Remixing History: Exercises in Style

The art of history is the art of the DJ: a storytelling craft devoted to understanding the movements of bodies in time and space in order to give them life and facilitate relationships among them. Those bodies might be human, nonhuman, textual, phantasmic – in each case, the historian listens and watches and samples and mixes and makes stories with the result. The art of translation is the art of the DJ: a metamorphic craft devoted to understanding and manipulating the bodies of language in order to facilitate movement within and through it. Those bodies might manifest as speech or sound, as text or image – in each case, the translator listens and watches and samples and mixes and makes stories with the result. Remixing History: Exercises in Style (a project that I’m also affectionately referring to as “The Great Unfundable”) suggests that the work of translator, historian, and DJ are fundamentally resonant, and that understanding this can help us understand how storytelling facilitates the transformations of language and flesh as they co-create one another. Here, documents are materials that can be remixed, translation is a kind of remixing technology, and attending to documents from this orientation becomes a way to explore the relationships between bodies, language, and their metamorphoses in history.

Remixing History is part of a series of projects attempting to offer robust and imaginative analyses of rare Manchu documents that bring them to a multidisciplinary audience extending well beyond Qing history or Manchu studies. The project takes, as its case study, the Xiyang yaoshu 西洋藥書/si yang-ni okto-i bithe [Handbook of Western Drugs]. This book, composed some time in the early eighteenth century, collects recipes for treating myriad early modern illnesses and for making remedies and poisons. Written in Manchu – a crucial medium of early modern scientific and medical translation – the recipes used the Manchu script to render drug terminology and concepts from Chinese, French, Latin, and other languages, collecting, juxtaposing, and remixing ingredients, words, and healing arts from these contexts using the Manchu language as a binding and translation device. These recipes do not simply convey directions for producing materials: a recipe is also a literary object and a medium of storytelling. If a recipe does tell a story, the project asks, what kind of story might that be? How might understanding recipes in this way change the way we read and experience them? And how might reading Qing medical and scientific texts with an eye to storytelling form open up creative possibilities for working with the history of Eurasian science and medicine? The project ultimately considers how the recipe, as a mode of storytelling, functioned as a medium of exchange across early modern Eurasia.

Proceeding from that premise, and inspired by the work of Raymond Queneau, whose eponymous book created 99 stories out of a single account by translating it into 99 different forms, Remixing History approaches recipes as vehicles for storytelling by translating them into a range of narrative genres: fairy tale, three-act drama, dialogue, bestiary, constellation, riddle, and more. The book project in its current shape is divided into five sections that each offer multiple translations of the same recipe. Each translation reveals something particular about how the parts of the recipe cohere, whether it is by understands the movement of a medical cure as a climactic narrative manifesting in flesh (as in a three-act drama), or exploring how the materials in a medical drug work as a set of multiple dyadic relationships (as in a dialogue), or setting into relief the power of contingency in making medical bodies (as in a choose-your-own-adventure). The project argues that each of these story-translations offers a different way of paying attention to a single text and seeing how recipes organize and manipulate materials. It argues that understanding the work of these recipes and their translations in relation to that of a DJ reveals translation to be a method for watching and listening to relations in space and time, and using the results to transform and combine elements to tell stories that help move those elements in particular ways. Translation becomes a kind of musical composition that takes bodies – of people, words, plants, stones, vessels – as its instruments. Ultimately, as the book will argue, we can understand the craft of history in an analogous way.

The Great Unfundable began as a series of posts for The Recipes Project, and you can link to those early posts here:

1: Narrating Qing Bodies

2: A Drama of Butter and Pearls

3: Fairy Tale Drugs

4: The Girl, the Scorpion, and the Doctor

5: Fluid Translation 1

6: Fluid Translation 2

7: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 1

8: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 2 – WITH

9: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 3 – IF

10: Recipes in Time and Space, Part 4 – AFTER

11. Recipes in Time and Space, Part 5 – …A Flowing Oil…

12. Recipes in Time and Space, Part 6 – BETWEEN

13. Recipes in Time and Space, Part 7 – BETWEEN Pt 2

14. Recipes in Time and Space, Part 8 – BETWEEN Pt. 3

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