Ni Dieu Ni Maître

I survived the seminar in which I was to analyse my potential and to plan my career – together with twenty other talented young women researchers from Berlin universities. We are all in the post-doc/ham-in-the-sandwich position and were all theoretically accepted in the program because we want to become professors. As it turned out during our first session in June, I am, among the persons selected for the program, by far not the only one with doubts as to the feasibility of the whole professorship-thing. Which is reassuring, really. Talking to women who raise their kids, same age as mine, with the same fears, the same guilt feelings, the same form of attention to the kids’ affective and intellectual balance – that does me good.

The training we are going through, well, I am not sure it does, or rather, I am not sure yet how it does me good. We all went home depressed yesterday. And were all depressed at how cynical we all are about the academic system. That goes against my combative nature. I am the only one in the whole group who stated as an explicit professional aim to make things change in academic culture. I am also the only one who at no point began a sentence with “My boss said that” (the more frequent variant with “My boss” being a man, of course). At first, I found it weird that adult, responsible women refer to a boss when it comes to, say, deciding whether they want to get involved in University strategic meetings. I begin these kind of sentences with “I asked some colleagues what they think of it”.

Do I really not do what people advise me to, like it felt after hearing woman after woman quote their boss’ advice this morning? Am I a free spirit, or am I just – completely out of the system? As I wrote yesterday, being independent has a price in a highly hierarchical system. Not belonging to a school is making things more difficult, that is no news. My situation does not help either. I came from France after completing my PhD, then worked  in a research institute that was closed a few years later with everyone saying “It is sad, but it can’t go on like it does” (which was true). No particular glory in having worked there, no particular school either, as the institute died of bad management and an non-existent inner coherence, everyone trying to scientifically drown the other camp (typical east/west conflict). I arrived where I am with a protection that was (and still is) strong, but by someone who goes by the principle that the best will find their way up anyway, which I considered an invitation to define my own standards and work by them. I certainly was lead by others to one decision or the other (and some were bad) during the course of my eleven years in Berlin. But what became stronger and stronger as time went by was the urge to owe nothing to no one, assuming that flat hierarchy relationships are the only way to truly work together. This nice idea does, alas, not really fit in the realms of reality. It is in many ways utopistic to imagine any configuration in the academic system in which the sum of the interests of a given group of individuals would not contradict or annihilate itself by nature. Still this is, somehow, my scholarly ideal. I am obviously still living in the 18th century, exchanging letters and enriching my library…

It exists, though, I saw it with my own eyes. When I was a PhD candidate, we got together – we, PhD candidates from different universities, different disciplines – and we tried to make our point, actively, and by putting our joined creativities together. We created a Webpage called “Ebrain” on which you could post your scientific profile and put a price on your head (it was not a real profile database of course, more of a witty joke, and we had to turn it down after EBay protested). We made movies in which we showed the nursing room of newborn PhD theses, or a replica of Liberty guiding the People showing “the postdoc torn apart between Life and Academia”. We were young, it was cool, journalists were calling us (were calling me), we stopped doing science altogether for months, we made it to the front page of Le Monde, which is even cooler.

By then already, I was often required to speak up for the group. Because I was a woman and in the Humanities, I filled the quotas (“too bad you don’t also come from a minority”, they said with a wide smile). The frequency with which I am being displayed as the exemplary proving that “it is possible” has not decreased since then, considering I am now not only a woman, in the Humanities, but also mother of two (TWO!!) children and working with computer people. Maybe this way of being presented as “out of the norm” also makes me feel that I, somehow, don’t belong there, and have to be – without God or Master.

Where the Magic begins

The group – my group – was back to its initial constellation for a couple of days this week, with Anna visiting us together with her now 6 month old son. It did us all good to be like “in the good old times” (meaning, 6 months ago…). But it also made me sad. These six months have opened my eyes on something I refused to see before: that being part of a junior research group cuts them off of an institutional comfort they would deserve and do need. The comfort you have when your PhD advisor is a professor – a real one, not someone without the title who incidentally happens to be allowed to accompany PhD candidates in their research.

