Slum backyard, Washington, D.C. Photograph available in the public domain.
In the “Note on Method,” that begins her 2019 book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals, Saidiya Hartman describes the narrative method that she uses throughout her text as “a mode of close narration, a style which places the voice of the narrator and character as inseparable, so that the vision, language, and rhythms of the wayward shape and arrange the text”.1 While this form of “close narration” may seem to be diametrically opposed in scale to the zooming out required to give an account of the present within an ecological, post-humanist framework, I would argue that Hartman’s method is one that we need in our toolbox as we grapple with a world inching closer to climate disaster—a method capable of contending with the aesthetic scales of the posthuman. Hartman’s precise and nimble form of narration has the capacity to move quickly between extreme close ups and extreme wide-angle perspectives. This type of “close narration” is able to break down the perceived boundary between subject and object in order to approach the world (and our accounts of it) as entangled and insist in the inseparability of the human and non-human. Hartman’s method is ideally suited to challenge the tactics of representation that have served to erase, bury, minimize, and silence the black and brown voices of the historical record, but it is also capable of challenging visions of the world that contribute to our inability to adequately understand and respond to ecological disaster. Ultimately, Hartman’s close narration is most valuable for two of its features: an entangled ontology and the ability to toggle nimbly between perspectives of different scales.
Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments is a book about black intimate life in New York and Philadelphia at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is a history book deeply indebted to the archival record, but its narrative style is anything but conventional. The form of “close narration” that Hartman uses is one in which she “recreates the voices” of her subjects and “inhabits the intimate dimensions of their lives” (xiii). As such, this method is one that combines the narrator and the character, merging their voices and recognizing the inseparability of these historical traumas from our present moment and making nonsense of the subject/object divide that defines many historical accounts. At various points in the text, Hartman makes a single character representative, allowing the story of one particular girl to be entangled with the larger historical narrative that undergirds her story. As she says in the final chapter, “One girl can stand in for any of them, can serve as the placeholder for the story, recount the history from the beginning, convey the knowledge of freedom disguised as jargon and nonsense” (345). In this construction, the story of one girl merges not only with the narrator’s voice but also with those others whose existence and untold stories she evokes. Hartman’s method here reaches even beyond the strict bounds of the human to show how “If you listen closely, you can hear the whole world in a bent note, a throwaway lyric, a singular thread of the collective utterance” (345). In Hartman’s description the single “bent note” or the “throwaway lyric” can transform from a singular entity into a collective one, while simultaneously recognizing the liveliness present in that which is often conceived of as inert. Her line here echoes a comment in her “Note on Method” in which she describes her book as “a narrative written from nowhere, from the nowhere of the ghetto and the nowhere of utopia” (xiii). The throwaway lyric carries with it the historical collectivities present in the physical space of the ghetto and as well as those collectivities made possible through the space of utopia. Hartman’s enactment of an entangled ontology is compounded also by her use of a chorus throughout the text, which is indicated by the use of italics. It this chorus, as the title of the final chapter tells us, that “opens the way” and allows us to “marvel” at each individual chorus girl’s “capacity to inhabit every woman’s grief as their own” (345). The chorus itself then becomes a mode of representation that troubles both the ontological separation between self and other as well as the scales that would separate what is close from what is far.
Hartman’s “close narration” is also capable of standing at a distance in order to include more within the frame. At the same time that Hartman is able to get close enough to the women and girls of her text to occupy their thoughts, senses, and emotions, she is also able to toggle dexterously between extreme close-ups and wide-angle shots. The book contains moments of variable scale in which the narration moves rather quickly (and perhaps at times nearly imperceptibly) between alternate distances. For example, a question as simple as “did this latest violence leave a mark” pivots between the particular violence this line addresses and the long zoomed-out history of gender and racial violence of which this particular violence has now become part. Or we could look at the unnamed “she” that the text follows in the book’s first chapter, who notices “[t]hey always take pictures of the same stuff” when reformers come to visit the slums (4). The image beside this chapter shows the reader one such picture, but the language of the text widens the frame enough to include this young woman’s critique of the sameness produced by the myopic reformer’s camera lens. There is more to the slum than these types of pictures show, and Hartman’s text thus responds to the long history of limited and inaccurate historical representations of this space. This is one moment where the text is able to make visible the failures of reading that have resulted from approaching the lives of young black women through ideologies of uplift and assimilation. That act of framing always has the ability to enact violence by artificially extracting elements of the narrative that are inextricably entangled. The violence of framing is particularly salient when considering the cultural legacies of racism in the US and the ways in which such histories continue to be mobilized for various political purposes. Hartman shows that the scale needs to be constantly adjusted in order to see beyond the edges of the frames that at previously formed the historical boundaries of these women’s lives.
Ultimately, I would argue that Hartman’s mode of narration is capable of demonstrating the type of “collaborative survival in precarious times” that Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing articulates in her 2015 book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.2 By merging her own voice with the voices of women and girls who appear in the archive, Hartman is able to create what she calls “a dream book for existing otherwise” and hold open a space for the collaborative survival of the voices of “black girls, troublesome women and queer radicals” that the book attempts to recover. Hartman’s methods, with their ability to do justice to these specific buried histories, are ones we need to borrow if we are to approach our world in its entangled fullness. Work across the sciences, from the entanglements of quantum physics to those of mycelial fungi or the wood-wide web, demonstrates that the divisions between subject and object or between objects themselves are much more complicated than previously thought. To approach this entangled world, we need to constantly adjust our scale to include within the frame the various forces at play. There is no frame that can consider everything all at once, but the movement between variable perspective and scales can give us a view from elsewhere.
This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.
- Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: Norton, 2019), xiii-xiv. Further references are to this edition, indicated parenthetically.
- Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).