Boundaries of Autoethnography

Hey, here’s some more study reading – specifically, reading a chapter of Doing Autoethnography. It’s a collection of Autoethnographic essays, critically examining works the creators have made that are, themselves, Autoethnography, which is to say it’s kind of an oroborous of moebius or something like that.

The second chapter of the book is an autoethnographic examination of Sweetwater: Black Women and Narratives of Resilience, a 2013 book by Robin M Boylorn. I’ve not read Sweetwater, so take my summary here as based on Boylorn’s summary of her own work.

Sweetwater is a narrative story that builds on and around the framework of a series of academic interviews in Sweetwater that want to accord as much of the 20th century history as she could. This essay – which is a speech, transcribed – talks about the method, and some of the ethical challenges of Sweetwater. I’ve noted down some of how this might be relevant to my own autoethnography.

When you do autoethnography, you use yourself as a lens. So, interviews conducted are going to be filtered through yourself – the attempt is not to strip away the observer to make the information objective, but to accept the subjectivity of the observer. In this case, this made the experience of what Boylorn refers to as her blackgirlness fundamental to the interviews and to the writing. In this, she chooses this one-word structure because “because I am never seen nor experienced as black by itself or girl without race.” (Boylorn, 2016a, p. 49, and if you think that kind of accuracy in cite from me is normal, it’s not, I’m copying her quoting herself).

This tangling of stereotypical identity and cultural demands – imposed from the outside – is part of why Boylorn chooses to conduct Sweetwater as an autoethnographic document. Autoethnography allows her to be clear that these problems are at root of the experience.

Boylorn talks about the way that in this thesis, she has a few challenges. First, there’s the way that she, autoethnographically, is not seen as a researcher first, but as a member of the community and extended family, which means that some of what she was told was in confidence or ‘off record,’ but not clearly how off-record it was.

She also describes how the experience she recorded didn’t include some types of people; and that through representing what she found, what she didn’t find went unrepresented. That isn’t to say it wasn’t there – she was acknowledging the limits of her own lens. There are some types of content that she either wasn’t comfortable obtaining, and some types of content that simply didn’t appear in her space.

Okay, so how does this apply to me?

First of all, I have biases from my life experience. Even just drawing attention to the fact that I’m a white, cis guy means that most of my work fits into a space of other white, cis guys. Normally, I try to ensure I don’t limit what my games contain to white cis guys – but I explicitly draw from that and say that my friends, my associations, and the space I live in is part of my experience. Everything I create is going to reflect me, so even though I have heavily queer, heavily women-focused work, that’s reflecting what I think my friends will find cool. That’s always going to be about the outer lived experience, as shared with me.

Now, I think when it comes to queer experiences in particular it’s pretty important to recognise that queerness isn’t actually an impassable mirror. It’s really easy to miss details about the queer experience, especially if you’re only engaging with queer culture in a surface way. Yet, I’ve been advocating, aggressively and almost constantly, for the idea that treating queer culture as incomprehensible makes it easier to other queer people, and that getting the jokes and memes of queer culture is mostly a matter of listening to queer people.

Still, that is a group that I’m both in (barely), and not in (because every different type of queerness is another axis of meaning). Plus, there are intersections. My work is always going to have whiteness to it, even if I try to make something that my black or Latin friends to enjoy. That’s a thing I should bear in mind.

There’s more, of course, but hey, you’re only getting notes here.

This blog post represents my notes on my PhD reading of Robin Boylorn’s Bitter Sweet(Water), chapter 2, in Doing Autoethnography.

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