Friday, March 16, 2012

Des Blossen Betriebs

Research does not, through its methodology, become dispersed into random investigations, so as to lose itself in them; for modern science is determined by a third fundamental event: ongoing activity." (Martin Heidegger, p. 123-4)

In Heidegger's "The Age of the World Picture" there's a wonderfully prescient passage about the "institutional character" of modern science, which is rooted in the "ongoing activity" of science. This phrase translates the German word "Betrieb", which, William Lovitt tells us, can mean "the act of driving on [Trieb means drive], or industry, activity, as well as undertaking, pursuit, business. It can also mean management, or workshop or factory." In short, it captures the need to organize science in the manner of any other productive social activity and therefore to govern it through institutions.

Heidegger emphasizes that this activity implicates everything from the "the complex machinery that is necessary to physics in order to carry out the smashing of the atom" (p. 124) to the way the researcher "negotiates at meetings and collects information at congresses [and] contracts with commissions with publishers" (p. 125). Much of what we today call Science and Technology Studies explores precisely this action-oriented image of science. (Think of Bruno Latour's Science in Action or Andrew Pickering's Science as Practice and Culture.) Heidegger points out that, unlike the "cultivation of erudition", all this activity "lend[s] to [the researcher's] work its atmosphere of incisiveness" (125). I think many researchers would recognize this, too, namely, that they feel active, vigorous, busy. It's often exciting work.

But Heidegger cautions us about the degeneration of this activity into "mere busyness".

Ongoing activity becomes mere busyness [des blossen Betriebs] whenever, in the pursuing of its methodology, it no longer keeps itself open on the basis of an ever-new accomplishing of its projection plan, but only leaves that plan behind itself as a given; never again confirms and verifies its own self-accumulating results and the calculation of them, but simply chases after such results and calculations. (p. 138)

We can add the just as familiar business of chasing after funding or publications. While these activities must be engaged in, they must not be pursued, as it were, "merely". "Mere busyness must at all times be combated precisely because research is, in its essence, ongoing activity." My approach to academic writing and managing the scholarly process is rooted in this "existential conception of science", i.e., the basic idea that writing is embedded in a form of life. A good writing plan is not just a way of keeping you busy (or a way of keeping you just busy). It's a way of keeping your research "open".

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