Small-Gauge Scholarship: An Introduction

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

We began the first issue of Mediapolis with an editorial, staking out the vision that we had for the journal. Central to that vision was the idea that Mediapolis could help facilitate a more robust and responsive conversation about cities and culture, through the publication of what we called “small-gauge” scholarship:

We imagine Mediapolis as a site for what we think of as “small-gauge” scholarship, in recognition of the fact that ideas circulate faster today than they ever have, but our publishing models struggle to keep pace.

We used the phrase “small-gauge” in a manner that was both purposeful and open-ended. We suggested several examples of what we understood to be small-gauge scholarship – moderated roundtable discussions, interviews with policymakers and practitioners, and essays on the practice of teaching urban culture, to cite but a few. But the definition of the term was left intentionally vague, in large part because the editors didn’t precisely know what kind of boundaries we should draw. Yet to our surprise, out of everything we published in that first issue, we received the most feedback about that phrase, “small-gauge.”

That response serves as the impetus for this roundtable. Our goal with this discussion is to spend some time talking about what precisely we mean by “small-gauge scholarship”: what it looks like, what purpose it serves, and how it fits into the broader scholarly conversation. To that end, we’ve convened an eclectic panel with varying perspectives on the topic:

  • Kevin T. Allen is a filmmaker and sound-artist whose work straddles the territory between ethnographic and experimental practice. He has exhibited at numerous venues, including MoMA, Ethnographic Terminalia, Flaherty NYC, Margaret Mead Film Festival, Berlin Directors Lounge and Ann Arbor Film Festival. His sound work has been featured at museums and festivals, including the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Third Coast International Audio Festival and Deep Wireless Festival of Radio Art. He has made ethnographically imbued films in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, the Wild West, and the migrant farm worker community of Immokalee, Florida. Recent research has lead him to find culture not exclusively in human forms, but also inherent in physical landscapes and material objects. His work is funded through the Jerome Foundation. He is an assistant professor of filmmaking at The New School and teaches sound at Rutgers University.
  • Jen Heuson is a scholar and filmmaker whose work critically engages the mediated experience of culture and identity during travel. Her award-winning films have screened internationally at venues as diverse as FLEX Fest, Big Muddy, Black Maria and the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival. She has also produced sound ethnographies of the Peruvian Amazon, New York City, and South Dakota’s Black Hills. Jen recently completed her Ph.D. in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University. Her dissertation, “Sounding Western,” explores the role of sound in producing national sensory heritage in the Black Hills.
  • Carla Nappi is the Canada Research Chair in Early Modern Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of British Columbia. Her main research fields are the histories of science and medicine, early modern (Ming-Qing) China, and translation (broadly conceived). She is the author of The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and its Transformations in Early Modern China (Harvard University Press, 2009), and the host of the New Books in East Asian Studies and New Books in Science, Technology, and Society Studies podcasts.
  • Scott Rodgers is Senior Lecturer in Media Theory in the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Birkbeck, University of London. His research specializes in the relationships of media and cities and the geographies of communication, and also has broad interests in media production practices, digital and networked technologies, urban politics and ethnographic methodologies. He is the co-editor (with Tim Markham) of the forthcoming Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Perspectives on Media (Peter Lang), and serves as a member of the editorial board of Mediapolis.

In thinking about how to frame this roundtable, I was led back to our initial editorial and the “small-gauge” metaphor. I think what we meant was that the means we have available to us for the dissemination of new knowledge – the scholarly apparatus – are an imperfect fit for the kinds of conversations that people interested in the culture of cities would like to have. We consciously positioned Mediapolis at the intersection of a number of fields of inquiry that take cities and culture as their subjects; our hope is that the journal will prove a space for conversations at intersections, rather than in the familiar disciplinary silos that we each call home.

Scott, I know this is something you’ve thought a lot about. As academics start communicating with each other in different ways, how do we negotiate the tensions that necessarily arise: between the world that we know – of conference chatter and of quarterly-published journals, say – and the world we’re moving into, where things like academic Twitter and research blogs serve some of the same purposes? At the same time, there’s the additional tension between cost, speed, and quality that your colleague Martin Paul Eve has discussed: what sacrifices should we willing make in the name of a more fluid academic dialogue, and which are the principles to hold dear? Put more simply, how do you see the way we’re talking to one another changing the things we are saying to each other?

This is as much a question about form as it is about content. Mediapolis was conceived as a digital-only journal, and we strive to take advantage of the flexibility this affords us to publish work across different media formats and in different configurations (this roundtable being a prime example).

On this question, I would be particularly interested to hear the thoughts of Jen and Kevin. The mission of your Small Gauge media collective – “to tell small stories about the people, places, and things that inspire us” – is integrally connected to the way in which you tell those stories, through the use of small-gauge film formats (super 8mm and 16mm). I wonder if you could talk about why the size of the story matters – why “small stories” are those worth telling. And what is it about the format that lends itself to telling those kinds of stories?

Finally, Carla, I’m curious to hear your perspective on this. On your own site, you describe your work as that of an “explorer-stumbler,” which I’d be tempted to borrow as the mission statement for this journal if you hadn’t already beaten us to it. Your scholarly explorations have taken you in a number of directions that could perhaps be described as “small-gauge” – your work with the New Books Network and the “little histories” of The Elizabeths project, for example. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about what you’ve learned on those explorations, and in particular how the issues of intersectionality raised above resonate in your own experience.

Photo by Kimble Young / Desaturated from original

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