Re-assembling the dis-assembled

After spending some time preparing this maximum carbon imprint week (sigh), I am have now come into the delight of actually experiencing – and enjoying – it. The first stage of this trip is in Oxford, the second one will be in Cologne and the last one in Toulouse.

The sun was shining gloriously when I got off the shuttle in Oxford yesterday, a Sunday morning in which I expected empty, grey streets, but was instead greeted by brunchers, sunbeams and pink blooming trees. Continue reading “Re-assembling the dis-assembled”

Writing with two hands

When you have to finalize and deliver papers only to see them fall into a black whole for months, if not years, once they are in the hands of the editors, you should be thinking of those moments when the harvesting suddenly drops on you for no apparent reason. This is happening to me quite unexpectedly. The Solger volume edited with Mildred Galland-Szymkowiak is in print, the wikipedia paper written with Christof Schöch has emerged from a long editorial hibernation, and last but not least the paper with Mareike König as well as the one with Franziska Heimburger were published today, both to be found online in the volume “Geschichte machen in Frankreich“. Continue reading “Writing with two hands”

Gniggolb – is blogging from the end to the beginning

When Sebastian Giessmann asked me this morning whether I write my blog posts offline, I answered no without hesitating. It is true in 95% of the cases, but I forgot to mention the one exception, the situation in which I am now:  on the train back from a conference or a workshop, unconnected to the web (no smartphone, no 3G Card, no internet connection through my cell phone: yes, I am old fashioned that way), wanting to sort out my impressions before they have begun to fade.

The workshop “Wissenschaftliches Bloggen in Deutschland: Geschichte, Perspektiven, praktische Umsetzung“ was the first opportunity that was given to me so far to talk about my own scholarly blogging. I remember admiring Melissa Terras when she gave her keynote in Munich in March 2012. She spoke of her blog as something that contributes greatly to her digital identity, but spoke of it in a perspective that was by then out of my reach, too far away from/ahead of my own blogging practice. A year later, preparing my own talk, I sensed that the mass does it: the mass of blog posts I published, the mass of retweets that make me feel that I write to be read, the time elapsed. Only this made it possible for me to perceive the shifts that happened within the blog. The shift from technical questions to more infrastructural or theoretical ones in particular, which lead to the blog overtaking a different function: it does not accompany the project any more like the header says. It does make it move forward. Hence the title of the paper I gave in Würzburg: scholarly blogging as a kind of maieutics.

This has become natural to me after a year and a half of blogging during which I have managed to rediscover the sheer pleasure of writing – only tainted every now and then by the frustration of reaching my linguistic limits in the use of the English language. Things seemed different to the people who attended the workshop. Many of them were PhD candidates or post-docs. For some reason, I had figured that they attended the workshop with some kind of juvenile enthusiasm for an open writing form. But the dominant attitude was more reluctant than I had thought; they were interested in blogging, but not completely ready to blog themselves. One can say: it is normal that people who are not “established” worry about rights, licensing, giving away their ideas – things I never worried about, having begun to blog at a point when my publication list was a fairly thick safety net already. But one could also say, as Christof pointed it out to me, that there is a palpable pressure on the younger generation to use the new media, but they are still unsure what they should do about or with it. Incidentally, the call for participation for #dhiha5 was tweeted in the middle of the discussion this morning, asking partly the same questions.

I love writing, have always had, and mostly suffered from being prisoner of the traditional scholarly formats for years. Blogging was a liberation to me. I have the greatest difficulty to relate to the anxiety of the question: “Why should I write, what should I write about?”, but it seems to really be one of the major inhibitions that has to be overwhelmed in order to really adhere to blogging – at great inner cost  for most people, even those who consider scholarly blogging a decent activity. Communication at all price – is that the big idea of web-based scholarship? Or at large, it that what Digital Humanities are about?

Of course, Digital Humanities in Germany are standing elsewhere than they do in the US or in Great Britain, and I probably would have written this post in German if I had not promised to Sebastian and Christof to write in English in order – as usual – to make this workshop known behind the German blogo- and tweetosphere. Because the real question here is what German Humanities expect from their PhD candidates’ blogging. How does this make sense at all in the actual structure of German Humanities? If these young scholars begin to blog actively, will it be a helpful signal, strong enough to help Digital Humanities get a better recognition? And if it does, will it really help DH become something that is not only about communication tools? Do we want DH to become a recognized method for all branches of the Humanities or do we want DH to become a discipline? Are we lost for philology because we do DH?

