The Network, the Cross, and Ariadne’s Thread

I have begun to think about both my paper for the Hanover conference and my class of the coming winter that will deal with historical networks. The idea in both cases is to see how digitally-generated network visualizations applied to historical data are developing and especially how they implement theoretical network theory. In order to do so, I have to get more familiar with said network theory as well as with network visualization. One big step will of course be the Historical Network Conference in Ghent in three weeks.

I am not interested in this question for the sole beauty of it. In fact, I have decided to confront myself so massively and directly with it because it seems to have become some kind of conundrum over the past four years, a labyrinth that is now wrapped around my whole research project. And it is high time for me to look for a decent Ariadne’s thread to see out at some point.

As a literary scholar, I have a complicated approach to the concept of network. It intimidates me (I feel like I am not competent enough to understand and use it properly), but I still need it for my research, because there is only so much you can say about relationships – at some point, these things call for a bigger picture, which is where networks come in handy. But what are networks really about beyond a series of combinations of persons, ideas, time and space? One thing has been particularly bothering me when considering networks as a structure that can be extracted from a large (or at least, on the level of literary research as most of literary scholars practice it, a larger) corpus: How can you be sure to gain information from it and not to project into the data structure (I mean the structure of the data that you eventually want to turn into a network) the results you would like to obtain? In other words, how do networks tell us more than we already know, and is not using the term “network” simply a way to say “the corpus we are working on is too large for my brain, so let me speculate here and there”?

The aim of this investigation is for me to gain clarity on how I am supposed to structure the data I want to analyze in form of a network in order for it to be effective. The reason why I entitled my paper for Hanover “The Net as a Cross” is that, so far, I have been carrying around “networks” as a big, heavy word that was of absolutely no use for my research results.

Now to make that change, I have initiated an enrichment of the data in our index of persons. More teacher-pupil relationships have been added as well as more information on the persons’ education. It seemed to me to be rather objective information that was still susceptible of generating new insights – you know, content and not just blah. Within the microcosm of intellectual Berlin around 1800, you have to go in more detail than assuming that one letter is an indication for an intellectual relationship. In a place where everybody knows everybody, it takes more than a letter to retrace the genealogy of thought. What it takes exactly, I will let you know as my readings and ideas progress…


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