I have sensed the limits of junior research group leadership from the beginning and had hoped things would get better as time would go by. God knows that I invested time and energy in building solid scientific partnerships over the past three years. But instead of reaching a point where mutual confidence is dominant, there is not a meeting that goes by now without someone asking when I will have reached professorship or at least have finished my second book.  I am now stuck, and will stay so as long as I will not have made the next career step. As it is, with my contract ending in June 2015, I can’t be PI in any small to middle-sized funding application. I have two options: let a professor put his name on the application and me do the work – but I have never done it and would rather not begin now as it is very much against my work ethics – or apply in a funding program that would be rich enough for me to include my own position and income in the application. Applying to this category of funding with some chance of success is definitely incompatible with writing a book as good and as fast as possible.

I would not mind so much about there being a desert to be crossed for me personally, if I had not suddenly gotten the feeling this week that my team will have to cross it with me. I am not the only one who has chosen a risky disciplinary career path, I have taken them with me. And as much as I want to help them move on with their careers when the junior research group time is over, it became obvious that the best way for me to help them is to push them away from me and in the arms of any professor who would bring them the necessary “stables smell” that would allow them to be valued. Although they say they don’t not aspire to an ambitious academic career, I still consider it my legitimate duty to do my best for them to have a job they like after their time under my supervision. On the paper, things look rather good. They published papers, organized conferences, directed volumes, went to conferences. We’ll have to see about the dissertations, of course. But that is a part which I can only marginally influence. What I can give them is scientific method, faith in what they do, contacts – and a visit card including the scholarly achievements named above. I am afraid I might fail at that in the end, or more precisely that they might have everything on the paper, but the most important thing will be missing: the recognition factor. I am still looking for the Magic for it.


Texts without a genre, automatized translations and a diplomat called Varnhagen von Ense

There are novelties all over the place in our digital edition and I had no idea about it! Yes, I have finally reached the blessed state in which I can’t seem to keep up with the rhythm of new features or texts implemented online. Sabine gets hold of me once in a week or so and sums up all the 15 e-mails that have been exchanged in the mean time, everyone politely still putting me in CC although I have long ceased to be the one to provide for answers. She then sums up the progress and asks for my blessing regarding the 2-3 things only the boss can finalize. Solomon-like, I choose and decide, feeling very much empowered and hoping to be back at the right level some day – the level that would allow me to get the point, really.

So, what have we got today? A nice feature that allows some metadata entries made in German to be automatically translated into English and French for the corresponding interfaces, the possibility to attribute several genres to one single text without having it appear as many times as you have attributed genres to it, and new texts, even some from Krakow (I mentioned the Krakow situation in this blog post).

The manuscripts coming from Krakow are part of the Varnhagen Collection and they appear in two corpora which one could have supposed would not overlap or interface at all in our edition: Helmina von Chézy and August Boeckh.

The first new text we have online is an unpublished fictional text by Helmina von Chézy adressed to Bettina von Arnim, with the title “This book belongs to Bettina”, an unveiled allusion to Bettina von Arnim’s “This book belongs to the King”. Helmina von Chézy’s text has an intricate history, so we publish two versions of it, which are aimed at being collationated at some point in a future that I hope will be close enough: this one and that one. As editor Selma Jahnke notes in her introductory statement, this text shows the deployment of a series of literary strategies aiming at constituting a kind of alliance of women writers in mid-19th century Prussia. Both Helmina von Chézy and Bettina von Arnim were  strongly engaged in social fights, which adds a socio-political dimension to the purely literary aspects. Helmina von Chézy never reached the fame of Bettina von Arnim, although she managed to live from her books and journal productions. She certainly saw herself as a literary persona in 19th century Germany, and conserved her papers accordingly, with a rare meticulousness for a woman of that time. When Varnhagen, who had started collecting papers from intellectuals of the Prussian scenery, inherited her archive, he picked the best pieces and burned the rest. Among these pieces, there was the text addressed to Bettina von Arnim – addressed even as a letter, that turned out never to have reached its addressee in its time, as said addressee mentioned while finding the text lying on a table at Varnhagen’s years later. Intricate transmission, a concurrence situation possibly even harsher than among men, men who intervene and want to be the ones who tell the real story of the text – when reading texts of women writers of the first half of the nineteenth century, the history of the text matters just as much as its literary texture per se.

