Friday, June 29, 2012

Willy Wonka and the BLC Field School


Willy Wonka: Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?


We are probably entering the most important part of our intellectual journey. Pouring over hours of audio footage, peeking and squinting into the blue lines of the computer screen, distinguishing between guidelines and wall lines in autoCAD drawings, and playing with the documentary software - we are dreaming new worlds, composing new stories. We are music makers and dreamers. Yet that process of telling stories – choosing one from the many stories – makes the task difficult and awesome.

In the seventies Hayden White wrote about the art of writing histories. He argued that historiography is a poetic exercise in emplotment. Historians plot stories; they highlight certain aspects of it and downplay others. They explain change and interpret life in particular ways. Histories follow certain underlining and prefigured narrative structures within which we understand, read and reproduce our reality. Shakespeare gets retold by Willy Wonka - and by us too - during myriad banal moments. Yet, each story, told differently, bent and crooked, follows some basic logic. History repeats itself in its telling; over and over, year after year.

Telling stories is so important because our stories spawn new ones. Imagine that slight breeze that fleets through a grove of trees on a sleepy sunny afternoon. As the breeze passes by, branches tremble, leaves shimmer, and the silent world around us shifts in tremulous apprehension. We feel it. We awake from our languorous stupor, out of our afternoon siesta and we know that the evening is right around the corner. We know the drill that follows. That slight breeze awakens us from dreams into everyday banality.  We have to get up and get back to work. That is what our stories do. They gently arrive and wake us up, reminding us of the world in which we belong and they encourage us to act.

Single stories kill conversations. That is why I don’t care about the social scientist’s obsession for validity and generalizability. They seek to speak for everyone, complete, comprehensive and sweeping. Their stories have no place for go-betweens and tricksters except in the box titled “deviants.” The careful craft of a storyteller emphasizes leaving loose ends. Loose ends let your mind soar like a kite and then they set us free. The story, like a kite, flies on, its string limply dangling from the sky, daring us to catch it and pin it down - waving, twisting and turning into the distant horizon till we can see it no more. Some come crashing down on us; into a still and silent moment of utter sadness.

Stories have real power and as we ponder over the mines of digital data, our minds soar into the world of stories. We pick and choose, bite and spit, remember and remind. We have to do a good job – walk that tightrope – not too tight not too loose. Just enough to make space for the next story to snuggle up to us and change our tale in unpredictable ways.