Experiments in narrative

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In setting out the scope of the argument and the contents of each chapter, it is obviously hoped that this thesis will display a certain logic. There is a beginning and an end, a literature to be addressed, problems to be solved, connections to be made. Each chapter is expected to build upon the last, to carry the reader onwards, perhaps even with a sense of inevitability. There is a familiarity to this journey, for the characteristics of a ‘good’ argument reflect our conception of progress. Point by point we proceed, as ideas and evidence accumulate towards enlightenment. This steady movement is punctuated by moments of insight and clarity that challenge our preconceptions and broaden our perspective. In a ‘good’ argument, all this is achieved within a framework of confidence and authority that gathers the reader’s trust. Alternatives are considered and discarded, problems are solved—the journey seems so natural, its conclusions loom inevitable.

Such parallels between the conventions of argument and the structure of progress are hardly surprising. Both draw upon ideals of rationality and truth hammered into familiar form in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The practices of history and science, the importance of evidence, the power of reason, were all developed together as part of the modern world’s journey of improvement into an open, unknown future. But while the connections are obvious enough, still this adds to the burden of self-reflexivity, particularly when progress, science and certainty are themselves the subject of historical inquiry.

This thesis aims to explore some of the ways in which our choices are circumscribed by the presumed power of science and progress. And yet, this exploration is delivered in the form of a ‘thesis’, which similarly seeks to limit the reader’s options, to draw them towards a predetermined conclusion.

The image of the crossroads, this thesis argues, offers the illusion of choice while reasserting the necessity of progress. Likewise, a persuasive historical argument keeps the reader on track through all manner of signposts and summaries. Chapters are bookended with convenient reminders of where you are going and where you have been. Cross-references offer a reassuring sense of continuity, even as headings and subheadings divide the experience into easily digestible chunks. A preface or an introduction (like this one) enables the author to set the ground rules, to guard, as Hayden White points out, against the danger of ‘misreading’. 1 And, of course, a thicket of footnotes proffer proof through the borrowed authority of established scholars.

As Judith Brett notes, when an inquiry is conducted within an empiricist or positivist framework, the ‘role of language in shaping and probing reality is denied and all questions about style are avoided’. 2 Conversely, we might add, when we focus upon the nature of truth as constructed through our conceptions of science and progress, questions of style become critical. The challenge is not simply what to write, but how to write it. How do you find a style, a language, that preserves some space around the argument for interpretation and experience? How do you find a style that avoids drawing too heavily upon the power of certainty and yet remains, in some sense, persuasive—one that can make a difference even as it gives up any claim to inevitability, to progress? This has proved the greatest challenge in preparing this thesis, particularly since academic orthodoxies tend to discourage experimentation with the thesis form.

In discussing the writing of environmental history, Tom Griffiths argues that humanities scholars ‘need to advocate the distinctive skills of the storyteller, to defend the logic of poetry, and to champion narrative not just as a means, but a method, and a rigorous and demanding one’. 3 Of course, narrative can be as effective as argument in limiting our choices and interpretations. Founding myths of exploration and conquest are frequently mobilised against diversity and change. The story of Anzac retains its significance even as historians mount wave after wave of critique. But narrative is open to experimentation in ways that argument is not. Storytelling, after all, is everywhere—in film, in television, in literature and art, in the fabric of our lives and interactions. Few of the stories we encounter daily follow a strictly linear or progressive form: they are partial, fragmented, discontinuous, and sometimes contradictory. The variety and vigour of narrative forms offer opportunities to historians. For example, cinematic techniques such as ‘flashbacks, cross-cutting, and the alternation of scene and story’ can, Peter Burke suggests, ‘help historians in their difficult task of revealing the relationship between events and structures and presenting multiple viewpoints’. 4 Such experiments with narrative offer the ability to play with the certainties of argument. They enable us to cross boundaries between disciplines, between author and audience—to inhabit a territory between certainty and doubt.

Andrew Cayton also encourages historians to experiment with narrative, even while warning that they are likely to provoke ‘consternation, if not outright indignation, from colleagues who want books to convey argument and information predictably and efficiently’. 5 Cayton imagines a new synthesis, where argument is embedded within narrative, where the meaning of a series of distinct stories can be told not through signposts and synopses, but by ‘the pattern they form when the reader steps back and sees them as a whole’. 6 It is the experience that matters.

While this thesis does not completely dispense with the convenience of signposts or the power of authorial commentary, the argument is intended to be embedded more than explicit. A series of interconnected stories are presented, but the chronology is rarely linear, and few resolutions are offered. Meaning is developed through sudden shifts in time and subject, through juxtaposition and contrast, through turns of reflexivity—an insistent exploration of irony. Instead of being merely analysed and rejected, the rhetoric of progress is enacted against a reality more complex, more meaningful, more human.

Experiments in historical narrative, Cayton suggests, also provide an opportunity to deal more honestly with the problem of emotion, to admit that historical actors are individuals who experience their world in a way more complex and personal than any conventional argument can allow. ‘How many of us want to explore the idea that human beings sometimes do things that are inexplicable or illogical?’, he asks, ‘To do so would be to engage in history that is untidy at best, to deal with a past that cannot be shoehorned into seeping generalisations about underlying structures’. 7

This thesis uses narrative to give its major characters some space to live their own lives, and not merely serve as the passive victims of argument. This is important, I believe, both as an act of good faith on the part of those of us who are to play with the lives of others, and because emotion and irrationality are frequently defined in opposition to science, as an obstacle to progress. Similarly, the characters, events, and institutions selected as the basis for the narrative are not expected to provide a potted history of Australian science—a catalogue of heroes and highlights. After all, it is against our understanding of progress that such judgements about significance are made. By focusing on events that came to no clear conclusion, on institutions whose achievements were problematic, on individuals whose relevance seems marginal, this thesis attempts to decentre the narrative, to stray from the expected course and challenge our very assumptions of significance and success.

Narrative enables us to restore to the people of the past the emotional complexity of their own experience. But it also allows us to engage with the emotions of our audience. If an argument is embedded within a series of stories, we cannot expect that a reader will be easily able to parrot its major points, to know exactly where they are supposed to be. However, we can hope that they will at least feel something. This thesis aims to communicate with its audience in a way that cannot be reduced to a series of dot points. Instead, it ventures upon a journey whose end-point might be found somewhere within the realm of emotion. It’s the experience that matters.

The metaphor of the journey recurs even as I seek to challenge the spatiality of progress. But journeys need not be strictly linear, our end-points need not be fixed. Progress offers a single path, a simple solution—space is controlled, boundaries fixed, direction unwavering. This thesis attempts to travel a different space, where there is room for uncertainty, disagreement and interpretation. A journey that leaves open many of the questions it raises.



Notes:

  1. Hayden White, The content of the form : narrative discourse and historical representation, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1987.
  2. Judith Brett, ‘The bureaucratization of writing’, Meanjin, vol. 50, no. 4, Summer 1991, p. 519.
  3. Tom Griffiths, Forests of ash, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001, p. 194.
  4. Peter Burke, ‘History of events and the revival of narrative’, in Peter Burke (ed.), New perspectives on historical writing, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 246.
  5. Andrew R L Cayton, ‘Insufficient woe: sense and sensibility in writing nineteenth-century history’, Reviews in American History, vol. 31, 2003, pp. 334-35.
  6. ibid., p. 335.
  7. ibid., p. 336.

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