Conference Report: “Geist im Buch” (Humboldt Universität Berlin, April 3-5, 2014)

Debates about the supposedly imminent death of the book have been raging at least since the early 1990s, first in the press and now with increasing frequency in academia. Very often, commentators present monolithic views of the current and future fate of the book, failing to distinguish between the function of printed texts within distinct and specific socio-cultural domains, such as education, entertainment, or art. A classic reference for scholars interested in the history and interrelation of science, knowledge production, and publishing is Ludwik Fleck’s Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache (1935; The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact), especially with regard to its typology of scientific styles within publication formats (“journal science,” “handbook science,” “textbook science”). Recently, Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s study Planned Obsolescence (2011) explored the consequences of the changing media ecology for scholarly writing and publishing, surveying the digital challenge to such ingrained practices as collaborative research, peer reviewing, and archiving. Building on such research, Caspar Hirschi (University of St. Gallen) and Carlos Spoerhase (Humboldt University Berlin) convened the three-day conference “Geist im Buch” in Berlin to investigate the historical forms and functions of the book in the humanities. The suggestive conference title already points to the intricacy of the issues at stake. With the phrase “the mind within the book”, Hirschi and Spoerhase reference the literal German meaning of Geisteswissenschaft (humanities) as “the science of the mind.” If the object of the humanities is the mind, they appear to infer, what is at stake if we locate that mind not only in ourselves, but also in the media we use to produce knowledge about the world?

The talks and discussions at the Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum spoke to the timeliness and importance of these issues, running the gamut from abstract epistemological considerations to concrete developments in European and transatlantic publishing economies. In the introductory lecture, Caspar Hirschi and Carlos Spoerhase provided a fitting framework for the conference and a poignant glance at the current state of affairs in academic publishing. Charting divergent national policies of state funding and open access, Hirschi and Spoerhase first outlined the “macro crisis” of the scholarly book, as it is caught up in a spiral of shrinking profit margins, library budgets, and popular audiences. As a direct counterpoint, however, they also diagnosed a “micro boom” of humanities publication that shines up in the fast-growing number of titles and the ease of access to the tools of publishing and marketing. With recourse to the seminal work De la justification (On Justification) by Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenaux (1991), Spoerhase finally provided a concrete case study of how the relatively rare appearance of an academic bestseller is tied to the interrelation between a book’s intellectual content, its outward appearance, and the prestige of its publisher.

With the cultural value of printed forms at stake, several participants traced perceptive and original argumentative paths. Michael Hagner, author of two recent essay volumes on books in the present, contended that criticism of the book form has throughout Western history often functioned as a form of veiled cultural criticism. With references spanning from Nietzsche and Lessing to Marshall McLuhan, Hagner rounded off his talk by calling for a reorientation toward the quality of academic writing. This animated appeal set the tone for the discussions during the three days of the conference. Building on the detailed historical case studies presented in the individual panels, the extended Q&As kept returning to possible interpretations and applications of the findings within the academic media environment of the present. Thankfully, the organizers provided frame and direction to these wide-ranging discussions by pairing all presenters with respondents, among them specialists in literary and media history such as Christian Demand, Steffen Martus, Andrea Albrecht and Georg Stanitzek. There was also a noticeable buildup in the intensity of the debates, culminating in the concluding discussions on the last day, which saw panelists and audience members exchange incisive, even passionate indictments concerning the (lack of) rhetorical style in present-day academic communication.

The first day concluded with presentations by David Oels and John Thompson. Oels discussed some key findings from his work on German popular science formats during the early 20th century. Thompson, himself the author of bestselling academic books, gave an engaging evening address, whose topic unfortunately strayed from the focus of the conference. Still, he skillfully distilled a number of theses from his years of field research in the inner circles of Anglo-American literary trade publishing, thus propelling the conference on the level of methodology. The second and third days then featured thematic sections dedicated to individual publication formats and their respective historical evolution and differentiation. These sections spanned across illustrated books in the humanities (Andreas Hauser, Anke te Heesen), encyclopedias and textbooks (Hans Harald Müller, Myriam Richter, Ute Schneider), early modern learned books (Emma Spary, Ian Maclean), and paperbacks (Morten Paul, Philipp Felsch). Throughout, the main premise of book historical scholarship—that the materiality and mediality of texts has important communicative functions—informed the diverse analytical perspectives and critical arguments. But even while the inevitable chasm between materialist (print determines communication) and constructivist interpretations (communication transcends tools and media) was on display, the rigorous historical perspective of all papers provided a sense of unity. A central insight remains after this excellent event: whereas the structures, codes, and practices of the modern humanities have originated and co-evolved with the book, the history of the humanist book itself still contains much uncharted territory.

On a final note, the conference exemplified the changing protocols of academic exchange in the humanities, in which printed essays and monographs have become nodes—central ones, of course—in an extensive network of scholarly communication. The organizers (including our blog administrator Simone Zweifel) set up a helpful website featuring a detailed research report on academic publishing as well as extended abstracts by all participants. Selected contributions will appear next year in the fifth volume of Kodex: Jahrbuch der Internationalen Buchwissenschaftlichen Gesellschaft.

– Alexander Starre

One comment

  1. […] a range of issues similar to last month’s conference on the book in the humanities at HU Berlin, the Department of Culture at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at FU Berlin […]

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