Not too long ago at a professional conference, a doctoral student approached me to introduce himself. He was an engaging young man with an eager spirit, direct gaze, and firm handshake. He stated how much he enjoyed my work, especially what he described as the “self-work” that I do in/as autoethnography. He said, “If you have some time during the conference, I would like to talk to you about your work and what I am working on.” And since he was such an amiable soul, we planned to meet later for drinks and maybe a lite dinner. When we met, he pulled out a few notes and said, “I feel that I know you.”
“How so?” I asked.
In his notes he had written what he presumed to be the key signifiers of my identity as drawn from the evidenced subjects of him engaging my performative and autoethnographic essays: black, queer, Catholic, teacher, scholar, brother in the classroom, brother who died of AIDS, cowboy enthusiast, loss of parents, dreadlocks weddings, resistance, dicks, and more. His list was extensive.
As he pridefully narrated his list as bibliographic evidence of knowing me, I found myself reduced to the subjects of both my academic explorations and the enumerated aspects of identity. Each was teased out of the complexity of my being like “keywords.” I didn’t say anything to the eager graduate student, who I believe was seeking to flatter me and evidence his knowledge, as grad students are often required to do, but…
I began to wonder about the difference between my body and my body of scholarly work.
I began to think about the difference between the critical writing of and about culture in ethnography and the location of self in that writing, and how the location of the auto in the construction of autoethnography can get separated and skewed.
I began thinking about the missing interpretative and critical bonds that suture auto and ethnography as a concerted project of cultural critique that is integrative and necessarily relational.
I began thinking about how the critical articulation of self-experience as a point of entry into critiquing cultural phenomenon (in autoethnography) does not stand alone from the critique, but serves as an invitation to sharing embodied cultural knowledge; establishing a generative template of sociality for others to begin their own orientation. This is the cultural studies work to which I believe autoethnography seeks to attend.
I began to wonder if in contemporary autoethnography, and in the processes of circuiting and recircuiting presumed knowledge in bits and pieces of ourselves, if we sometimes fail to educate the audience/reader of autoethnographic intent as cultural studies—that is, autoethnography as a highly contextual critique of cultural phenomena to which the circuited parts of our identities are exemplars of experience for a broader commentary.
I began to wonder if the pieces of our identities that we offer as evidence in our autoethnographic work are ever fully reunited (in the minds of our readers and audiences) with our very complex intertextual selves—our complex intertextual selves that engage in a tensive resistance against the reified bits of the those individual variables that inform identity.
And unlike, or maybe very much like, Voldemort’s (of Harry Potter fame) intention of fragmenting his soul, do autoethnographers create different horcruxes in which each of our produced works serve as parts of our soul? Parts of our soul that are mistaken keywords of our identity, or mistaken as objects of everyday fancy that ensure our longevity, in one perceptual or interpretive frame or another—parts of a whole, individuated and sequestered.
And I also began to think about how we are all seduced by and into autoethnography: seduced by what we think we come to know about the other (and what we come to know about ourselves in the process). So, I engage the reflexivity of autoethnography to be reflective of one of my own such moments of audiencing autoethnographic performance, when I too thought that I knew someone.
A Performative Audience Response to Norman Denzin and Tami Spry’s Duo Performance, “Wild West Show” at ICQI 2018
I thought I knew you, two.
The two of you, who I have come to know better through a sequence of shared trail rides into the west, the old west, together “wearing leather vests, chaps, cowboy boots, cowboy hats.”2
I thought I knew you, two.
The two of you as we troped the sociological imagination of cowboys/-girls and Indians in which
we “turned private troubles into public issues.”3 Or better yet, as we collectively showed how an assemblage of public issues are our private troubles—through the myths and realities of westerns.
I thought I knew you, two.
The two of you, as you wrote so eloquently, passionately, and vulnerably about “unseating the myth of a girl and her horse” and “Mother, Shane and Sonny” with such grit, with such “True Grit.”
* * *
Yet, while I witnessed each of you in that performative re-rendering, in that coiled performance,4 the helical effects of the twisted intertext increased and further illuminated the depths of meaning in each when projectively embodied in/as the other. There was a heat transfer. A synergizing effect in the performance creating a new material presence that augmented my reality and drew me closer to you—and to what I had not known before. And didn’t know that I didn’t know.
