What is life about anyway? (follow-up to: My hate affair with Wikipedia)

Scholars like me constantly need to check on biographical background on authors, politicians, etc. who lived in the period they work on. Be it in a letter, in a protocol, on a margin – you find a name and need additional information. What do you need and what does wikipedia give you?

First case: you have no idea who that person is and need a complete briefing. It happens often enough that some of the people that were intellectually active in the early 19th century have now disappeared in the limbo of the non-canonical and have hence been almost erased from the history of literature. In this case, there is most of the time not much to expect from a wikipedia biography. For instance, the French bio on Louis de Beausobre is a mix-up of information on both Beausobre brothers, who lived 30 years apart and whose careers have little in common.

Second case: you know who the person is, but need some additional information. When was it that he published this book, was he really friends with this or that person… This is also the kind of things you look for when preparing for a class (now how many husbands did Caroline Michaelis/Schlegel/Schelling have again, etc.). The problem is, you need that information to be reliable and precise. Wikipedia provides so much as no guarantee on that. See the English Boeckh bio:  the inconsequence between the title “Philipp August Böckh” and the first line “August Böckh” is obvious and does not suggest there was a serious double checking. (Boeckh never carried the name “Philipp”, but at some point, somebody transcribed his title “Dr. phil. August Boeckh” into a “Dr. Philipp August Boeckh” and this mistake has been carried on for centuries – but the official diplomas you can find in the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK make it explicit that is in fact a mistake).

One first problem with the scholarly use of biographies is that we need something that is easily accessible online but reliable. Wikipedia provides the first, but not the second.

Let’s assume it would. Let’s assume we would have the right dates in the right order – person x born here and then, published this and that, with links to the corresponding texts that are available online.

But then, either it presents itself as a series of bullet points, ordered by date or theme, in which case there is no space for general information on the evolution of friendships on a large period of time, on the character of the person, etc. Or there actually is a biographical narrative backing the whole thing up. A quick comparison between the strictly biographical part of the French Derrida bio and the German one  shows the obvious advantage of the latter on the former – be it only because of the unnecessary repetition of information in the French one.

But Derrida is a complicated case, because it is so close to us and we have so little distance to his work that it is hard to talk about it without being, somehow, part in it. Let’s take a more objectivable example. Let’s take the German Dorothea Tieck bio, which I can say for sure is good. What is so good about it?

It provides reliable information on her life, her character, her work. It is clearly structured. And most important: the narrative allows the reader to figure out, in a few lines, what the main tensions in her life were, in which context she has been writing, what kind of person she was. It is, in a sense, a work of art. I mean it that way, too. Because it obviously corresponds to the way that we consider biographies should be conceived today. Compare it with the article from the Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie and you will see how contingent – and historically ideological – these narratives are.

Because it is not possible to provide with a narrative and to remain neutral, biographies are bound to be faced with criticism concerning their credibility. I don’t think that adding them – that is, providing all the possible sources of information in parallel like it could be possible online, for the user to compare them – can satisfactorily solve that problem. But it should, in any case, address it.

Why letters? Because letters!

I have always sworn by letters.

It started when I was 12. First, I loved receiving them. Then, writing them. In those lucky times when, like most people, I had no idea what an e-mail is, I found everything about postality enjoyable. Checking on the mailbox again and again, opening the envelope, unfolding the letter, reading it and wondering at what time of day the sender wrote it, from where, with what pen, expecting what from me reading it. I was 17 and ripping out an envelope was some sort of telepathic moment that repeated the closeness of two writing souls who just would not call one another on the phone. Pure magic.

This experience was obviously bound to be disappointed by reality itself. But by the time I had realized that, I had reached a point of no return in my love to letters – which had revealed themselves to me as texts too, and texts that are no less interesting than novels, dramas or poetry. It even seemed to me that correspondence is  the literary genre that allows to ask the most accurate questions as to whom a text is written for: Who is a letter written for? How can it be addressed to several persons? Could it be that a correspondence, in the very moment when it is put on the paper and somehow preserved, simply ceases to be a private matter? This was the main point of my paper “Ein Versuch, die ‘Berliner Klassik’ zu zähmen – zur Erforschung von Schriftstellerbriefwechseln” (in:  Tableau de Berlin. Beiträge zur „Berliner Klassik“, ed. by Iwan d’Aprile, Martin Disselkamp and Claudia Sedlarz, Hannover-Laatzen, 2005).

