Meta-blogging

I left Leipzig (no internet connection in the hotel, glorious and indefectible wifi at the conference) and headed to Wuppertal (no network at the conference, good but expensive wifi in the hotel, well, what the heck, it’s worth its 5 euros), where I will not be able to tweet frantically like I did today (check out #frt2012 !). This is not the only reason why I will regret Leipzig. I enjoyed this one day at the Frankoromanistentag because I could spend time with people I wish I could work with more closely like Christof Schöch, because I could see and hear again Gudrun Gersmann, but also because I met with people who already knew me – through my blog.

This came as a bit of a surprise. In fact, feedback on my blog never comes in a form that I had anticipated. The colleagues across the street read my blog, the colleagues on the floor above my office read my blog – without posting commentaries. In her paper presenting recensio.net this morning, Lilian Landes talked about the silence on the commentaries’ side of the web, enouncing the so-called 90-9-1 rule: 90 % read articles on the web, 9 % write some, 1% comment on it. Obviously, the reluctance to comment is a widely spread disease, and it does not necessarily mean that people don’t read or care about blog posts. Over these past months, Brazil has been the top visiting country of my blog and I have been speculating about these Brazilian readers: why should they be interested in what I write? Even when I emphasize the Prussian roots of what I talk about, this does not seem to discourage them. Hmm…

Being asked to explain what I post in my blog, I stated what seemed to me to be the obvious: my blog is an archive of the progress of our digital edition, and a way of clarify my own ideas along the process, and a way of adressing technical issues, and a way to present the texts we work on, and a way of communicating all that to my team and work partners, and I do it in English to reach a wider audience as well (or maybe it is just because I really could not choose between German and French?). Of course, for each of those functions, I could probably use other tools, but the blog is a plastic form that allows to do all that in just one format. What use is it that all the reflexions on the progress of the edition are published, I was asked. Could I not as well consignate it for myself in some kind of personal work diary? Inspite of the fact that I get so little direct feedback on my posts, I don’t think I could do all of this writing if it were just to create a personal archive that nobody would read – or would read immediately. The discipline of the weekly post I have somehow set to myself forces me to make the effort of looking back weekly at what I have done. Sometimes it is interesting, sometimes not. Some posts are more constitent than others, but writing about it always helps me move forward.

It is also like having some kind of date with an invisible readership whom I suppose is entertained by (or interested in) the episodes of this research adventure that is still in development. I am not really sure whether non-scholars consider my blog of any interest;  as for scholars, I figure that the struggle my research group and I fight to find our place in the academic landscape feels familiar to them and  that this can make some kind of incentive to follow it.

In her paper, Gudrun Gersmann weighed advantages and inconvenients of blogging, especially for young researchers. You probably can objectivate some of them, but blogging remains a fairly subjective decision that involves one’s relationship to writing in general. I suppose blogging can be of help to persons who are having difficulties writing in the first place, as a first and more informal contact with scholarly writing directing towards “real” academical writing. On the other end of the spectrum, I like blogging because I like writing in general and non-scholarly writing in particular (I like scholarly writing too, but I have enough ways to express that liking without needing blogging!) . And I like blogging because leading a group of 6 persons through such a perillous adventure as a digital edition in a scientific community that often has trouble accepting the “digital” part of it requires me to take the time for a weekly look back. When I don’t post, I have the feeling that I don’t hold firmly to all of the strings the other 6 members of the team have trusted me with.

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.