Another panel that had feisty and interesting presentations but a lack of space in which to take up the things raised. Two of the presentations were around autobiographical work. One, well, it consisted of generalisations that should not happen and this was pointed out in a round about way by a couple of questions, though I think things should have been sharper. I was working up to ask a question come more or less say “the emperor’s got no clothes on” but as I was working up the courage (as it seemed it might have been a comment that ran against the sentiment of the room), the session was ended.
The generalisations. One example was the observation that people on public transport just look at their screens instead of talk to each other, with the implication that they used to (and all the rest of it). I’m 52 years old and it is 2012. Catch a train in the country and just try not to be spoken to. Catch a train in the city, and most of us want our personal space. It’s what happens when we travel in anonymous herds, the commute is a liminal space between public and private and so most people treat it, like a mobile phone conversation, as some private space in public. I used to catch trains to work in the city in 1980, and in 1990, and then we used newspapers, not music or iPads, same difference. It is a mythologised romanticised past that has no relationship to why this happens so because I think it means people don’t want to talk, this is why they do it, and both premises are ipso facto bad things. Stating it does not prove it.
On the other hand what was being described so expansively as non documented women’s autobiographical performance sounded like, well, what in Northcote we’d call a ‘stitch ‘n bitch’. Group of women, no men, some craft as the reason to come together, some food and wine, and non documented honest discussion. I imagine a difference in what was being proposed and advocated, though this would seem to be grounded primarily in the authenticity of the experience and its ‘truthfulness’ and vulnerability.
This is where the no clothes bit comes in. For the notion of authenticity and truth being described (unlike that offered in MacDougall’s plenary) is deeply essentialist. I am, sometimes, quite comfortable with this, but when it has been bulwarked and arrived at via a litany of post theoretical positions around gender, knowledge, culture, and media, then it smacks of wanting to keep your cake and eating it too. It also smacks, in spite of its intentions, of the strange ideologically infused media studies of the 1980s where all us were thought to be duped and mere playthings of media, ideology and a semiotics that rutted regularly with Lacanian psychoanalysis. That we are inauthentic and not vulnerable on the phone, when we write to another, or when we remember. This is a position we tend to realise was just a tad asymmetrical, and not really borne out by how audiences actually used these texts. Yet the argument, at least from where I was sitting, really had to be premised on the inadequacy and inauthenticity of experience for the essentialist claims of this nonodocumented nonfiction practice to gain purchase.
At heart, then, it risks being an argument grounded in ressentiment, whereas a much stronger theoretical position, particularly in relation to a critical praxis, would be to describe it in terms of not only what it affirms, but using theoretical tropes of affirmation.
Finally, this could be my well documented lack of emotional intelligence, or simply the extent to which as an Anglo Australian I have what would appear to American’s as a British sensibility, but two of the presentations on autobiographical work were American. Both projects seemed haunted by a deep sense of something lost, and so both became, at heart, contemporary quest narratives to recover or restore this loss. This is a romantic and individual trope deeply mired in ego psychology, and it freaked me out just a bit. As the once upon a time working class boy with parents who never completed year one of high school I just have to ask, why on earth do you think your lives have to matter that much? To me there’s an Oprah sort of sentiment, even in this highly sophisticated work, that at its heart feels like it is still premised on something about my life’s mission is to improve myself, that is what it’s for. I really don’t get it. (For me this is a reprise of the moment when we started videoblogging where the Europeans filmed the world, and the American’s themselves.)