“Utopias of Research—Outline and Update”


In this Work-in-Progress talk Miller offers a status update on Utopias of Research following the course launch this past Fall. He will offer a brief overview of the exhibition’s argument and its proposed physical disposition. A central component of the presentation will be a discussion of some of its key questions: what is the difference between knowing and researching? what is the value of talking in terms of “utopias”? what, if any, are the specific forms of research associated with the specific places emphasized in the exhibition? The big question, of course, is how to materialize an idea.

Where did your interest in this subject come from?
I got interested in the subject of “research,” as I did in the history of studying material culture, from my long project on Peiresc and early modern antiquarianism. For my last book on him I wanted to present his work as it was, i.e. not put into narrative form. He left us his research, but how to present it now? This became my problem. At some point late in the project I got the idea of OCR’ing my digital copies of the seven printed volumes of his French-language correspondence, probably about 40-45% of his entire epistolary oeuvre. Just checking in a kind of blunt way on his terminology of choice. To my surprise he used research a lot (recherches, chercheur, chercher) and antiquarianism and its cognate terms very, very little. Curiosity (curiosité, curieux) he used most of all. To me it seemed that it was all right there.

How does this research question intersect with your other intellectual interests?
Well, I think I like the unfinished aspect of research. Studying someone else’s research means always being in process—theirs and yours. There’s a potentiality to research because it is open, with always the possibility of finding out something desired. That is exciting. For most scholars, it’s the fun part of scholarship. The bringing of a project to a conclusion always means stopping, but not just stopping. It means foreclosing on some possibilities. Leaving threads hanging. Time, life, everything, forces us to make choices. Are they the right ones? The wrong ones? We try to make the right ones. But research is a multi-generational, multi-player game and the future gets to decide who wins. (And, of course, keeps changing its mind).

Why is this question important to you?
So, I originally turned to this question as soon as I became Chair of Academic Programs at BGC in 2006. I thought of us as a graduate research institute, and thought of our peer institutions as not the graduate centers or academic departments, but the institutes—places that may have students (turns out, almost none do), but which run many projects. And so, as a historian, I wanted to know our world. To do research on research institutes. That led me, in turn, to research as a question. Where did it come from? Why does it exist? What did people before us think it was? And that’s when I realized no one had done this work. As I said in my answer to the first question, I was then working on the paired projects of Peiresc’s Mediterranean World and History and Its Objects. By contrast, it was my administrative work that kept me in touch with this question, and as the years went by and I thought in different ways about what we were doing here—and could do, here—the topic of research and its forms was an instrument for thinking the institutional question.

Related Readings

What is Research? (BGCX, 2020).