112d. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds., Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, continued
According to the editors, the chapters included in Part III, “Critical and Indigenous Methodologies,” “reflexively implement critical indigenous methodologies. . . . by transforming, rereading, and criticizing existing research practices, including life story, life history, ethnographic, autoethnographic, narrative, visual, and postcolonial methodologies” (323). They also elaborate on their earlier definition of indigenous methodology: “Critical indigenous methodologies,” they write,
implement indigenous pedagogies. They are fitted to the needs and traditions of specific indigenous communities. This fitting process may include creating new methodologies, as well as modifying existing practices. In each instance, pragmatic and moral criteria apply. The scholar must ask if these practices or modifications will produce knowledge that will positively benefit this indigenous community. And if so, which members? Of course, this answer cannot always be given in advance. The meaning of any set of actions is only visible in the consequences that follow from the action. (323)
This statement could just as well be applied to research in or with Indigenous communities, and I find myself wondering exactly how education researchers in particular, or social scientists in general, use the term “pedagogy.” Clearly it means something more than just teaching or curriculum. Exactly how much more I can’t say, because I don’t know.
Elizabeth Cook-Lynn’s essay, “History, Myth, and Identity in the New Indian Story,” begins by suggesting that “[t]here are historic and mythic journeys everywhere in Native narratives,” so to call attention to “history, myth, and identity” in Indigenous literature, including “the so-called new Indian story,” a term that seems to mean contemporary Indigenous fiction, means “going back to origins” (329). Going back to those origins leads to a recognition of the importance of geography and language, and it also means recognizing “the holy people and . . . all of the creature worlds and sights and sounds of the universe which surround human beings and their lives” (329). “It seems to me that in terms of the imaginative concepts, which are evident in Indian narratives, origin myths and historical migrations are probably the least accessible and least well known of the influences,” she continues. “Yet, they resonate in the most humble of stories and poems” (329). Her example is one of her own stories, which is probably not the most convincing strategy to use in an essay such as this one. But it does lead to a question: “How does this storytelling assist in understanding the definition of the term indigenous as well as the function of indigenous origins in modern thought?” (330).
“[I]f we accept the notion that ideas and concepts of origin are essential elements of an indigenous text, we are required as readers to look more deeply into the cultural translations that such a story presents,” Cook-Lynn writes. “The recording of Native views while investigating philosophical formulations has always been the purpose of storytelling, especially that storytelling that tells one generation of listeners what the previous generation has come to know through the long tenancy of the tribe in specific geography” (330). That “reality” is what distinguishes Indigenous storytelling “from other more modern categories of storytelling” (330). However, she continues, “[i]t is an unfortunate reality that the study of American Indian literatures today, with few exceptions, reveals that the new Indian Story being told in the mainstream is rarely believed to be the bearer of traditional knowledge, history, or myth” (330). She defines what she calls “new Indian Story” as the “contemporary genre” called “Native American literatures,” and suggests that “since many American Indian writers today are not the practicing singers and chanters, tribal ritualists, medicine healers, and even committed participants in what may be called a ‘tribal world,’” we should not expect to find traditional knowledge in their work (330-31). Many writers know little about ceremony or ritual or tradition or language; what they are good at “is telling stories, writing novels, practicing poetry and drama, writing memoirs and essays, making movies, and doing journalism” (331). Nevertheless, “origin stories . . . remain the stuff of tradition in the new narrative and, ultimately, are what we rely on when we talk of ‘identity’” (331). “Native literatures are replete with these origin stories,” she states, and they are meant literally, because Indigenous peoples “understand the functions of storytelling as chronologies of the past and the future” (331). I don’t understand how those functions mean that origin stories must be taken literally.
“The truth is, our literatures have suffered the oppression of colonial intrusion, much knowledge is forgotten or ignored, and we as Native people have often been confused or disillusioned as to what it all means in terms of contemporary lives,” Cook-Lynn writes (331). Part of that intrusion is an imposition of what she calls “the master narrative,” or the Settler version of who Indigenous peoples are (331). “Much of what American Indian literary works have been doing has been to dispute that legacy of colonial intrusion, and in doing so, mythic sensibilities are rediscovered and reclaimed,” she continues. “The ‘master narrative’ is coming under closer scrutiny, and the return to tradition is becoming more important in the Native American story” (331). “The function of mythology . . . from which all ideas about origins emerge, is an essential part of that scrutiny,” and because it is up to Indigenous peoples to talk about the Indigenous life of this continent, “concepts of indigenousness are developed, personalities are identified, events that shape eras are reviewed, and geographies become the center of cultural endeavour” (332). These concepts, personalities, events, and geographies are central to Indigenous origin stories. “[O]ne of the reasons to continue to tell the stories is to remind all of us that we are in danger of losing respect for all living things, including each other,” she continues. “We have lost some kind of communal common sense, and we really do need to talk to one another about how to bring about a new period in our concomitant histories” (332).
Cook-Lynn laments the fact that “the greatest body of acceptable telling of the Indian story is still in the hands of non-Natives” (332-33). “This means that the Indian story, as it is told outside of the tribal genres and the Indian character, has its own modern imprimatur,” she states (333). Cook-Lynn spends the next several pages discussing Settler literary texts about Indigenous peoples, as well as biographies collected by ethnographers, such as Black Elk Speaks; those biographies are “required reading” for understanding “the pathology of Whites and Indians in America” (336). These “‘informant-based’ Indian stories” are “offshoots of biography” (336). She suggests that readers and writers of biography (apparently not just biographies of Indigenous people) are motivated by “voyeurism and busybodyism” and that biographers are like burglars looking for jewelry (337). The writer of “the ‘informant-based’ Indian story,” she contends, “almost always take sides with the ‘informant’ who gives him or her specific answers to specific questions. The writer/biographer is a believer. That is the nature of the relationship between the Indian informant and writer, and that’s what gives the story its authority for the reader” (337). However, “that’s also what makes these stories neither history nor art in terms of Native intellectualism” (337). For Cook-Lynn, those texts are “anti-intellectual,” because they lack ambiguity, and because their “essential focus is America’s dilemma, not questions about who the Indian thinks he or she is in tribal America” (337-38). These texts are thus “political in nature, colonialistic in perspective, and one-sided” (338). What she calls “Native American intellectualism” is interested in “tribal indigenousness,” and that factor “makes the ‘life story,’ the ‘self’-oriented and nontribal story, seem unrecognizable or even unimportant, non-communal, and unconnected” (338). “If stories are to have any meaning, Indian intellectuals must ask what it means to be an Indian in tribal America,” she argues. “If we don’t attempt to answer that question, nothing else will matter, and we won’t have to ask ourselves whether there is such a thing as Native American intellectualism because there will no longer be evidence of it” (338). I’m not sure I follow this argument; surely the range of Indigenous writing, from Taiaiake Alfred to Leanne Simpson, is evidence that Indigenous intellectuals exist. I must be missing something important. And why is she conflating the category of intellectual with the category of writer? I don’t follow.
