Avril & mai 2023
These four seminars will expore different dimensions in current work on studying the past through things. One seminar will be devoted to early modern antiquarianism as a foyer for re-siting knowledge. Using the example of Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) and his extensive Mediterranean correspondence network, we will show how it enabled him to ask questions that did not come out of books, along lines of inquiry that did not then go into books. Objects as fundamentally autonomous and resistant can lead to possibilties and not just dead ends. A second seminar will explore the afterlife (Nachleben) of this practice through a tracing of the history of the subsequent study of objects up through Nietzsche and Dilthey in their early work (1870s). The third seminar will be devoted to Martin Heidegger’s extended thinking about the conceptual foundations of historical practice in the 1920s, focused around his still unpublished seminar on Droysen’s Historik (May-July 1926). The fourth and final seminar will focus on the conclusions Miller has drawn from « Cultures of Conservation », the 10-year long project Miller directed at the Bard Graduate Center, to ask whether and how « conservation » can function and be understood as a form of historical inquiry.
These seminars will trace the arc of my recent and current work on the history of historical research, largely focused on material evidence. It will begin in the seventeenth century and end in the present; it will start with the figure of the antiquarian and end with that of the conservator. In between, it will move from history through philosophy and literature and back to history.
Seminar One will show how early modern antiquarianism worked as a foyer for re-siting knowledge. Using the example of Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) and his extensive Mediterranean correspondence network, we will look at how he worked to ask questions that did not come out of books, along lines of inquiry that did not then go into books. Objects as fundamentally autonomous and resistant led to new ways of making knowledge and organizing knowledge communities. Peiresc’s Mediterranean World (2015) will be at the center of this presentation. The role of merchants in Peiresc’s intellectual life will provide the main theme, suggesting new ways of thinking about the stability of fundamental categories such as « active » and « contemplative » life as well as of the history of cultural transfer in the early modern period and the history of southern France.
Seminar Two will explore the afterlife of antiquarianism through a tracing of the history of the subsequent study of objects up through the end of the ninteenth century (think : Warburg). The focus here will be on the development in Germany of cultural history and archaeology as arguments about how to study the past through things in the period 1770-1870. Successive « stages » in this development will move from philology faculties, to regional historical associations, to local collecting institutions, to museums. This trajectory could be viewed as twinned with the development of modern academic history, which took a dim view of these extra-university based approaches to research. This story, which is laid out in History and Its Objects (2017), ends with the critique of academic history by Nietzsche (1874) and Dilthey (1883), both of whom argue, though in different terms, that technical proficiency bought at the expense of personal engagement would end up yielding sterile scholarship. For Nietzsche, in particular, the figure of the antiquary stood as an alternative to the historian.
Seminar Three will be devoted to Martin Heidegger’s extended thinking about the conceptual foundations of historical practice in the 1920s, focused around his still unpublished seminar on Droysen’s Historik (May-July 1926). It has long been noted that Nietzsche and Dilthey were crucial figures for Heidegger, but as history has not been seen as an important arena for Heidegger’s thought their role in pushing him to re-think historical practice has also not been noticed. And yet, I would argue, Heidegger in the 1920s is clearly responding directly to their questions of a generation earlier. In the Summer Semester 1926, after having begun Being and Time the previous month, Heidegger devoted his seminar to a reading and interpretation of Johann Gustav Droysen’s Historik. Never before published, or translated, or even commented upon, Heidegger’s reading of Droysen will be the subject of this seminar, which will present it as a capstone for Heidegger’s early thinking about history.
Seminar Four focuses on the possibility of “Conservation as a Human Science.” Miller is writing a book on this same theme and in this seminar will present its argument. For a decade, Miller directed « Cultures of Conservation » at the Bard Graduate Center, funded by the Mellon Foundation. The argument of the book faces in two directions: to the human sciences of the object (history, art history, archaeology, anthropology) it issues the challenge to take seriously the potential contributions from conservators and conservation scientists to the questions they are asking about matter and material culture. And to the conservators it asks to step beyond the narrow horizons of the individual object and ask about its broader life course; not just its moment of creation, but the various stations along its way to the present. If Seminar Three suggests that practicing historians may have something to learn from Heidegger about how to think conceptually about their own practice, Seminar Four wants to introduce practicing conservators to Heidegger’s thinking about care, but also the thinking of Schelling about active matter, Brandi about history and Barthes about writing. The aim here is consistent with the view that conservators are, in reality, historians of the object and that their training and self-consciousness needs to incorporate this understanding. For a future study of the object that is capable of releasing the maximum of evidentiary value, historians and conservators will need to work together, sharing a deep understanding of how objects work, even as they pursue their parallel inquiries in different languages.