Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Autoethnographic Cultural Criticism as Method: Toward Sociological Imaginations of Race, Memory and Identity

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Autoethnographic Cultural Criticism as Method: Toward Sociological Imaginations of Race, Memory and Identity

Article excerpt


The first fruit of this imagination--and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it--is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one.--C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination

C. Wright Mills once wrote about the power of the 'sociological imagination' to connect one's biography to the larger historical forces surrounding the individual. It was something that always resonated with me since I first encountered the concept during my undergraduate studies: the power to connect my own experiences to the forces of history and understand my relation to the social world. In doing so, I would be able to understand the often-invisible forces that shaped who I am, and to some extent, my life chances in the world. And while he went so far as to distinguish between "the personal troubles of milieu" and "the public issues of social structure," I would like to add another powerful ingredient to the mix. The power of memory, which includes remembering and forgetting the experiences we encounter in our everyday lives, and its intimate connection to images and emotions that are often 'wordless' yet socially and collectively meaningful.

In many ways, these images and emotions are beyond the capacity of speech, yet within the representational reach of the allusive, the symbolic and the metaphoric that comprise our collective imagination. In these different realms, images and emotions may be triggered by a lingering scent, a strange sensation, the lull of someone's voice, or an artifact or memento from the past. For me, the personal engagement and fascination with memory began with a handful of photographs of my mother, who passed away many years ago, and attempting to understand her past in relation to my own experiences, and writing about them in my doctoral project on independent overseas Korean women's cinema.

From the global flows of immigration, exile and diaspora, new ways of thinking, speaking, and seeing have emerged as well as representational languages and styles. Cinema theorists such as Kobena Mercer, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Hamid Naficy have noted this development of alternative epistemologies and cinematic languages that are parts of the power-inflected spaces of diaspora, (post- or neo-) colonialism, and cultural apartheid. The early roots of Asian American cinema are clearly activist-oriented, tracing the effects of racist and colonial representations on diasporic peoples across the globe. Yet, as Laura Marks (2000) argues, the work of 'historical excavation' is often a 'willful construction' of fragmented stories, dreams, and fantasies that are threaded together as parts of the collective register of communal history.

Intercultural artists are in a position to interrogate the historical archive, both Western and traditional, through their 'double-consciousness' of cultural marginalization and homelessness in competing world contexts. In doing so, they've attempted to fill the gaps with their own histories, or to force a gap in the archive so as to create a space in which to speak and for others to follow. Yet, this type of undertaking opens up old wounds and magnifies traumatic personal and family memories, only to create an empty space where no history is certain. This lack of certainty, or sense of suspension, forces the artist to contemplate this 'emptiness.' In some ways, the images they produce are narratively thin, but burst with emotion: they are the product of a process of mourning for loved ones outside of the artists' reach. These loved ones, so to speak, may be people, places or ways of inhabiting the world (Marks 2000: 5). They are emblematic of a past that once was, something that preceded the traumatic dislocation of culture(s). …

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