Next, Cook-Lynn turns to writers she describes as “mixed-bloods” and complains that in their work there is “much lip service given to the condemnation of America’s treatment of the First Nations” but “few useful expressions of resistance and opposition to the colonial history at the core of Indian/White relations” (338). Instead, she sees “explicit and implicit accommodation to the colonialism of the ‘West’” that has led to “an aesthetic that is pathetic or cynical, a tacit notion of the failure of tribal governments as Native institutions and of sovereignty as a concept, and an Indian identity that focuses on individualism rather than First Nation ideology” (338). She cites Gerald Vizenor’s work as an example and describes “the ‘postcolonial’ story” as “the so-called mixed-blood story,” and suggests that “mixed-bloodedness has become the paradigm of preference” because the “bicultural nature of Indian lives has always been a puzzle to the monoculturalists of America” (338). Another example is the work of Louise Erdrich, which depicts “an inadequate Chippewa political establishment and a vanishing Anishinabe culture” that “suggests the failure of tribal sovereignty and the survival of myth in the modern world” (338-39). According to Cook-Lynn, “Erdrich’s conclusion is an odd one, in light of the reality of Indian life in the substantial Native enclaves of places like South Dakota or Montana or Arizona or New Mexico” (339). That may be, but perhaps Erdrich’s conclusion fits her experience? Or is Cook-Lynn arguing that only positive representations of Indigenous life are appropriate?
Cook-Lynn decries the “plethora of stories of the individual Indian life, biographies, and autobiographies of emancipated Indians who have little or no connection to tribal national life” that “has become the publishing fare of university presses in the name of Native scholarship” (339). She also complains of works of fiction in the 1990s that “catalogue the deficit model of Indian reservation life” and “do not suggest a responsibility of art as an ethical endeavor or the artist as responsible social critic,” which she considers “a marked departure from the early renaissance works of such luminaries as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko” (339). The key words in that critique are “ethical” and “responsible”: for Cook-Lynn, Adrian Louis (whose work I don’t know) is neither ethical or responsible in his fiction. “The failure of the contemporary Indian novel and literary studies in Native American studies to contribute substantially to intellectual debates in defense of First Nationhood is discouraging,” she writes, and writers and scholars at American universities have refused or been unable “to use a nation-to-nation approach to Native intellectualism” in their work. Instead, “[a] ‘tolerant’ national climate with resourceful diversity curricula has forged the apparatuses through which the study of aesthetics, ideology, and identity in Native thought has flourished to the detriment of autonomous models in Native studies,” and as a result, “there has been little defense of tribal nationhood, and the consequences of that flaw are deeply troubling”:
Indian Nations are dispossessed of sovereignty in literary studies, and there as elsewhere, their natural and legal autonomy is described as simply another American cultural or ethnic minority. Scholarship shapes the political, intellectual, and historical nation-to-nation past as an Americanism that can be compared to any other minority past. Many successful Native writers whose major focus is “mixed-blood liberation and individualism seem to argue their shared victimhood through America’s favorite subjects about Indians (i.e., despair, rootlessness, and assimilation). (339)
The contemporary “American literary voice seems dependent on a university setting,” where few Indigenous people “reside” and those few “are notable for their willingness to change tribal traditions to mainstream traditions of modernity, transcribing in English and imagining in art some principles of personal (but not tribal) politics and expressing the Indian experience in assimilative and mainstream terms” (339-40).
“The mixed-blood literature is characterized by excesses of individualism” and “are the result more of the dominance and patriarchy most noted in American society than of tribalness,” Cook-Lynn continues. “Mixed-blood literary instruction may be viewed as a kind of liberation phenomenon or, more specifically, a deconstruction of a tribal nation past, hardly an intellectual movement that can claim a continuation of the tribal communal story or an ongoing tribal literary tradition” (340). “The omnipresent and evasive role of the urban mixed-blood Indian intellectual writer has not bee examined in its relationship to tribal nation hopes and dreams,” and such writing represents “a movement of considerable consequence whose aim seems to be to give instruction to the academic world about what the imperialistic dispossession imposed on American Indians through the development of capitalistic democracy has meant to the individual, emancipated Indian” (340). The “mixed-blood literary movement” also suggests “that a return to tribal sovereignty on Indian homelands seems to be a lost cause, and American individualism will out” (340). The legacy of such writing will be more assimilation “and confusion as economic questions and cultural questions and federal Indian policy questions become more a matter of power than doctrine” (340). She suggests that this movement “is led by those whose tribal past has never been secure” and that it “is simply the result of the economy and culture imposed by conquest and colonization and politics” (340).
Cook-Lynn cites Antonio Gramsci to argue that these writers “are failed intellectuals because they have not lived up to the responsibility of transmitting knowledge between certain diverse blocs of society,” which from her perspective suggests “that the mixed-blood literary movement arose as a result of the assimilation inherent in cultural studies driven by American politics and imperialism” (340). According to Gramsci, the function of intellectuals is “to be at the forefront of theory but, at the same time, to transmit ideas to those who are not of the so-called professional, academic, intellectual class” (340). She cites Vine Deloria’s contention that “a turn away from academe toward tribal knowledge bases that exist at a grassroots level is the answer to the complex dilemmas of modern scholarship in Indian affairs,” which leads to the suggestion that ideas “are to be generated from the inside of culture, not from the outside looking in” (340). “It is evident that the mixed-blood literary phenomenon is not generated from the inside of tribal culture since many of the practitioners admit they have been removed from cultural influence through urbanization and academic professionalization or even, they suggest, through biology and intermarriage,” and as a result, it is “a literary movement of disengagement” (341):
When writers and researchers and professors who claim mixed blood focus on individualism and liberation, they often do not develop ideas as part of an inner-unfolding theory of Native culture; thus, they do not contribute ideas as a political practice connected to First Nation ideology. No one will argue that Native studies has had as its central agenda the critical questions of race and politics. For Indians in America today, real empowerment lies in First Nation ideology, not in individual liberation of Americanization. (341)
Cook-Lynn suggests that “[t]he explosion of the mixed-blood literary phenomenon is puzzling to those who believe that the essential nature of intellectual work and critical reflection for American Indians is to challenge the politics of dispossession inherent in public policy toward Indian nationhood” (341). Not only is it puzzling, but it is also dangerous, because those involved, “people who have no stake in First Nation ideology,” want “to absolve themselves of their responsibility to speak to that ideology,” and “their self-interest in job seeking, promotion, publishing, tenure, and economic security, dismisses the seriousness of Native intellectual work and its connection to politics” (341).
The work produced by “the mixed-blood literary movement” is “personal, invented, appropriated, and irrelevant to First Nation status in the United States,” and it can lead to “no important pedagogical movement . . . toward those defensive strategies that are among the vital functions of intellectualism: to change the world, to know it, and to make it better by knowing how to seek appropriate solutions to human problems” (341). “How long, then, can mixed-blood literary figures teach a Native American curriculum in literary studies of self-interest and personal narrative before they realize . . . that the nature of the structural political problems facing the First Nation in America is being marginalized and silenced by the very work they are doing?” she asks (341). Well, at least now I know what Cook-Lynn means when she refers to Indigenous intellectuals: it is a very specific definition focused on the “tribal nation” (340) and “tribal culture” (341) and excludes “mixed-blood” or urban Indigenous people.
