Be Romantic!

Jena Romantics were not afraid of paradox. Of course, they were convinced that genius is unique – can you possibly think of a good reason why not? You take a walk in the forest with your hair open and a long coat, it is a dark and stormy night, and then, in the midst of weird shades, you have the idea for a poem (or, for that matter, a novel), you get back home in a hurry, your coat still dripping, your hair kind of stinking like a wet dog, you light a candle, and then you start writing, the whole night, and when morning comes, the work of art is there. That, my friend, is genius at work!

Or at least, when morning comes, the core of the artwork to be is there. Because, well, you know, a draft needs some additional work. It needs polishing, shortening, precising, tuning in the structure, avoiding repetitions, not changing the name of a character along time or the color of his/her hair, etc. But that is not genius. That is work. 


And when it comes to that kind of task or any kind of textual work, German Early Romantics were not so eager at all to do it all by themselves anymore. Copying, adapting, fine-tuning, anything that can be considered ancillary textual work could very well be done by others, less genial themselves and more akin to make genius presentable. To call things by their name, a writer was really a writing team reunited under one name. In that sense, a writer’s name was more of a brand when it came to very successful authors. And that was not only the case for the Jena Romantics. It was the case for pretty much every big author.

But the one thing special about the guys in Jena is that they went so far as to give intellectual cooperation a name: “Symphilosophein”, doing philosophy together, gaining ideas through the contact with the others and establishing this as an intellectual model.

Cooperation - Wikicommons

Cooperation – Wikicommons


This is in obvious contradiction with the genius model mentioned above. But it acknowledges the gap between intellectual cultures and social/ideal models. What ideally matters (which is interestingly also what matters for the book market) is the genial draft, but this draft is made readable by a collaborative context. This also hints at the fact that the guys who came up with the idea of theorizing cooperation in the first place were not just poets, but also scholars, who knew very well what there is to gain, in terms of creativity and text power, from exchanges with knowledgeable roommates.


Symphilology today

The paper I am working on this week takes me far away from my usual protagonists and the Jena Romantics, and yet it unavoidably drags me back to them. It is a contribution to a volume called “Symphilology”, which deliberately reaches out to the collaboration practices of the Romantic Era. It explores the forms of cooperation that actually allowed to produce new knowledge in the Humanities since the late 18th Century.

In my paper, I look at it from a digital point of view. Which forms of collaboration in the Humanities have established themselves in the digital era, which of them are working, which are not, why, and why does it work the way it does?

There are obviously too many questions. It has been my problem all day while working on my paper. The more I try to sort out the levels on which cooperation is structurally essential to Digital Humanities work processes and knowledge production, the more I seem to open doors to barred corridors. Yes, scholarly decisions emerge collectively, but no, it is not the community that gains reputation for it, it is one or several individuals in hierarchically visible positions – no different than what happened two centuries ago. Yes, there are new forms of knowledge production emerging, but no, they are not integrated to the existing system. Yes, dissemination and social impact have taken a completely new dimension, but they are still frowned upon. I could go on like that for a while, take you on a tour through the relationships with the publishers or collaborations with libraries and manuscript holding institutions for instance. But I have made my point, I think. And you still have to want to read the article in a few months, which supposes that you not have been fed all the good bites here already.

Of course, the affinities between what we are experiencing today and the Romantic era are awesome – and there is a reason why I am interested in both: the situation is in many ways similar. But then this feeling that the knowledge production and evaluation system has not been able to learn from the past – that is one sad, sad feeling.

Anne Baillot

I am a Professor of German Studies at Le Mans Université. My areas of research include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history.

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