So really it is not a wonder that it is the women’s texts that seem conceived only to blow up our textual categories (“genres“). Because it is one of the originality of our edition to offer different genres of text under the same roof, it seemed one of the first necessities, when we reconfigured the possible doors leading to the corpora, that we put some order in those different type of texts. “Letters” seemed the less problematical of all, and turns out to be the heart of the problem. Helmina von Chézy, just as Adelheid Reinbold in her “Letter addressed to Ludwig Tieck“, uses some formal aspects of correspondence rhetoric to give her text a certain shape, and, more importantly, an addressee that justifies its existence against all odds.

Frontseite von Adelheid Reinbolds "Literaturbrief" an Ludwig Tieck
Frontseite von Adelheid Reinbolds “Literaturbrief” an Ludwig Tieck
Weiterverwendungsrechte bei der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin-PK

These texts are no “real” letters in the sense in which actual letters were sometimes re-used, re-written for a later publication. No, they are their own publication end, and they are called letters because they take advantage of the comfort of using a genre that was considered “feminine”. In the case of Adelheid Reinbold, choosing the genre “letter” also has to do with hiding behind a protector, in this case the writer Ludwig Tieck, by then at the climax of his glory. Also, these pseudo-letters live in and of the myth of the one singular addressee good enough to replace the whole public, this topos of a pseudo denial of success and wider recognition that Rousseau had already pushed to its more extreme limits (this is probably the most interesting part of my argument in my paper on “Communication” in the Rousseau Encyclopedia that was published this summer).

The composition of fictional letters is certainly a particularly delicate exercise, since they need to inforce the gullibility of both their main quality as letters – namely, authenticity – and their fictional character.

A problem which our second set of texts from Krakow does not present with. Back to the males, things are amazingly simple. August Boeckh writes to Varnhagen in 1830. They exchange books and book reviews before publication, and Boeckh recommends to suppress some delicate passages of the review. Sometimes, literary life can be so easy to bring to a point: intellectuals exchange books and opinions on books, and with that, they get material to write new books. What I originally thought would be the ultimate refinement of our digital edition, the combination of genesis and reception phenomena, of books as material goods and intellectual inspiration, turns out to be its most obvious feature. Go figure…

Of those three languages I live in (a sequel to #dhiha5)

Manifesto, Manifest, manifeste

After publishing the English version of the manifesto for young researchers in DH in July, the German translation went online in August and the French one in September. I was part of the elaboration of all three of them. For my personal linguistic formation, the order in which the versions were conceived was strange, considering that it went from the language I know the less good to the one I know best.

Conceiving the original English version was complicated by the fact that a vast majority of the task force that conceived and wrote it consisted of non-English speakers. Although it was obvious that we had, just had to write the manifesto in Globish, this first step already showed how the institutional vocabulary, and with that also the institutional stakes, were hardly transportable in different cultural areas. We had German and French institutional models in mind, and it necessarily influenced the way we wrote in English. What will British young researchers think of that text, I asked myself. Does it relate in any way to their job and career reality? I am not sure whether there was any feedback on that topic ever since.

The English version was read and commented on in Germany, but the German translation was still the first one to be published, thanks to the technical and personal support from the German Historical Institute in Paris. It turned out to be impossible to maintain style and tone of the original version: the sentences were too short, too dry, to pass for readable German. The syntax was germanized, leaving room for some interpretation. Let’s take for instance the paragraph about publications in English, a part of the text that (obviously) means a lot to me. The English version reads:

“As humanists we value intercultural dialogue and multilingualism. Publications in English should not be exclusive, but encouraged as a complement to publications in other native languages.”

The first draft of the German translation had displaced the syntax far enough to make it say not “English not exclusive, but encouraged”, but rather “maybe some in English, but not too much and certainly not everything”. This draft was rephrased as follows for the final version:

“Als Geisteswissenschaftlerinnen und -wissenschaftler schätzen wir interkulturellen Dialog und Mehrsprachigkeit. Veröffentlichungen sollten nicht ausschließlich in englischer Sprache erfolgen, sondern als Zusatz zu Veröffentlichungen in der eigenen Sprache angeregt werden.”

I suggested an even more radical translation for the French version, moving the syntax around as we had often done in the German version, but my colleagues wisely sticked to the original:

“Praticiens des sciences humaines, nous attachons une grande importance au dialogue et au multilinguisme. La publication en anglais n’a pas à être une norme exclusive, mais sera encouragée en complément de publications dans les autres langues.”


Translation, interpretation?

