Ellis, C and Bochner, A (2006) 'Analyzing Analytic Autoethnography An Autopsy', in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35 (4): 429 - 49.
[This is a very unusual piece of work, a reply of sorts to Anderson, consisting of an alleged discussion between the authors, with speech marks around what we assume are verbatim bits of speech, followed by a more conventional account of the discussion, written in the first person, and illustrated by some quotes. As with the article by Denzin, there is also an attempt to render speech as blank verse, with odd spacings and splits between the lines. Of course, the claim is that by writing in this way, the authors are actually demonstrating new forms of writing and narrative that they think are going to be useful in conveying the full context of what they're saying about Anderson's article, including the emotions that they feel. I am pleased to have found some excellent critiques of this sort of work, after having had to struggle to articulate my own below -- try Gannon, for example.
You will clearly need to read this entire piece for yourselves in order to get the overall effect. My own view, however, is pretty relentlessly critical. I have a number of problems with this sort of writing:
1. The authors say that they want to partake of the full emotional aspects of life. They are not ashamed of emotions -- only male elitists try to avoid them. 'It is interesting that most of her staunchest critics are older white men... the male paradigm... is characterised by impersonal abstraction... "that sounds a lot like Leon's conception of analysis and generalization," Art says' (442). However, the emotions that are described running through the author's heads, are clearly domesticated. They are nice emotions. They have been mediated through academic conventions. They could well be aspects of 'the presentation of the self'. Here is Ellis describing her reaction to Anderson's critique:
'[I] said things like how wonderful it was that Leon offered an expansion of what autoethnography could be... I know Leon, and I've admired his work for years, and he might not do this [try to make autoethnography lose its identity] intentionally...' (432)
Art replies: 'No surprise there. Your impulse almost always is to try to get along even with your harshest critics' (432)
'"Jane Tompkins likens academic arguments to a gunfight or a lynching," Art observes... "No wonder she retired early," I chuckle' (434) .
'"I guess what I want is a feeling of community, and I have to admit that it would feel good to be validated by the academic community"... And some of the harsh accusations have to go, such as "armchair pleasures of me-search'(Fine 2003),'artsy craft literary exercises' (Sanders 1999)' (446--7 )
If the authors ever openly feel any nasty emotions, they are only hinted at here. As an aside, if the aim is to recapture or evoke the full emotional context, why do we not hear of emotions such as rage, jealousy, annoyance, schadenfreude, vengeance, sexual attraction, bitterness and all the panoply of dark desires? Why resist them? Let's embrace them and live life to the full. What we do get is damning with faint praise, euphemism, reductionism and patronizing commentary :
'"I think [critics like Anderson are] victims of their own socialization as social scientists... they can't conceive of a bridge between [Art and Science]... Leon... [and]... many others... resist the broadening of sociological inquiry beyond the empiricist agenda under which they were educated... (432)
'"I'd want to call what Leon wants to do 'aloof autoethnography'," Art says with a grin on his face' (434)...
We should remind Leon of the elements of a good story (438)...
[ethical domains]... are not present in Leon's piece... Leon doesn't even mention these elements... "Do you think he missed the narrative turn? Maybe he was turning the other way." We laugh together (440)...
I read from my notes "Leon uses 'I' three times in the abstract, 15 times in the introduction, and approximately 30 times in the rest of the text" (440) [quantification?]...
"seriously, I wonder if Leon wrote this piece to pave the way for his autoethnography of skydiving?" "Don't set your expectations too high..." (441)...
"Sometimes I think that the problem is that people fear change," Art says (442)... "I've known Leon for a long time and I don't think Leon fits the stereotype of the 'male paradigm'... After reading his article several times, I went to his website and looked at his picture... " (445)... "
2. The reported speech is also clearly artificial and more than a tad clunky. (I am sure the authors would not mind me pointing this out, because they are more interested in art and aesthetics than science, and, of course, I am sure they are utterly lovely people -- but did they take their own recommended creative writing course?). It is put into clear prose, no one interrupts or talks over each other, there are strange bits where the flow is interrupted to quote a source or academic reference.
'"Do you still think that way?"
"I'm having doubts..."
"Now you're closer to my point," Art perks up' (432).
'"Our enthusiasm for autoethnography was instigated by a desire to move ethnography away from the gaze of the distanced and detached observer... I think it was Victor Turner (1986) who uses the terms...' (433 - 4).
'"Yes, and our goal is to open up conversations about how people live...
"I couldn't agree more," Art says, glancing back at the TV.
"Hey, stay with me for a minute. This is important"' (435).
'"As a woman and a feminist [Art hasn't noticed?] I think it's important not to lose sight of the politics of autoethnography' (436).
"The defining feature... is this value-added quality of... transcending... through broader generalization," I read slowly over Art's shoulder' (437).
