Of ghosts and metadata

While writing my paper for the Biography Conference and writing my paper for the Frankoromanistentag and trying to finish up the grant application for the Boeckh Encyklopädie and settling on the OCR issue, thus turning my intention to very different fields and objects, I have been wondering which of the research objects I am manipulating are real and alive and which are more speculative and less substantial, constructions of a ghostly nature if you want.

It was Markus Schnöpf who gave me the first hunch when we discussed the composition of the Berlin Digital Humanities Group and he underlined how important the museology fraction is. I was not really able to process all the implications of that consideration in that moment. I only thought: The hegemony of text sciences is a very narrow point of view, come to think about it. I have been so infatuated in texts for so long that I forgot that other items can be placed on the same level as texts. Especially items that have just the same archival function: the function to keep things alive through memory. But are archives alive, or are they only ghostly versions of what they used to be, fading away, unsubstantial, flickering flames? Are stones or papyri more alive than texts? Do we need the original materiality, the manuscript itself, almost as an object of adoration, to keep things like texts alive – knowing perfectly well that they decompose anyway, never stay the same, never are the same than they just have been a second before?

Then the ghosts turned up again in another, completely different discussion. While Laurent was (yet again) trying to convince me to have the OCRs done (don’t worry, Laurent, I am convinced now), he said to me that images like scans without searchable (even badly OCRed) text were invisible, nonexistent as digital research items. Here are my ghosts!, I thought. Unsubstantial images that are connected to nothing. What makes digital ghosts is their lack of connection, of traceability, their absence of metadata. Metadata are existence factors.

I understand and accept the crucial role metadata play in the digital world. Do I really have a choice about that? Whomever refuses to admit that metadata play such a central role inevitably gets lost in the feeling that the web is unstructured, that you can as much find anything as you can find nothing, that it is all a big fascinating whirl you cannot have any kind of grip on. A dance of shapeless ghosts. In that sense, I don’t think that any form of digital science can do without a really deep epistemological thinking on metadata and their structure. In other words: it is essential that we, the researchers, take part in the shaping of the metadata that are relevant for our field. And that we do it now, because in twenty years, we will only have our eyes to cry because others have done it for us in a way that does not fit our research objects.

On the other hand, it can and should not all be about the metadata. If I consider things not from a structural point of view, but from the point of view of the inevitably super-specialized research that makes me want to go to work every day, metadata are dead. Real life is elsewhere. Real life is when meaning emerges, and meaning can emerge from anything, but most likely it emerges from something. From a manuscript, from a discussion, from a fight for a scholarship that is able to see ghosts and keep their trace – whether alive or not.