I think it is one of my best papers because it is the one in which a new thesis of mine emerged. This one does not deal so much with letters as texts than with the question of making them a reference corpus likely to be interpreted in different ways. In what order are letters supposed to be read? This concerned specifically a constellation in which more than 2 persons exchanged letters. Two triangular constellations and one with about 6 persons involved were the corpora on which I developed what was more of an unanswered question at the time. First triangle: Solger, Heinrich Voss and Rudolf Abeken; second one: Solger, Tieck and Raumer. Those exchanges resulted in several configurations: one addressing the 2 others in one letter or writing 2 letters to each of them the same day, 2 writing to 1, the whole construction getting even more complex as there were crossed discussions going on and live meetings taking place in between letters. Then I started considering the letters of the whole Freitag-Gesellschaft: Solger, Raumer, von der Hagen, Abeken, Krause, and a few others, who got acquainted while they studied together in Halle and remained in contact for 50 years (for those who lived long enough). Their literary and political analyses shed light on half a century of Prussian intellectuality. But what should be the order in which to read those letters?

The best order is, of course, the digital one. Because it is open enough to allow the user to chose, from a whole series of sorting options, the one that is more relevant to him or her. This is what Solenne Coutagne writes in her report on her work as an intern in my group in the last summer. But as much as it can be satisfying to be able to shape and reshape a text for the sake of analysis, as much as it multiplies the text, though, I still feel it reduces it to a source of information. It is as if it were not a text for a human being to read any more, but a text for a machine to read. Somehow the digital edition of letters is asking the question of the addressing of the letter as a text in a completely different way. Also, how can you mark the absence in such a format – all the letters that are missing and are part of the text insofar as they are missing – where do they belong?

If I may quote some Derrida to put this all in a not so deconstructive perspective (La Carte Postale, p. 190-191, dating February 1979):

Je réfléchis à un principe assez rigoureux de destruction. Que brûlerons-nous, que garderons-nous (pour mieux le griller encore)? (…)

Nous sommes la carte, si tu veux, et comme telle, comptables, mais ils auront beau chercher ils ne nous y trouveront jamais. Par endroits, je laisserai toute sorte de repères, des noms de personnes et des noms de lieux, des dates authentifiables, des événements identifiables, ils se précipiteront les yeux fermés, croyant enfin y être et nous y trouver quand d’un coup d’aiguillage je les enverrai ailleurs voir si nous y sommes, d’un coup de plume ou de grattoir je ferai tout dérailler…


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? http://www.academics.de/wissenschaft/wikipedia_und_die_wissenschaft_51533.html #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.



Corpus Part Two: My dearest friend (to whom I owe so much money)

In my post Corpus Part One, I presented the work manuscript of Ludwig Tieck’s Roxane, a youth drama which Johanna Preusse is editing.

Now Ludwig Tieck did not only have several focus of interest, he also lived a very long life, being thus able to experience the early Romanticism, the Napoleonian Wars, the Revolution of 1848 and in between all that, several moments of Restauration. Through this long period of time, the one who was in his young years one of the very first writers to actually live on his book sells, refusing any form of dependency from a Prince, turned into a reactionary court theater director. This evolution did not happen from one day to another. The literary and financial crisis Ludwig Tieck went through after 1800 and before he started his successful novel phase in the 1820s contributed decisively to the changes in his personality and in his life vision.

This crisis phase is known for Tieck’s apparent lack of productivity. At this turning point, he in fact ended up a production cycle he had begun in his school years, reworking and re-editing some of his major youth work in the collection Phantasus and working in parallel on what would become central elements of his post-1820s work (especially Shakespeare).