Cook-Lynn goes on to criticize contemporary writers for taking “an art for art’s sake approach,” although she also complains that “much bad poetry (which should be called ‘doggerel’) and bad fiction (which should be called ‘pop art’) has been published in the name of Native American art” (341). She cites John Gardner’s contention that “bad art has a harmful effect on society,” and demands that responsible critics distinguish between literary fiction and popular fiction (341). According to Cook-Lynn, “there are such concepts as (a) moral fiction and (b) indigenous/tribally specific literary traditions from which the imagination emerges,” and that there needs to be a discussion of “what is literary art and what is trash or fraudulent or pop in North American literatures,” although only a few “American Indian writers” would “have the stomach for” such a discussion (341-42). She again cites Momaday’s 1968 novel House Made of Dawn (which I don’t know) as a classic “not imply because it adheres to the principles of the oral traditions of the tribes,” or “because it seeks out the sources of ritual and ceremony, language, and storytelling,” although both aspects are “essential”:
It is considered a classic because it is a work that explores traditional values, revealing truth and falsity about those values from a framework of tribal realism. It is diametrically opposed to fantasy, which often evades or suppresses moral issues. Momaday’s work allows profound ideas to be conceptualized, allows its Indian readers to work through those ideas and move on to affirm their lives as Indian people. (342)
House Made of Dawn also “adheres to the Gardner principle and the principles of the oral traditions that good stories incline the reader to an optimistic sense” (342). She wants the ideas contained in literary texts to contain ideas that are “life affirming to the indigenes” (342).
“[I]f untrammeled and unexamined,” the “art for art’s sake phenomenon” will let “Indian artists off the hook” and lead them “away from what some of us may consider a responsibility to our own tribal traditions. Though modernity suggests the inevitability of that moving away for the sake of a living art, I am not sure that are can be considered art if it ignores its own historical sense” (342). She deplores the tendency towards magic realism in contemporary Indigenous fiction, noting that it arose in Spanish-language, South-American literature, which she describes as a colonizing literature. This interest in magic realism, she argues, “could be thought of . . . as another generic imposition upon the indigenous story. And the question of distortion in American Indian intellectualism or its outright dismissal again looms” (342). She asks what magic realism distorts in relation to Indigenous cultures (342). “Do we accept the idea that the current Indian story rises out of ‘The Age of mixed-blood and magical fantasies’?” she asks. “If not, artists and critics must come to understand that popular Native American fiction is as extricably tied to specific tribal legacies as contemporary Jewish literature is tied to the literary legacies of the nations of Eastern Europe or contemporary Black literature is tied to the nations of tribal Africa” (343).
In the concluding section of Cook-Lynn’s essay, “The Dilemma,” she asks “how it is that what might be called experimental work in contemporary Native American literature or ‘pulp fiction’ narratives or fantasies will assist us with our real lives” (343). “Does this art give thoughtful consideration to the defense of our lands, resources, languages, and children?” she asks. “Is anyone doing the intellectual work in and about Indian communities that will help us understand our future? While it is true that any indigenous story tells of death and blood, it also tells of indigenous rebirth and hope, not as Americans or as some new ersatz race but as the indigenes of this continent” (343). “Does the Indian story as it is told now end in rebirth of Native nations as it did in the past?” she continues. “Does it help in the development of worthy ideas, prophecies for a future in which we continue as tribal people who maintain the legacies of the past and a sense of optimism?” (343). These, for Cook-Lynn, are essential questions for Indigenous writers; texts that do not address them “have little or nothing to do with what may be defined as Native intellectualism” (343):
What is Native intellectualism, then? Who are the intellectuals? Are our poets and novelists articulating the real and the marvelous in celebration of the past, or are they the doomsayers of the future? Are they presenting ideas, moving through those ideas and beyond? Are they the ones who recapture the past and preserve it? Are they thinkers who are capable of supplying principles that may be used to develop further ideas? Are they capable of the critical analysis of cause and effect? Or, are our poets and novelists just people who glibly use the English language to entertain us, to keep us amused and preoccupied so that we are no longer capable of making the distinction between the poet and the stand-up comedian? Does that distinction matter anymore? Does it matter how one uses language and for what purpose? (343)
She suggests that the work of Alfonso Ortiz, N. Scott Momaday, and Vine Deloria, Jr. was “based in history and culture and politics that looked out on the White world from a communal, tribally specific indigenous past” (343-44). She sees little in contemporary Indigenous writing, however, that “has the perspective that propelled Ortiz, Momaday, and Deloria toward a scholarship that concerned itself with indigenousness” (344). Contemporary Indigenous literature is not “profound” and it “does not pose the unanswerable questions for our future as Indians in America” (344).
Cook-Lynn has other questions to ask: “Who says our modern works, which focus on the pragmatic problems of the noncommunal world of multicultural America, are worthy to be the lasting works in our legacy of artistry?” (344). And “who says that the modern works written by American Indians, introspective and self-centred,” have gotten “it right”? (344). “[T]he modern Indian story (whether told by an Indian or a non-Indian) seems to have taken a very different course from its traditional path in Native societies,” she writes. “In doing so, it has defined the literary place where the imaginative final encounter may be staged and only time holds the answer to its continuity or rejection or obligation or interdiction” (344). “Native intellectuals,” whom she describes as “dabbling” in “a rather shallow pool of imagination and culture,” “must pull ourselves together not only to examine the irrelevant stories of ‘other’ storytellers”—I think she means non-Indigenous writers who take on Indigenous topics here—“but to critically examine the self-centred stories we presume to tell about our own people” (344).
Cook-Lynn has very definite ideas about how Indigenous stories ought to be told, and she is not unwilling to be prescriptive:
Indian stories, traditions, and languages must be written, and they must be written in a vocabulary that people can understand rather than the esoteric language of French and Russian literary scholars that has overrun the lit-crit scene. Scholars in Native intellectual circles must resist the flattery that comes from many corners, defend freedom, refute rejection from various power enclaves, and resist the superficiality that is so much a part of the modern/urban voice. We must work toward a new set of principles that recognizes the tribally specific literary traditions by which we have always judged the imagination. This distinguished legacy—largely untapped by critics, mainstream readers, and Native participants—is too essential to be ignored as we struggle toward the inevitable modernity of Native American intellectualism. (344-45)
“[T]he business of history and myth and identity for American Indians and for all of us is a complex matter,” Cook-Lynn continues. “It deserves our attention” (345). Yet colonialism “has dealt a crushing blow to all of this world that I have been describing here briefly,” she writes. Nevertheless, “[d]espite the crimes of history, we write. We continue as poets, novelists, fictionists, parents, grandparents. We continue to want the stories. We have little power, but that does not mean that we have no influence” (345). It is her business as a writer and scholar, she states, “to remember the past and recall the old ways of the people. Literature and myth and history have always been the way to shape a new world” (345). She ends by citing her own writing as an example of work that sees the world through the optic of “tribal experiences” (345).
I’m not sure what to make of Cook-Lynn’s argument—and as a môniyâw, I’m not sure it’s my business to pass judgement on the claims she makes here—but I am very uncomfortable with its prescriptive nature and its attack on “mixed-blood” writers. Neither strikes me as particularly useful or helpful. However, I’ll have to ask my friends who are experts in the area what they think of this essay (or, at least, my summary of it).
