Thursday, April 22, 2010

Ongoing Activities

In 1938, Martin Heidegger held a lecture in Freiburg about metaphysics and modernity. It was later published as "The Age of the World Picture" and can be found in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (Harper, 1977). It is one of his best pieces of writing (I'm not the only one who thinks so), and one passage in particular sticks in my mind:

...the decisive development of the modern character of science as ongoing activity also forms men of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is succeeded by the research man who is engaged in research projects. These, rather than the cultivating of erudition, lend to his work its atmosphere of incisiveness. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Moreover, he is constantly on the move. He negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses. He contracts for commissions with publishers. The latter now determine with him which books must be written. (125)

Management science is largely done by researchers of this "new stamp". Certainly, many of the authors I work with are engaged in this sort of "ongoing activity" (Betrieb, hustle, business) and their writing is very much part of it. It is especially true that what they write, and how they write about it, is determined by meetings, conferences, and publishing contracts. The alternative is to form one's opinions in the privacy of one's study and then communicate them to one's closest scholarly peers. It is right to say that there is something more "incisive" about this new way of doing it.

I'm feeling it now as I plan my return to research. Part of the planning is to map up out some writing projects to complete over the next half-year, year, and three years. The map will normally take me through one or two conferences before the paper is submitted for publication in a journal. (I am supposed to be in Leicester at the Practical Criticism conference right now, but the cloud of ash over Europe kept me on the ground.) The map will also include some book projects, and the standard advice here is to make sure that I have a book contract before I actually write the thing. That is, a publisher should be brought in to help "determine what must be written".

The most ominous sentence in that passage is, of course, "The scholar disappears." One would think Heidegger is lamenting this development. But, earlier in the same paragraph, he talks about how the humanities are "still mired in mere erudition". Lots to think about here.

Update: this Kierkegaard quote offers a nice complement.

Of all the ridiculous things it seems to me the most ridiculous is to be a busy man of affairs, prompt to meals and to work… Who could not help laughing at these hustlers? What do they accomplish? Are they not like the housewife, when her house was on fire, who in her excitement saved the fire-extinguisher? What more do they save from the great fire of life?” (Either/Or)

Thanks, Shahar.


Leslie B. said...

Actually, I would say the alternative is not to have all publishing venues be so market-driven, or so much research driven by industry; having the universities actually funded, including in Humanities; having university presses functioning as they did before the squeeze. It's not just gentleman scholar vs R&D ... although of course H. wrote this long ago so in a way I am reacting anachronistically.

Thomas said...

Heidegger, it always seemed to me, was reacting presciently. Indeed, in his appendix to this paragraph, Heidegger develops the point about publishers. (See [3] here).)