Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Trying Not to Lie.And Failing: Autoethnography, Memory, Malleability

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Trying Not to Lie.And Failing: Autoethnography, Memory, Malleability

Article excerpt

This article casts a wide net and it will range across many fields of practice. In so doing paragraphs will turn from the general to the particular and back again in ways that, hopefully at least, cut through a surface treatment to the heart and blood of self-writing.

In taking writing as a theme the sections that follow will weave form and content in ways that are not always quite deliberate and perhaps not always fully under control. For these moments to come I can only beg the reader's forgiveness and hope that the article's searching for answers rather than documenting that which has already been found will read less like structural collapse than a genuine and useful attempt at practising a little of the things that autoethnographers often preach.

If the macro of the article is writing, its micro is research, brought face-to-face in the idea of communication that legislates against its own concealment of construction. The etymology of obscene is off scene, hidden, out of sight. In most traditional forms of research the investigator's self has likewise been historically hidden, camouflaged in borrowed cloaks and behind the representation of other. In a similar way, and with some notable exceptions, the writer's self has traditionally been excised from all but autobiographical publication, limited to the idea of observation from a distance; as though this act of disentanglement would somehow result in rigour; as though good research could only take place when the researcher stays firmly outside the frame.

Essentially the researcher's position has been regarded as not at all interesting; indeed convention has preferred the neutrality of the term disinterested. Nor have we generally regarded the researcher's perspective as important, with the main schools of thought being that one's research should echo that of a dispassionate and essentially objective observer, of an articulate, trained and intelligent uber-everyman/everywoman grounding findings within a coolly coherent body of sustained theoretical prose.

As an alternative to this the autoethnography focused on in this article functions as a pedagogic and creative tool for focusing attention on the inevitability and indeed the usefulness of subject positions. Its concern is also with acknowledging the inevitable overlaps between the maker and the made, and with a hopefully cautious relationship with truth. This caution is not something we need take as suspect. On the contrary it stems from recognition that ideas of truth are sometimes no more than the opinions that have been spoken by the loudest voices and that any truth is a half-truth at best. In this context any and all claims for objective truths that creep into the next few pages should be treated with healthy disdain.

Alphonse Bertillon wrote that we are only able to see what we observe, and that we only observe things which are already in the mind (Bertillon, 1989); whilst in his essay On the Decay of the Art of Lying Mark Twain famously told us that everybody lies ... every day, every hour, awake, asleep, in his dreams, in his joy, in his mourning. If he keeps his tongue still his hands, his feet, his eyes, his attitude will convey deception (Twain, 2015, p. 26). And truth is indeed an impossible prey to catch, not just because it is elusive, but because it is different in kind to fact.

My belief (if such a conceit can have any place in this paper) is that the methodologies of memoir, autoethnography and creative non-fiction have become so commonplace in the arts, humanities, health, education and social sciences that they are now, in a great many instances, little more than mantras, so that in too many authors' and postgraduate students' hands selfwriting has come to honour no audience greater than itself. That I consider this to be so does not make it a fact.

If the personal can hold sway as evidence (and this article is all about that very question) then I can say that in my professional life I have read (and indeed written) a few too many weak autoethnographies to be left with much of the a priori faith in the term that many of my genuinely valued colleagues seem to possess. …

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