Setting experiments

I love saying I am doing experiments. It sounds so serious, so mature, so not like writing complicated (and maybe absurd) theories on letters as paradigms for literary texts as pieces of paper that always miss their destination like I did this afternoon…

Here is what the experiment consists in, for a sober evening (with Simon and Garfunkel cheering me up though).

The aim is to figure out how legitimization mechanisms in Wikipedia biographies work. We (Christof and I) divided this one question in the following ones:

1) How much weighs scholarly reputation?

2) Is a manuscript proof worth as much as a printed source?

3) Are those legitimization mechanisms different from one country to another?

4) To what extent do those mechanisms contribute to / rely on an existing canon?

Accordingly, I will tonight work on wikipedia biographies:

1) Under my actual name and under a pseudonym;

2) With reference to manuscripts only I know, reference to obscure publications, reference to well known publications;

3) On German, French and English articles (in the three languages for each person I write a bio on);

4) On people quite well known, on people known a little bit, on people only I know (which should not be a problem thanks to my 200 entries in the index of persons)

Wish me luck! I promise to tell you how it turns out in a couple of weeks (and only to put things I know that are true on wikipedia)

Beyond Virtual and Real

So it is raining in Munich, day before the big bloggers’ meeting.  My feelings are mixed. What I thought would be a relatively confidential conference turns out to be an event with over hundred participants – all likely to be listening to the talks and blogging and twitting at the same time; this will be one of the loudest silences ever. On the other hand, I am granting myself a break from a daily work that has gone beyond humanity, so I should really be, mainly, enjoying this. And I am, too. To begin with, I had a Sencha Tea with Christof Schöch this afternoon, and we discussed (among other things) our upcoming common paper at the biography conference in Wuppertal in the fall.

Subject of the conference are “Legitimation mechanisms in biography. Contexts, actors, techniques, limits”. When I saw the call for paper, I thought it would be a good occasion for Christof and me to take our discussion on wikipedia to the next level. What we proposed to do is a complex analysis of legitimation mechanisms in wikipedia biographies and how they compare to traditional biographies in terms of authority. In order to make this, as my husband would put it, “abstract nonsense” somehow digestible, we decided to give concrete examples of wikipedia biographies we wrote ourselves and their evolution. Will they be censored if we give manuscript sources instead of printed sources, for instance? I will start the first experiments next week. Since I had to deal with 200 persons to index in the 21 letters I encoded so far (yes, 21 is not much, and yes, 200 is a lot), I have a lot of candidates to experiment on: French, German, female, male, well known, not known at all, with strange names you can’t forget, with stupid names that mean something (winter, garlic, whatever…) so that googling them won’t bring you anywhere,… this should be fun!

Happy Jew for the Happy Few

It was Dominique Bourel’s 60th birthday yesterday. Though he is not too strongly involved in the German academical system, he knows enough people in it to be entitled to a jubilee “Kolloquium”. Maybe because he is not a German Professor, he was given not the full 3-days-of-very-long-lectures-programme, but a 3-hour-firework retracing the life paths of “Happy Jews” from the 18th to the 21st century. This main theme, as organisator Christoph Schulte explained in his introductory speech, was inspired by Dominique Bourel’s thesis in his biography of Moses Mendelssohn – who was according to him a “happy jew”. The talks were interlaced with piano performances.

Honestly, I was a little bit scared when I received the invitation and saw that no less than 14 speakers were announced. As it turned out, it is absolutely possible, within 10 minutes and with 5 to 10 slides, to sketch a lively portrait of an interesting persona – or, for that matter, to make a persona interesting. Which gets me back to my wikipedia/biography questions (see this post, Christof Schöch’s comment on it, and that post): What I appreciated was, in fact, the underlying breadcrumb, the motive of the “happy jew” – the idea that one should not read the history of the jewish people as teleologically determined by the Shoah. Progroms were mentioned, the shoah was mentioned, sadistic, antisemitic murder – it was not ignored. But the story to tell was another one.

