Berlin + around 1800 + ???

I was invited – together with a hundred other elected guests – to an inofficial birthday party at the Academy of Sciences yesterday. As chance would have it, the presentation of the project “Berliner Klassik” happened to take place on the 75th birthday of its director Conrad Wiedemann. The whole presentation was called “Wie die Klassik nach Berlin kam” (roughly translated “How classicism came to Berlin”, although I am not sure that this really renders the different meaning layers of the word “Klassik”). Two longer talks, lots of great music (vocal and flute), a project presentation by the people who have made the “Berliner Klassik” in the last 10 years and a small speech by Conrad Wiedemann filled the evening.

It striked me how little Berlin there was to all that. Of course, the presentation of the “Berliner Klassik” was Berlin-centered. It was in fact a splendid moment of science, articulating cultural and literary history on a basis of a sketch drawn by E.T.A. Hoffmann (“Der Kunz’sche Riss”) on which he represented the Gendarmenmarkt, its monuments, and the streets nearby, peopled with winehandlers, playwrights, and even characters from his books. But this concentration on Berlin’s most beautiful square was more the exception than the rule on that evening, which I cannot help but wonder about. What is it about Berlin that you cannot really grab it?

In his thesis, Conrad Wiedemann is certainly more radical than me. He thinks that Germans  have shown throughout their history a reluctance to admit that Berlin is special, that it is the center. I would not extend my analysis beyond the period of time I actually know, this hard-to-define “around 1800” which includes late Aufklärung, early romanticism, high romanticism, German idealism and whatnot (here I should list the institutions that contributed to it too, but I will let you read the page of the Berliner Klassik instead). Why add some “Klassik” on top of all these -isms? The “Klassik” is there to make the point that all these different tendencies converged, and they converged to Berlin.

My position is less radical than his since I only defend the idea that the situation in Berlin was a singular one at that time. I tend to avoid comparisons (like the one with Weimar, a place that is historically and literary connected to the idea of “Klassik”) by saying it is not really comparable with other constellations. That might be cowardice from me. Or ignorance of how it was elsewhere. I grant you that: I am far from being able to overlook all that. Plus, I am not a historian, which makes me feel like I will never, ever be able to theorize on this kind of scales.

But still. The fact that Conrad Wiedemann mentioned my project as one of those that are evolving as a development from the Berliner Klassik was a great recognition gesture to me (and helped me with that confidence issue I have had lately…). Interestingly, he underlined the fact that I operate with other concepts than he does, especially those of “networks” on the one hand and of “intellectuals” on the other hand – saying something like “it is ok, it is a new generation and they operate with their own, new categories”. I think that it is true that mentalities have changed in the past ten years. It is not just me, it is the whole scholarly context. In the field of research itself, the inhibitions to work on Berlin, on the time “around 1800” and the Napoleonian Wars while knowing perfectly that this is the birth of national spirit in Germany with all the further consequences it will have, have lowered greatly. Those inhibitions are still there, of course. But the fact that somebody like me gets to be generously funded to check if the two concepts “intellectual” and “network” allow to understand the phenomenon “Berlin around 1800” somwehat better, shows that the question is, at least, considered an interesting one, one that has to be asked.

So let’s ask it again: What is it about Berlin around 1800? – and hope that the network analysis will gain another dimension through our digital edition…



Denial, Anger and – Resignation

I was curious to see how preparing a digital edition compares to preparing a book. The fact that the format is open, that you can always correct and add, should make things more relaxed. Maybe because I am still mentally stuck in the book format though, I could not really let go.

Something inside me had conceived a precise idea of the minimal requirement. Though not consciously formulated, it kept  haunting me: I cannot post the link until… until enough text is there, until I have made sure that I did not forget a single line break because it looks stupid, until all footnotes are at the right place, until the favicon looks good… I realized that I had developed a sort of to-do list which, although different from the one I have when it comes to books, was just as annoying in terms of perfectionism. Surprisingly enough, I accepted to put online texts I knew I had not transcribed correctly, but did not want them to “look stupid” because of a missing line break. What sense does that make? Does it make sense at all?

Just like for a book, this mental check-list turned the last sprint into a kind of mourning process. I had to give up perfection, which is, every time, a painful process (I suppose I take some masochistic pleasure in it though, considering how often I repeat the experience). I questioned everything I do, I questioned the way I do it, I could no see the meaning of what I am doing any more. It seemed to me like there was no perspectives in all of that. Like I was fighting for blanks at the right place when, in the big picture, it should not matter. Or does it?

Like when preparing a book, all interaction with the real world turned into pain. I just wanted to sit at my desk instead of planning further projects which, my subconscious told me, would – again – drive me away from perfection. But they gave me human measure for things, and that saved me from drowning completely.

I wanted to observe the process too, which is why I authorized myself the two last blog posts. I knew there were psychological mechanisms at work I wanted to be able to look back at as being part of the genesis of this edition. It was clear that these posts would be, in tone and content, different from the others. That they would be irritating. But I wanted to formulate them and not keep them as an interior black hole like the finish of my PhD thesis still feels to me.