In that sense, most of his literary activity of that time is not so much recorded by his works than by his sketches and his letters to the friends.

Friendships are probably the saddest part of Tieck’s life. Like many of his contemporaries, but maybe even more than most of them, Tieck needed an alter ego that would make him productive. At first, it was his school friend Wackenroder who took this role. Wackenroder had a great influence on Tieck’s Franz Sternbald’s Wanderings and they wrote together  the Outpourings of an Art-Loving Friar, both major literary successes in the late 1790s and milestones in the development of romantic art theory.

But Wackenroder died as early as 1798 and left Tieck unconsolable.

When Tieck married and came to Jena shortly after that, a similarly intense friendship started between him and Novalis, one of the most amazing romantic thinkers and writers – and a successful one, too: in his Heinrich von Ofterdingen, he introduced the now well-known blue flower.

But Novalis too died not long after, in 1803. (I told you it would not be funny)

A few years later, around 1811, Tieck got to know someone completely different. His name was Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand Solger and he was all what Tieck hated: a philosopher and a philologist in the most institutional way, a patriot, an appointed professor. Surprisingly, they became very close (if you want to know why, you can read my paper  on “Tieck and Solger. Un dialogue philosophico-littéraire” in: Philosophy and literature and the crisis of metaphysics, ed. by Sebastian Hüsch).

But then – you guessed it, I suppose – Solger died unexpectedly. We are now in the fall of 1819, and Tieck recently managed to escape his year long depression. He moved to Dresden together with his wife, two daughters and mistress, left his depressive mood behind – and enjoyed life so much that he did not find the time, in the summer and fall of 1819, to write to Solger. He had left several of Solger’s letters, requests and essential life questions unanswered, when the news that Solger had died reached him. We can retrace this quite precisely thanks to the 1934 edition of Tieck and Solger. The Complete Correspondence by Percy Matenko (transcription: accurate; layout: not fantastic; commentaries: mediocre to wrong – but still the only edition sofar).

Together with Solger’s other two best friends, Friedrich von Raumer and Ludwig Krause, Tieck decided to publish Solger’s papers as a tribute to their friendship and to Solger’s intellectual influence and pertinence in his time (a point that is still not really recognized today – but you are welcome to read Solgers Nachgelassene Schriften und Briefwechsel, ed. by Ludwig Tieck and Friedrich von Raumer, anyway!). The correspondence we will be editing is the one Tieck had with Friedrich von Raumer starting after Solger’s death and ending in the 1850s.

You will not be surprised to read that Tieck transferred part of his friendship affects on Friedrich von Raumer (Krause died before the book was even finished). He reflects it himself in one letter, complaining that Wackenroder left him, Novalis too, Solger too, and someday, for sure, Raumer too would leave him alone (he was wrong: Raumer survived him by twenty years). As you can imagine, the first part of the correspondence has a lot to do with the remembrances of Solger and the preparation of their common edition.

Surely, Tieck and Raumer did not share as many literary interests as Tieck had shared with his previous best friends. But two things brought them closer to one another: one is politics and the other one is money. In my paper “Intellektuelle Öffentlichkeit. Friedrich von Raumers Weg zwischen Politik und Wissenschaft”, in: Berlins 19. Jahrhundert. Ein Metropolen-Kompendium, ed. by Berbig, D’Aprile, Peitsch, Schütz, you can read why Raumer is an interesting correspondence partner when it comes to politics. The money question was for Tieck a crucial one, his life long, especially when he was less productive. He even had to sell his book collection at some point. The correspondence shows how often he borrowed money from Raumer, who could not only rely on a solid family inheritance, but had also – if I may put it this way – as serious job. Tieck trying to escape his debts, the strategies, the hopes to write a lot in order to make all the necesssary money – you can find all that in theses letters.

But the letters also deal with Shakespeare. So everything is saved, isn’t it?

For an introduction to Tieck’s life and work, I recommend L. Tieck. A literary biography by Roger Paulin. There is a German version too, but the original is English 🙂