(Excerpt from: Experimental Ethnography, Duke University Press, 1999)
Autoethnography: Journeys of the Self
by Catherine Russell
In those early years I got to know the "town" only as the theater of purchases, on which occasions it first became apparent how my father's money could cut a path for us between the shop counters and assistants and mirrors, and the appraising eyes of our mother, whose muff lay on the counter.
Walter Benjamin, "A Berlin Chronicle"
In Benjamin's chronicle of his Berlin childhood, he places the problem of memory centrally: "For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life."(1) The fragmentary recollections that he offers are rich in detail and, like the passage quoted in the epigraph, situate him as a child within a complex network of social relations. A class analysis is projected onto fleeting memories, along with a recognition of gender roles, and even an analysis of the gaze. The materialism of Benjamin's autobiographical account of Berlin is made even more explicit in his Moscow diary, which he described as a text in which "factuality is already theory."(2)
Throughout his various autobiographical writings, a sense of the self emerges that is thoroughly grounded in experience and observation. Walter Benjamin develops as a socially constructed identity, one who finds himself in a shifting series of others, in the topography of city streets, and in the detail of daily life. Theory, philosophy, and intellectual life were inseparable from his own experience of modernity, and his identity as a German Jew pervades his writing in the form of experience, rather than essence. Susan Buck-Morss suggests that "Benjamin perceived his own life emblematically, as an allegory for social reality, and sensed keenly that no individual could live a resolved or affirmative existence in a social world that was neither."(3)
As literary genres, autobiography and ethnography share "a commitment to the actual," and Michael Fisher has argued that "ethnic autobiography" should be recognized as a model of postmodern ethnography.(4) Autobiography is a technique of selfrepresentation that is not a fixed form but is in constant flux. He describes "contemporary autobiography" as an exploration of the fragmented and dispersed identities of late-twentieth-century pluralist society. In this context, ethnic autobiography is an "art of memory" that serves as protection against the homogenizing tendencies of modern industrial culture. Moreover, autobiography has become a powerful tool of cultural criticism, paralleling postmodern theories of textuality and knowledge. Fischer describes the "writing tactics" of autoethnography thus: "Contemporary ethnic autobiographies partake of the mood of metadiscourse, of drawing attention to their linguistic and fictive nature, of using the narrator as an inscribed figure within the text whose manipulation calls attention to authority structures".
This ethnographic mode of self-representation is pervasive in what has become widely recognized as a "new autobiography" in film and video.(5) Autobiography becomes ethnographic at the point where the film- or videomaker understands his or her personal history to be implicated in larger social formations and historical processes. Identity is no longer a transcendental or essential self that is revealed, but a "staging of subjectivity" – a representation of the self as a performance. In the politicization of the personal, identities are frequently played out among several cultural discourses, be they ethnic, national, sexual, racial, and/or class based. The subject "in history" is rendered destabilized and incoherent, a site of discursive pressures and articulations.
The fragmented and hybrid identities produced in the multitude of "personal" films and videos have been celebrated by critics and theorists as forms of "embodied knowledge" and "politics of location."(6) Their tactics are similar to those of the literary form described by Fisher, and yet they also destabilize the very notion of ethnicity. One's body and one's historical moment may be the joint site of experience and identity, and yet hey dolt necessarily add up to ethnicity as an anthropological category. Autoethnography is a vehicle and a strategy for challenging imposed forms of identity and exploring the discursive possibilities of inauthentic subjectivities.
Mary Louise Pratt introduced the term "autoethnography" as an oppositional term: "If ethnographic texts are a means by which Europeans represent to themselves their (usually subjugated) others, autoethnographic texts are those the others construct in response to or in dialogue with those metropolitan representations."(7) Although she denies that autoethnographic texts are "authentic" her attribution of this genre to marginalized subjects is characteristic of writing on autoethnography. My inclusion of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1982) in this chapter is an attempt to expand and modify a concept that, in Pratt's usage, reaffirms the duality of center and margin. Autoethnography can also be a form of what James Clifford calls "self-fashioning," in which the ethnographer comes to represent himself as a fiction, inscribing a doubleness within the ethnographic text: "Though it (ethnography) portrays other selves as culturally constituted, it also fashions an identity authorized to represent, to interpret, even to believe – but always with some irony – the truths of discrepant worlds."(8) Once ethnography is reframed as a self-representation in which any and all subjects are able to enter dicourse in textual form, the distinctions between textual authority and profilmic reality begin to break down. The imperial eye looking back on itself is also a subject in history.
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