One of the difficulties of doing a Ph.D. in an American university, even in an elite institution, is the disconnect between the advisor relation and instruction on methodology. Despite the fact that I have excellent advisors, they hardly have the time to delve with me into methodology as it relates to historical tasks, i.e. the political tasks of research and theory. I have had to seek instruction on these matters in other places: in books. The academy, it seems to me, is increasingly becoming a place where scholarly “performances” which disconnect methodology from a theoretical and political intent or grounding, are increasingly in vogue.
I am currently reading the late Manfredo Tafuri’s The Sphere and the Labyrinth, a complex and evocative work by a great historian of architecture. The introduction is a masterful and polemical meditation on the nature of historical research. It seems to me at the very least symptomatic that this is the sort of writing I rarely came across during my courses for the doctorate: courses that were taken in literature and art history departments. Now that I have begun the dissertation, passages such as the following by Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi, quoted at the beginning of Tafuri’s introduction, are providing much grist for the mill:
There comes a moment (though not always) in research when all the pieces begin to fall into place, as in a jig-saw puzzle. But unlike the jig-saw puzzle, where all the pieces are near at hand and only one figure can be assembled (and thus the correctness of each move be determined immediately), in research only some of the pieces are available, and theoretically more than one figure can be made from them. In fact, there is always the risk of using, more or less consciously, the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle as blocks in a construction game. For this reason, the fact that everything falls into place is an ambiguous sign: either one is completely right or completely wrong. When wrong, we mistake for objective verification the selection and solicitation (more or less deliberate) of the evidence, which is forced to confirm the presuppositions (more or less explicit) of the research itself. The dog thinks it is biting the bone and is instead biting its own tail.
Carlo Ginzburg and Adriano Prosperi, Giochi di pazienza: Un seminario sul “Beneficio di Cristo”, in Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth, MIT Press, 1980.