The answer to the last question I know very well: certainly not. But it will take time – maybe ten years – to convince the majority of the community of German literary studies of that, to judge by my actual situation. At best, it is considered like something I do additionally to my real work. At worst, it is considered like it prevents me to do my real work. On the 50 to 60 hours I work per week, I am more than happy if I have 20 to do research in any form (and I really don’t teach much). Maybe it would make more sense to ask first how that comes, because it is a much more fundamental problem of the high school system than wondering about the hour and a half I spend blogging while sipping my Sunday coffee.

The answer to the other question – should DH be a transdisciplinary toolbox, or a discipline – I don’t know. Does anyone?

The wikipedia paper, the good questions and the aching legs

The aching legs are easy to explain. After spending 7 hours at the conference sitting on chairs that inevitably eventually do turn uncomfortable, Anna and I spent 2 hours walking through the streets of Wuppertal. Neither Berlin nor Hamburg are cities with declivities worth mentioning and we had to admit that we were not trained for the whole going up and up thing. Not to talk about the fact that we got badly car-sick (or maybe sea-sick would be more appropriate) in the Schwebebahn. Anyway, none of these experiences did our legs any good.

(View from inside the Schwebebahn)

The few more ideas were gained at the conference on the legitimation mechanisms of biography. The first thing that struck me there was how little research on biography has to do with texts. We were presented several papers on films, there was one on music as well. Yesterday evening, it was the author of biographical comic books who presented his work process.  The philological fraction was everything but dominant, which disturbed somewhat my orientation. One thing that did not surprise me, on the other hand, was the inevitable confrontation of historical and literary standards. It became particularly obvious in the discussion on Anna’s paper. The expectations you have towards biographies are different if you consider them as a literary product or if you consider them as a historical testimony. Most of the biographies do evolve in some in-between zone. Interestingly too, and as was remarked during the discussion of my and Christof’s paper, the difficulties, although they change with the media, mostly all come up to the same elements: neutrality vs. interpretation, choice of the sources and the way they are referred to, assessability of the sources (should you check or not the 50 references in the footnotes to see if really the information is proven?), definition of biographical truth. As tortuous as the theoretical ways I heard of today could seem, none of them seemed to be able to sort all of this out.

My own paper (written together with Christof Schöch) dealt with legitimation mechanisms in wikipedia-biographies. I was somewhat apprehensive of the discussion, since it was clear that everyone in the room would have used wikipedia and was likely to have their opinion on it. I was also somewhat afraid of being asked questions on Christof’s part of the paper that I would not be able to answer properly. Both things turned out to be true. I was asked how the inner circle of the decision takers in wikipedia does constitute itself, which I could not answer properly. I am not sure it matters so much, but my lack of a proper answer made it impossible to me to re-interrogate that question (that was asked to me about 3 times over the day, in the paper’s discussion and afterwards). Because the interesting thing is that this question itself is symptomatical of a refusal of the new authority forms developed by wikipedia: it supposes that there must be somewhere someone who can be held accountable. There was one professor who was unhappy about the wikipedia page someone had written about him: I suggest him to post a comment in the version history of the article, but he did not seem convinced.

There were two very interesting questions which I really need to discuss with Christof. One was the question of the quotability. If a student quotes a version of a WP-article that has been erased since it was consulted, it turns out to be very time-consuming for the teacher who read their paper to counter-check the quotation. I really had zero idea on this question of the quotability of volatile information. The other aspect I found interesting was the question whether there is – within WP – room for discussions and reflexions of the epistemological principles like the neutral point of view and the no-theory-finding-imperative. I was unable to say at what level and in what form this kind of discussion takes place within the Wikipedia community, which was not so good considering that the whole paper tended to show that such a reflexion is absolutely necessary (since there is no such thing as absolute interpretation and giving information without interpreting it). This question of the epistemological relfexion on the principles is the one that interests me most about wikipedia for the time being.


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 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.