I have lived my own book. One I never planned to write, recording time backwards and forwards. I have watched the snow fall onto the sea and traced the steps of a traveler long gone. I have relived moments that were perfect in their certainty…. We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation…. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don't go.1
In her memoir M Train, Patti Smith writes about nothing and everything: her life as an artist; her relationships and debts to books, writers and artists, and places; her love and mourning for her late husband; traveling in both time and space; her deep affection for the arts of the detective, black coffee, Polaroids, black coats, slices of toast with olive oil. Smith's writing demonstrates how objects and artifacts, bodies, ideas, and memories speak to and of us as what Jane Bennett describes as vibrant matter—the liveness and liveliness of things and people as they interact.2 Smith writes: “Lost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in helpless disorder. The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen.”3
One way of listening to the “dead speak” is to attend to the performance of artifacts, memory, histories, and identities not as an exchange that trades what the body knows for what the mind re-members and puts down as knowledge (the latter forever exceeding and eclipsing the former), but instead as a “vital act of transfer.”4 These vital acts of transfer do not have us choose between artifact and embodiment; rather, they ask us to listen to the interaction of both in our efforts to make meaning of even the most inexplicable or untenable moments in life—what is “beyond all grasp.”5 What connects the “archive”—“documents, maps, literary texts, letters, archaeological remains, bones, videos, films, cds, all those items supposedly resistant to change”6 and the repertoire—“embodied memory: performances, gestures, orality, movement, dance, singing—in short, all those acts usually thought of as ephemeral, non-reproducible knowledge”7 is the scenario outline, or framework, on which the dance of interaction happens. The stage upon which “everything pours forth”: “Photographs their history, books their words. Walls their sounds.”8
Diana Taylor's writing on the scenario bears repeating here:
A scenario is a “sketch or outline of the plot of a play, giving particulars of scenes, situations, etc.” that makes visible, yet again, what is already there: the ghosts, the images, the stereotypes… the scenario structures our understanding. It also haunts our present, a form of hauntology that resuscitates and reactivates old dramas. We've seen it all before. The framework allows for occlusions; by positioning our perspective, it promotes certain views while helping to disappear others.9
The essays in this issue of Departures in Critical Qualitative Research present us with a series of scenarios—views on and into the lively and vital exchange between objects and memories, change and loss, ghosts and the living, photographs and what exits just outside the frame. They ask us to listen to the dead speak and reckon with the impossibility of things staying the same. The collection opens with Esther Fitzpatrick and Avril Bell's “Summoning up the Ghost with Needle and Thread,” a tapestry of photographs, maps, letters, diaries, and landmarks that summon the ghosts of their white European colonial ancestors and their place in the fabric of their lives as their New Zealander descendants, or Pākehā. Through the creation of an arpillera (Chilean tapestry), Fitzpatrick and Bell write both repertoire and archive, stitching together the scenario of intra-action of the colonial, the material, and the spiritual. In doing so, the authors foreground the vital materiality of the repertoire—embodied histories, identities, and things—to “re-materialize” and “reconfigure” the archive as a homogenous narrative of Pākehā identity.
When we share a scenario, our work necessarily reflects the multiple and various “systems at work in the scenario itself: in passing it on, we can draw from various modes that come from the archive and/or the repertoire—writing, telling, re-enactment.”10 In “Performing Family Photographs,” Krystal Bresnahan and Alyse Keller consider how family photographs are performances that make meaning in the interaction of memory, histories, and embodiments. Centering on their family experiences of divorce and illness, the photograph becomes an occasion and site for memory work. The photographs are not destinations or artifacts of those experiences, but instead points of departure for considering what is sensed, understood, and lost in our attempts to document our lives. As Smith reflects on the loss of her photographs of the grave of Sylvia Plath:
I have stacks of Polaroids, each marking my own [steps] that I sometimes spread out like tarots or baseball cards of an imagined celestial team. There is one of Sylvia in spring. It is very nice, but lacking the shimmering quality of the lost ones. Nothing can be truly replicated. Not a love, not a jewel, not a single line.11
The next two essays in the collection, Kari-Anne Innes's “Performing Lydia(s)” and Bethany Johnson's “Personal, Biomedical, Textual,” consider the scenario's requirement of “wrestl[ing] with the social construction of bodies” in particular contexts.12 In Innes's case, the essay invokes the contexts of religious communities and families, and in Johnson's case, the discourses and experiences of infertility and fertility treatment(s). Both essays use the archive and the repertoire to repeat, refract, and reimagine what it means to be and become a woman in the world. Innes uses her family archive—memoirs, letters, emails, blog entries, and scripture—to trace the imprints these artifacts leave on the embodied memory-performances of women in her Old German Baptist Brethren family. Juxtaposing the New Testament figure of Lydia with her great aunt Lydia alongside her own performance of these women in liturgical drama, Innes explores what it means to listen to the dead speak as she performs women of her spiritual past. The mystory13 performance script charts Innes's journey and efforts to rehearse, write, and reimagine the archive of women's religious and social identities in her own “living and embodied repertoire.” Johnson weaves together letters, emails, medical records, interview conversations, voicemail messages, and theory to highlight the conflicting voices and messages surrounding infertility treatment, fertility privilege, and the embodiment of the “infertile” woman as a vital part and participant in the body politic.
A last quality of the scenario to consider here (though not the last of those Taylor considers) is that it “demands that we also pay attention to milieus and corporeal behaviors such as gestures, attitudes, and tones not reducible to language.”14 In “A Phenomenology of the Racialized Tongue,” Sachi Sekimoto and Christopher Brown consider the scenario of the act of speaking as both a habituated (and thus resistant to change) and ephemeral embodiment of the materiality of race. They argue the body is much more than a surface (textual or otherwise) on which meaning is discursively inscribed. Rather, the body that speaks works as a mnemonic device for normative ways of speaking and of being. The essay provides us with an example of Joseph Roach's “performance genealog[y],” in which
expressive movements [function] as mnemonic reserves, including patterned movements made and remembered by bodies, residual movements retained implicitly in images or words (or in the silences between them), and imaginary movements dreamed … not prior to language but constitutive of it.15
The essays in this issue of Departures remind us that listening to things and bodies speak is a vital act of transfer. Such acts vibrate with and transmit memories, knowledge, identities, and histories. Near the end of M Train, Smith writes of dreaming, memory, and transmission:
I dreamed I was somewhere that was also nowhere…. No one was around, and then I saw Fred running, though he seldom ran. He didn't like to hurry. At the same moment something whizzed past him, a wheel on its side, racing as if alive across the highway. And then I saw the object's face—a clock with no hands. I awoke and it was still dark. I lay there for a time reliving the dream, feeling other dreams stacked behind it. I slowly began to recall the entire body, telescoping backwards, letting my mind stitch the fleeting pieces together.16
Archive. Repertoire. Scenario.
Bits of thread, photographs, cisterns/sistrens, hospital robes, tongues and teeth.
The recording of time both backwards and forwards.
Dreaming a somewhere that is also nowhere. Writing about nothing and everything.