This has been an inspiring conversation and I’ve felt privileged to be part of it. For my second contribution, I’d like to take on the provocation offered by Erica Stein: “What kinds of urban worlds, what kinds of cities, could (only) small-gauge scholarship or practice make? …What would a small-gauge online city look like? Could we even classify digital spaces as ‘urban’?”
These questions provoke me because I don’t know how to answer them. (These are my favorite kinds of questions.) Instead, I’ll use this post to approach them, and to begin a relationship with them. In order to do that, some elements of the question need to be reckoned with. Most centrally, for me, is the nature of the “city” itself: what are we thinking of when we think of cities and/or urban worlds? More usefully for my purposes, what am I thinking of when I think of and think with them? I’m not interested in defining cities or urban spaces as objects. Instead, I’m interested in asking what kind of work those notions do for me, and how that work might manifest and transform in the context of my own small-gauge practice. So, let’s start there and see where we go.
Where are cities in my work?
Cities are spaces where bodies dwell and change in the context of some sort of infrastructure – whether that infrastructure is made of clouds or plants or caves.
Cities are experiences of silence or they are textures of sound.
Cities are where people find other people, and make things with them, or out of them, with paint or fingers or glass.
Cities are where creatures destroy and create with one another.
When I think “city,” or “urban,” I’m thinking about the kinds of connections between bodies that produce the rhythms that Stein invoked in her post. These are rhythms that both organize and disrupt organization, rhythms that create and metamorphose spatial experience. Those bodies, for me, include those human and those not, those that are built, those that grow, those that resist, those that do not take immediate physical form, those that live in text or in sound, and those that manifest only as perturbations of my own body. When I write with cities, then, I’m writing rhythmic connections between bodies come into being and metamorphose and die, and do that through those connections. When I podcast, I’m also creating a vocal object that only comes into being as a connection with another voice or voices: that’s essentially what an author interview is.
How might small-gauge practice – conceived in the ways that I discussed in my earlier post – make or remake these sorts of rhythmic connections? What kind of spatial experience might that practice produce or provoke? If I spend my time moving in a way that is not devoted to efficient production of the usual objects of scholarly capital, creating relations with jaguars and stones and constellations and sea gods and Twitter residue and other people who are also doing this kind of thing, is this a way of producing new urban spatiality?
For any interesting way of conceiving spatiality or spatial experience, the answer to these questions has to be Yes. (At least, for any way of conceiving these that is interesting to me.) And this doesn’t necessarily depend on small-gauge practices, but there’s something about embracing small-gauge practices that opens up and allows us to authorize ourselves to take the kinds of freedoms that enable this. Perhaps small-gauge practices break cities, unmake urban spaces, disrupt and destabilize in order to make room for new spatialities, rhythms, connections to grow.
That disruption is effected by decontextualization: taking things out of context, residues, outtakes, small bits removed from a whole and recombined. (Because of this, I found Jennifer Heuson’s comments on remixing to be particularly apt in thinking about my own practice.) Small-gauge practices undo context. (If I had another post after this one, I would explore this idea in more detail insofar as it bears on the possibilities of small-gauge work for my home discipline of history, where the notion of context is so fundamental to the craft.) And this returns us to the questions we began with, and allows us to remake them into new questions. If a city is a context or an environment (in the sense of Scott Rodgers, perhaps), what kind of city refuses to be a stable context, or refuses context altogether? (Every city.) What kind of a city is created or inhabited through a daily practice that pulls detritus and residue together to make new stories, and then discards some of it, and then brings new things into the mix? (Every city.) What kind of city is created by a practice of remixing that destroys or disassembles as a necessary part of creation? (Every city.) What kind of a city might materialize from these practices on the scale of a page or a website or a sequence of gestures or a patterning of voices? (Every city.) What kind of a city is brought into being by how we look, what we pay attention to, what pays attention to us, what kinds of attention or generosity that people and objects and structures ask of us and what kinds of attention and generosity that we return to them? (Every city.)
To return to Stein’s prompt, then, perhaps small-gauge practices, in general, don’t necessarily make unique kinds of cities or urban worlds. But what about my small-gauge practices as a storyteller in particular? Here, I return to where I began in my first post in this series. I make stories that make room for archive-drinking women and magic wasps and drunken poets and candleflame-phoenixes and mirror-haunting jaguars and book-writing authors and singing translators and Chinese medical doctors and cave-dwelling shadow-gods to share virtual and sensory space, and to come into rhythmic connections with one another. Is that space – are those connections and rhythms – urban? Is it a unique kind of city that wouldn’t be possible as a result of other kinds of more traditional scholarly practices? Well, why not? Here’s the great thing about small-gauge: it is indeed, if we disrupt our conversations and accounts of the urban in order to make the spaces necessary to make it so.
Photo by The Preiser Project
Carla Nappi is a writer and historian based at the University of British Columbia. Currently working and playing in Manchu studies, the history of science and medicine, translation studies, and early modern China, she also hosts the New Books in East Asian Studies and New Books in Science, Technology, & Society podcast channels and writes very short fiction.