaced from Berlin to Poland, and finally landed in Krakow, in the Biblioteka Jagiellonska. The relationships with the Staatsbibliothek have since then been difficult. Krakow kept Varnhagen’s manuscripts collection, while Berlin would like to reintegrate such a major part of their collection’s profile – the Varnhagen collection really is at the core of Prussian intellectual networks of the 19th century.

Question one: Whom do collections belong to?

This is a political question, obviously. This is also one that is connected to the way you define collection and see the act of collecting in its relationship to the act of preserving the collection. Janine Katins wants to work on Varnhagen’s strategies to guarantee the preservation of his collection, the publication of some pieces after his death, and it is indeed a fascinating question.  Collecting has to do with inscribing oneself in a genealogy: you collect to write your own history or for your descendants (whether family or intellectual heirs)  to write your history as what makes the unity of the collection. One of the papers at the conference dealt with the difference between collecting books and collecting paintings. It is true, too, that the efforts to reconstruct a scholar’s library has something of trying to transport oneself in that scholar’s intellectual skin. It is not an accident that Boeckh donated his book collection to the University Library, but the family still kept some. By keeping some of the books apart from the rest, the collection was not a whole anymore, it was broken in regard to the way its creator had shaped it. But the single books torn apart of the collection had in themselves a meaning, the meaning that Boeckh’s intellectual inheritance was partly in the hands of the University, but partly, also, in the hand of his family. So: books, paintings, manuscripts are part of a whole – or they are themselves a whole – totality and fragmentation.

Question two: how and how much does materiality matter? Collecting has not only to do with gathering information (which would mainly express itself through the publication of selected bits of collected manuscripts), but also with making it an object, and an object of value. It has been a selling and collecting strategy in the late 19th-20th century to dismantle manuscripts collections in order to be able to give the single manuscripts more monetary value (beginning by collectors like Varnhagen). By doing that, you objectify even more the item and cut it off its context. So I would add: totality, fragmentation and singularization.

Question three: how do you collect digitally? Obviously, you and me would begin by putting detailed metadata online, with a focus on the indexing of the persons. I guess one could develop an architecture exemplary on a given period of time. Or, as the Krakow team has begun to do, start with a particularly interesting corpus, in that case the correspondence between Varnhagen, his wife, and Count Pückler-Muskau. As much as we know that no totality is reachable, we also know that it does not make sense to focus on a small part of a collection and ignore its meaning as a part of a much wider context. So we have to see each fragment as a reflection of the totality. Data architecture is, in that sense, fractal in the way it actualizes the relationship between totality and fragment. Collecting, again, does not go without archiving, and destroying while preserving.

What gives a collection a status, a stability then? When it has a name, it also has some ontological substance that wants to be preserved and will resist wars, jalousies, and many incidents in its centuries-long lifetime, like the Varnhagen collection shows. And we still remember the Library of Alexandria.


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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