"It reminds me of the article written by Carol Blair and her colleagues, that I was reading the other day (Blair, Brown and Baxter 1994, 389). Hold on, let me get it from my desk" (442).
'"After all, my first book, Fisher Folk, was for the most part a realist ethnography"' (445)
The authors say they are writing a story, and are not attempting to do 'realist' description, and perhaps the artificiality is making that point? Maybe I have been really dim and taken this as serious when the whole thing is a parody? In fact, this still IS realism, at least as far as the narrative is concerned: it is heavily pedagogic and wants to lead us to some underlying truth or understanding. It would fit easily with what Clough describes as 'emotional realism' (where the emotions are validated as somehow more authentic or real than mere cogntion, which they underpin and guarantee): Clough points out that the dreaded Chicago School (phase 2) -- especially Becker and Goffman -- did emotional realism too. So Ellis and Bochner have at best modernised the conventions of emotional realism but have certainly not broken with it. To do that, you need far more experimental writing than this banal bourgeois stuff - -you neeed James Joyce, Theodor Adorno, Melville, Shakespeare, Pinter, Baudrillard and Derrida, you need to employ neologism and chiasm, detournement, irony and French wit (see Gannon for some examples). You will also disappear into your own little circle of admirers and never be a star of the academic community.
3. Emotional involvement is also celebrated. The authors are watching the victims of Hurricane Katrina on TV, for example, and want to express solidarity with them. They clearly gain a great deal from watching such television:, so much so that it is hard to concentrate on the article (a classic piece of nonchalant academic realism, or what the poor old mistaken Goffman would call 'role distance'?)
'I'm an addict getting my fix and TV news. I can't pull myself away from stories and images of the horrors of loss... I don't want people away. I want to get as close as I can... give some sign, however inadequate, that somebody is listening, somebody cares, somebody really wants to know... sometimes I feel as if I am there' (430).
However, they seem to be assuming that the victims are simply expressing their real emotions, unmediated by television -- a surprisingly naive view if it were true -- or are they acknowledging the skill of the TV crew in producing an emotional narrative which moves them to tears?
'He [A black man speaks to a reporter] speaks so poetically... like the house he lost he is split in two' (430)
But is 'he' actually a survivor? Is his testimony spontaneous, or has he been invited to emote for the cameras? Is he a grief tourist? Surely they haven't fallen for the old televisual trick of adding realism by interviewing 'witnesses' apparently in the field (even if they have to drive them there) and including 'factual anchors'? The authors want to trust the reporters: their authenticity is also legitimated by their own emotional reactions: 'a veteran reporter for CNN weeps as she tells Aaron Brown, "We [reporters] are sometimes wacky thrill-seekers. But when you stand in the dark and you hear people were yelling for help and no one can get them, it's a totally different experience"' (430). The 'reality' of the experience seems not to be in doubt here, of course: actually autoethnographers still have to answer questions about reality just like the old ethnographers. Was this real emotion or emotional realism.?
Perhaps we should not worry about these things, but sit back and enjoy? [Actually I don't enjoy this sort of voyeurism much myself --but I am a male academic so it must be my upbringing] Is there a difference between the documentary coverage and emotional fiction, such soap opera, or staged events like those found on the Jerry Springer Show? Perhaps we should apply some emotional litmus tests and watch the stuff that moves us most? Of course, there is an assumption here that documentary footage of real tragedy is somehow more worthy than the emotional exploitation of the vulnerable on prime time TV -- but why? Isn't it all 'narrative'?
The authors do seem to love vicarious participation and the emotional lives of others, at least as long as it is safely mediated: '"I would like to enter the experience of jumping from a plane -- in a text I mean, I certainly don't want to do it for real"' (441).
5. It is a strange kind of unfocused sentimental politics that sees a tearful vicarious and probabaly sentimental reaction to the Katrina story ( the story, I insist,as mediated through TV conventions) as a kind of political solidarity -- with whom? The victims or the narrators? The reporters? Do the actual, unarrativised unmediated victims of Katrina actually need this kind of politics? Does it help them to know that two academics share their pain, or would they have benefited more from old fashioned male politics -- say a petition to speed up relief to the area, a political campaign, or even a departmental collection?
'Art and I wipe tears. "Those people feel all alone," I say. "Somebody's got to show them that we're all in this together."' (447)."Well yes, " I said to myself, recalling my own book on cultural politics (Harris 1992, still available at a discount from Amazon), "We're all in this together, except that some of us are homeless in New Orleans, and others are watching TV and writing an article. I love other people's poverty and suffering and want to show my support -- in a TV programme I mean, I certainly don't want to do it for real"
"I agree," said my wife, a woman and a feminist, "Incidentally, that was one of the best books you've written. What a shame the critics described it as 'pants'".
"I don't really think of them as bastards," I confessed, humbly, "It's not their fault they are completely stupid and biased assholes. It's their training."
We wept quietly together at the strange yet compelling
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