I’ve seen the separate performances: singularly voiced pieces that bespoke of experience—genderedly and gingerly embodied and resistant, each yearning to be and become, and to maybe return. Each “running away from loneliness and hanging on to mane and reins for dear life.” I’ve toiled with the written/material version to incorporate them into collective meditations on westerns, situating each betwixt and between “lessons in ethical sense making” and “liminal heroes.” The flaccidity of the pages gave no stimulation to the actual feltness of the performance between “dueling dualisms” and “era(c)sures” of difference.”5 Yet something else emerges in that coiled performance, that enjoined sequence of concentric narrating in which words and experiences switch bodies and voices to illuminate critically encircled and dis-gendered realities.
It was an empathic performance that did not reside in the emotionality of feeling but illuminated the originating impulse in the autoethnographic moment—a feeling with. This is a new phase of assemblage, not just a co-writing aesthetic through which the becoming—that is, a desire to write—“provides the possibility of intersubjective communion.”6 But that which comes next. This performative re-reading of/in/through the other, the other’s autoethnographic writing already ripe with the reflexive and critical emotionality of its own intent. Which provides what might be closer to an achieved intersubjective communion. Beyond the dialogic to a symbiosis of a co-performed/performative writing engagement: a co-perform/ative. A form that entails an intersplicing of two (or more) performatively written autoethnographic narratives that are co-performed by the writers who switch voices to illuminate the dialogic resonance of the whole.7
This realization is made palpable only in the embodied performance, in which unsettled and subjective “I’s” engage in an intersubjective becoming of one.8 Not just juxtaposed on/or betwixt and between another, but in/as/with each other. Speaking, feeling, knowing the other in time and place through the body. A moment when the voicing of written words become an inhabiting of the other’s world—and for a moment, feeling in/to/with the other. It has “all of the practice and social construction of sexuality”—individual desires coming together in a codependent shared rhythmicity—duel effort, shared effect. This in relation to their orientation to riding with and guiding horses—each invoking the relationality of “agency of human and non-human assemblages” in a new materialism; where the agentic qualities of the horses are personified and “kick back” at human agents possessing a power that forces a reorientation to one’s own humanness9—and where the ride and orientation to/with/on the horse in relation to the things it negotiates in place and space “makes a case for how things and animals impact movement, bodies and outcomes in the public and social sphere.”10 He becomes her; she becomes him. Always with the possibility that other variable parties, parts, and positionalities can participate in this methodological play (he/she/they). Performing a real and imagined politics of resistance to experience, to memory and unfulfilled yearnings.
Oh, I thought I knew you, two (or is that, had known you, two?).
The two of you.
The performance became its own “Wild West Show,” a vaudevillian act situated between the simulation and the actual “sociopolitical narratives written on” the bodies of participants. Like the real cowboys/girls and Indians who “hover, duck, and dodge to resist a reifying surface/body politic” of history’s legacy—some with more wounds than others.11
The felt imaginings of the performative moment allowed an opportunity in which one “became human when he became a cowboy through the invention of theatre; an Indian oneday, a cowboy the next.” And the other became “Sharon Stone in The Quick and the Dead” and “Victoria Barkley in the TV Western ‘The Big Valley’”—as each, after differing traumas, attempt to “pull themselves up from a riverbank, bruised and beaten.” Not the same, and yet the same as embodied emotional subjects. Elsewhere, Norman has written:
The cowboy movies of my childhood divided the world into dualisms: cowboy and Indians, men and women, children and adults, country and city, West and non-West. In writing my story I fell into these tropes. They write themselves over and over gain in my story. Indeed, gender inscriptions carry out the work of the cowboy/Indian split and reproduce in gender the white/nonwhite racialization that I wish to deconstruct.12
Yet in this new performance, at least gender is inscribed differently on both their bodies. For a moment he articulates the struggle of the other. Both in the narrative as the abject body made target and victim in the male gaze through the female perspective of that gaze that he narrates in performance—while she witnesses.
When He recalls his (Tami’s) sexual assault, He is forced to embody the sensate realities of such an experience. There was a crack in his voice in the moment of that delivery—a crack as an opening of possibility. When He tells as She, the revenge and empowerment narrative of a Maddie or a Victoria Barkley for a feminine futurity, his vision in the here and now is sutured to his past selves that are being currently narrated by Her. He is co-present in the performance—both then and now, truly recognizing “the power to be white or red, cowboy or Indian”—and how that privilege might be used differently. Hence, there is a collision of realities that become co-informative in his quest “to write his way out this history…to push back, intervene, be vulnerable…tell another story? Maybe an alternative ending.” This coiled performance of intertext and intersubjectivities is a productive step in that direction. It serves as an act of recovery in which he has vulnerably placed his body in/with/as the experiencing other. Only to return to unpack his own histories.