I skipped “‘Self’ and ‘Other’: Auto-Reflexive and Indigenous Ethnography,” by Keyan G. Tomaselli, Lauren Dyll, and Michael Francis, because I have no intention of engaging in ethnography in my project (autoethnography, perhaps, but ethnography, no), and turned to “Autoethnography is Queer,” by Tony E. Adams and Stacy Holman Jones. I have a lengthy book on autoethnography edited by Adams, Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis, and if it isn’t on my reading list, it probably should be—but perhaps this essay will give me enough of a preview. (Probably not, though.) They begin with an anecdote that leads to a discussion of the distinction between “subjugated knowledges,” which “are present but disguised in theory and method, criticism and scholarship, experience and disciplinary (and disciplining) conversations,” and “knowledge of subjugation—stories of struggle, oppression, humiliation” (374). They cite Craig Gingrich-Philbrook’s questioning of whether “stories of loss, failure, and resistance don’t often work as ‘advertisements for power’”:
He wonders if such stories ask us to hew to an overly formalist view of what not only constitutes autoethnography but what makes for successful, viable, and remarkable personal storytelling in the name of autoethnography or any other academic pursuit. He wonders if our interest in realism, in evocation, in proving—once and for all—that what autoethnographers and experimental writers are doing is scholarship—trades in and betrays literary ambiguity, writerly vulnerability, institutional bravery, difference, and artistry. He suggests that telling stories of subjugated knowledges—stories of pleasure, gratification, and intimacy—offers one possibility for writing against and out of the bind of sacrificing a multitudinous artistry for clear, unequivocal knowledge. (374)
Oh, dear, I find myself wondering, is this more prescription—this time, prescribing what kinds of stories autoethnographers ought to tell? Besides, what does the phrase “trades in” mean in that sentence? What is the relationship between trading in something—marketing it to others—and betrayal? And are social scientists really artists? Wouldn’t they have to dump the word “sciences” from the noun phrase “social sciences” and call themselves “social artists” instead? Does art have scientific value? Is that its purpose? Really?
The authors return to the anecdote with which the essay begins—a story about being recognized at Starbucks—to suggest “that something socially and culturally and politically significant—something queer—happened” in that encounter (374). “What are the possibilities of particular, ambiguous, mundane, queer stories of encounter?” they ask:
What are the promises and possibilities of this artistry (a word I substituted, just now, for work) for qualitative research and critical methodologies? Will such stories help us generate some type of agreement about the value, seriousness, and commitment of autoethnographic work, our approach in engaging such work, and our recognition of those who are doing it and doing it well? Will such stories provide a counterpoint to the balancing act of telling of loss and pleasure, despair and hope? Will such stories help us decide who gets invited to speak, who gets an audience, who gets tenure, who gets acknowledged? Will such stories help us build communities, maintain borders, live somewhere in between? I’m not sure they will and I’m not sure I want them to. (374)
That last sentence leaves me wondering what the point of all of this has been. What do the authors actually want autoethnography to do?
“Autoethnography, whether a practice, a writing form, or a particular perspective on knowledge and scholarship, hinges on the push and pull between and among analysis and evocation, personal experience and larger social, cultural, and political concerns,” they continue in the essay’s next section, “Hinge” (374). The authors write that “attempts to locate, to tie up, to define autoethnography as as diverse as our perspectives on what autoethnography are as diverse as our perspectives on what autoethnography is and what we want it to do” (374). Such attempts try to “delineate the relationship of self or selves (informant, narrator, I) and others/communities/cultures (they, we, society, nation, state)” in different ways: as extractive, as personal, as an “evocatively rendered, aesthetically compelling, and encounter,” as an art form that “exhibits aesthetic merit, reflexivity, emotional and intellectual force, and a clear sense of a cultural, social, individual, or communal reality” (374-75). Autoethnography in this formulation, they continue, “is an effort to set a scene, tell a story, and create a text that demands attention and participation; makes witnessing and testifying possible; and puts pleasure, difference, and movement into productive conversation” (375). Why “movement”? Is that word meant literally or metaphorically? What is moving, and where is it going?
Opening up “definitional boundaries” is another way of approaching autoethnography, they continue (375). In this approach, autoethnography is an “‘orientation toward scholarship,” rather than “a method, a specific set of procedures, or a mode of representation” (Gingrich-Philbrook, qtd. 375). This approach “does not abandon intersections or interests but instead makes the politics of knowledge and experience central to what autoethnography is and does, as well as what it wants to be and become” (375). With the addition of performance and embodiment, autoethnography becomes “‘a way of seeing and being [that] challenges, contests, or endorses the official, hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other’” (Denzin, qtd. 375). Okay, but what other form or method or orientation discussed in this handbook does not challenge or potentially endorse “hegemonic ways of seeing and representing the other”? Isn’t that a claim made about everything that’s been discussed in this handbook so far?
In any case, “[t]he actions and meanings that we invoke and engage when we utter and inscribe the word ‘autoethnography’ conjure a variety of methodological approaches and techniques, writing practices, and scholarly and disciplinary traditions” (375). There is no single definition “or set of practices” involved; instead, “an abstract, open, and flexible space of movement is necessary to let the doing of autoethnography begin, happen, and grow” (375). However, such a “considered, differential positioning has also caused worry about whose or what traditions we’re working in, which methods of analysis and aesthetic practice we’re using (or ignoring), and whether we can co-exist peacefully while at the same time generating positive movement (and change) in our multiplicity” (375). Beyond “the crises of legitimation, representation, and praxis,” there are questions about “the relationship between analysis and evocation, personal experience and larger concerns, and the reason we do this work at all,” they continue. “Is it to advance theory and scholarship? To engage in an artistic and necessarily circuitous practice? To render clean lines of inquiry and mark sure meanings and thus knowledge? To change the world?” (375). Are these ambitions incompatible? If so, can autoethnographers acknowledge their differences and claim their own versions of autoethnography? “We could also return to the oppositions and to the hinge, to the elemental movement . . . that work these oppositions,” they write. “And, returning there, we could ask what the hinge holds and pieces together, here solidly, there weakening, in many places coming undone: analysis and evocation, experience and world, apples and oranges” (375). “We could also ask what our hinges do, what versions of lives, embodiments, and power these hinges put in motion, what histories they make go,” they continue (375-76).
According to the authors, those are fundamental questions that go “beyond contextualization, historicization, and reflexivity to intervene in the very construction of such constructions” (376). Those questions “ask questions about what counts—as experience, as knowledge, as scholarship, as opening up possibilities for doing things and being in the world differently” (376). (Can questions ask questions?) They also ask questions about who gets to be recognized as human (376). “Asking these questions suggests that we dismantle the hinge—that we become ‘unhinged’—from ‘linear narrative deployment,’ creating work and texts that turn ‘language and bodies in upon themselves reflecting and redirecting subaltern knowledges,’ and in which ‘fragments of lived experience collide and realign with one another, breaking and remaking histories’” (Tami Spry, qtd. 376). But at the same time those questions “also remind us of the necessity of the hinge, of the ink that it makes, however, tenuously, to others even in the release of their hold on us,” a necessity that “speaks to the threat of ‘becoming undone altogether,’ creating selves, texts, and worlds that no longer incorporate the ‘norm’ (of sociality, of discourses, of knowledges, of intelligibility) in ways that make these selves, texts, and worlds recognizable as such” (376). They cite Judith Butler on “the juncture from which critique emerges” (qtd. 376), which they take to be the same as the hinges they are discussing.