This is probably the best possible example to make my point about biographical narratives: whether you are aware of it or not, they are undermined by an ideological subtext and it is only if you question that subtext – if you drive it to its limits as with the provocative “happy jew” – that you become aware of it. And since it is not possible to do without it, it is best to do with it, to be aware of it and to consider it a structural, hierarchical component of the biography. Which is why I still doubt that wikipedia can, in the end, be a good reference for biographies: it would suppose an epistemological coherence which it cannot provide.

The colloquium took place in a wonderful place called the Mendelssohn-Remise. They have a great cultural programme that you can consult here.


My hate affair with Wikipedia

In all my first blog posts, I was confronted with the problem of wanting to link to people or to literary works which most of the people interested in the technical aspects of this blog would not have known. I remember reluctantly linking to the English wikipedia page on August Boeckh that perpetuates a century-long mistake on his first name. When I do so, I know I am linking to vague or even erroneous knowledge. But I still did it, and I have to admit I have done it less and less recently. Because if my readers want to get some additional, basic information, they might as well open their own wikipedia tab. And maybe (hopefully) they will open a google tab and get more search alternatives than just the wikipedia entry.

In class too, it is obvious that the students do all their research with wikipedia. And I know it, because I consult the same pages in the two hours that precede the class, to check on a date for instance. I tell myself it is OK if I do it, because I have enough background knowledge to sort out the relevant information and ignore what is irrelevant and wrong. But what I can organize into a hierarchy, my BA-students can’t, so they should not do it. Should there be an education level required to be authorized to consult wikipedia, I would be tempted to say it is the point when you would be able to make an appropriate contribution to wikipedia yourself.

Now define “appropriate” – this is still a problem to me and the reason why I overreacted to Christof Schöch’s tweet of this morning that went:

Ch. Schöch: Warum beteiligen sich Wissenschaftl. nicht an Wikipedia, obwohl diese Humboldts “Kosmos”-Projekt realisiert? #wikipedia

(translation: Why don’t scholars participate in wikipedia although it realizes Alexander von Humboldt’s Kosmos project of a total and universal science?)

Without even taking the time to read the article, I answered:

AnneBaillot: weil immer hinterher jemand “überprüft” und fehler wieder einfügt!

followed by a somewhat more elaborate (english) answer not even an hour (and having read the paper) later:

AnneBaillot: seriously: I really think it has to do with authority (Autorisierung und Autorschaft). did you ever write articles in wikipedia?

I had started wondering why I was being so defensive about wikipedia when Christof’s answer came, and I was not the only one he had to justify himself against. Obviously, there are other people around here with metaphysical issues about wikipedia.

I re-wrote the Solger article in the German wikipedia a few years ago because I was giving a class on Solger and wanted my students to at least not think he was “the romantic philosopher who theorized irony” (or the similar sentence that was there before). I managed to put a more accurate formulation. But they had to change the “Berlin University” I am sure I wrote into “Friedrich-Wilhelm-University”, which is absurd and irrelevant, since the University only carried this name long after Solger was dead, and has stopped carrying it after world war 2. But I gave up correcting that, which is pretty much the standard reason the paper quoted by Christof considered responsible for scholars not to pursue contributions to Wikipedia: at some point, you don’t have enough energy to get involved in the details of the article production process.

The problem with Solger is the following: there are 5 Solger experts in the world and I am one of them, so I can’t admit that what I write about him could be re-written without even asking the other 4 people (who, although they are philosophers, know about the University denomination thing) or myself. I am the authority on that subject. What was wrong from me was in fact to assume that the way I would write the text would make my authority point obvious and would prevent anyone from daring touch my holy text.

This does not have to do only with the fact that you have to write anonymously or in a participatory way (done it too, was not a problem!). The problem for me is (I guess) the idea that the procedure is, in fact, hierarchical, that there is a web controller patrolling somewhere, correcting me in the face of the world (and of my students). So maybe, in fact, you should not write wikipedia papers on what you know best, but on things you don’t mind being corrected on. And maybe you should only read wikipedia papers you don’t actually need. Maybe you should just consult the links in wikipedia.

Anyway: sorry, Christof – and I promise to read what you link to before answering the next time.