Research as play

Fortune is a unix application that pops up on boot with a quotation or joke. Apparently Wernher von Braun, the rocket scientist, said that “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The element of play is central to the creative act. To make anything new — even though it will of necessity be out of old stuff that happens to be lying around — something must arise unexpectedly. That is why the bureaucratisation of academia will mean intellectual life needs a new home. The absurd game of the funding application requires foreknowledge of results, their applications and relevance, and most bizarrely of all, the path taken to get there. Many higher education institutions require doctoral students to produce a “chronogram” for their entire project at the outset, and enforce compliance with it; that’s a step beyond the research proposal, which used to be recognised on all sides as a polite fiction, at most a point of departure.
Never mind that though. The wider point derives (at least its most recent seminal instance) from Schiller’s Aesthetische Erziehung, or as expressed more practically in the notion of negative capability. The fashionable term would be “flow”, but that leaves out the open horizon of the masterless imagination.
Need it be said that none of it is possible without hard work and a spongeful of knowledge? “C’t avec du vieux qu’on fait du neuf.” (Jacques Brel)


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