I would like to thank here all the people who made this edition – which, although imperfect, still took a good start!

Believe it or not: here is the link:

Can you keep a secret?

OK, I still haven’t posted the link to the edition. Actually, I intend to polish the Tieck letters (and wrap up the few missing ones) tomorrow. The postponing only extends to tomorrow evening. The fact that the University is empty and nobody seems to be around (ever heard about Easter break in Germany? fairly comparable to Christmas break…) has not been a great incentive to hurry up. Anyway.

If you have been following this blog carefully, you will have noticed that there is a corpus I never ever posted on. I mentioned in my last post the difficulties raised by the “canonical” work manuscripts and it seems to be time to introduce the big work manuscripts of the edition now.

It is in many ways a grateful job to dig out in archives papers nobody really knows about. You are being given, as the person who found the jewel, to expose it for the first time, showing what matters most to you, be it its shape, its seize, its reflections, its harmony…  This jeweler job is the encoding. While encoding, you emphasize one aspect or another: the work process, the connection to other works, the connection to other persons, etc. As the first editor, you get to pick the kind of light that has to be shed on the corpus. Everybody can interpret it in their way in a second step, for sure. But the first encoding is a first interpretation: this right you have as an editor is, in today’s world, still something you can take for granted when it comes to secondary authors. When you edit a writer nobody knows, you are expected to explain what its interest lays in.

Things are different when it comes to big authors who have already been interpreted for ages. You can’t edit Goethe in any other way than by scrutinizing each ink mark: not only might it mean something, but it has to be something meaningful. These are corpora with which it is not really possible to experiment around. It is some kind of unspoken rule that you cannot just do whatever you want with Goethe. Especially since there are armies of specialists working on it, big projects it is easy to learn about with the minimal effort of basic googling.

How to situate the pretty-big-but-not-so-great-that-they-have-been-edited-through-and-through authors in the big picture? The difficulty is not just to know what you should feel yourself authorized to do with it, but how to know who else might be working on the corpora and with which research interest. It should not be the job of the archivists to deal with that, but on the other hand, they are the ones that are likely to be confronted with the visits of several researchers wanting to work on the same or on similar corpora. The only thing you can expect from them is to let the different researchers know about each other.

From this point on, the researchers should be able to constitute work groups, to create dynamical and collaborative work environments, where all those who work on a corpus can contribute and share information. Why this only happens in the rarest cases is a mystery to me, and something that makes me at times way too angry.

In that sense, let it be a mystery to nobody that we will edit E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Sandmann (already online), Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl (this summer) and Fouque’s Undine (over winter) following the manuscripts that can be found in the Hitzig papers at the Stiftung Stadtmuseum Berlin. And that we hope for collaborations.

CC-BY (bye-bye, sissy!)

No joke today: I plan to publish the link to the edition tomorrow. We could still postpone for a while, but right now, what we mostly need is users’ feedback. Even if I have not prepared (by far) as many letters as I wanted to, the few I have prepared have already allowed me to broaden noticeably the scholarly horizon of the “intellectual networks” that are at the core of the edition. The unexpected boom of the index of persons has made me develop new questions on that topic: How can we explain the hierarchy in the historical recognition of some categories of persons vs. the non-recognition of some others? To what extent does it have to do with politics or with communication strategies, how does it relate to the constitution of a historical and/or literary canon? What would be an appropriate way to represent the position women took in those networks despite the lack of information we have on them, how can we gather such information? Why is it so hard to gain information on publishers, even though their names and the works they published are so well known? I hope that the cooperation with the PDR will help me structure this over the spring and summer.

One thing that had to be decided before going online was the license under which we will publish the work. We finally settled on a non commercial CC-BY. Since I had not really intended at first the “non commercial” part, let me tell you how it came to it.

The way I put things “out there” on the internet feels to me at some extent like recklessness. I don’t particularly trust human nature; I am certainly exposing myself to distortions of my work. I accept it for myself (like I do in this blog): I consider that there is a certain solidity to the contents I publish which is, to my eyes, sufficient to make it intellectually self-sustainable. Even if someone abuses the contents I put online, re-uses them under his or her name, I am confident enough that the right people will know what is actually my work.

It turned out that for the younger people in my team, they see things quite differently. It has to do with the fact that they are less established scholars than I am on the one hand, and with the corpora we edit on the other hand. While I go with obscure correspondences or lecture notes, they happen to be the ones that are responsible for the “big authors” in the edition: they are the ones who publish major literary works after the manuscript, like it has (for some) never been done before. As for me, I only considered it a great chance for them to be the first ones to do so. It did not occur to me that – because these works belong to the canon – it would expose them to plagiarism or denial of the work done. This is how we settled on the non commercial license: even if their work is bound to be subject to criticism (which we will thankfully be able to integrate through updates – this medium is so great, really), at least nobody should be able to earn money with it.

I don’t actually believe it will change much. But if it gives them the feeling that their work is more protected, why not. The problem is, your work is never protected, it is always a risk, an exposure, a hope for a dreamed audience that can just as much turn into a nightmare. And yet: so few things are as enjoyable as putting a message in a bottle. Go figure…