Money and Philology

It probably would have been more gentle from me to put it the other way around: Philology and Money. If money comes first and philology comes second, we are actually doomed, aren’t we?

Anna and I presented the first Chamisso letters we have online to the Berliner Klassik team this morning, with Markus Schnöpf sitting at the table too. Many of the things I have been posting about these last months were evoked, sometimes only briefly, but I was surprised to see how we managed to talk about all the central aspects and questions of digital editing in such a short time. What is today’s state of the art in terms of tools and their implementation? In what detail should or can a manuscript be edited online? How do you conceive a digital tool that can handle the conversion to a book? How is today’s digital editions’ landscape structured, who does what and how? What specific tools can be used for letters, to what extent are those tools to be considered solid, final products or still in testing? It is not possible to give a one-sided answer to all of these questions; they all are worth hours of debates. Put together, they cristallize the main problem: its takes more than traditional philological knowledge to be able to develop an adequate theoretical question and the corresponding edition principles you want to base your edition on. The digital turn is not to be undone any more.

One of the crucial points is the question of text economy. Text economy is philology and money put together. We have a certain scholarly aim, which is not pure edition for edition’s sake, but conceiving an edition to work towards the answer to a question. Reconstructing networks in the case of our edition. Sounds trendy, is trendy too, is also a potentially extremely plastic method with which you can do a lot of things. The only condition for this to actually be implemented is to have a sufficient amount of text. So here we are: text economy. If you want to reach a certain amount of text, that means that you won’t tag each and every sign in your encoding of the manuscript. You can’t encode everything. You have to decide what you want to encode and what you will not encode. Which is also anticipating not only what you want to do with your corpus, but also what others might want to do with it, and let doors open without getting lost in rendering each and every ink stain.

I am in many ways much too pragmatical (even if the debate on Geminationsstriche tended to put me on the side of some sort of philological radicalism) – I have given up on perfection long ago and believe mainly in perfectibility, which is probably why digital edition is something that I live with so well.  Plus, I don’t think I have so much time left to be able to experiment around, things will surely get serious soon enough, so I should enjoy the experimenting as long as it is possible. Anna on the other hand is a much more meticulous editor than I am and it is important to her to be satisfied by her final result in the finest details. We balance each other pretty well. Or to put it another way: we have animated debates during our digital edition work sessions.

It became clear very fast that every member of the team would bring in their own conception of editorial work, that we would never be able to all encode the same way: not only because the documents are different, but because we are different. So we have a generic common ground of editorial directions, but each project has its own way of interpreting them. While reading the assignments of our masters students this afternoon – encodings of letters from Chamisso to de La Foye, a work that has been coordinated by Anna and Sabine -, I could see how some sections of the metadata, which consist in 2 lines in my Beausobre and Tieck letters, have turned into a 30 lines-segment. There is a reason I kept it at 2 lines. I don’t think more detail is necessary. Should I let Sabine, Anna and the students write half a dissertation in the metadata for their corpus? When I think of the time that might end up being eaten  if we repeat the exercise on each and everyone  of the 100 letters, it depresses me. Instead of doing that, we could – let me think – improve the tagging to make the search more powerful, get data on the many persons evoked in the letters – and – well, obviously: encode more letters.

So I will have to break the news tomorrow: we have to find a middle gound. I can make a step forward and somewhat expand the corresponding sections of my metadata. But if we want to edit this corpus within the next six months – which we will do – we’ll have to get rid of some unnecessary overload.

Which is why money – or rather, the lack of it – is there for: force you to get rid of some editorial fat. Of course, this can be counterproductive. But on the other hand, it forces the scholar to ask himself again and again what the point of his work is, and what the community will have from it. Gives some meaning, somehow.



Of course, it is not completely over yet. Neither the book nor my father’s coma. But somehow, sending in the final manuscript on the very day my father shows signs of consciousness again  is too brilliant a day to let it pass unmentioned.

