Blogging on a jet plane (don’t know when I’ll be back again)

While on my way to the ESTS conference that will take place in Paris from tomorrow until Sunday (thus depriving me from a well-deserved week-end, but I guess that with advent coming up, I will find occasions to make up for it), I can at long last take advantage of time I am not running after to do all the things that occupy a busy life. Blogging from the plane is always special. You are offline and hence off time (will have to add links and put online later), at some distance from the ground of things, moving from A to B without really moving yourself, not being able to do much more than sit and wait. In itself, it has something contemplative. Let’s go for a look down and a look back.
The bright side first! We are coming closer to the ideal of connected information I had envisioned at the beginning of the edition and had somewhat ceased to believe in at some point. I met with Marian Dörk and we began thinking together about visualizations based on the edition’s data. Some of his work looks like the kind of plausible playground for our data. But since it is possible to combine complex information this way, it is up to me, really, to come up with a convincing research question that goes beyond naming important authors or showing their reception throughout the century covered by our corpora. Although this might me a good starting point to confirm that our data is not biased (because the answer to those questions is well known and not likely to be convincingly overthrown by our edition), come to think about it. But all in all, the point is really to formulate requests that do not just repeat what is known, but invent the yet unknown. It became clear to me in the course of the discussion that such visualization would be likely, on the one hand, to show what the human eye cannot see (because it cannot embrace that much information at a time), but also, on the other hand, to display the missing pieces of the puzzle that might, for the same reasons, otherwise remain hidden in a dead angle.
This confirmed the plausibility of the two directions in which I want to develop the edition in the coming year (which I am slowly but surely beginning to see as the end of one development phase, thinking in parallel about what could be the next one and what kind of money I am going to have to apply for to realize it). The first one is to extend and define networks and the second one is to refine the presentation and exploitation of text layers. Both are likely to give way to interesting visualizations. And it would be exciting to connect both aspects (that are, at the time being, disjoint from one another and evaluate separately) in this way.
But this is thinking too fast, let’s get back one step. As much as our corpora might be reasonably representative of a wide range, if not most of the phenomena of textual genesis and publication strategies that can be described in the research context that interests us, I don’t think that this is true with regard to the networks our corpora allow to describe or to show. There is too little material for that. It takes more authors than we can present to connect the dots (persons, publications, places) representatively. The amount of editions dealing, in Germany only, with literature from the late 18th- early 19th century, suffices to demonstrate that none of these editions – and some of them are not small – can by itself cover the whole field. In other words, we need more data to make them say something relevant. We should be able to search through all these editions, search for people, search for publications, connect people and publications. This is what standards are really about – make relevant science possible.
In the first half of 2014, I am organizing two work sessions that aim at making things progress at least in the one domain that I know well: intellectual correspondences, German ones, of the first half of the 19th century. The first discussion round is conceived to define ways to implement technically connections between the several correspondence editions (in a way that all editions benefit from it at the end of the day). Program and invitations are being finalized and I am tremendously looking forward to that work session (in February). In May, it will be a workshop dealing with data modeling in correspondence editions and its conception as a research apparatus. There will be a poster session on the first day to present projects and on the second day papers addressing specifically the issue of connecting research question and data modeling. I have been working towards the finalization of this workshop for months and haven’t lost hope to wrap it up so as soon as our big conference is over (Briefe um 1800- zur Medialität von Generation). From this conference (for which excitement has been growing during the last weeks!), I hope to get ideas and inspiration that help me conceive an encoding of scholarly genealogies, a point that I deem of extreme importance when it comes to reflecting intellectual networks.
So much for the bright side. On the downside, I purchased a 3TB external hard drive to save our data. It is only for backup, I know,  but it makes me feel like I contradict my own values. The one thing I aspire to is a solid archive of my data! And all that Santa can bring me is a hard drive at the sight of which my brain immediately begins to spin and imagine all the many, many ways it could be destroyed. Right now, on my desk, for instance, it could burn, or get wet if there was some water infiltration from above, or be stolen, or melt because it is too close to the heating, or freeze if someone were to cut off the heating, or not support the temperature change or – the thought of my data on an external hard drive: that is enough to make me forget plane zen and dive mentally into hell.

