Self, Other & Culture
As I briefly mentioned in The Story So Far, I am using my Tunes as a vehicle to explore the question, “when is a piece of music finished?” and the methodological approach I have taken to allow me to effectively write the Tales they have told is autoethnography. Historically speaking, autoethnography is a relatively new methodology that only really gained its foothold in academic circles in the late 70s with anthropologist David Hayano (Anderson). Since then, there has been a wide range of variations of its use in research and subsequent discussion between the differences in each subset. For this blog, I will be giving a overview of what autoethnography is, a long list of its various forms accompanied by the three that resonate most with my research, and finally a discussion on how I have moulded this malleable methodology to my project.
Breaking it Down
First and foremost, lets break down the word itself into it’s etymological roots to gain a clearer understanding:
Auto = self
Ethno = culture
Graphy = the study of/research process
While different researchers will place more weight in different parts of this triadic model, this in part explains why so many different variations of the methodology exist; two thirds of the word are already the existing and well established methodology, ethnography. Further to this, on the basic premise that you are including the ‘self’ will bring forth an untold number of permutations due to the self being a unique configuration that is simultaneously not in a fixed state so it quickly becomes apparent why it can be so malleable; to accommodate for the vast variety of unique perspectives.
“Stemming from the field of anthropology, autoethnography shares the storytelling feature with other genres of self-narrative but transcends mere narration of self to engage in cultural analysis and interpretation” (Chang 43).
Chang’s writing has proved invaluable to many for gaining a better understanding of what autoethnography is and its useful application in research. Chang focusses on the following framework as guide to understanding how they see autoethnography operating:
With its roots in both anthropology and ethnography, Chang establishes four assumptions with this methodology; 1. That culture is a social concept that is the product of the relationship between self and other; 2. To understand the self and others, autoethnography provides a lens where the reading and writing of self-narratives can be examined; 3. Simply narrating one’s own story does not necessarily provide a cultural understanding of self and other; rigorous analysis, reflection and interpretation must be implemented throughout; and 4. Autoethnography is not limited to providing insight for social scientists, but also numerous practitioners with the goal of gaining a, 'profound understanding of self and others and [to] function more effectively with others from diverse cultural backgrounds' (Chang 13).
As I just mentioned, Chang sees culture, 'as a product of interactions between self and others in a community of practice' (Chang 23). In this research project, the culture of myself is the product that I will study my own practice through, which is the symbiotic relationship between myself (self) and my music (other). My music is the voiceless other that paradoxically speaks volumes in an unspoken and often ineffable language beyond our linguistic capacity. As Alan Watts puts it, 'we are playing a game, and the game runs like this - the only thing you really know is what you can put into words' (2019). This view is reinforced and applied to the nature of music by Christopher Small with the following statement: 'Words are literal and propositional where musicking is metaphorical and allusive, and they insist on a single meaning where musicking has many meanings, all at once' (Small 184). And to finish off this trilogy of thoughts centred around the limitations of language, Carolyn Ellis refers to Hannah Arendt’s view that storytelling is, 'an activity which "reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it"' (Arendt 1973, 107 quoted in Ellis & Bochner 438). Okay, I lied, I’m extending it to a quadrilogy of similar thought, but I am referencing a trilogy of authors to satiate my strange tendency to put things in threes; “Although we can think about them, experience them, or observe them, the elements of the physical world are nevertheless transcendent, referred to but beyond direct apprehension' (Yvonna S. Lincoln, Susan, A. Lynham, and Egon G. Guba). The point I am hammering home is that, as with the scholarly pursuit of an objective truth, just because we are limited by words and thus distilling an absolute definition of something may be unattainable, this should never deter the pursuit in trying to achieve it; this is where the most interesting and fulfilling discussions can be had, and where the real value of autoethnography can flourish.
To circle back to Chang once more and to tether it all to my own project and the significance of the Tales I am telling; 'Telling stories is an ancient practice, perhaps as old as human history' (Chang 31).
I know that with the following statement that this might appear as though I have taken a hard left into the #deep, but music and the arts both fall into this category of ancient practice. The arts came before science and mathematics; they were one of the first ways humanity used as a means to know who they are and to find their place in the universe. Before I descend deeper into the ineffable void, I have to acknowledge that, so far, this all sounds pretty great, but as is true with effectively approaching an autoethnographic research study, it is important to be reflexive, critical of our own beliefs and not just focus on the parts that align with our pre-existing bias. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at summary of some of the pros, and the inevitable cons this methodology carries (nothing is perfect after all).
