Blogging on a jet plane (don’t know when I’ll be back again)

While on my way to the ESTS conference that will take place in Paris from tomorrow until Sunday (thus depriving me from a well-deserved week-end, but I guess that with advent coming up, I will find occasions to make up for it), I can at long last take advantage of time I am not running after to do all the things that occupy a busy life. Blogging from the plane is always special. You are offline and hence off time (will have to add links and put online later), at some distance from the ground of things, moving from A to B without really moving yourself, not being able to do much more than sit and wait. In itself, it has something contemplative. Let’s go for a look down and a look back.
The bright side first! We are coming closer to the ideal of connected information I had envisioned at the beginning of the edition and had somewhat ceased to believe in at some point. I met with Marian Dörk and we began thinking together about visualizations based on the edition’s data. Some of his work looks like the kind of plausible playground for our data. But since it is possible to combine complex information this way, it is up to me, really, to come up with a convincing research question that goes beyond naming important authors or showing their reception throughout the century covered by our corpora. Although this might me a good starting point to confirm that our data is not biased (because the answer to those questions is well known and not likely to be convincingly overthrown by our edition), come to think about it. But all in all, the point is really to formulate requests that do not just repeat what is known, but invent the yet unknown. It became clear to me in the course of the discussion that such visualization would be likely, on the one hand, to show what the human eye cannot see (because it cannot embrace that much information at a time), but also, on the other hand, to display the missing pieces of the puzzle that might, for the same reasons, otherwise remain hidden in a dead angle.
This confirmed the plausibility of the two directions in which I want to develop the edition in the coming year (which I am slowly but surely beginning to see as the end of one development phase, thinking in parallel about what could be the next one and what kind of money I am going to have to apply for to realize it). The first one is to extend and define networks and the second one is to refine the presentation and exploitation of text layers. Both are likely to give way to interesting visualizations. And it would be exciting to connect both aspects (that are, at the time being, disjoint from one another and evaluate separately) in this way.
But this is thinking too fast, let’s get back one step. As much as our corpora might be reasonably representative of a wide range, if not most of the phenomena of textual genesis and publication strategies that can be described in the research context that interests us, I don’t think that this is true with regard to the networks our corpora allow to describe or to show. There is too little material for that. It takes more authors than we can present to connect the dots (persons, publications, places) representatively. The amount of editions dealing, in Germany only, with literature from the late 18th- early 19th century, suffices to demonstrate that none of these editions – and some of them are not small – can by itself cover the whole field. In other words, we need more data to make them say something relevant. We should be able to search through all these editions, search for people, search for publications, connect people and publications. This is what standards are really about – make relevant science possible.
In the first half of 2014, I am organizing two work sessions that aim at making things progress at least in the one domain that I know well: intellectual correspondences, German ones, of the first half of the 19th century. The first discussion round is conceived to define ways to implement technically connections between the several correspondence editions (in a way that all editions benefit from it at the end of the day). Program and invitations are being finalized and I am tremendously looking forward to that work session (in February). In May, it will be a workshop dealing with data modeling in correspondence editions and its conception as a research apparatus. There will be a poster session on the first day to present projects and on the second day papers addressing specifically the issue of connecting research question and data modeling. I have been working towards the finalization of this workshop for months and haven’t lost hope to wrap it up so as soon as our big conference is over (Briefe um 1800- zur Medialität von Generation). From this conference (for which excitement has been growing during the last weeks!), I hope to get ideas and inspiration that help me conceive an encoding of scholarly genealogies, a point that I deem of extreme importance when it comes to reflecting intellectual networks.
So much for the bright side. On the downside, I purchased a 3TB external hard drive to save our data. It is only for backup, I know,  but it makes me feel like I contradict my own values. The one thing I aspire to is a solid archive of my data! And all that Santa can bring me is a hard drive at the sight of which my brain immediately begins to spin and imagine all the many, many ways it could be destroyed. Right now, on my desk, for instance, it could burn, or get wet if there was some water infiltration from above, or be stolen, or melt because it is too close to the heating, or freeze if someone were to cut off the heating, or not support the temperature change or – the thought of my data on an external hard drive: that is enough to make me forget plane zen and dive mentally into hell.

Memory is made of names and places

For years, I have been wondering why so few people work on intellectual networks around 1800 like I do. And then I started noticing the shivering. Those intellectuals around 1800, German idealism and romanticism – the roots of evil. Some about them is known, and some is known enough to know you’d rather not know more about it. Very few people go back to the sources, go to the archive to find out more. The older professors working on the field with whom I talked about it answered to me: It is so much easier for you to work on that, because you are not German.