And when She states as He, “Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys,” maybe she is speaking back to mothers of sexual assault assailants. “Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such.” Which does not forestall violent performances of masculinity or make them easierto love or keep them at home and not alone contemplating demise. When She asks as Him, “How did I get lost? No home on the range? You lost your faith in a meaningful world. It’s a journey, stuck in a nightmare. Betrayed by yourself, Madness, no way home.” These are the questions and assessments of her own autoethnographic body (of work). To which She ritually deconstructs as a political practice—“dancing or kicking or falling…punctuated with fits and starts…in clarity and chaos.”13 In her work, she finds her meaning and offers audiences a generative template on which to engage our own processes.14 And even when He asks as She, “Why even care about the stones and skin and bones of a girl and her horse?” The answer that She says as Him, through his own words, sounds very much like her own politics when She says: “There is only performance. I devise a script and play myself.”
The materiality of their bodies in that performance was important—masculine/feminine, male/female/ particularly sexed others, particular others—embodying and conjuring up the memory of the other—the realization of the self as the other—past-perfect and present.
The synergetic quality of their coiled autoethnographic performance “showed how force hits bodies, how sensibilities circulate and become…collective.”15
And the performativity of performed autoethnography, drew me into the there/then/now of a past/present set of their and my own relived personal experiences.
Maybe establishing a materiality as the felt actuality of being—there.
Maybe establishing a new materialism in autoethnographic work that does not stop with the assertion that the articulation of bodily experience is always or merely discursively constructed—but helps to explain how the discursive construction of the body and bodily experience is always and already related to nondiscursive practices in ways that vary widely.16
But can be sutured to and help to explain a range of social formations and human experiences, on/in/about other bodies—one person to another in shared humanity of pain and recovery.
Maybe establishing new materialism as an antidote to the presumed ephemerality of performance—with the experience of performance made manifest and sustainable in the felt remembrance of the witness. An experience that becomes material in the remembering body, only to be reactivated in the performing body that reanimates the affect in a materiality of presence that is recirculated and recircuited in/as/thru performance—again. This emergent perspective to viewing the power of good autoethnographic performance as a technology of representation helps us all not only to audience and interrogate autoethnography as a politic of resistance. But charges us all to generate and enact our own performance of response in/as resistance, as if to defiantly say: #meToo, #never again, #ithastogetbetter.
And as Ann Harris and Stacey Holman Jones might say, although they, in this case, Tami and Norman, filed off the stage that day in May—the energy they set in motion remains, not just as a memory but also as a future17—of further theorizing assemblage and autoethnography itself, if in fact autoethnography can be said to be a material it, or possess a sensate self, in which the emotionality of autoethnography circuits human experience, and does not serve as an endpoint.18
And behind the story,
or maybe betwixt and between their storying;
in their “telling of the told,”19
in the devised Wild West coiled performance that you (They) each told as the other-together.
Is maybe the story you each wanted us to hear, and for me to know all along?20
The story you told in the beginning; back then, when each story laid alone.
Now companions “riding western” into the sunset,
And I, like Joey, plead, “Come back!” Come back!
Oh, yes. I thought I knew you, two (or is that, had known you, two?)
I know you now, better.
In/as/through, the other and your past perfect presence.
And in my place in between.
* * *
So, in reference to that doctoral student who offered his evidence of knowing me as a list of keywords, I respect the intentionality of his strategy. But I must necessarily reassemble those disaggregated pieces of my autoethnographic selves, recall the horcruxes of my own soul—to find my own wholeness. I must also restrain, retrain, and revisit my own audiencing strategies. I must engage in a deep re-rendering of autoethnographic performances—seeing again the performances that I give and witness to find the arguments to which the scene and the performer/writer truly seeks to realize in his/her/their work. I must work, as I believe we must all work, to recalibrate the intentions of telling about the whole self—to avoid, as possible, the fragmented perceptions of our being. Like the keywords version of my selves that the graduate student presented to me as if evidence of knowing. And in that moment with the eager graduate student, I learn something new about the challenges of autoethnography, and thus I have learned something new about myself.
