Small-Gauge Storytelling

In this entry to our small-gauge roundtable, Carla Nappi ponders the role of the scholar as an "explorer-stumbler," and the importance of storytelling as an act of worldmaking.
[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.]

I live in a world populated by birds who make love by singing to each other on the wind. By women who pulse their documents into smoothies and drink their archives as a way of crafting history. By doctors who fall into nightshade-stupors and write about wasps who chant magical incantations. By kidnapped translators. By drunken poets. By tiny phoenixes who live in candleflames. By eyeless photographers who see with their fingertips, and monks who hold mirrors in their fingers and use them to see far beneath the sea, and jaguars who haunt the mirrors of dreamers, and women who haunt men who dream of buried treasure. This is my community, a mental skyful of constellations that include historical figures, creatures born from my mind’s eye (and nose and ears and skin and tongue), and beings that appear just beyond the bits of my archive and at the fringes of my field of vision when I’m looking at my sources. All of them have become part of the stories that I tell, as a maker of histories and fictions and little worlds that fall somewhere in-between different ways of being true.

As a storyteller, I practice small-gauge scholarship as a way of taking responsibility for a kind of worldmaking that tries to (that tries to start to) (that tries to at least to make some small step toward starting to) make my producing-life into a world I can live and work in, and my worklife into the kind of space that I can make a home in. For the past few years, I’ve tried to do this by experimenting with media and forms of storytelling that fall outside of the conventional genres of academic-history work: podcasts, and very-very-short fiction, and web-based writing of all sorts, and soundscapes, and vocal objects. To evoke Brendan Kredell’s comments, this is my way of moving beyond “the scholarly apparatus” to make space for the kinds of conversations that happen at intersections and crossroads, and perhaps, even in a very small way, to start to change what we imagine “the scholarly apparatus” to be.

The media of scholarly life are technologies of self-making, and I’m interested in encouraging us to understand scholars as whole selves, and to practice our crafts in ways that embrace and value that whole-selfhood. My media practice is a form of small-gauge activism. Early in our careers, we (we academics, at any rate) tend to become the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves, and we tend to make those stories out of the stories that we tell ourselves about others. (I will be a Historian. And a Historian looks like X, and so I will look like X.) And this becomes a survival technique, as our careers are largely determined (at least in the early-middle years) by the character of the judgments of others, and by the extent to which more-powerful-others can make stories about us that resemble the kinds of stories they have learned to tell about success, and community, and consensus, and safety, and predictability. And at some point, perhaps we give ourselves permission to step outside of those stories. Perhaps we give ourselves permission to be, in the words of Kevin Allen’s piece, “circuitous, inefficient, and remarkable.” (I love that: circuitous, inefficient, and remarkable. This is a trio of virtues to strive for.)

For me, incorporating academically-unconventional media into my practice has offered a way to tell new stories. Some of those stories relate the ideas and accomplishments and creativities of others. As a podcaster, I have hosted more than 350 hour-long conversations with authors of recent books in the academic fields that I work in. Podcasting in this way has become an important medium for me, insofar as it allows me to try to create a space for the kind of critical engagement of a book that stems fundamentally from a spirit of generosity, and celebration, and appreciation of the goals and accomplishments of a colleague. The podcast can be a vocal medium for practicing a kind of storytelling based in empathy, and it can be a technology for learning to appreciate the stories of others.

Some of the stories create wholes from fragments, imagining new lives and their transformations from bits of past ones. Recently I’ve been doing this in an ongoing short-fiction project called The Elizabeths, an experiment inspired by four fragmentary records of four women named Elizabeth, all from The Casebooks Project, and each transformed into a historian of elemental stuff: earth, wind, flame, or liquid. I have been writing about these women as a way of exploring what a historical practice rooted in the material sensorium could be, and I have been crafting examples of the histories that they might have written, about birds or smoke or lightning, about the color blue or fossils or salt. It has become an ongoing story about metamorphosis of all sorts – including the transformations of my own practice, and of the possibilities inherent in an archive or a document when we learn to see them anew – and it has deeply shaped, in all kinds of ways, my sense (evoking Jen Heuson’s comments) of how to study the world, to move in the world as a scholar-artist, and to use one’s scholarship to make new worlds.

Making new worlds is at the heart of a third kind of storytelling practice, and the final one that I’ll mention here: the crafting of stories that help me read a path through difficult texts, and see different possibilities for thinking in and with them. As a first attempt to do this, and as an experiment in reading and translation, I have been working my way through Merleau-Ponty’s “The Intertwining-The Chiasm” and creating little reading notes for myself that open up little worlds in the text. What if, realizing that parentheses are central to an author’s style in a text, we created another text made only of the stuff inside the parentheses? What if we took the image of an eye fleshing the world with its gaze, and imagined what worlds would come from taking that process literally? What if we made a list of all of the things that created between-ness in the text? What if we could look up at the sky and see the constellations formed by the color red in the text? What if colors were parasitic organisms living in an ecology with other bodies? What if what if what if? Part of my practice of small-gauge scholarship involves embracing a way of moving through documents as an “explorer-stumbler” (as remarked by Brendan Kredell), using very simple websites and the freedom and flexibility they offer as a way of empowering me to treat reading as a form of storytelling, and to see new stories in old documents.

All of these stories are small: it took me many years to understand that I needed to look in very small spaces to open up the enormous sense of freedom that I needed to do the kind of work that was meaningful to me. (In this sense, I also loved Kevin Allen’s point about small scales offering the possibility to charter new territories, and to undertake slow, marvelous journeys therein.) For me, this is just the beginning of exploring and creating these small spaces, and stumbling my way through them. (I’m increasingly less interested in expertise, much preferring to embrace the stumble for myself and for others, and I’ll be here with laughter and an open hand ready to support any fellow-stumblers along the way.) I’ll be approaching my next piece for this roundtable in that spirit, inspired by some of the principles invoked by Jen Heuson’s wonderful comments: a care that extends to my colleagues and students, but also to my ghosts and jaguars and eyeless photographers and drunken poets; a brokenness that is a cause for exultation and a precondition for storytelling; and a forgetfulness that allows us to remember only so that we can take apart and recombine, and forget, and remember, and forget again.

Photo by ASA/JPL-Caltech/D. Barrado y Navascués (LAEFF-INTA)

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