As it will be apparent from reading so far, I am an advocate for autoethnography, so mitigate my bias, I will quickly provide an abridged version of its benefits before taking a more thorough look at its pitfalls. To summarise, there are three main areas where autoethnography thrives; 1. It is a rather friendly/accessible research method for both the researcher and the reader; 2. It provides a great opportunity for cultural understanding of both self and others; and 3. There is a strong potential for personal development for the self and others that fosters a healthy inspiration for them both to work towards cross-cultural unification. To further the point on autoethnography being researcher-friendly, an additional benefit is the ease of data collection due to the fact that the researcher themself is the primary source (Chang 52). One final point to end on is that, 'autoethnography helps under-cut conventions of writing that foster hierarchy and division' (Ellis & Bochner 446). For myself, as a creative who has had eight years out of academia, this last note resonated with me strongly since, from my understanding, autoethnography can be seen as pushing back against ivory tower elitist academia due to its accessible and inclusive delivery.
Although Leon Anderson is advocating for analytical autoethnography over the evocative autoethnography (more on these two types of autoethnography in a bit) that Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner have been labelled with, his five grievances do apply to several of the criticisms found with autoethnography and why researchers need to tread carefully along the line between personal and self-indulgent. These five points include the following:
“(1) excessive focus on self in isolation from others;
(2) overemphasis on narration rather than analysis and cultural interpretation;
(3) exclusive reliance on personal memory and recalling as a data source;
(4) negligence of ethical standards regard- ing others in self-narratives; and
(5) inappropriate application of the label “auto-ethnography.”
While Anderson is rather respectful of Ellis and Bochner’s methods, and merely wants to offer his spin on the autoethnography methodology, other academics are not as constructively critical, case in point with Fine, who describes it as the, ‘arm-chair pleasures of me-search’ (Fine 2003 quoted in Ellis and Bochner 443).
I personally found the review of Anderson’s analytical autoethnography by Ellis & Bochner both engaging and insightful, and as with Anderson, they are respectful of his views as they rather eloquently put it, 'We can disagree without being disagreeable' (Ellis & Bochner 447).
WAIT, HOW MANY?
At the start of this blog I mentioned that there are a vast array of different labels that have been applied to autoethnography, and my understanding of how this came about stems from the fact that an endless multitude of existing selfs will inevitably lead to a multitude of deviations. Ellis and Bochner, regarded as pioneers of evocative autoethnography, give an extensive list of some of these labels:
emotionalism narratives of the self
ethnographic short stories
new or experimental ethnography
personal experience narrative
(Ellis and Bochner, quoted in Chang)
So, a fair few to say the least! Looking at this list can be a bit intimidating and confusing so rather than spreading myself thin and trying to cover them all, I’ll be looking at three that are not on the menu that piqued my interest: analytical, evocative and performative.
The Three That Interest Me
[Anderson | Ellis & Bochner, Adams, Jones | Spry]
I’ve already briefly discussed the differences between analytical and evocative autoethnography so allow me to continue the conversation. Anderson sees analytical autoethnography to be more of a ‘specialized subgenre of analytic ethnography’, and forgoes the benefits of narrative inquiry that Ellis and Bochner utilise in their evocative research. In their eyes, an analytical approach is about the destination whereas evocative is about the journey (I feel it is worth mentioning that the term evocative was a label given to Ellis and Bochner, not by them). They push back against Anderson’s criticisms with the following:
“If you turn a story told into a story analyzed, as Leon [Anderson] wants to do, you sacrifice the story at the altar of traditional sociological rigor. You transform the story into another language, the language of generalization and analysis, and thus you lose the very qualities that make a story a story' (Ellis & Bochner 440).
For myself, this seems to be akin to the notion that a joke explained will lose its humour. In relation to my work, by analysing and picking about every detail of the tales I tell, I am taking away the reader’s own valuable interpretation that is fundamentally necessary to continue the conversation. This links to the painter Paul Klee's idea that, 'form is the end, death', and, 'form-giving is life'; when you force something that by its very nature is in flux to be in a fixed state, it is no longer the same thing. Deep and rigorous analysis of a story removes the opportunity for discussion and thereby you sentence it to death. Much in the same way, a piece of music cannot be finished for then it becomes inert, and since music is not static, it is an activity, it will consequently flatline when reified into a fixed and final form.
Ellis and Bochner are well known for bringing their own lives into their work as a means of teaching, with one of their foundational concepts of autoethnography being, '"thinking with’’ the stories' (pp. 121–134 my emphasis added). This notion ties very nicely with Ingold’s Thinking through Making and the distinction he makes in his work Correspondence that opts for the with-ness of things as opposed to the of-ness of things, but that’s another warren to venture down that warrants its very own blog (coming soon).
Although the debate on which flavour of autoethnography is the most delicious may appear contentious, it is whole-heartedly a good thing because it perpetuates the conversation and as much as some academics may scoff at dichotomy, 'this war between objectivity and subjectivity is likely to continue, shaping the discourse of autoethnography' (Chang 46).