“Norman Denzin and Tami Spry presented their performance of “Wild West Show” at International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, 2018. I presented a variation of this response at the following 2019 conference.
Throughout I am intersplicing excerpts from Denzin and Spry’s performance script. These appear simultaneously with quotes and italics.
C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959).
I am coining the notion of “coiled performance” drawing from the scientific work in the essay, “The Effects of Vortex Characteristic on Performance of Coiled Wire Turbulators Used for Heat Transfer Augmentation.” www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1359431104000857.
In the (2012) 12.6 Special Issue of Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies that I edited entitled, “‘West of Everything’: Critical Reflections, Remembrances and Representations of/on/in Westerns,” Tami Spry’s selection, “Unseating the Myth of a Girl and Her Horse, Now That’s True Grit,” was positioned between Ron Pelias’s entry, “On Playing Cowboys and Indians: Early Lessons in Ethical Sense Making” and Christopher N. Poulos’s “The Liminal Hero.” Norman Denzin’s selection, “Mother, Shane and Sonny,” was positioned between Jay Baglia’s entry, “Dueling Dualisms: Are Women in the Western at Home on the Range” and Durell M. Callier’s “But Where Were They? Race, Era(c)sure, and the Imaginary American West.”
Ken Gale and Elyse Lamm Pineau, “Flows, Tides and Transatlantic Drifts: An Emergent Methodology of Collaborative Performative Writing,” International Review of Qualitative Research 4 (2011), no. 4: 330.
In writing this performative response, I am not only describing the performance of Denzin and Spry as I experience it, I am also writing myself into the performance as an active audience member. The performative response that uses pieces of the original script establishes yet another level of co-performed/performative writing engagement.
Tami Spry, Autoethnography and the Other: Unsettling Power through Utopian Performatives (New York: Routledge, 2016.
Nina Maria Lozano, Not One More: Feminicidio on the Border (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2019): 4–5. J. Citing Bennett, “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout,” Public Culture 17 (2005): 445–466; Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Lozano, 5. Referencing Ehren Pflugfelder, “Rhetoric’s New Materialism: From Micro-Rhetoric to Microbrew,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 45 (2015): 441–461.
Tami Spry, “Tattoo Stories: A Postscript to Skins.” Text and Performance Quarterly, 20 (2000): 84.
Norman K. Denzin, Searching for Yellowstone: Race, Gender, Family, and Memory in the Postmodern West (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast, 2008), 31.
Spry, 2000, 90, 95.
See how Tami’s work has informed such generative work: Bryant Keith Alexander, “Skin Flint (or The Garbage Man’s Kid): A Generative Autobiographical Performance Based on Tami Spry’s ‘Tattoo Stories,’” Text and Performance Quarterly 20 (2000): 97–114.
In their article “Activist Affect,” Anne Harris and Stacy Holman Jones (October 5, 2018), Qualitative Inquiry, first published at doi.org/10.1177/1077800753, cite Kathleen Steward (2007) to argue “that what autoethnographers do best is offer us broad-ranging explorations of ‘what happens to people, how force hits bodies, how sensibilities circulate and become…collective’ (p. 661). In other words, emotion is a circuit, not an endpoint.” Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Here I am riffing on Rosemary Hennessey, Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse (New York: Routledge, 1993). She originally writes: “A rigorous materialist theory of the body cannot stop with the assertion that the body is always discursively constructed. It also needs to explain how the discursive construction of the body is related to nondiscursive practices in ways that vary widely from one social formation to another” (46). As noted in Lozano, 3.
At the end of their essay, “Activist Affect” Harris and Holman Jones write: “And although the women filed off the bridge that day in March as darkness fell, the energy they set in motion remains, not just as a memory but also as a future—in the readiness potential of a march that becomes a movement. In standing with the bridge and not only on it, linking arms in solidary over the brackish water below.”
Harris and Holman-Jones, “Activist Affect.”
Della Pollock, “Telling the Told: Performing ‘Like a Family,’” The Oral History Review 18 (1990): 1–36.
I am drawing from Kristin M Langellier, “Personal Narrative, Performance, Performativity: Two or Three Things I Know for Sure,” Text and Performance Quarterly 19 (1999): 131.