The Concept of Autoethnography in the Future of the Humanities
For the Second International Conference on New Directions in the Humanities, I would like to propose a workshop on the promises and pitfalls of "autoethnography" - the study or consciousness of social groups by insiders rather than outsiders - for future humanities research. In the wake of the poststructuralist and postcolonial critiques of ethnography (which have undermined the authority of representation in general and of the representation of others in particular), many scholars have been drawn to modes of social analysis that privilege (and exploit the master-trope of) "speaking for themselves." As Stuart Hall put it, "the emergence of ... communities hitherto excluded from the major forms of cultural representation," the articulation of their perspectives and agendas, has undoubtedly constituted one of the "most profound cultural revolution[s]" of our time; yet there are numerous and profound conceptual and institutional implications of this revolution that have hardly begun to be addressed. What would a humanities founded upon the right or obligation to autoethnography look like? How would it counteract the balkanizing tendency to which it would seem necessarily committed? How would it contend with the rise of perspectives - such as those derived from evolutionary psychology - unfriendly to ethnographic or culture-emphasizing explanations of human affairs? What rapprochement might there be between autoethnographic perspectives and those that privilege hybridity? Would the study of the humanities, recast in an autoethnographic mold, merely invert the model of so-called "area studies," which flourished in the Cold-War-era academy? How does the urge and encouragement to autoethnography function differently in a world dominated by the post WWII United States than in the 19th-century world dominated by the British Empire? To what extent would the globalization of autoethnography afford valuable critical outlooks on the post-Cold War scene of U.S. hyperdominance - and to what extent would it reflect and accommodate itself to that scene? It seems to me that these and other questions call out for the attention of twenty-first-century practitioners of humanities research.
James Buzard (United States)
Associate Professor of Literature
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Author of The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to "Culture," 1800-1918 (Oxford UP, 1993) and of the forthcoming Anywhere's Nowhere: Fictions of Autoethnography in the United Kingdom (Princeton UP), as well as numerous published articles in journals and books.
(60 min. Workshop, English)