How do we get rid of History?

Niklas Luhmann, „Weltzeit und Systemgeschichte, Über Beziehungen zwischen Zeithorizonten und Strukturen gesellschaftlicher Systeme“, in: Soziologische Aufklärung 2. Aufsätze zur Theorie der Gesellschaft, Opladen 1975

Review and Update for the Digital Humanities

In a global world of information the presence expands at the expense of the past, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht write in his book Unsere breite Gegenwart. And what about the future? What is the impact of technological change and the constant availability of information on shaping of the future? The question of present future horizons is particularly important for the Humanities. The authors of a book from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) predict the breakup of the Humanities in a rapidly growing area approaching the quantitative social sciences and a rapidly diminishing area that defends the traditional heuristic and interpretive appeal vehemently. The time in form of change presses against the historiography once again – and this time not too soft! Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Digital_Humanities: THE Book!

Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp, Digital_Humanites, Cambridge 2012

A short cut and some remarks

“Two decades ago, working with digital documents was the exception. Today it is the norm” – Anne Burdick and her co-authors write; and: “If the humanities are to thrive and not just exist in niches of privilege, they will have to visibly demonstrate the contributions to knowledge and society they are making in the digital era”. This extremely interesting book from the MIT studies emerging methods and genres, cases as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), new textual corpuses and virtual reconstructions, deals with “the social life of the Digital Humanities”, confronts us with some “provocations” and ends with a short practical guide to the emerging Digital Humanities. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Trust in Numbers

Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers, The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton 1995

Review for the Digital Humanities

Preliminary remark: Numbers are an important element in the Digital Humanities. The Frankfurter Allgemeine even writes, in connection with the Digital Humanities Conference 2012 in Hamburg, Germany, of the empirical turn in the humanities. High time, then, to read the book of Theodore M. Porter on numbers as well as the book of Alain Desrosières on statistics (please see my separate post) again. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Statistics: The Politics of large Numbers

Alain Desrosières, La Politique des Grands Nombres, Histoire de la raison statistique, Paris 1993, 2000

Review with respect to the Digital Humanities

Numbers and statistics are an extremely important element in the Digital Humanities. The Frankfurter Allgemeine writes, after the Digital Humanities Conference 2012 in Hamburg, Germany, of the empirical turn in the humanities. High time, then, to read the classic book of Alain Desrosières again (this is also true for Theodore M. Porter’s Trust in Numbers, of course). It is about the social world as a construct, about calculating probabilities, mean values, the law of large numbers, nominalism and taxonomy, the history of the statistics in different countries (France, United Kingdom, Germany, United States), (sample) surveys, econometrics and about the prediction of a victory of the Republicans that was wrong because the survey has been made by telephone. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Twitter in the Humanities

Microblogging more and more is an issue in the Humanities, too. ResearchGate, for instance, allows the exchange of short information in research and scienceBut better known is Twitter. Mareike König from the DHI in Paris has published an interesting and detailed guide to the use of Twitter in History (in German). Here an English short cut. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Digital Humanities: Short Outline of a Theory of Practice

Pierre Bourdieu, Entwurf einer Theorie der Praxis. Auf der ethnologischen Grundlage der kabylischen Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main 1976 (French original 1972)

Review with respect to Digital Humanities

Preliminary remarks: I have tried to outline framework and parameters for the Digital Humanities in previous posts: the delegitimization of great storiesdecentration in the epistemes, the question of the place (lieux) and of the time (presence), the relevance of the media (book, documents, as well as other archival sources), of algorithms and (Big) Data and, finally, the notion of authorship and the conditions of production (Charles Leadbeater). I have also presented some examples for Digital History (Wolfgang Schmale, Kiran Klaus Patel, Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, Google applications) and, finally, a comment from a specialist of a leading platform of the Digital Humanities to these questions.