“The book”, as I spoke of it and wrote about it these past weeks, contains the papers of the conference I organized in Paris last November on “Les figures de l’intellectuel” in my favorite setting (France and Germany at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century). It was an interdisciplinary conference, beginning by its organization: I was not alone in charge, but together with a bunch of Philosophers. Ayse Yuva, whom I have been preparing “the book” with, is a post-doc at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin and we held the conference in Paris-I, where she has done her PhD, together with the professors she had been working with back then. There were few Historians (for a change), and the discussion actually took a fairly different turn than what I am used to. I usually resent working with Historians because they make me feel like I know nothing, especially concerning micro-facts and macro-interpretations. This Philosophers’ conference  felt like a joint effort to scrutinize whether the concept of “intellectual” can actually help understand (and help interpret better) the structural changes in the relationships between scholars and politics – say in the wake of French Revolution. Whether it does so and how and to what extent and regarding what aspects of scholarship and what aspects of politics…

I will not write about the excruciating work on the book’s manuscript, about deleting and adding blanks, about wondering where to put capital letters and where not to (beauty of French spelling – having to ask oneself at least once per paragraph: should I write révolution, meaning the concept of revolution in general, or should I write Révolution, meaning the French one – and mostly, how can I merge into some kind  of general harmony texts that are literally spreading capital letters around and texts that contain almost none, depending on the author’s religion on the subject of capital letters…), about conversions between word and open office leading to having to re-do the whole layouting (if you can call that layout). As you can imagine, I could go on all night on that topic. Let’s say that I sent in a microsoft word manuscript and hope the publisher knows how to scrub and clean it properly, because I can’t.

But let’s talk about the introduction. I have been working with other Philosophers in the past and have always found it difficult to add my literary standards to their philosophical standards. I am probably quite intransigent on the subject of the readability of the texts I sign (although my optimistic self tells me that I am totally cool), and my idea of readability is not necessarily compatible with the requirements of philosophical argumentation. Or at least, making them compatible is a rough process. Plus, this introduction’s task was uneasy in more than just that respect. It had to defend the use of the concept of “intellectual” in the French context, which required to take a historical turn to begin with. It had to explain, too, what sense it makes to consider as one period the time between 1780 and 1848, which also requires historical argumentation. It had to justify the choice of looking at Germany and France without primarily working on the transfers between both countries, and leaving out England for instance, without which the German as well as the French intellectual situation at that period cannot be fully understood. Clearly, there were many things that had to be left aside, and it not easy to find a plausible theory for 60 years of literary history within 10 pages. In fact, this introduction is a little bit too long and still manages to repeat itself in its attempt of looking at all aspects of every important thing. It would have taken months to reach a better text economy in the format of an introduction, so I think we can leave it at that and still be satisfied.

What I find the book and its introduction succeed at is showing how exemplarity can help work out structural elements that do not necessarily need a huge historical apparatus. Of course, we did not play all possible scenarios of intellectual activity in France and Germany between 1780 and 1848. But we managed to show how some major events (the French Revolution, but not only), personalities (Rousseau, Kant, Fichte, but not only), institutions (Universities, Institutes, Academies, but not only) and strategies of communication (books, teaching,… you know what I mean) give a structure, an imprint, not only on the individual level, but on the level of a more general intellectual consciousness.

The interesting point now is how to implement this method (or method in spe) in the tagging of our digital edition. Since I have been out of the digital world for a while, I am really looking froward to trying and put together those analog and digital intellectuals. You’ll hear from me!

Homeward Bound

We are about to apply for German citizenship. We have been living in Berlin for over 10 years now, we both have decent (in my case) to more than honorable (in my husband’s case) positions in the German academic system, our children were born in Berlin. We somehow turned to half Germans.

Beyond the political aspect (it will be a relief to vote here at last), this lead me to some thinking concerning my academic identity. Have I really turned into a German scholar? Would I be able to return to France and get a position there? Does it even make sense to consider one’s academic achievements according to the country they are bound to?

Regarding these questions that I keep asking myself then and again, it is a great intellectual incentive to take part in the realization of the Scholar Guide “Frankreich für Historiker” by Pierre Monnet, Mareike König and Falk Breitschneider. We met last Monday in Paris to discuss which topics should come into which chapters, which elements should not be forgotten, how to harmonize the different as well as the recurring aspects. Not only was I almost the only one among the authors who was not a historian (always weird, but I have gotten used to it), but many of the others were Germans with a French personal history rather than French with a German personal history like myself. Having elected Germany rather than France, it was an unexpected experience to meet so many people who had chosen (as much as you get to actually choose where you academic destiny takes you) France over Germany. All these things I hate about France – the hideous cities with their grey 1920s and 1960s houses and buildings, the narrow sidewalks, the way people are always in a hurry or worry about their looks – might, after all, not necessarily poison one’s life. You might even think Berlin is just way too cold and dark in the winter, people too unflexible, the German academic system too hierarchical and uncertain.

