Big and Little Stories
It was very hard to print out the finished draft of my thesis and drop it off with people several days ago. It’s been even harder to think about what I wanted to write here. Mostly, I think, because my thesis doesn’t feel done. But I know I have to move on with life, and I can’t keep thinking about it much longer.
It wasn’t what I wanted to write. I wanted to write about the little stories that have escaped most of the big histories—the things that have seemed so tangential that they barely represent a footnote in most accounts of what happened in the formative years of documentary photography. I look ahead and I wonder how long it will be before I can write about that. The whole process seems very strange.
I think I shifted from literature to rhetoric because I care more about the little stories. I love teaching writing, and I love it when people can take possession of their own stories, and tell them in their own voice. Most of the academic publishing I’ve read in the field doesn’t really deal with that topic much. It’s more about how to build communities, and how to open people’s eyes politically. That seems strange, because what most people care about most when they write is little stories. Unfortunately, in order to write effectively a person first has to learn to read, and most students aren’t very well equipped in that department. That means teaching them how to spot the trashy, poorly put-together political rhetoric that surrounds them every day. The little stories get lost in the bigger picture. People often try so hard to sound like what they’ve read/heard/seen that they lose sight of themselves too.
I feel like I got lost in the big picture of theory while writing my thesis. It takes forever to explain, clearly at least, how I feel that meaning gets made. Meaning is such a big and complicated word. But I think it starts when someone tries to tell something to someone else. That is the level that interests me most. Not the big Marxist/Feminist cultural implications of it all, but just the simple fact of telling some one something. That’s what is most important to me. That’s why I ended up in discourse analysis and language philosophy, I guess. That’s why I’ve been swimming in it so long.
But sometimes I feel really swallowed up by it all. If you think about just how complicated it is to say anything at all, sometimes it seems like the best thing to do is just shut up. There are always those aesthetes in the crowd who figure the world would be a better place if you did. I can never seem to see it that way. I think its better when people tell their little stories. They are far more interesting in the long haul. Big stories always seem to have either uncomfortable endings, or endings so tidy that you can’t believe them.