On Beginnings

(by Carla Nappi)

Today I want to think about the work that beginnings do.

I wrote this piece as a contribution to the roundtable “Black/Brown/Queer: Geographies and Temporalities of the History of Science” at the 2018 annual meeting of the History of Science Society. I was privileged to speak alongside a - without exception - brilliant group of scholars who gave brilliant talks. I imagined that what I could bring to the conversation would be a reflection on, embodied in a piece of, my experience trying to work with the forms of the craft (the conference lecture, the review, the essay, the argument, etc.) to open up possibilities for an increasingly inclusive and humane field. Since I was talking about formal experimentation, I figured that using formal experimentation to determine the shape of my talk would be an appropriate vehicle for that. Here, the original talk is in boldface interwoven with reflections on the event, on some of the responses that I received, and on how I’m thinking about the experience.

When I begin I invite you into an opening, where we can dwell together. 

And when we begin together, we grant ourselves and each other the freedom to leave some things behind.

After the talk, someone asked about the relationship between what I was saying and “forgetting.” I don’t remember the exact phrasing of the question: giving a reading is different from giving an academic talk, at least for me. When I read a piece of fiction, poetry, or something experimental like this for a room of people, especially when it’s a room of fellow academics, I’m making myself extremely vulnerable. I’m refusing the opportunity to use the typical performative forms of the profession (like reading a straight academic paper) as a kind of armor to protect me. (The forms we learn when we train as historians, and then go on to reproduce in our work, serve as a protection we wear to shield ourselves from harm and the possibility of failure. When you refuse that armor, you’re exposing yourself. And when you do that, there are consequences. One of those consequences is, for me, a real difficulty in immediately switching from the visceral experience of profound vulnerability that reading produces, to the Explain Yourself/Justify Yourself/Defend Yourself mode of academic Q&A. I can’t really do it. Maybe I’ll learn to do that better in time. For now, I’m so blitzed at the end of a performance that I’m not immediately capable of being articulate in any satisfying Q&A way. And so part of my mind was not yet back there in the room when I heard the question moments after I stopped talking, and so I don’t remember it exactly. But: forgetting. It was somehow about forgetting. Here’s what I wanted to say: in beginning, in leaving behind, we don’t need to forget. I don’t mean forgetting or refusing history or looking away. I mean carrying that with us, and still, beginning again. And then again. What I want to leave behind are some of the formal structures of our profession and the ways of making and engaging with each other’s work that, yes, protect us from vulnerability and keep us safe from discomfort, but also can strangle efforts to make the field and our conversations and our work more generous and generative. That’s what I want to leave behind. I’m talking here about forms of engagement, and I mean beginning as a process of opening up those forms. Because I do think that those forms constrain and enable who “we” can be in this business, and what the possibilities are for being an “I.” More on the “I” in a bit.

For a moment our time and space are made of possibility: of a rhythm, a voice, of surprise, of pain. They are made of the possibility of something otherwise.  

When we begin, for a moment we don’t know.

And the not-knowing is so expected, is so much a part of what it is to begin, that we don’t think about it.

When we begin, we allow ourselves again what we allowed ourselves as children without realizing we were doing it because we didn’t yet understand how to make ourselves ashamed of ourselves, as we would when we got older.

(As we do now.)

This tendency to function in academic spaces (as academic selves) out of fear, the shame inherent in being a full self with all of its vulnerabilities, the shame following like a shadow, was very much on my mind when I was putting this talk together. Academia can be an extremely physically and emotionally damaging space in which to be a human, and academic precarity intensifies that. I can’t count the number of people who have told me how much they want to experiment more with their work, transgress the typical form of an academic paper or essay or talk, to bring their art more publicly into their work, but they don’t, because of the horrible monstrous What If: what if my dissertation advisor is in the room and they don’t like it? What if a job committee member is watching and I don’t get the job because they don’t understand what I’m doing or get that I can do this and also do the straight stuff? What if people see me, and they judge me, and as a result I don’t get tenure, I don’t get invited back, I don’t get taken seriously? We don’t go into these performative contexts expecting or being able to assume generosity. And so we’re afraid. And so we keep reproducing the same forms that everyone complains about. Because the reality is: there are consequences. Academia is not yet the generous space that many of us want it to be. (That I want and need it to be.) And in trying to protect ourselves and each other, we resist bringing the kind of experimental and multiple and polyphonous spirit to the spaces we make together that are necessary to make those spaces more generous and generative. It is that fear, that shame, that I’m talking about here. And that’s what I want to leave behind by beginning and beginning and beginning. 

We allowed ourselves to inhabit the joy of not-yet-knowing.

When we begin, for a moment we inhabit that joy again.

What if we made a story out of only beginnings.

Once upon a times.

Hello, my name is-es.


It’s nice to meet yous.

Join mes.

Just wait ‘til you hear thises.

You’ll never guess what I just founds.