Next, the authors present a list of what seem to be characteristics of autoethnography’s hinge, quoting Judith Butler, Chandra Mohanty, and Chela Sandoval as they do so:
The claiming of experience, of a personal story, of humanity in the struggle over self-representation, interpretation, and recognition. The accounting for oneself as constituted relationally, socially, in terms not entirely (or in any way) our own. The movement between two “traps, the purely experiential and the theoretical oversight of personal and collective histories.” The performative space both within and outside of subjects, structures, and differences where the activist (the writer, the performer, the scholar) becomes in the moment of acting (the moment of writing, performing, doing scholarship). Where we are made in the same way the judge, promiser, oath taker is made in the act of judging, promising, or swearing an oath. The hinge is an instrument of transitivity, a moral movement that is inspired and linked, acting and acted upon. The hinge asks us to align what may seem divided perspectives—without forgetting their differences or their purposeful movements—in order to “puncture through the everyday narratives that tie us to social time and space, to the descriptions, recitals, and plots that dull and order our senses.” (quoting Butler, Mohanty, and Sandoval 376)
After presenting these different perspectives on autoethnography, the authors reveal their own position: they agree with Sandoval’s argument for “a ‘differential’ methodology that aims at tactically, and we might add tectonically, shifting ways of being, knowing, and acting in the world” (376). (The word “tectonically” is hyperbole: do we actually expect our research to make the earth move?) “As one point, or tactic for departure, we explore the hinge that links autoethnography and queer theory,” they continue:
We wonder if, in the binding and alliance of autoethnography and queer theory—if in recognizing ways these “broad orientations” complement and fail each other—we might emerge with something else, something new. We are not after a homogenizing blend or a nihilistic prioritizing of concerns. . . . Instead, we want a transformation of the identities and categories, commitments and possibilities that autoethnography conjures and writes, as well as the identities and categories, commitments and possibilities of autoethnography itself. We wonder what happens when we think, say, do, and write: autoethnography is queer. (376-77)
Well, you can’t say that Holman Jones and Adams aren’t ambitious. But honestly, is any academic essay likely to transform “the identities and categories, commitments and possibilities” that autoethnography, or any other form of research, generates or represents? One of the problems I have with such claims, which I see repeated throughout this anthology, is their utter lack of humility, their incapacity to recognize the limits of possibility of academic research, their claims to a political efficacy that cannot possibly be realized. That’s one of the reasons I keep hoping for examples of the methodologies described by these texts: I am looking for at least one example of a methodology that can support the theoretical claims these authors make. So far, I’ve been disappointed, probably because the revolutionary fervour in the theory is impossible to put into practice.
In the essay’s next section, the authors respond in poetry to poetry written by Minnie Bruce Pratt. It’s an example of autoethnography, an account of trying to write a paper, or perhaps give a paper (the narrative context is not clear until the end of the section) and it leads to a larger significance. “I want to say that this poetry does not stop or end with queer,” they write. “The our poetry does not stop or end with radical historicization, with questioning categories or normalization, with turning cutting language inside out or making manifest violent and colonizing hierarchies, though these are things that must be done” (378). It’s not entirely clear whether the authors are talking about their own poetry, or Pratt’s, or both, or the collective poetry of the LGBTQ+ community. In any case, the poetry they are describing clearly has large political ambitions. They continue:
I want to say that such poetry, such a poetics, is also a chance for movement, a means to transform the static of a noun—queer—into the action of a verb—queering. I want to speak about moving theory play into methodological activism. I want to say, autoethnography is queer. I want to make autoethnography into performative speech that creates a freedom from having to be “careful about what we say” (Pratt, qtd. 378)
Let’s leave aside the equation between poetry and poetics (the words are not typically considered synonyms) and the claim that “queer” is a noun (it’s a verb, a noun, and an adjective, according to the OED) or that “queering” is a verb (as a participle, yes, but as a gerund, it’s a noun). What claim is actually being made here? What does “queer” mean in this context? What about the slippage between “queer” as an identity and as a broader subversion of orthodoxy? Isn’t the latter usage an appropriation? Doesn’t the fact of that appropriation need to be addressed—if indeed that’s the way they are using the word? At the end of the section, the authors write of being prevented from finishing their presentation: “I am asked, then told, that I am finished” (378). The common conference phenomenon of running over one’s allotted time seems to have become an act of political repression. Again, we run into the phenomenon of poetry, claimed as a methodology, not being peer reviewed by other poets, a necessary characteristic of a methodology. The nearly obsolete word “poetaster” comes to mind.
My questions about the word “queer” are addressed in the essay’s next section. They cite Judith Butler’s definition—that queering is a redeployment or twisting from “a ‘prior usage’ (derogatory, accusatory, violent) in the ‘direction of urgent and expanding political purposes” (Butler, qtd. 378). “Queer theory refuses to close down inventiveness, refuses static legitimacy,” they write. “One could argue that queer theory has discursively achieved this legitimation and sanctioning, a form of normalcy, but it can attempt to work against this normalcy, never becoming comfortable with itself as a sensibility of its cultural acceptance” (378). However, “many queer theorists unfortunately have a difficult time queering themselves,” meaning that queer theory (like anything else) has a tendency to harden into the static rigidity of a law or program (378). They suggest that bringing autoethnography and queer theory into dialogue will lead in a direction similar to Sara Ahmed’s “melding of phenomenology and queer theory”: “what can happen if we queer autoethnography?” (378-79). “Both autoethnography and queer theory share conceptual and purposeful affinities: Both refuse received notions of orthodox methodologies and focus instead on fluidity, intersubjectivity, and responsiveness to particularities,” they continue:
Both autoethnography and queer theory embrace an opportunistic stance toward existing and normalizing techniques in qualitative inquiry, choosing to “borrow,” “refashion,” and “retell” methods and theory differently. Both autoethnography and queer theory take up selves, beings, “I”s, even as they work against a stable sense of such self-subjects or experience and instead work to map how self-subjects are accomplished in interaction and act in and upon the world. And, given their commitments to refiguring and refashioning, questioning normative discourses and acts, and undermining and refiguring how lives and lives worth living come into being, both autoethnography and queer theory are thoroughly political projects. (379)
However, both autoethnography and queer theory have been “criticized for being too much and too little—too much personal mess, too much theoretical jargon, too elitist, too sentimental, too removed, too difficult, too easy, too White, too Western, too colonialist, too indigenous. Too little artistry, too little theorizing, too little connection of the personal and political, too impractical, too little fieldwork, too few real-world applications” (379). They argue that “[q]ueering autoethnography both answers and exacerbates these critiques in that they are critiques of abundance and excess”:
Queering autoethnography takes up a broad orientation to research and representation that exists between and outside the tensions of experience and analysis. It hinges distance and closeness, equality and prioritizing oppression, conversation/dialogue and irony/rebellious debate, and accessibility and academic activism. Our goal is to be “inclusive without delimiting,” to “remap the terrain” of autoethnography and queer theory “without removing the fences that make good neighbours.” (Alexander, qtd. 379)
Their goal, they write, is to “hinge a brief portrait of queer theory and queer projects to the purposes and practices of autoethnography” (379).
In the next section, the authors (Adam, I think, is writing this part) discuss how wearing a short or hat with the logo of an LGBTQ+ human rights organization has led to being treated nicely by baristas, flight attendants, and servers, and to receiving an apology from a homophobic cashier in a grocery store. That autobiographical (or autoethnographic: really, what separates the two forms? does autoethnography have a greater ambition than mere autobiography or memoir?) interlude is followed by a summary of queer theory, which they contend “is best conceived of as a shifting sensibility rather than a static theoretical paradigm” which “developed in response to a normalizing of (hetero)sexuality as well as from a desire to disrupt insidious social conventions” (381). (Why is “hetero” in parentheses?) “Fluidity and dynamism characterize queer thought, motivating queer researchers to work against disciplinary legitimation and rigid categorization,” they write, citing Judith Butler, Teresa de Lauretis, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as those primarily responsible for its development (381). The word “queer,” they continue, “can function as an identity category that avoids the medical baggage of ‘homosexual,’ disrupts the masculine bias and domination of ‘gay,’ and avoids the ‘ideological liabilities’ of the ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ binary” (381). They quote Sedgwick on “queer”:
[it] can refer to “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically.” Queer can also serve as a temporary and contingent linguistic home for individuals living outside the norms of sex and gender (e.g., intersex, transsexual) and, as such, must not just involve transgressions of sexuality; a person can claim a queer signifier if she or he works against oppressive, normalizing discourses of identity. As a critical sensibility, queer theory tries to steer clear of categorical hang-ups and linguistic baggage, removes identity from essentialist and constructionist debates, and commits itself to a politics of change. (381)
Given this definition, I wouldn’t feel comfortable adopting the term to describe my own research, although I didn’t feel that way after reading Sara Ahmed’s work. Different definitions, perhaps, have different effects and include or exclude different people, even unintentionally.