It is time, to think about the theory of practice in the Digital Humanities. And who would be better suited as an inspiration to do this than Pierre Bourdieu. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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La place dans les Humanités Digitales – Commentaire

Le billet “The place in the Digital Humanities” du 8 Juin 2012 (revue du livre Non-lieux de Marc Augé) me semble intéressant et je vous donnerai mon opinion, non pas exclusivement depuis la perspective des communautés des humanités numériques et de leurs lieux de vie et de travail mais depuis mon expérience générale des communautés numériques et physiques. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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The place in the Digital Humanities

Marc Augé, Non-Lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité, Paris 1992

Review with respect to the Digital Humanities

We have become strangers in our own world – due to its accelerated change. This calls for the anthropological perspective, for the thinking about the category of the other. It is perfectly exemplified by Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire. What we are looking for in the historical testimonies, in the traces of what once was, is our being different, the appearance of an identity. History is no longer genesis, but the deciphering of what we are, in the mirror of what we have been. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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The Big Now

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Unsere breite Gegenwart, edition suhrkamp, 2010

Review with respect to digital humanities (presumably unexpected for H. U. Gumbrecht; see below)

What does it mean for the writing of history, if documents with a simple click pop up on the screen, thus basically are always present? Wolfgang Schmale and Kiran Klaus Patel have asked this. Another, who deals with this question is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. He writes of himself to be a stubborn man, to have pointed out since 40 years now, that things have a “dimension of presence” in the world. “Presence”, that means physical proximity and substance. Gumbrecht developed this idea in his beautiful book “In 1926”, an attempt to convey the feeling of being in the year 1926 by a network of short, interconnected texts referring to everyday phenomena.

Gumbrecht pursues his idea in the tradition of cultural criticism that regrets the “loss of materiality” in the modern transcendental consciousness. Since 50 years a new “configuration of time” is replacing the “historical thinking” established in the 19thcentury, he says, and describes this (outdated) chronotope in the following perspectives: a) In the “historical time” a person moves on a linear timeline, in which time is the “absolute agent of change”; b) On his way through the time horizons, man constantly leaves past behind him. Thus, the future appears as an open horizon of possibilities; c) Between past and future the present is a moment of transition. This short passage was the “epistemological habitat” of modern man: He acted as he chose from the possibilities of the future based on his experience. By the way: Gumbrecht took this concept of time from Reinhart Kosellek (see below).

So, according to Gumbrecht, this chronotope is passé: The future would no longer be an open horizon of possibilities, the past not pass away (anymore) and the presence with its synchronicities grow ever wider: We live in the Big Now (Frédérique Kaplan). Globalization is one of the basic conditions for this development. In it, the exchange of information is disconnected from real physical sites. Thus, the body as a part of the human self-reference would be “eliminated” [sic!].

Remark / Interjection: In return, movements would arise, which attempt to regain the physical dimension. These include the triumph of sport, the trend towards regionalization (in Europe) and the ecology. I do not deal with these counter-mouvements, here.

Google plans to make accessible “any existing document on the planet”, Gumbrecht says. Collecting and preserving records in a library or an archive will be obsolete in the digital age. They will permanently be available on any computer. Historians will have to make a selection from the abundance of materials – such as a curator, a cultural producer who knows how knowledge and objects must be “staged” to get attention from the public.

* * *

Time-forms determine the conditions under which we make our experiences – to this, see my post on Niklas Luhmann and his system analytic concept of time. By 1800, in what is known as Sattelzeit by Reinhart Kosellek , the chronotope “historical time” has been formed. It has been problematized by Jean-François Lyotard in „La condition postmoderne“. Today, so it seems, according to Gumbrecht,  we have left this chronotope behind us. A new concept of time as a basic condition for the formation of experience seems to come up. Gumbrecht does not go much further into that. He only tells us, that we are  flooded with memoirs and things from the past. In the same time we are moving in more and more everyday worlds and networks. And: We are surrounded by a repertoire of symbols and structures that are derived from the communication technology.

This “hyper-communication” erodes the form in which we have given our everyday life a form. The structure and tension that lived by the existential contradiction between the presence and the absence is dissolved. Gumbrecht denies, with Michael Giesecke but against Charles Leadbeater, that electronic debates create new good ideas. The reason: Only the physical presence allows real argumentative resistance that could turn into mutual inspiration. Gumbrecht therefore rejects blogs quite vehemently (in June 2012 he talked about blogging in an interview with Mareike König).