The contrast between the memory work on early 19th on the one hand and 20th century on the other hand is striking. The WW1 events are now present at all media level possible. From EU-funded research projects like the WW1 Encyclopedia or CENDARI to TV reports, it is as good as impossible not to learn more about WW1. The way the new media make it possible for novel research results to be more directly communicated to a wider public has its part in it, too.

The initiative of a group of students and PhD candidates to “live tweet” under @9Nov38 about the events of November 1938, accompanied by a blog, is a good example of that. Their success was quick and overwhelming. The traditional media took over. They gave interviews. Some of the things they said during the interviews were not formulated (or not rendered) the way they had hoped. It bothers them – now. But in five to ten years, this experience will have a completely different dimension. What ever their career paths will be, this moment of exceptional outreach will remain in their minds. And it should remain in ours.

So while it is acceptable that some things remain blurry in interviews, there is one thing for which it is not acceptable. You can’t publish papers quoting the wrong people. Getting the names wrong, getting the places wrong is contributing to erase their memory and their digital identity. And that is the beginning of the end.

A nail in the wall

I know only too well of all the corpora and features that we have still not fully realized (or even not yet begun to work on) for the edition, although they were initially conceived as primary goals. I can foresee, for instance, that we will probably not have enough project time to encode the correspondence of the Friday Society, an exchange of letters between five protagonists, sometimes one-to-one letters, sometime group-to-one or one-to-group. I have been wanting to edit this correspondence for ten years now. For seven years, I was blocked by the difficulty of choosing between presenting it in a chronological or in a person-defined order. Then came the digital edition and with it the unequaled opportunity not to choose, but to offer it all. A dream come true, really. Except that it is another dream that is coming true in the end.

For two years now, we have been more and more working on author-based corpora, which was precisely what I wanted to avoid. My idea was (and still is) that you don’t get to embrace the reality of relationships and networks through an approach based on personality cult. So as we began to focus on authors (Tieck, Boeckh, Chamisso, to name the bigger ones), I thought I had to accept the grieving over never being able to seize networks. I consoled myself thinking that I would not have been able to define said networks in a way that would have impacted my scholarly environment anyway. I said that we did not have enough entries to visualize anything. Crappy arguments, really.

I am not saying that defining relationships is an easy thing. But at the very least, it is something that does not as much resist formalization as I first dreaded. We implemented something of that sort. At first it was something fairly intuitionally conceived and consisted only in capturing  family relationships – what we later brought a theoretical step further with the concept of genealogy (meaning by that not only the family, but also the intellectual generations). We encode, so far as they are known and both persons appear in our edition, parent-child, spouse, lover, sibling relationships – the example of August Boeckh shows how long the list can be for one single person. This example also lists in which function Boeckh took an active part in major institutions. This other list is realized on the basis of  a tedious work on what we call the group index, for which we need precise entries, e.g. to know exactly, for instance, which professors were in a faculty or another in a given academic year, who directed the seminar for scholarly schools in which year, etc. In order to retrace intellectual genealogies, we want to add student-teacher relationships on the same model as we have parent-children relationships. When this will be done, August Boeckh will appear as “student of Friedrich August Wolf” and all of the students from the philological seminar listed in our database – there are a few of them – will be listed after a phrase like “Teacher of:  Immanuel Hermann Fichte, etc.”. In the end, all the things that it takes me pages to explain in my papers – that I.H. Fichte was the son of J.G. Fichte, attended his father’s classes, but was also greatly influenced by Boeckh – would be contained in two lines of a simple biographical entry.

But understanding this information supposes a great deal of background knowledge. It all comes down to being able to “read” the entries, e.g. to know what, in this very short information, matters – and what matters less. And so, after admitting that, to be honest, we have by far reached the critical mass of information needed to approach the corpus not just qualitatively, but also quantitatively, I also have to admit that defining a visualization strategy for this relationship information might, after all, actually help structuring, hierarchising, filtering it – being able to do something with it. Of course, a simple query already allows me to state that everyone seemed to have read Rousseau’s Nouvelle Hélöise between 1761 and 1860. But confirming well known hypotheses is one thing. Finding new ones is another. After running after intellectual networks for ten years, it seems to be time to nail them down properly.



My grandfather died on October, 20th at the age of 77.

Beneath many other things, he has been an intellectual mentor to me for years.

On the day that I defended my dissertation, he told me that I would defend my habilitation exactly ten years from that day, get a professorship and be free to do great things.

I did not manage that, but I’d rather think that he died at peace with my life choices and proud of the things that I actually achieved.


I will resume blogging in a few days.