A Tale of DiXiT

DiXiT Recalled.

It was the best of times (although occasionally it got worse), it was the age of wisdom (although I sure felt foolish sometimes), it was the epoch of belief (even if at times it felt all too incredulous), it was the season of Light (although the three years had some spots of Darkness), it was the spring of hope (blended with despair), we had everything before us.

And now it’s over. But with so much that has happened, we still have everything before us.

In an attempt to describe the past three years I had to borrow Dickens’ words, though in this case superlative degrees of comparison still not suffice. I may be prone to melancholia, yet I’m pretty sure that no matter who you ask about the epoch of DiXiT, they’ll get all glossy-eyed and nostalgic.

The Golden Thread.

What is it, then, that makes DiXiT so great? Every DiXiTeer has experienced the network differently, of course. And considering the amount of research, workshops, conferences and what not compressed into 36 months, our stress-levels have definitely seen some Alp-sized peaks. We share an intense and all-encompassing period of our lives, yet our bond can hardly be explained by the Stockholm syndrome.

When reading back on my private notes from the first time we met, it was hardly surprising to see how I moved back and forth from sheer excitement to pure fear. Finally, here were the people who were interested in exactly the same stuff: the combination of old manuscripts and brand-new technology. People who were thrilled to sniff Darwin’s notebooks in Cambridge’s University Library (granted, I think that actually applies to a large part of the population) but who just as happily sat down in a computer room to learn about TEI and modelling, and to discuss complex theories about “text”. Names that I knew only from journal articles and academic monographs suddenly turned out to be part of a human person, a *nice* person even, someone to have a beer and a laugh with! The collective brainpower of the network was intimidating. DiXiT was everything I dreamed of. So naturally, I was very happy and scared shitless.

This cocktail of emotions became my beverage of choice in the three years that followed. We were in an all-you-can-eat restaurant with eyes bigger than our stomach and tried to balance our overloaded plates with clumsy grace. If it weren’t for the (occasional stern) guidance of the supervisors and the strong safety net provided by the fellows this intellectual grande bouffe wouldn’t have ended so well.

Supervisor Dirk Van Hulle was charged with the heavy task of keeping me from overeating. I can imagine this must have been difficult at times, because I was stationed at the Centre for Manuscript Genetics (University of Antwerp), a research hub that focused on one of my main interests: studying the genesis of text and digitally representing the findings of this research. During the first months I wanted to study every aspect of this scholarly discipline, and I was sure I could totally manage that in less than three years.

With the help of Dirk I was able to narrow down the scope of my research significantly. I looked at the affordances of the digital medium (simply put: “what can the computer do that the printed book cannot?”) and then I examined how these features can help us study the different stages in a text’s development. In a later post I’ll expand more upon the findings of my research, because this kind of research deserves a larger platform than a few lines in a nostalgic blogpost. In fact, textual genetic research deserves a few book cases filled with volumes devoted to the topic – and I’m only too happy to have been able to contribute a volume to that collection.

For over three years, the golden thread through my life was the genesis of a work of art. Like a love-sick person seeing their object of affection everywhere, I saw “genesis” where-ever I went. And DiXiT sure brought us far, both metaphorically and geographically speaking. From Sweden, Germany and England to Finland, France and Greece; at every conference or workshop related to digitisation, scholarly editing, and/or literary heritage a DiXiT fellow could be found. The Marie Skłodowska Curie-funding provided us with the means to attend and even organise such “meetings-of-the-minds”, thus ever-expanding the boundaries of our own eager minds. Slowly but surely the ingredients of my “excitement/fear”-cocktail balanced out in favour of “excitement”. This manifested itself at every DiXiT event, when fellows and supervisors, flown in from all over Europe, would be reunited to spend a couple of blissful days doing little else than discuss research, learn from each other, and collectively raise glasses to more research and more learning.

Looking back I see nothing but highlights, like little purple nodes in a tightly-bound network, but particularly memorable were the workshop on automated collation I organised together with Elena Spadini and Ronald Haentjens Dekker in Amsterdam, and the joint ESTS/DiXiT conference we organised with the CMG at the University of Antwerp. Both events are characterised by little sleep, eager participants, and heaps of knowledge being exchanged. That description definitely also applies to my secondment, in which I worked on automated collation software under close supervision of Ronald. In a little more than nine months I learned not only the basics of programming, but – more importantly – to apply a computational way of thinking to textual research. The combination of manuscript research and – to me – unfamiliar technologies turned out to be so successful that not long after, the Huygens offered me a position at their brand-new Research and Development department. Needless to say, I accepted.

British musician and producer Brian Eno once said, “The interesting place is not chaos, and it’s not total coherence. It’s somewhere on the cusp of those two.” If there’s one thing DiXiT taught me, it is that Eno’s right. And, I can add, this interesting place is also not inside your comfort zone. But with a solid network called DiXiT to back you up, who needs a comfort zone anyway?

Having a beer with Aodhán yesterday, in some hipster warehouse brewery in the north of Amsterdam, we reminiscent a while about “old times”. The image of Tuomo‘s face hovered above us, serenely smiling and saying “We did good”. No one said it better.


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