* * *

Is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s critique of the disappearance of the future simply melancholy? No, not all. The diagnosis of the “widening of the presence” seems plausible: Presence is no longer the knife that cuts off a piece of the future and assigns it to the past. Gumbrecht’s lucid essay refers to issues that arise particularly to historical science. The constant availability of information, the annihilation of time and space, change the “historical thinking” and with it the craft of the historians.

Bluntly, in line with Gumbrecht, the anamnesis of writing history is as follows: Information is no longer conveyed through intermediaries, but communicated directly from the producer to the consumers. Journalists quickly contextualize the information for the politically interested audience, curators later stage it for the culturally interested public. For historical work in the old way is not much space left.

But there are counter-examples: One of them comes from Gumbrecht himself and is the already-mentioned text-experiment “In 1926”. Another comes from Andreas Wirsching, Director of the Munich Institute for Contemporary History, who already submits a “standard work on the history of Europe since 1989” [sic!]. Wirsching “doesn’t fear actuality”, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung judges her review and so he won a lot: “A masterpiece of European historiography”, namely. And how did he manage this? Wirsching didn’t wait archival delays to elapse but drew from “seemingly limitless amounts of press archives, public official documents and current scientific analysis”.

So there is hope for the writing of history. But historians will have to adapt their old business model. Insofar the Digital Humanities could be part of the solution of the problem that we have created ourselves.

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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The Book in the Digital Information Age

Michael Giesecke, Von den Mythen der Buchkultur zu den Visionen der Informationsgesellschaft, Frankfurt a.M., 2002

Review for the Digital Humanities

What happens to the book in the digital information era? If there is one to know, it is Michael Giesecke, Professor for Comparative Literary studies at the Erfurt University. The media theorist published a reference work on book printing in the Renaissance. Thereto he links his new book. He diagnoses the collapse of the “book culture” in the post-industrial society and postulates a remedy – a new orientation or direction – with the help of information-theoretical approaches. Both in this “Second Renaissance” is of interest for the Digital Humanities, of course. I will concentrate therefore on two of Giesecke’s many theses: on information as a production factor and on the new forms of collective collaboration in the information society. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Jean-François Lyotard, Delegitimization and Digital Humanities

Jean-François Lyotard, „Die Delegitimierung“, in : Geschichte schreiben in der Postmoderne, Stuttgart 1994

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

In the post-industrial society, in postmodern culture, knowledge becomes legitimized in a new way. Great, speculative and emancipating narratives have lost their credibility. These stories of the 19th century carry in themselves the seed of this loss in the 20thcentury. To give an example: the speculative story, as we know it from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, is in itself sceptical about the possibility of positive findings. Positive science is not knowledge, its legitimacy is denied because the discourse, which should legitimize it, is based on pre-scientific notions. The crisis of scientific knowledge results from the erosion of legitimacy. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Foucault revisited for the Digital Humanities

Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir, Gallimard, 1969

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

Also historians have succumbed to the temptations of structuralism. For quite some time now, they have not been working with events anymore, but with developments, including those of longue durée, as Ferdinand Braudel has called them. Michel Foucault speaks of deposits, layers, which are being investigated: For example the history of the cereal or the gold mines, of starvation or growth. In such a history we are no more talking about chains of events, but about series types and periodization. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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Jacques Derrida and the Digital Humanities

Jacques Derrida, Die Struktur, das Zeichen und das Spiel im Diskurs der Wissenschaften vom Menschen, in: Die Schrift und die Differenz, Frankfurt a.M. 1976

Review with respect to digital humanities (avant la lettre)

The structure has a history, of course. The term is as old as the episteme, created simultaneously with science. Up to now, structure always had a center, an origin, Derrida says. This center identified being as a presence and had many names: transcendence, consciousness, god, man and, one might add: author. But now, there is a rupture in the history of the term structure; namely the recognition that this center, in fact, does not exist. So everything is becoming discourse, as it seems, reading Derrida. This fracture takes place in modern times and with authors, that question metaphysics, as Nietzsche did, for instance; that replace concepts of being with concepts of play; that criticize the concept of consciousness, as Freud did; or that deconstruct onto-theology, as Heidegger did. Continue reading

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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