Encoding IS conceptualizing (non, je ne lâche pas la proie pour l’ombre)

I have been faced lately – in several forms – with the reproach that the intense work on my digital edition prevents me to do what I should actually be doing, e.g. interpreting and conceptualizing. There certainly is some truth in this. I would be the last one to say that I don’t need more time to manage to do the conceptual work. But this is only a question of time (or: this is alas indeed a question of time), since I see clearly where this part of my work is going – and it is heading towards a greater conceptual precision.

It is difficult to explain to someone who has never, ever in their whole life, seen or touched code in any kind of form, how encoding changes the way you read and hence interpret the texts. Concerning editorial work, I consider XML a major simplification when it comes to dealing with more than 20 pages. I am convinced that the kind of mind that is used to editorial work is also the kind of mind that is bound to think in tree as code does. Though at first a bit strange, XML revealed itself as a great relief  as far as editorial work is concerned. The only time I had had to do with really big data (relatively big data – at least so big that you cannot have everything in your head all the time) was my dissertation, and it was encoded too (in TeX). All other big things, books and all, I had had to do in Word, I had the feeling it was slipping through my fingers. Point one: encoding is structuring the editorial work in a way that allows it to grow a whole bit without the editor to be flooded by information. It brings structure.

But that is not really the point. What is criticized is more the fact that the digital edition becomes an autonomous project for the digital sake of it. Now, how can I prove that the encoding is a response to my research question to someone who has no idea of the systematicity of our ontologies? As annoying as this communication situation is, I find it necessary to find a way to answer that question in order to reduce (maybe someday annihilate?) the gap between “technique” and “research” (digital/traditional humanities).

Let me take two of my main research concepts as examples of the contribution of encoding to their development.

1) Communication strategies (“Kommunkationsstrategien”) is an expression I have used and abused of in the past two years. Originally, this covered more an intuition than a real research method or research object. It imposed itself to me when I realized that men and women writers were around 1800 in so radically different writing and publishing situations that it was not even possible to compare how they find their respective ways to the book market. From that point on, the difficulty was not to get locked into case studies, saying that one person did so and so and the other one so and so and having said nothing. The effort to get past the case study is one of the things I find best realized in our digital edition. We don’t edit everything that has ever been written then, but we edit texts that are representative of all the steps a text goes through: idea to write the text evoked in a letter by the author, draft of the text with its corrections, publisher’s copy,  comment in a letter of another person, review in a journal, acquisition for a personal book collection, quotation in a class. In this way of presenting the several steps in the text constitution, we have brought literary and scholarly discourses together: maybe there is some distinction that will need to be made here after all. The “communication strategies” we explore have mainly two aspects: they concern the constitution of the text itself (implementation of inner censorship in the drafts, publisher’s direct interventions) and the communication about the text (especially the ambiguous discourse inherited from the Enlightenment, connected to the expansion of the book market and its consequences on the status of the author, saying on the one hand that fine texts are only for fine people – e.g. an elite -, while on the other hand wishing for a wide public reception). The markup we developed allows to observe systematically not only the authors’ writing habits, but also interventions in the text from hands that are not the author’s. It shows clearly how the communication strategies are anchored in the genetical development of the text and in its reception as two phenonema that interact with one another.

2) Networks: There is a good reason why I have not mentioned networks in my project title. I still have no precise idea what a network is. Still, the project is most of the time referred to as “Berlin intellectual networks”.  Obviously, the digital edition will make it possible, at some point, to draw networks of persons, of works, of places – of persons and works and places and dates,  for that matter, and to trace connections between dots. Right now, I still do not see how this will improve my research results – probably because I am still a novice in this field. What I have come to realize by encoding here is that networks can be used and defined by being brought down to groups. We have begun to work on groups that will allow to observe the developement of cohorts, associating some similar biographical data and see where the dots join in the course of  lives and careers. Such groups are for instance the students from Boeckh’s philological seminar or the professors of the philosophical faculty of the Berlin University. We will soon add affiliations (to the Academy of Sciences, to Associations or scholarly Societies).

This is supported by our work on the concept of generation (see the conference we are organizing in November; conference page here), which offers an occasion to confront the history of the concepts of romanticism and classicism and see how they relate to real or fantasmatical networks. Obviously, these concepts still operate on several levels at the same time, and I tend to think that sorting out those levels might even lead to a constructive revival, at least of the concept of romanticism.

These two aspects I developed are immediately connected to the one concept I can’t hide from my title, the intellectuals. You might have noticed that I have not asked for a “berliner-intellektuelle.de”-URL after all, not being so sure about the validity of the intellectuals in the long run. There is still some work to do there. But we do have two years to do it.