Fragmentation, history, narrative

Jerome de GrootMCRm

This panel explores the utility of the idea of fragmentation to approaching narratives of the past, and about the past. Each talk considers the importance of the gap, the non-normative, the incomplete and the non-corporeal to ways of understanding and approaching narratives of history.

‘Only in Not-telling Can the Story Be Told’: Point of View, Fragmentation, and Writing True Crime (William Pooley (History, University of Bristol))
The fascination true crime holds for audiences today is often criticized for voyeurism. Like media coverage of contemporary crime, it often focuses on the complexity of the figures of monstrous violent criminals, or the wrongly accused. It is the desires, intentions, and actions of perpetrators that take over the story. When they do not focus on perpetrators, accounts of crime are often presented from the point of view of the detective, the journalist, or the amateur sleuth working to uncover what really happened.

What tools can authors of historical (non)fiction use to uncover different perspectives in cases of true crime?
This paper focuses on an ongoing project to write a non-fiction novel about a murder case from Alsace in 1925. While much of the project has focused on the figures of the murderer himself and the criminal investigator charged with bringing him to justice, I want to ask which other voices it is possible to uncover, and how. Techniques under consideration will include research-based speculation, fragmentation, and erasure. For instance, in a book-length erasure poem about the deliberate drowning of 150 slaves in 1781, M. NourbeSe Philip has described her realization that ‘only in not-telling can the story be told; only in the space where it’s not told – literally in the margins of the text, a sort of negative space, a space not so much of non-meaning as anti-meaning.’ As NourbeSe Philip puts it, ‘the fragment appears more precious, more beautiful than the whole, if only for its brokenness. Perhaps, the fragment allows for the imagination to complete its missing aspects – we can talk, therefore, of the poetics of fragmentation.’

‘It looked like the opposite of history’: the disruption of history and narrative in postgenomic writing (Jerome de Groot (English, University of Manchester))
This paper looks at the ways in which postgenomic texts utilise the potentiality – and the concerns – associated with genetic science to challenge and disrupt dominant narratives. After the completion of the human genome project in 2001, much genetic science has laid a claim to expanded knowledge and particularly to knowing the human in new ways. In particular this has changed DNA into a ‘historical resource’ (according to Adam Rutherford), whilst Niklas Rose argues that ‘It is not philosophy but the life sciences which are leading an epistemic change in our relationship to the human’ (2012).

Writers have responded to this newly conceived ability to present the human in multiple and complex fashion. I will look at some foundational texts to demonstrate how, rather than shutting down our understanding of the human, artists have seen the mapping of the genome as a way of challenging traditional modes of knowledge. I’ll look first at Marc Quinn’s 2005 Genomic Portrait of Sir John Sulston, which undermines realism and representation, before turning to some rappers and poets (Kendrick Lamar, Residente, Zaffar Kunial). I’ll conclude by looking at Ali Smith’s harnessing of the double helix in her experimental work How to be both (2014). All these artists challenge the ‘new’ knowledge of the postgenomic condition, instead seeing the disintegration and disruption of the human body. These postgenomic writers present DNA as something that challenges identity, knowing, rationality and realism. For them genetics changes the way we know each other and how we might communicate with one another. It provides the possibility of new modes of being. Most importantly, it reconfigures the way we might think about the past. It recasts discussions about race, ethnicity, identity, roots, inheritance, ownership, legitimacy. It breaks down older modes of communication, challenging the forms in which we present information and attacking the normative.

Scraps of history: Emma Donoghue and theorising the historical short story (Diana Wallace (English, University of South Wales))
In the Foreword to The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002), her book of ‘true’ short ‘fictions’, Emma Donoghue writes: ‘Over the last ten years I have often stumbled over a scrap of history so fascinating that I had to stop whatever I was doing and write a story about it’. This paper will use Donoghue’s work to explore ways of thinking about the historical short story as a (neglected) form which has a suggestive affinity with scraps and fragments of history. Almost all the critical work on historical fiction to date (eg Lukács, Hutcheon (1988), Wallace (2005), de Groot (2010)) has focused on the novel but the historical short story raises particularly interesting questions about the ways in which fiction can engage with incomplete historical narratives. Clare Hanson (1989) has drawn attention to the short story’s appeal to marginalised groups (including the Irish and women), and its formal properties of ‘disjunction, inconclusiveness, obliquity’. Both elements chime with key themes in recent critical accounts of historical fiction: the desire to ‘recover’ or re-imagine the history of marginal groups, and a metafictional focus on history and fiction as forms of narrative.

Donoghue’s experimental stories, each drawn from historical ‘fact’, provide a particularly rich case study. Her sources are ‘the flotsam and jetsam of the last seven hundred years of British and Irish life’: surgical case notes, trial records, ballads, pamphlets, paintings and even ‘an articulated skeleton’. Unusually, each individual story is followed by an authorial ‘Note’ detailing its origin in these ‘scrap[s] of history’. These paratexual notes draw attention to both the hybrid nature of the stories and the relationship between such fragments and the longer narratives, both fictional and historical, with which they are in dialogue.

Sun 2:30 pm - 3:45 pm