Â Laurence Thanks to Fergal and Aileen for suitable comments on my last post!
I wanted to mention something more cheerful, which is the value of taking an intellectual holiday and stepping sideways into another field of research, preferably one a good way away from "home".
I've been lucky enough to be able to do this for many years with the study of Buddhism, which (quite apart from its intrinsic merits) offers various kinds of sheer pleasure. One is the antiquarian and philological joy of the study of ancient texts in dead languages, and particularly how we can make sense of those texts, and work back to the processes of authorship and whatever historical experiences lie behind them. E.g. Gombrich's "How Buddhism Began", which applies critical methods to the Pali canon, Shaw's "Passionate Enlightenment", which explores the role of women in the early Tantric tradition, or Ray, "Buddhist Saints in India", which uncovers the role of forest wanderers as against settled monastics; more recently I got a huge kick out of Schopen's "Bones, stones and Buddhist monks", which makes excellent arguments against the textual focus of Buddhist studies and for greater use of archaeology. Another pleasure, at the opposite end of the intellectual spectrum (interpretive rather than empirical), is the study of Buddhism's arrival in the West: books like Tweed's on 19th century American Buddhists, Clarke's on European Orientalism, or Almond's on Buddhism in Victorian Britain - not to mention the massive literature on Buddhism in the 60s and 70s, and on the contemporary period - offer the sheer pleasure of stopping and standing completely outside something which is otherwise intensely familiar and reflecting on what we think we know.
More recently I've been relying on older worlds, partly through preparing for a new course, which had me digging around in libraries (bookshops are not good places to find things out) to see what was new in the study of the European Palaeolithic and the Irish Mesolithic, rediscovering with pleasure the work of Gabriel Cooney and coming across the work of Richard Bradley for the first time. Again an empirical challenge of the first order - Bradley's work in particular shows how much can be done with serious reflection, even starting with such limited material. It's also been a joy to look at reflexive literature in anthropology, particularly Barnard's collection on hunter-gatherer studies, with a series of articles about the (very different) development of the discipline in different countries.
Rarely if ever does any of this feed directly into my own research, but so much is gained - not just in simple enjoyment, but more so in the exploration of what kinds of different questions we can ask, and the different ways they can be answered, in different disciplines. I think for radicals in particular we have to keep on doing something like this, whatever the tools we use - defamiliarising ourselves from, and standing outside, what are usually the normal operations and "routine science" of our own fields - fields which have been constructed in very questionable ways, for purposes which were not our own and are usually not those of the people we work with. It isn't that these other disciplines are any better or worse - as with reflexive travel, it's enough at one level to find something different that makes it possible to come back with fresher eyes and different questions.