Lastly, a latecomer in my autoethnography was performative, and despite only having just scratched the surface of it, I have already seen its value and relation to my research. Succinctly put, Tami Spry discusses autoethnography being about bodies engaging in conversation with each other in sociocultural space and time; much like Ellis and Bochner’s triadic model of self, other and culture. Spry expands on this stating that, '“Performative autoethnography is writing from/with/of the performative body as co-present with Others, the body as epistemologically central, heuristically inspirational, politically catalytic' (Spry 636). This quote is the one that set off alarm bells in my mind due to the correlation I saw between it and Tim Ingold’s idea of ‘knowing for yourself’. To me, this concept is in alignment with the old adage that a great teacher will tell you where to look, but not what to see. The idea is then expanded upon in Ingold’s Thinking through Making where, while the theorist makes through thinking, the craftsman thinks through making. Dubbed as the Art of Inquiry, this method is the undercurrent of my research project since I have been using the formation of my musical works as a vehicle to explore art completion; I have been thinking through the making of my art about how the art is made, but again, that is a Tale for another day. One final quote from Spry to round things off and lead into how I have used autoethnography; 'Perhaps autoethnography is not about the self at all; perhaps it is instead about the willful embodiment of “we”' (Spry 628).
To me, this 'we' (culture) is the symbiotic relationship of self and other that I briefly mentioned at the start of this blog, but how I define each of these elements in respect to my project is of my own making.
Me, My Music & I
Introspective Autoethnography [working title]
“‘We are different now, but how did this change occur?’ we ask one another.” - Tia DeNora
Throughout the duration of my project, both myself and my music have gone through several significant changes. Upon reflection of how I have understood autoethnography to function, I realised I could apply it to me (self), my music (other) and the symbiotic connections between (culture). This realisation has ultimately lead to a deeper understanding of myself, which was subsequently a catalyst for personal development and broke the self-imposed perpetual cycle of not releasing my music.
For lack of a better term, and more just to distinguish my approach from the rest, I will label the flavour of autoethnography I have used as Introspective Autoethnography (although I do feel it is just evocative, but I’ll amend later if needed). I've chosen this label to reflect the critical examination of my own thoughts about myself, my music and their relationship; a triadic model of continuous change that is simultaneously affected by my feelings towards each part and each part influencing how I feel about them. I know this is a bit of mouthful, so allow me to attempt to articulate this further (and blame the aforementioned limitations of language for my periphrastic endeavours to be succinctly coherent). The crux of my slant is that whole is subscended by the symbiotic relationships between each fluctuating element that has ultimately highlighted the importance of conversations, relationships and the intangible in-between. The intrinsic relationship between myself (self), my music (other) and the conversation between (culture) has lead to unfathomable personal development, and by looking at these elements as different objects has allowed for a deeper understanding of who I am. I know this may come across as a bit ‘far out man’, but at this moment in time, I am struggling to find the appropriate words to articulate the impact this project has had on myself and my music. As I have previously discussed, I have always seen my music as an extension of me so it becomes apparent than by reflecting on my music, I am in a sense reflecting on myself. The relationship between these two objects is also an object in itself that warrants reflection that itself impacts the others. As I previously mentioned, I am aware that this section has rapidly become verbose and before it turns vapid let me get Alan Watts to weigh in for a moment with his discussion on knowing who we are in terms of each other:
'"If I am I because you are you and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you." In other words we are not separate. We define each other, we’re all backs and fronts to each other. We and our environment, and all of us and each other are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people' (Alan Watts with the initial quote referencing Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk).
From my experience, this concept relates to the triadic model of autoethnography and on a deeper level it relates to me, my music and the culture of myself (who I am). From implementing the key elements of rigorous autoethnography - consistent critical reflection on each of its three components, and trying to be objective as possible throughout - it has led me to a deep and fulfilling understanding of knowing who I am and my place in the world. I have always seen my music as my constant in life and have placed enormous value on its benefits, but what I have gained from this research process has exceeded my expectations greatly. In a similar vein to Watts - albeit a little less colloquial - and how we know identify the elusive 'I', lets jump back to Spry, who concur with this view with the following statement:
“There is no ‘I’ without others, as ‘I’ is created through sociocultural interaction with others in contexts, a foundational concept in most theorising since the ‘crisis of representation1’” (Spry 638).
The truly beautiful thing of all this relates back to my initial blog post The Story So Far where I discussed how the self is not a fixed state and similarly that music is an activity; not a noun but a verb - musicking. Deleuze and Guattari’s notion that we are a ‘constant assemblage’ is a wonderful concurrence of this idea and further exemplifies the strength that the reflexive nature autoethnography possesses. It is my hope that my engagement with this project will not only continue to be of monumental importance to myself but, be a healthy contribution to the ongoing conversation, or as Chang puts it, “doing, sharing, and reading autoethnography can also help transform researchers and readers (listeners) in the process.”
1 A deeper discussion of this crisis of representation (Michel Foucault) is forthcoming but as a brief summary for now to provide context: "In the domains of the arts and of the media, the crisis of representation has emerged with the loss of the referent in modern painting and literature and with the ever-increasing distance from the reality of the referential world in the digital and the mass media" (Noth). I feel this links to the limitations of language/the world of semiotics, as well as the negative impact the digital age has had on creators that I discuss in Good Enough.