watching "flag" and my relative disinterest of generic clarity
by john t. warren

As a proper academic, I turn to others—a citation, a representation of my knowledge in this area, a call for authority, a claim of expertise:

Pollock: Performative Writing “as doing displaces writing as meaning; writing becomes meaningful in the material, dis/continueous act of writing.” […] “It is a discursive practice that—misprisioned—may have disastrous consequences, that may be bad—or, for that matter, good.  The discourses of textuality have removed the veil of innocence from language, drawing us away from questions of what words do or don’t mean into the complex problem of how to mean in words and yet tend to limit the answer to such questions to the reiteration of social, historical, textual formations.” (75)

Goodall: Speaking of new ethnography or what I would account for as autoethnography, Goodall notes: “New Ethnography is a cultural way of coding academic attempts to author a self within a context of others.  It is a way of writing to get to the truth of our experiences.  It is a method of inquiry, of scholarly inquiry, that privileges the exploration of a self in response to questions that can only be answered that way, through the textual construction of, and thoughtful reflection about, the lived experiences of that self. (191)

Miller and Taylor: “Creating an autobiographical narrative reconstitutes the self, the audience, and surrounding cultural contexts.  It makes sense of the self, gives each part a voice and a body.  We can safely say that until a life is shared through writing or performance, it does not exist at all, or, at least it does not resonate in the broader realm of public consequence.” (3-4)

Of course Pollock also notes, as Goodall and Miller/Taylor also allude, that genre is not necessarily easily distinguished.  Pollock: “performative writing is not a genre or fixed form […] but a way of describing what some good writing does” (75).  The idea of genre then, remains slippery. 

The morning I wrote this (admittedly, it was March 30th—not terribly in advance, but early enough to have it typed and ready to go)—I was still recovering from my 9 ½ hour flight back from Paris, France where I had been for 10 days.  (I understand the degree to which the dropping of Paris in a paper not about Paris might seem like a cheap way of bragging and my only come back is that Paris was cool.)  Anyway, I was recovering from Paris (dropped it again) and going through the 300 emails that had pooled in the inbox and that is when I found the reminder to check out Marcy Chvasta’s web page—her Lucky Dip [now Liminalities] features performance pieces, essays and clips.  The newly formatted web page was up and ready for visitors.  Like so many things bookmarked, I had neglected this site and its new additions.  I clicked on the link and open before me was the site—the new, pretty, familiar site of performance treats.  I scanned down the list and saw Craig’s latest—or at least, latest to me—“Flag,” a brief segment on honor, care, and accountability for the material that supports and carries our life stories.  In my office, my chair pulled tight to the desk, my eyes struggling to see the tiny Craig figure, my speakers filling my office with his cadence, bring me back to the other moments of being with Craig and his stories—I was transfixed.  At times I laughed, at times I grew frightened, at times I wanted to cry.  These are common emotions Craig always inspires in me—his stories, like the fabric that carries our sense of self as members of this country, lift me up and remind me of the world I want and remind me of my own accountability in making it so. 

Where do I put a story like “Flag”—what kind of genre do I ascribe it to?  Is it autobiographical?  Does it do what Miller and Taylor request of this form—yes, I think it does.  In the moment of articulation, Craig’s life is brought to matter, made to be accounted for, and newly relevant.  Is it performative writing?  As pedagogy, we are taught how to make sense, how to see meaning in and through the writing.  Pollock’s categories (evocative, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational, consequential) are each satisfied as Craig crafts his woven, layered text for us.  Is it autoethnographic—does it place the author in the context of others, make social critique through the construction and reflection of a self?  Surely—I’m as implicated in that performance as he is—I’m part of the social scene as much as he is—even if I was never on that road, even if the first time I saw that flag was on my computer in the small quicktime image.  So if this is true, what does this mean for genre and our effort to provide clarity within this discussion?

As I am want to do when talking of differences, I turn to Trinh Minh-ha:  “Despite our desperate, eternal attempt to separate, contain, and mend, categories always leak” (94).  And she is right—but the key for me comes further in that paragraph:  “Authenticity as a need to rely on an “undisputed origin,” is prey to an obsessive fear: that of losing a connection.  Everything must hold together” (94).  And while I know that Trinh is talking of other issues than that of scholarly identity—I do know that her words suggest the problem with genre clarification—our obsessive need to clarify what we do, to make sharp distinctions between form is, I suspect, about legitimacy.  It is about authenticity.  It is about being real, about being someone who belongs. 

I worry that part of our need to figure out the difference between these kinds of categories is about trying to justify our own work.  To say “I do autoethnography, not autobiography” is to make assumptions about what counts as academic and what “simply” is the telling of one’s experience.  “I do autobiography, not autoethnography” might be about avoiding the messy tangle that sounds certain kinds of work as “faddish.”   Performative writing is implicated in both—as an art form, this way of doing writing has been around for a long time, but with new names and new specification, it now carries new hope and new baggage.  I guess in the end, I’m more interested in why we feel the need to “clarify” our work in this way—for whose benefit does this kind of definition take place and who upon whose bodies do these definitions occur? 

When I sat in my office, looking at the small quicktime of Craig, I didn’t care whether it was autobiography, autoethnography, or performative writing (or even an overlapping thereof).  I was emotionally and intellectually moved. I was challenged to think about my world and my participation in everyday life in new ways.  And this, in the end, might suggest that such distinctions are not as important as we might want them to be.  Or, perhaps I wrote this when I was too jetlagged to care about distinctions.  Perhaps, I’m just not that good of a scholar when it comes to these kinds of questions.  I just always find that I’m not too interested in any of the answers, but in why we ask the questions at all.

Works Cited

Gingrich-Philbrook, Craig.  Flag.

Goodall, H. L. Writing the New Ethnography. Walnut Creek CA: Altamira Press, 2000.

Miller, Lynn C. and Jacqueline Taylor.  “Editor’s Introduction.”  Voices Made Flesh: Performing Women’s Autobiography.  Eds. Lynn C. Miller, Jacqueline Taylor, and M. Heather Carver.  Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 2003. 3-14.

Pollock, Della.  “Performative Writing.”  The Ends of Performance.  Eds. Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane.  New York:  New York UP, 1998. 73-103.

Trinh T. Minh-ha.  Woman, Native, Other.  Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.