Oh, this is my dream: beginning and beginning and beginning together to make academia a space of, Hey look what I found isn’t this cool can you help me think about it?, and, Here you go I made this here it is it’s for you maybe it’ll help you make your own thing, and, Here I made this I know it’s not perfect I need help making it into the best version of itself can you help? And the utopian in me keeps needing to believe that’s possible.

When we begin, we begin with I am, It is, Let us now, Here we have, How about this.

We don’t begin by asserting:

Hello I am not someone else,

Now it is not the time it was earlier,

Here is not what you might have wanted to have in its place.

(Those are all fine stories. They are not beginnings.)

I want a history of science made of beginnings.

Where we don’t start by stating what we are not: not Western, not European, not straight, not local, not disconnected, not doing what this person did, not making the mistake that person made.

Some of this is a specific response to my own experience as a historian of science working on China and, throughout my career, being invited to various tables as a way to make those tables more “global” by representing the “non-West.” I won’t do that anymore, because I really strongly feel that a more generous, polyphonous, inclusive field and discipline has to find a way to be inclusive without treating people as tokens, and to be global without asking individual historians to necessarily represent and speak for an area, a group, a community.

Some of this comes from my frustration with our tendency to introduce/justify/explain our work by denigrating the work of others. Saying or doing X does not have to imply that you’re saying that not-X is wrong, or worse, or bad. (Contributing a new concept to the conversation does not have to involve invalidating or critiquing the contributions of other named individuals or their books and articles.) This tends not just to characterize how we situate our own work, but how we listen to each other and sometimes hear threats to ourselves and our relevance rising like phantoms from the work that others present, and those phantoms how we respond to their work, and this is one further reason that post-talk academic Q&A can become such a cauldron of fear and pretense. It’s not always like that and it doesn’t have to be like that at all.

Because that’s a way of writing a field that’s one long protracted ending. It’s a funeral for itself.  

I want the freedom of moments to dwell in the joy.

At this point in the talk I showed a single page from The Manchu Anatomy. With each beginning, below, I switched to a blank screen and then showed the same page again. The idea here was that it became a different page each time.

I want once upon a time there was a page of Manchu text about eyeballs and that time was the 1700s. (It was a time made out of centuries.)

I want once upon a time there was a screen filled with descriptions of parts of eyes and that time was the time of insides and outsides and next-tos and on-top-ofs. (It was a time made out of prepositions and the kinds of bodies they engendered.)

I want once upon a time there was a collection of minor divinities I care for. (It was a time of enchantment. It was now.)

This is part of a relatively recent and ongoing body of work where I’m exploring the potential of reading as a practice of (re-)enchantment. By enchantment I really do quite literally mean populating the world with gods and ghosts and expanding and enriching the Real, the Rational. I’ve been working with a practice of reading and remixing documents, making fictions with them as a way of creating worlds with them, and bringing those readings into the histories that I’m making, as a way of trying to take responsibility for bringing about the kind of multiple coexisting realities that I want to live in. As a way of welcoming and living with the sacred. This is important for informing what I’m doing when calling for Once Upon a Times: I don’t mean (“mere”) fairytales or (“mere”) stories. I mean to be taking this very seriouslyplayfully as reality, the way we take chairs and weather and tears and wheat seriouslyplayfully as reality.

I want once upon a time there was a space full of things that were like other things, and that’s how the people understood them. (It was a time made of resemblance and recognition.)

I want once upon a time there was a flatness.

A simultaneity.

A geometric arrangement.

A being-always-already-in-the-midst-of-translation.

Here, I went back to a blank screen.


I want all of these to be ok, in the way once upon a times are ok.

Because I want a history of science made of beginnings.

Because temporalities are forms of life and they are forms of death and I want us to choose to make a history and a field where we can all be alive.

The field is social. The history of science is a social space, and history is a social practice. The kinds of stories we allow into the field are lives we are welcoming, those we censor or silence or force to be other than what they want to be – these are deaths of a sort that we are, in part, responsible for.

I talk about death a lot in academic settings. I talk about it casually. I do this because it’s actually part of how I try to live, remembering to keep close the reality that we will each be gone at some point and it’s up to us to try to make the time we have in the interim into what we need it to be. (I say try. I know this is not always possible. But we try.) If we are going to try to come to our work individually and together as full humans, for me, those are the stakes. Life and death.

To bring a fully human self to one’s work in academic spaces (which is important to me) it’s important to try to speak truthfully. This is, in part, what #metoo is about: trying to speak up and speak truthfully even when that’s not comfortable for anyone involved. (I say try. It’s not always possible. Discomfort can become real pain and serious personal and professional damage. But we try. I try.)

The field is social. The history of science is a social space, and history is a social practice. And so the forms we use to engage and socialize with each other matter.  