All in all, this is even what the Scholar Guide “Frankreich für Historiker” is about. It intends to explain to German Historians how to decipher the specific French codes, just as the first Guide “Faire de l’histoire en Allemagne” did for German Historians. In the new guide, I am in charge of one chapter on how to start publishing (first papers, dissertation), as well as (this one together with Franziska Heimburger) one chapter on the French scholarly language. This connects to what I talked about in an earlier post (probably my most popular one :-). This chapter will have to provide, if not for a universally valid answer, at least for some  leads on how to appropriate oneself the French way of writing scholarly texts. Obviously, it will deal with the way French scholarly texts somehow always, always have three main parts. It is true that I have been trained to do so for over ten years – until I would be able to do so without even thinking there might be another way to deal with the given topic -. It is exactly when you are not even aware you are doing it that it turns difficult to explain how you get to that point. Writing this chapter will be an interesting experience in terms of deconstructing my own way of thinking. I also intend to write about repetitions and adverbs. These two are to be manipulated quite differently in French and in German. In fact, I have been in deep adjective and adverb deprivation since I have started to write mainly in German – I can’t even seem to be able to make up for it in English. All of my French texts are, compared to the German and the English ones, some kind of waltz, not only in their structure, but within the sentences themselves.

I wonder if writing about this will get me closer to my French roots or, on the contrary, repulse me more, while I am on a larger scale trying to touch base with France again. One of the reasons to this is that I don’t really know what Digital Humanities look like in France. I hope to get to learn more about it during the Frankoromanistentag in Leipzig in September, where I will be giving a paper in the section “Revolution der Medien – Evolution in der Literaturwissenschaft?“. Having received the preliminary section’s program yesterday, I can only say I am really looking forward to it.

Well, of course I hope to be able to enrich my knowledge of French DH in the future. After all, this is the only place where you get the really yummy croissants.


Dear Patience

Even if personal issues or scholarly setbacks happened in the past year and half (which is how long my group exists), I have – we have – always been able to deal with it and get over it without modifying substantially our work agenda. It has to do with the solidity of the group as such, with psychological factors – and certainly, I notice it now, with the fact that, as bad as it sounded back then, it was possible to deal with it as with marginal events, without modifying the main stream of the workflow.

In that sense, it has been an new experience to have to deal with a major event that set everything back. For the first time, I really had to ask myself: When does it make sense to try and keep the normal work pace, when does it do good to take a break?

I have to deal with this question every semester. There are 2 peaks: one after 5 weeks and one 1 month before the end of the semester. I wonder how it comes that these are always the moments when the whole team is down. I won’t be teaching on a weekly basis next semester and we will see if that changes things or not.

Anyway. I still think that the job of the boss is to keep some pressure on everyone for results to actually come. This supposes that the boss him/herself works in the same logic. In the end, it all has to do with how this pressure is dosed. I have been trying to reduce the pressure on myself this past year, because I know it reduces the pressure on my group too.

The academic way of life is dangerous. When you talk to people who close the door of their office at 5:30 and re-open it the next day at 8:30 without having done a thing in between, you can measure the indecency of the expectations the whole academic system has on people’s private lives. I am usually writing a whole batch of work e-mails after putting my kids to bed, that is almost every evening between 8:30 and 10:00. I am all in all  happy to get quick answers from my team and work partners, but sometimes I wish they would just ignore my e-mails. My feelings are mixed on that. What do I really wish? Happy collaborators: are those people who identify with their work on a 200% basis like I do, or people who just do their job and take decent pauses once in a while? Should I stop writing emails in the evening? (which would mean writing them over the day, when I am productive enough to do the actual work like reading, talking, writing texts)

When you come to doubt even the way you manage e-mails, it is a sure sign that you need a break. I figured that out during this past week. The first thing I did was to suppress unnecessary deadlines (the outer world has enough deadlines of its own for me not to deliberately add to those right now). The one big deadline we had was the launching of the digital edition, initially planned on July, 9th. We have postponed it to the fall. It was a wise decision, I think, at least a sensible one. I am in retrospect grateful for all the effort  my team would have put in the preparation of that event – I know they would have done it, and would not even have complained that much.