That is the point of the essay’s next section, “Categorical Hang-Ups and Linguistic Baggage.” Queer theory “values ‘definitional indeterminacy’ and ‘conceptual elasticity,’” (Yep, Lovaas, and Elia, qtd. 381). Queer theorists reject “‘labeling philosophies’” while reclaiming “marginal linguistic identifiers” (381). They “work to disrupt binaries of personhood, and remain inclusive of identities not subsumed under canonical descriptors” (381). Queer theorists also revel “in languages’s failure, assuming that words can never definitively represent phenomena or stand in for things themselves” (381). (I’m not sure queer theorists are the only ones aware of language’s failure to represent phenomena, though.) The authors’ example of language’s failure is the way one defines “woman”: their various attempts at providing a definition (not all of which are serious: one is “All women are terrible at math and science,” for instance) fall apart, particularly in relation to transwomen (381). “The more we interrogate identity categories, the more we fall into linguistic illusion, the more we recognize language’s fallibility,” they write. “Such an illusory, fallible condition, however, creates a ‘greater openness in the way we think through our categories,’ a goal of queer research” (Plummer, qtd. 381-82). In relation to questions of identity, the failure of language “becomes important: While we interact with others via socially established categories, these labels crumble upon interrogation, thus making a perpetual journey of self-understanding possible” (382). As a method, autoethnography “allows a person to document perpetual journeys of self-understanding,” which then “allows her or him to produce queer texts” (382). That’s quite a leap—is all autoethnography queer in that sense? is all life-writing queer in that sense—but, the authors continue, such a “queer autoethnography also encourages us to think through and out of our categories for interaction and to take advantage of language’s failure to capture or contain selves, ways of relating, and subjugated knowledges” (382).
The authors’ second point is “that queer theory conceives of identity as a relational ‘achievement’” (Garfinkel, qtd. 382). “An achievement metaphor,” they contend, “situates identities in interaction, in processes where we are held accountable for being persons of particular kinds, kinds that we sometimes know or try to present ourselves as, but also kinds about which we have no definitive control” (382). “A queer, identity-as-achievement logic implies that we are held accountable for identities that often take the form of linguistic categories,” they continue, “but implies we can never know what categories others may demand of us or what kinds of people others will consider us as; we can try to pass as kinds of persons, but we may not succeed or know if we succeed” (382). This notion “implies that selves emerge from and remain contingent upon situated embodied practices, acts that rely on compulsory, citational, stereotypical performances about being kinds of people” (382). It also suggests “that identities fluctuate across time and space, thus requiring constant attention and negotiation,” and that identities are not singular, fixed, or normal, even if they appear that way (382). It also “distances identity from essentialist and constructionist debates of selfhood”: from, on the one hand, the notion that identity if biologically determined, and on the other, the claim that identities are “socially established and maintained through interaction” (382). Instead, a “queer, identity-as-achievement” perspective “embraces the contextual achievement of and passing as certain kinds of people” (382). Identity is a performance, then, or a series of performances:
In one context, an individual may be perceived as heterosexual whereas in another context, the individual may be perceived as bisexual or homosexual. In another context, an individual may pass as White, and in another context, this individual may pass as Black, and in another context, this individual may pass as multiracial. In one context, an individual may pass as Catholic, and in another context she or he may pass as Baptist, and in another context, she or he may pass as Jewish. (382)
But are all of these performances appropriate? Do they all make sense? Should White people, for example, attempt to pass as Indigenous? Should Gentiles attempt to pass as Jews? Does this argument end up supporting the performances of Joseph Boyden or Rachel Dolezal? I mean, I’m a Settler: I can’t pretend to be anything else. I wouldn’t want to engage in that kind of pretense, either. And what is the connection between context and interpretation, on the one hand, and the performance of identity, on the other? Is performance always contextual? Or are two very different ideas—performance and the reception of performance—being jumbled together here?
“An identity-as-achievement perspective does not imply that biology has nothing to do with interaction, nor does it foreground environmental influences on selfhood; the essence of selves and the processes through which selves are made are the foci of queer theory,” they continue (382). That’s a confusing sentence: biology must therefore have something to do with interaction, but environmental influences are in the background rather than the foreground? I don’t understand. What are selves made out of, if not, in part, the entanglements between a variety of cultural influences and biology, among other things? I understand that the authors are trying to distance queer notions of identity as performance from biological essentialism or environmental determinism, but that sentence leaves me wondering what biology has to do with “interaction” and where environmental influences are situated. And, strangely, in a subsequent autoethnographic section of the essay, a reference is made to “scripts of masculinity,” suggesting that social or cultural influences to exert some pressure on the performance of identity. It seems to me that the argument that identity is mostly a performance ignores the ways in which it is not.
But when autoethnographies appear in the permanency of print, this “queer sensibility” can become fixed and rigid: “a written text can function as a permanent representation, a lifeless, uncompromising snapshot of culture. Finished texts solidify human trajectories in time and space, making it possible for life to imitate immobile art” (382). Wait a minute—aren’t they talking about representations of life, rather than life itself? By publishing autoethnographic accounts, they continue, “we solidify an identity into text, and we harden a community, never allowing us or it to change” (383). I’m not sure this presumed immobility is any different from photography or painting or film or any means of representation. Then what? “But by considering autoethnography queer, we recognize that identities may not be singular, fixed, or normal across all interactions,” they write. “Identities constructed through a queering of autoethnography are relational; they shift and change. We are held accountable for being particular kinds of people by numerous seen and unseen forces”—who or what conducts this policing of identity? what are these “forces”?—but our/these kinds of identities are in constant need of attention, negotiation, and care” (383). But how does a theoretical perspective counter the material fact of the printed text’s immobility? I don’t think it can. Then what?
Their third point is that queer theory is politically committed—if that commitment, or politics, “deconstructs what may pass as ‘natural’ and ‘normal’” and “focuses on how bodies both constitute and are constituted by systems of power as well as how bodies might serve as sites of social change,” as well as “embraces a ‘politics of transgression’” (383). Queer theorists, they continue, “revel in ‘symbolic disorder,’ pollute established social conventions, and diffuse hegemonic categories and classifications” (383). Queer theory is therefore perverse: its projects “function as this denormalizing perversion often by re/appropriating marginal discourse” in order “to pollute canonical discourse, to question what mundanely passes as normal,” to “counter canonical stories, and make discursive ‘trouble’” (383). Even the use of the word “queer” is “a queer act, a queer politics,” because that usage reappropriates “the once-taboo word and tries to reclaim abject power” (383). “By using queer in an affirmative sense—by incorporating it into mainstream discourse and associating the term with the academically valued theory—queer endeavors can emerge as desirable and esteemed,” they write (383).
