Find your comet
I haven’t blogged in what feels like a very long time. In the past weeks, I have given the final classes of my locum professorship and returned to a life where I take my bike to go to work (even in February). It turns out to be a much quieter life, even though I had never really had that feeling before I started commuting – everything needs something to be compared to in order to gain its real value, it seems.
Not that I would be bored in any way. In my last week in term (when I had my last commute), I took over the Twitter-account @EnDirectDuLabo for a week
It was originally planned that I would do so a few weeks later, but I jumped in at the last minute to fill a gap, which made this final “let’s-cross-Germany-and-back”-week look very different from what I had expected.
I have also been trying to put some order in my various files and documents (I have been planning a blogpost on bibliography for 2 weeks and preparing myself mentally to switch back to TeX in a month when I will start writing) – and in my ideas. I think that what I am spending most time thinking about right now is the scholarly and social value of open knowledge.
I am not naturally someone who would fight for free access to knowledge by principle. It is what the last couple of years have turned me into. At first, I admit, there was a rush of indignation in me when I saw that something like a quarter of my actual scholarly production was academically considered as non-existent. I would fight for a recognition. I would argue that the intellectual performance of my blogs and my digital edition put together equals to a qualification. It would bug me and I would, by principle, rebel against the idea that I had to practically do that work, which was done already, all over again, in order for it to have the academically accepted form.
And in the moment when I finally settled to go for this traditional qualification – which I did more out of personal intrinsic interest for two years of concentrated research than in the hope that it would actually get me somewhere -, well, in that very moment, it suddenly became essential to me to be granted a liberated use of social media. All of what I wanted to be recognized as a scholarly performance, I want to have considered, rather, as the space of my intellectual freedom, and be protected as such. Tweeting and blogging are non-negotiable – in that they are not part of my qualification.
I spent years studying publication and dissemination strategies of intellectuals, enough to know that forbidding something usually means it reappears somewhere else in another form and that there have always been phases of trying out and playing around with new communication media before they establish themselves in a standardized form. This the era of trying around what we can actually do with this. We can make mistakes, we will, but there is a new space waiting to be filled. This is not the Affaire Dreyfus any more, we have more than a column in a newspaper, be it the front page. There are new challenges and there are new ways to address them.
I for myself want there to be good texts available online for the future generations. This means putting good (=scholarly reliable) texts online, making them visible and usable – and explaining why it matters for the evolution of culture and society that we have a critical mass of scholarly reliable and usable texts online. As a scholar in literary studies, it is the one thing I feel socially most responsible for. Of course, I also believe in fighting for social equality and against extremism. But what defines my intellectual identity is the commitment to open access to reliable texts for the future generations. Now, how do you make people who are not familiar with it understand what is at stake there? What do public relations mean to a literature history scholar?
Back to Genshagen
Yesterday, I went back to Genshagen, where I had been, four years earlier, for week-long interdisciplinary workshop. Four years and the end of the subvention later, I went back there as a member of the association that was created to keep the initiative alive and make the network grow. I stayed a whole day and took part in the roundtables. The discussions were explicitly conceived to remain behind closed doors and I tweeted more about the atmosphere than about the content.
The discussions were inspirational in many ways. In the afternoon, we talked with Sebastian Nordmann, manager of the Berlin Concert House. It was amazing to hear all the creativity he puts in his love for classical music and for making classical music something real and actual. Even when you know very well what it really means in terms of setback, hours of accounting, having to deal with complicated people, moments when you want to throw the towel, etc., it felt like the necessary energy was always there to lead him. Of course, it is but too easy to re-write history retrospectively. But for me who had so many occasions to question my own passion for what I do – “you look exhausted”, “you don’t seem as enthusiastic as you used to be” -, it was good to see that whatever the obstacles, it is legitimate to believe in your big thing, unconditionally.
In the evening, fire was lit and we had another 2 hour-discussion, this time with Stephan Ulamec, who has been in charge of the Rosetta/Philae mission for the last, well, 20 years. What was most inspirational to me in this discussion was the amazing relationship to failure space research has. If you crash, you crash on all of earth’s TV screens. Publicly funded research means that the cameras will be in the control room when your lander lands – or crashes. For that matter, the public is interested in what you do. You get to answer questions, to explain what you want to find out. It is open on the one hand in the way that it is able to take the public where it is and get back to whatever basics are necessary to reach out to it, and on the other hand in that public participation is somehow inscribed in the research process.
To be able to be wrong and learn from it because that’s also what research is about, to send out a mission and present it to the world 20 years later, to put together many, many people following one crazy idea that will make us, all of those who want to, understand our world better… that, to me, qualifies as open knowledge. And it is what I want to do.