But sometimes, patience is a greater help than rushing to results. Things take time, they won’t always do what you want. Even when you know you have a report on your results due in a year, your funding running out in 3, your PhD candidates not even close to starting writing, you sometimes have to take time.

Love Surrogates

In terms of data architecture, we should all love surrogates. Still, they seem to me to be one of the most difficult concept to explain to people who don’t deal with organizing digital data. Today’s post is a first attempt  to explain this (hoping to be as pedagogical as possible!).

It seems to be a common point of view amongst traditional humanists that having different entry points (say dates or persons or places) in a database or in a digital edition would mean that there is no underlying order to it. This might even be one major obstacle to conceiving edition projects that should be both online and paper. Digitally, working along a chronological highway (starting from the earliest document and working towards the latest one) is not optimal, whereas it still is the main and almost only recognized way of conceiving a paper edition. There already are big corpora such as Alexander von Humboldt’s papers for which it has been approached differently, but it remains a minority.

Let me take as an example the corpus of the letters from Chamisso to de La Foye we are editing in our current class. Our basis corpus are the 104 letters contained in the de La Foye papers of the Staatsbibliothek (all of which are letters from Chamisso to de La Foye), to which we have to add 2 letters from de La Foye to Chamisso from the Chamisso papers (also Staatsbibliothek) and one letter from Chamisso to de La Foye from the Freies Deutsches Hochstift. These are the 3 manuscript sources we could identify for this correspondence (maybe there will come some additional material from Krakow, I haven’t had time to ask there yet).

Apart from those manuscript sources, we have print sources: mainly 3 print editions (Hitzig, Palm, Riegel) that contain partly the same letters as those we have as manuscripts, partly others. I schematically summed up the possibilities this implies in a small drawing à la Laurent:

My first entry (“Single Document”)  shows that for each document you can either refer to one single source or to several sources (in which case you can collationate, e.g. compare text versions). What I have not drawn on the picture, although it is also a valid case as well, is the one in which you have no physical document left, but you know there has be one at some point. For instance, if Chamisso writes “thank you for your letter of September 4th” and there is neither a manuscript nor a print document dated September 4th of that year, you can still assume there has been such a letter. Maybe you will even find the document at some point; manuscripts are known to pop up when you least expect them to: having looked for them for years and finally given up, they suddenly are there, on the most unexpected shelf. In that case you create a surrogate, an placeholder for this presumable letter of September 4th. This allows, when it comes to point 2 (“Architecture”) and you want to have an overview of the totality of the correspondence, to reconstruct the maximum information you have.

In this second point of my drawing (“Architecture”), you can see the interest of identifying the nature of the documents we are referring to. For manuscripts, for prints and for “empty” surrogates, the metadata can contain enough information to create a real data architecture. The metadata information (source, persons, organization, repository, places, keywords, document description) are not only arbitrary things you can look for when using the search engine: they actually structure the whole architecture. And as a mean of organizing data, they also are a way of determining the workflow.

Working in cooperation with the Staatsbibliothek, we have for instance harmonized our metadata so that we can exchange information with the kalliope autograph database. This allows us as well as the database to collect surrogates that might happen to be “filled” later. Both our digital edition and the digital library of the Staatsbibliothek take advantage of that. The maximum reachable complexity and completeness in data architecture allows everyone, in the end, to spare a lot of time.

Another example could be that the keywording can allow to identify particular fields of competence (botany for instance when it comes to Chamisso and de La Foye). By identifying such recurring themes, you can assess much faster how many documents would require the help of a botany expert and plan your work accordingly.

To sum up my point: we should love surrogates because they allow complex and complete data architecture; not only are they a key to organizing data, they are also a time saver in that the whole data management allows a greater optimization of the workflow. Convinced?

And here’s a thought for my father, still at the hospital fighting for his life: no surrogates there, just plain love.