“Queering autoethnography embraces fluidity, resists definitional and conceptual fixity, looks to self and and structures as relational accomplishments, and takes seriously the need to create more livable, equitable, and just ways of living,” Adam and Holman Jones write (384). (The notion of self and structures—what structures—as “relational accomplishments” is a new idea that needs to be explored. How are structures “accomplishments”? Who accomplishes structure? That sounds collective rather than individual, doesn’t it? And if so, is this an acknowledgement that cultural and social influences play a role in the performance of self?) “The hinge that links queer theory and autoethnography,” they continue, is “a differential and oppositional form of consciousness” which is transitive because it intervenes in social reality (384). The “subject-selves” of autoethnography “are forthrightly incomplete, unknown, fragmented, and conflictual,” and by “[f]ailing to recognize these contingencies, ellipses, and contradictions,” autoethnographers end up in a place “where boundaries are policed, disciplinary and scholarly turf is defined and fought over, and systems for what and who ‘counts’ and doesn’t count undermine the very liberatory impulses we imagine for our work” (384-85). “In the place of relationality, performativity, and transitivity, we create singularity, clarity, and certainty,” they write. “In short, we create good stories: stories that report on recognizable experiences, that translate simply and specifically to an ‘actionable result’—an emotional response, a change in thinking or behavior, a shift in policy or perception, publication, tenure” (385). I’m astonished by the slippage in the last sentence of that quotation: tenure or publication as “an ‘actionable result’”? What is the link between such personal benefits—which any writer would desire, frankly—and the high-minded desire for a potential “shift in policy or perception”? Moreover, don’t all writers hope to get at least an emotional response from their audiences? Don’t they hope (to some extent) to change their audiences’ perceptions? How then is autoethnography different from other kinds of writing?
Autoethnographers, they continue, have tended to favour “clarity and transparency of knowledge . . . over ambiguity—room for interpretation, misunderstanding, not knowing, leaving things unanswered”; they have “[f]oregrounded knowledge claims and publication in sanctioned or legitimate outlets”—in academic journals, for example—and have “gloss[ed] over aesthetic (literary) concerns”; they have looked for “proof of worth and legitimacy by creating typologies for good stories to enact” even while resisting that compulsion; they have “[e]ngaged in recursive debates about how to define autoethnography” (385). None of this sounds very queer; it sounds like a problem they might want to address, or a self-criticism. They return to Gingrich-Philbrook’s call for writing about “subjugated knowledges, stories that are present but disguised”:
These are stories of pleasure, of gratification, of the mundane, as they intersect, crisscrossing rhizomatically with stories of subjugation, abuse, and oppression. One of the most ready forms for such tellings is found in narrative accounts of our lives. And so, autoethnography is queer. Saying so means taking a stand on a poetics of change. Saying so treats identities and communities as a performative, relational accomplishment. (385)
They cite Judith Butler’s contention that stories are always told “in order to make ourselves ‘recognizable and understandable’” (qtd. 385):
This is a recognition of a need to unfasten the hinge that separates experience and analysis and the personal and the political, even as we need it to create an intelligible humanity, a life both livable and worth living. It is a recognition of humanity that doesn’t end or stop in the move from the space of illegitimacy, all breath and speech, dark and hollow, to the place of legitimacy, resplendent and lucid in word and text. (385)
Why is speech illegitimate while text is “resplendent”? Why sneak in that binary opposition in a text that is ostensibly about undoing binary oppositions? I don’t get it.
They cite a long quotation from Butler about the need to be “undone by another” (qtd. 385) and wonder “if the ethics of undoing that Butler describes enacts both the pleasures and the oppressions of autoethnography and, furthermore, if it anticipates the juncture, the stitching together—the hinging—of autoethnography and queer theory” (385-86). They suggest, for example, that autoethnographers ought to make “work that becomes, like a perpetual horizon, rather than an artifact of experience,” that “acts as if, rather than says it is” (386). “Such work understands the importance of being tentative, playful, and incomplete in equal measure with radical historicization, persistent questioning, and perpetual revision,” they claim (386). They call upon autoethnographers to make “work that simultaneously imagines fluid, temporary, and radically connected identities and that creates and occupies recognizable identities”: that kind of work would see “identities as relational accomplishments: manifestations of selves that shift and change, that must be negotiated and cared for, and for which we are held personally, institutionally, and ethically responsible” (386). Finally, they suggest that autoethnographers make “work that advocates for trouble, that takes a stand in and on the otherwise,” thus disrupting “taken-for-granted, normalizing stories” and positing “more open, more free, and more just ways of being in the world” (386). I would be more interested in these descriptions of what autoethnography ought to be like if the authors were able to provide examples of work that resembles the kind of writing they are calling for. I need examples of practice, as well as the demands of theory.
“We encourage you to claim and reclaim the word queer in the name of autoethnography, in the name of challenging categories and achieving identities and communities that are fluid yet complex, multiple yet cognizant of the attention, negotiation, and care that impinge on any scholarly project,” they conclude. “We encourage you to twist autoethnography from its prior usages, whether diminishing or valorizing, and put it to use for altogether new political purposes” (386). I wonder of those words are intended as a rebuttal to the description of autoethnography they provide on the previous page.
In the essay’s final, autoethnographic section, the authors wonder about taking chances “motivated not out of a misplaced or, worse, righteous self-sufficiency, but a willingness to become undone and moved to act” (387). “Why not write over, on, and through the boundaries of what constitutes and contributes to autoethnography—to qualitative and critical research—by creating a few queer stories, a few queer autoethnographies?” they ask. “Why not embrace a critical stance that values opacity, particularity, indeterminateness for what they bring and allow us to know and forget, rather than dismissing these qualities as slick deconstructive tricks, as frustrating, as unmoving and unrecognizable?” (387). Those words definitely sound like a rejoinder to the description of autoethnography as privileging clarity, transparency, ad knowledge. To queer autoethnography, then, would be to write differently.
For my part, I like both clarity and ambiguity and I don’t see why one can’t have both. I think ambiguity is not the same as indeterminacy, and I’m not sure why knowledge is something to be abandoned. I haven’t read the three key writers on queer theory, but I have trouble believing that our selves are entirely performed without some influence, at least part of the time, from biology and our cultural or social contexts. I know those contexts have had an influence on who I’ve become, on the range of roles available for my performances of self. The authors must know so too; why else do they uncritically cite Louis Althusser’s Lenin and Philosophy? Perhaps I would have to read Judith Butler, at least, to understand why Holman Jones and Adam are making this claim, or perhaps that claim has been stretched beyond a reasonable point. Nor am I sure that “queer” is a word that I ought to use; to turn it into a metaphor would be to ignore the actual struggles those who identify as queer experience. And, finally, I’m not sure why autoethnography, as a term, is preferable to memoir or autobiography or life-writing. Don’t all examples of life-writing address the subject’s wider context(s)? Is autoethnography making a truth claim that those other ways of writing the self do not? I don’t have answers to these questions; they only way to get answers, I would expect, would be to keep reading.
