Un point hors de discussion

It’s not often that my good friend Jean-Daniel gets indignant enough to post on Facebook a notice of something he’s read rather than an announcement of his current whereabouts, so I feel particularly indebted to him for having alerted me to the existence of a review article appearing in the Bulletin of the centre d’etudes medievales d’Auxerre, written by one Alain Guerreau, a distinguished medieval historian I learn from his extensive Wikipedia entry. This entry makes no reference at all to his experience or expertise in the area which forms the topic of the article but I am not sure that I would in any case trust anything produced by someone feeling the need to resort to UNDERLINED CAPITALS or sudden splatters of bold to make an argument, much less by someone quite so fond of such dogmatic phrases (“il n’y a qu’un choix possible … c’est un point hors de discussion … c’est la seule voie possible … c’est un must absolu”).

Nevertheless, the article does make some sound if hardly controversial recommendations about the need to use Unicode (here called “UTF-8”) and the usefulness of FOSS – Free and Open Source Software. It’s disappointing to come across a French speaker failing to point out that the French language actually boasts two words for “free” (gratuit and libre) corresponding with its two quite different senses – even more to find a francophone systematically choosing the wrong one, but you can’t have everything. I am also grateful for the pointers Guerreau provides to some software of which I would otherwise have been unaware, and for his endorsement of some others which I would certainly second (examples include txm, antconc, and cqp, all of which surely must be a part of any self-respecting text analyst’s armoury these days). It’s a pity that these recommendations come along with a tirade against the TEI, which Guerreau engagingly terms une gaspillage et perte de temps. For him, the efforts of generations of library and information scientists to define ways of classifying and structuring information have been a complete waste of time, if not worse (amongst his politer remarks about them is a reference to “le fantasme aussi ancient que recurrent d’une “mathesius universalis”). Not content with putting the boot into those poor misguided librarians, he then attributes the same fantastic objective to the “poignée d’informaticiens, essentiallement anglo-saxons, dépourvus autant de connaissances historiques que d’esprit critique” which he apparently believes gave rise to the Text Encoding Initiative.

It’s hard to know where to start correcting the fallacies in this part of his article, but for starters, the TEI was not designed by computer scientists, nor by people lacking in historical or critical awareness, but rather emerged from a productive conversation amongst several hundred scholarly users and creators of digitized resources worldwide, a conversation which has been going on for over three decades now and shows no sign of running out of steam. It seems ironic that Guerreau considers learning perl and regexp syntax neither too long nor too complex for the timorous, and yet a page later is busily asserting that no-one could possibly understand more than 25 of the tags proposed by the TEI – which is therefore at all costs to be avoided.

It’s even more ironic to read in section 4 “Ce qui manque” the claim that no-one has ever tried to define a reliable way of recording “de manière structurée toutes les variantes d’un texte”. Really? I think a cursory look at the literature will show that textual editing and textual variation has been an area in which the use of the TEI has established itself over the years. That’s not to say that every textual editor uses it, much less that those who do use it in identical ways, but it is absurd to claim that there is no open source software available to support it or that the TEI has nothing to offer in this domain. To quote M Guerreau himself, “on ne peut que regretter que les historiens et philologues le sachent à peine, et ne les [i.e. les outils FOSS] utilisent qu’à doses homéopathiques”. In his second conclusion (“sur lequel on n’insistera jamais assez”) he rightly prioritizes the intellectual effort of understanding a source above mere technical skills, and rightly insists that “pour chaque corpus il faut bien comprendre et saisir les specifités”. Which is, of course, exactly why the TEI not only offers you more than 25 tags, but also expects you to decide for yourself how to use them.

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