I used to think that the purpose of research was to shed light on a particular phenomenon.
A scientist interested in why snakes slither, for example, or how it is that sound travels through space, might design a series of experiments.
An historian who wants to know more about the intricacies of a certain conflict will likely rely on the documentary evidence—photographs, letters, court records, newspaper reports—that remains.
A sociologist interested in the relationships between people in different jobs in a given work environment will probably interview a range of different people in an organization or business.
Anthropologists who want to learn more about culture will immerse themselves into communities, living and researching alongside those who call those communities home.
And memoirists plumb the depths of their own memories, analyzing their own experiences as they might analyze the experiences of others. In all cases, the goal seems to be to shed light on a particular issue of interest or concern.
But what happens when there is no light to shed, or, perhaps, when the light that is shed is dim, wavery? What happens when the truths we’re searching won’t reveal themselves? When the story we’re following appears to come to an end. What then?
In his 2017 book, The Art of Creative Research, Philip Gerard quotes the words of a poet named Emily Wilson, who discovered, in Gerard’s words, “that there are some things she will just never be able to find out” (206). Interestingly, this doesn’t shut down Wilson’s work. Rather, in Wilson’s words:
My poetry-manuscript-in-progress now has a trajectory, an arc of revealed information that creates a journey. The starting point of that journey was a state of unknowing, and I haven’t yet reached the ending point – because there isn’t one. The progression of my manuscript will flow from unknowing to unknowing a little less. And this is okay. The research process taught me that unknowing is not an acceptable excuse for being inactive but that active unknowing is also okay.” (qtd. 206)
In What the Oceans Remember, I worked with the kinds of archival materials that seem purposely designed to obfuscate: colonial government and administrative records. This material was—and remains—challenging. I can’t get inside it. I can’t find my way through it. And so, much remains unspoken, unsaid….when it comes right down to it, much remains not only unknown but also, ultimately, unknowable.
As a result, what Wilson calls “active unknowing” fuelled my commitment to equally active speculation. Active unknowing formed the basis for using what I did know to undergird a range of possible knowings. Some of those knowings may be close to the truth; others may not.
In the process, I did indeed shed some light. It’s dim. It’s wavery. Sometimes it flickers. But from other angles, it’s a spotlight, a surprise, a revelation.
There are many things I still do not know. Many more that I will never know.
And that’s okay.
(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.