I almost skipped over D. Soyini Madison’s “Narrative Poetics and Performative Interventions,” mostly because I’m not interested in performative ethnography (I’m not really interested in ethnography at all as an academic discipline), but the anecdote with which Madison begins the essay—a student complaining about the prescriptiveness of the readings in one of her graduate courses—caught my attention. She wonders if there is some truth in his accusation; perhaps she “was overemphasizing theory and politics at the expense of sound methodological practice” (391). On the other hand, she found the student’s complaint hard to understand, she writes, “because it has always been impossible for me to separate theory from method. How can there be such a thing as critical methods without critical theory or politics and political theory? Can’t we embrace theory and politics in the field and work for social justice—out of which our methods are generated—without being accused of ‘telling people what to do’?” (391). That student’s objection reminded her of something two Afro-Peruvian human rights activists had told her a few weeks before: academics typically come to Peru to research folklore rather than the way that “‘beads, songs, myths, and weaving’” are connected to the material conditions of their lives (391-92). “The student equated a critical theory approach to methodology as ‘telling people what to do’; the Peruvian activists equated a lack of political and critical consciousness in the field as ‘folklore encounters’ that ignored material suffering,” she continues. “What critical, performance ethnography hopes to bridge is the frustration and feelings of lack in both these positions: the poetics of a space AND its politics as well as its politics and its poetics” (392). (I find the use of chiasmus in that sentence hard to understand; it seems to be merely repetitive rather than expressive or explanatory.) “Haven’t we learned by now that expressive and cultural traditions always occur within the machinations of power that encompass them?” she asks (392).
“Critical performance ethnography is animated by the dynamics interacting between power, politics, and poetics,” Madison continues, and the purpose of this chapter is to examine “these dynamics within the oral narrative performances of local human rights activists in Ghana, West Africa, who are working for the rights of women and girls against tradtional cultural practices that impede their freedom and well-being” (392). So Madison, unlike Dwight Conquergood, does not do performance ethnography herself; instead, she is interested in the way that these performances provide “a bridge and opportunity for readers to listen to ‘indigenous’ activists telling us (and each other) what they do” (393). The stories those activists tell, she writes, “serve as examples of critical performance ethnography because the narrators poetically narrate their own indigenous and critical methodologies based on the politics of their performative interventions in defending the human rights of Others” (393). Or does Madison engage in performance ethnography herself as well? “I interpret the in-depth interview with each rights activist through a performance lens to capture the complexity and multilayered dimensions reflected in the expressiveness of the human voice and body in the act of telling as well as the immediate environment or scene—ripe with influence and meaning—of the telling,” she writes (393). So her practice reproduces the performances of those activists? It’s not clear; she describes what she does as “poetic transcription,” which might be a way of presenting the interviews she conducts, or might be a way of describing a performance. At the same time, she tells us that this chapter will present two stories told by Ghanaian activists, and that “[t]hroughout the narratives, I weave my own commentary and observations to illuminate the implications of their words and experience” (393). That sounds less like performance ethnography and more like, well, ethnography without the performance.
That approach—the weaving of the voices of the researcher and the research participants—has been criticized “by numerous observers and practitioners of qualitative research,” including herself (393). Those critiques argue that “[t]he researcher’s analysis is an intrusion where the subject’s narrative is often silenced” and upstaged; that the researcher’s analysis is an “idiosyncratic interpretation” that “distorts the interpretive report and expressions of the narrator”; that the researcher’s analysis “promotes theoretical jargon that renders the narrative analysis itself”—the words of the informant or participant, I think—“ineffectual at best and silly at worst”; and, as description, the researcher’s analysis is redundant and repetitive (393-94).
Although Madison “often” agrees with those criticisms, she writes, “I also believe a delicate balance of analysis can open deeper engagement with the narrative text and unravel contexts and connections within the undercurrents of the narrative universe, without the researcher acting as a psychoanalyst, clairvoyant, or prophet” (394). In including her own commentary, her goals are
to attend to the narration—as one is compelled to attend to or interpret the significance of any object or text rich with meanings, history, value, and possibility—by entering selected moments of subtext and implicit moments of signification so that we may engage the depth of inferences, the overreaching consequences, and the politically valuable import in order that we as readers may be offered an additional realization of the narrative and the narrator. (394)
When researchers include their own commentary, she continues, their analysis “serves as a magnifying lens to enlarge and amplify the small details and the taken-for granted,” the “meanings and implications below the surface that need to be excavated, contemplated, and engaged; their analysis “serves to clarify and honour the significance of the ‘telling and the told,’ citing Pollock; their analysis recognized that the interview “is a substantive event—a surrounding scene of signification and its objects—a gestalt where the immediate telling becomes a richly descriptive environment of symbolic worth,” and “where the immediacy of the telling environment frames and relates to its content or is told,” and so the analysis enables the interview to become “an eventful enactment of witnessing, testimony, and dialogue”; the researcher’s analysis uses theory “to unlock the multiple truths embedded below the surface”; and the researcher’s analysis “serves to emphasize, reiterate, and make apparent the beauty and poignancy of the description” by embracing “the emotions and sensuality of what is being described and how it is being described—the telling and the told—to illuminate the textures, smells, sounds, tastes, and signts being rendered within the content of the told and within the form of the telling” (394-95).
“Performance ethnography demands a felt-sensing experience—emotions and sensuality—that employs lyrical, poetic, or performative language to wisely embellish the existential gestalt of the interview event, making it more present before us, with heart and beauty,” Madison continues. “The subaltern does speak, always, and we must listen with more radical intent. These subaltern knowledges are sometimes hidden away in locations that are at times hard for us to reach as they speak the philosophies, logics, and approaches of their life worlds and in their own languages” (395). That is the reason why ethnographers “call upon our local advisers in the field to help us try to comprehend. We listen so we can be of use to them—a messenger and an interpreter to make what they say and do known to other Others” (395).
In her discussion of the interviews Madison conducted, she presents the participants words in lines, like poetry, so that clarifies what she means by “poetic transcription” (393). She also alternates between that transcription and her own analysis of it, as she promised she would. I am skipping over the evidence of her practice, even after complaining about discussions of methodology that are not grounded in examples of practice, and I am aware of that; however, I am also aware of the need to get through this essay, and this book, and move on to the next thing that has to be read. In any case, after those interviews, she writes about the harm religious practices do to women, but also something she believes “is equaly, if not more, unjust and life threatening, but certainly more convoluted and disguised”: “the injustice of the location of poverty,” a term she describes in a footnote as “a supplement to the notion of a ‘location of culture’” (402, 405). So she is attempting to do what the Peruvian activists said needed to be done: she is connecting the gender-based injustices of religious traditions to the lived experiences of poverty, colonialism, and a contemporary “political economy that breeds poverty and that sets a climate for human rights offenses” (403).
Madison concludes with what she calls a “Wish List”: she hopes that “we learn critical theory thoughtfully, rigorously, and purposefully for the politically charged objective of clarifying unproductive confusion and precisely naming what could otherwise be dangerously imprecise”; she hopes that “[w]e resist theoretical feudalism by not assigning the power of interpretation exclusively to a few lords of knowledge,” a form of theorizing that is “undemocratic,” and which produces “repetitive clichés”; she hopes that “[w]e do not speak for Others when we can listen while Others speak”; she hopes “[w]e do not, not speak while only humbly listening to the Other speak,” because “[l]istening does not mean NOT speaking,” but rather “paying attention to when it is the right time to speak”; and, finally, she hopes that “[w]e practice at home what we preach on paper and in the field,” that “[w]e work to become more generous with each other within the academy as we work for a politics of global generosity,” and that academic generosity becomes as important as academic freedom (404).
Because I’ll be talking to other people as I walk, there are aspects of Madison’s discussion that are helpful to my project, and I’m glad I decided not to skip past her essay. I wonder what I’ve missed in the essays in this anthology that I didn’t read. But, that said, I decided not to bother with the final essay in this section, which discusses postcolonial readings of visual culture. Time is short, my exams are coming quickly, and I’ve been reading this book for more than two weeks. I need to get on to something else.
Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.
Denzin, Norman K., Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith, eds. Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, Sage, 2008.