As historians, we carve up our field in terms of geographic or temporal area. We define expertise in those terms. What might some alternatives be? What would an expertise in rhythms, patterns, or echoes be? What would it look like to help create a discipline where a field of expertise could be red things in history, the history of midnight, of softness, of time? We resist this, in part, because the history of science is a social field and we need bases on which to create that society, to decide who comes in and who stays out, and we base those decisions on criteria of judgment. Who gets the job, who gets the money, how do you compare between the historian of softness and the historian of midnight? How would that not collapse into the kind of rewarding of overwork, part of the pernicious and destructive additive culture of more more more  (look at how many awards she has, how much funding he has, how many publications or languages or students they have)? Should our need to judge each other (to reward each other for being safely recognizable as professional and academic “peers,” whatever that means) keep the field from transforming, from beginning and beginning again? Beginnings are not often rewarded. Being recognizable is rewarded. And when you are beginning, often you are not yet recognizably a something, a peer, a safe bet.

The field is social and that society is made up not just of who we are together with other people but also of who we are now together with who we have been and who we might come to be. I want to be part of a field of beginnings, in which we’re not afraid of who we were or who we might become such that we keep telling the same stories, we keep defining ourselves in terms of what we’re not. I want to be part of a field where we are not afraid of ourselves.

In Q&A after the roundtable, someone asked the panel how we felt about positioning ourselves in our work, given the fact that the self-reflexivity that is so much an expected or accepted part of other disciplinary practices is still not what historians are supposed to do.

As a field we tend to carve the personal from the professional. Bringing the “I” into a professional space means opening that space to all kinds of vulnerability and that makes people uncomfortable. If we really want to bring the full “I’ into  the conversation we’re not just bringing in an “I” that’s defined in terms of the sorts of categorical identities in the title of the roundtable that this piece was part of (“Black/Brown/Queer”): we’re inviting honest expression of the painful parts of the experience of being human.  It means bringing ourselves as emotional beings into the conversation: the rage, the tears, the failures, the hard and messy stuff. It means not keeping our professional conversations insulated from that. And making space for joy means making space for its sisters and complications and opposites and if we don’t invite those in  we’re also keeping the joy away.

During Q&A, I tried to respond to this question honestly. I talked a bit about why I bring the “I” into my work so directly, and about the consequences of doing that in professional spaces. And those consequences have included being laughed at during academic talks, being yelled at during Q&A for “not speaking English” (yes, really), being asked in the context of an invitation to give a talk at a university to please not do anything “too performative” (yes, really), being accused of not being a real historian, of being pretentious (who does she think she is, anyway), of trying to be “cute.” Of being inappropriate. Of paying too much attention to writing or “style” and not enough to content (as if form and content were separable). Of not doing enough to translate myself and my work into terms that are more immediately recognizable as valuable to a disciplinary field. Or I’m met with silence, or with uncomfortable looking-aways. And I get it. What I do can make people uncomfortable, and it’s meant to break open a space to allow us to make a beginning together, and it’s meant and offered generously (why would I keep doing this otherwise, if I didn’t care?) but that sometimes takes time to see.

And then I stumbled through the rest of the Q&A, and I made an effort to hold myself together to have a collegial drink with the panel afterwards, and I made it all the way to the hotel bar before realizing I wasn’t going to be able to manage that drink and waving goodbye and turning around and heading back up to my room. And then, reader, I cried. I cried a lot. I cried because the experience of being in that room and opening up into that vulnerable space brought me right back to all of those previous experiences of the consequences of doing this kind of work and I was emotional and overwhelmed and I needed to let myself be that, for a while. And I didn’t need to be consoled by colleagues, and I didn’t need to be reassured, because that makes the discomfort and the tears and the frustration into something-wrong, into something-to-be-fixed, into something to make-go-away. It makes bringing the full “I” into the conversation into a problem to be remedied.

Reader, I cried. I felt like shit. And I appreciated so much when people came up to me after the talk, and then again after that, and told me that they appreciated it. And I asked them why, I asked what in particular they appreciated, because all of this is experimental and I want to understand what works. And that felt so good, so generative. But that experience exists alongside the immediate experience after the talk, which sucked.

And so here is a belated response to that wonderful question during Q&A: being honest about all of this, making space for this in the room, is part of bringing the “I” into the conversation in the service of making a more humane field. 

Today I want to think about the work that beginnings do.

The time for histories of science of the non- (non-West, non-Europe, non-patriarchal, non-white) is over. That non-time was measured according to a dominant form of power that made space for what was otherwise.

The time of waiting for space to be made for the Otherwise, the time for asking for permission to occupy that space, is over.

The time of inviting the non- to the table in order to use it as a mirror or a foil for understanding what always was – that’s over.

The time for hoping for an invitation to the table in order to have a place there: that’s also over.

What is possible for us as a field depends on that being over.

We can talk about how to get to that ending by figuring out how to listen to each other differently, how to help each other pay different forms of attention to each other.

Because how you pay attention to something makes it into what it is.

Because how you pay attention to someone makes them into who they are.

And getting to that ending is not just a matter of what we’re saying to each other: it’s about how we listen, and about the forms that might help us attend to each other.

But first, we need to begin. And then we need to keep beginning.

Today I want to think about the work that beginnings do.