I suppose that it was the choice of English as a language for the original version that evened some of the corners, and left all the more room for interpretation when we translated it back to our native (or almost native) languages. Many things left under the table in order to be understandable by everyone in the English version got on the table again when it came to transmit the very same message to our native scientific community, beginning with the title itself.




As much as all versions agree on the choice of “manifest” as a text genre and on DH as the general field concerned, it remains a major problem to define the public the manifesto is speaking up for. For me, it was clear that the manifesto was the voice of all the people working in DH, in and out of Academia proper but in connection with it, and without a fixed position and/or a career perspective. But this was my personal interpretation, and bringing even this to a common denominator that would also be valid in all the cultural areas we wanted to embrace was not an easy task. Is everyone we talk about doing research proper? There are also infrastructure developers who don’t work on research questions, but they are just as much concerned. Are all those people young? Of course not. Are their careers even all at their beginnings? Not even.

How come that there is no common vocabulary to designate those that make at least 70% (I don’t know the actual figure, this is just an assessment) of the people that make European research work? Is the system too ashamed of not being able to treat them fairly that they cannot even be named in a straight, clear and acceptable way, as the professors are? To answer in the metaphorical register of the German word for it, “Nachwuchs”: the time where we were only promising seeds is long gone, it is the trees that need be named, and the forest.

(and by the way, there is a Spanish translation as well!)

Blog it like Beckham

When I try to reconstruct what I have been up to since I stopped working on my book, I might be tempted to say “nothing”. As many colleagues came back from vacation, the daily emailing dose has increased progressively, just enough to fill a few more hours per week. And when I don’t keep busy emailing, I contribute frantically to #bloggerfilms, a hashtag accompanying tweets in which you replace part of a movie title by blog/blogger/blogging and make it sound just great. I’d rather not know how many attempts it took me to reach the 4-5 really good ones I take some pride in (plus, to be fair, I have to admit that half of them come from my husband, who has a much greater movie culture than I do). But, like it was said at the monthly meeting of the Berlin DH community (now that I think of it, this happened as well!), “Mareike will have archived all that”, and she will probably pull my numbers out of her blogging hat fairly soon. I fear it revolves around the 50 or so.


It has been a busy twitter week all in all. Three DH events in parallel, with very active tweeting, have proven able to fill a great part of one’s day. Preparing the talk I was getting ready for in parallel turned out to be the one activity requiring the lesser concentration. When you try to follow intense tweeting on one event, you still have to fill in the gaps.

Which remain big, even with a 1o tweets a minute. Having talked or emailed with those who tweeted after the events, I also realized how constructed even a series of tweets on a conference is. Many of the blog entries that were published after #digigw2013 also insisted on the fact that the tweets turned out to be much more critical than what was said during the session, in public and from the public (a list of the blog posts related to the conference can be found here). The gap between the twitter report and the conference reality troubled me. I don’t want to sound too naive. It is not like I take tweets at face value (echoing one of the tweets I thought of but did not send last Saturday: “La Blog (“Tweets are my reality”-Soundtrack) #bloggerfilms”). But I had never realized that what is critically at stake in a conference can be played out on such a little playground as a twitter hashtag. Little might not be the right word there. I think I consider it little because it reminds me of subversive strategies of the late 18th-early 19th century, during which clever people managed to exploit extremely little exposed positions to transmit their message. We are talking here about a footnote, a post-scriptum, a verse with a double meaning. The space for intellectual rebellion is not “little”, in fact, it seems so from the outside and expands in the inside in a parallel universe. The whole difficulty is to transform clever rebellion in institutionalized wisdom. As we all know, we will only have achieved that when we all have tenure.

What have I done to come closer to a fixed position over the past ten days, seriously? I have written a paper for a conference, I have been told that one conference I thought I had a paper in actually never had heard of my proposal, so I get granted the three weeks I had planned to prepare said paper (more time for the book), I summoned the whole team to clean the mess in the index of works and somehow they managed to do it with me understanding about 10% of the debate (did I mention that I love my team?)(even more time for the book), I applied for a fellowship at the German Historical Institute in order to have – time and peace to write the book. And logically I begin to feel bad not to have done one thing for my book during the last ten days. Tomorrow, I write the chapter on how to write a history paper in French. The day after that, I promise, I get back to my book!

And with that, I prove that I am not able to include even one soccer metaphor in a blog post – what a pity!